While I was cleaning my room recently, I came across a piece of paper from three years ago that has shaped my academic trajectory at Stanford. I’m not even sure why I kept it in my stack of random keepsakes, but I’m glad I did.
It was 11:50 a.m. and the students of Chem 31A were lined up with their respective TAs, waiting to get our first midterms back. When I reached the front of the line, I said my name. My TA reached to the bottom of the pile with a sad look in his eye and handed me a single sheet of paper. It wasn’t the midterm. It was a letter that said something along the lines of: “Dear student, you have clearly had difficulty with this midterm and you must meet with the professor before getting your test back.”
I felt a knot growing in my stomach. It was just a few weeks into my freshman year and this was the first time I’d ever received any notice of this sort. I wasn’t used to failing tests and certainly wasn’t used to getting such a low score on a test that I was required to receive it in a protected setting.
That afternoon, I waited in line to get my test back. There were about 50 students waiting in line, and we glanced around at each other nervously as we waited to see the extent of our misfortune. My turn to meet with the professor came, and I entered his office.
“Well, Emily,” he said, “It looks like you struggled a bit on this exam. What happened?” I explained that I had, in fact, studied quite a lot for that test, attended all of the lectures, done all of the reading and spent my fair share of time in office hours. Chemistry didn’t come naturally to me, I explained, but I wanted to work at it.
“If you’ve been working hard and you’re still only able to get this score, you might just not be cut out for this class.”
“Is there anything I can do to improve? To learn the material better?”
“I just don’t know if you’re smart enough if you’re already trying hard,” he said.
Looking back at the letter that preceded this retrospectively comical exchange with a professor I would never see again, I am disgusted. I am smart enough to pass any class at Stanford.
As a freshman on that gray October afternoon, I sadly let myself be swayed by the words of a professor so caught up in the specifics of his own field that he couldn’t see past an exam and consider me as a whole person – nor see that my intelligence isn’t simply defined by my ability to reason through chemistry problems under pressure. I let him shatter my confidence with a few flippant words that were probably spoken to many others who waited in line that day.
Because I ended up dropping chemistry that quarter, I took Psych 1 and fell in love with the field in which I now aspire to have a career. I am thankful that that professor helped redirect my career path.
I am not thankful, however, for his extreme lack of consideration of the weight that those words have had on my academic career. Simply getting into Stanford is proof of our academic abilities and smarts, and we should never be told that we’re not good enough, but rather what we can do to improve. I shy away from the fuzzy/techie description for this very reason – we may apply ourselves differently once coming to college and naturally branch off as we become interested in different fields and issues, but we are not branching off into a hierarchy of intelligence.
If we are trying hard, taking advantage of the resources available to us and still failing in some course, it’s simply a sign that the course isn’t being taught well. Chem 31A, which is a gateway to the premed track and many careers, should be extremely accessible to students so that students’ potential career paths aren’t shut down by professors’ extreme lack of care. Maybe I should have responded, If I’m trying as hard as I can and not doing well in this class, you may not be cut out for teaching it.
I’m taking a break from mental health topics this week and will be back with more at the beginning of next quarter! Any topics you’d like to see discussed? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.