Taking deviation seriously 1

I often wonder what strange brainstorm overtook me in the summer of 2010, just after I graduated, that made me register the username “PhDeviate.” It was one of those odd moments where something just came to me, and I couldn’t trace the origin, but it just felt right. And the longer I contemplate the idea of deviation, of finding yourself off the road, the more appropriate it seems both to my life and to my ideology.

Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory extols the virtue of theorizing from the margins, rather than the center. Theorizing the anecdote, rather than the data. Scientists everywhere cringe, I suppose, but one of the things I love about critical theory is that for all that it is occasionally scientific, it is never science. I promised in my last entry to say something about what has brought me into the realm of college success. So, to tell you about that, I’m going to tell you an anecdote.

The Chemistry Experience

I told this anecdote recently, unbeknownst to me in the presence of a former chemistry major. She promptly replied, “Oh no! You had The Bad Chemistry Experience!” And yes, yes I did. When I was a sophomore in High School, to the surprise of everyone, including myself, I started failing math and chemistry. (Simultaneously, and not unrelatedly. Turns out that logarithms are pretty essential to both!) Frequent readers know that I was a student at Phillips Academy and as you might imagine, I had some pretty good resources available to me as a result. (Unfortunately, one of those resources was not my teacher. He was a 22 year old Teaching Fellow, and, I now realize looking back, in way over his head. Many years later the fabulous Temba Maqubela, who had been at that time the chair of the chemistry department, asked me the name of my chemistry teacher and flat out apologized that I had to go through the experience of having that teacher. That meant a lot!) I received tutoring in chemistry. I got a LOT of extra help from my math teacher. I got comprehensively tested for learning disabilities, and I had a customized plan of academic counseling built around my needs as a result. I received help in note-taking, schedule-making, and an academic counselor even came to my dorm room to help me set up my study space better. Aside from the unfortunate teacher, and my academic advisor having overlooked the possibility of dropping down to an easier chemistry course, I cannot imagine how I could have received more, or better, help. Sounds like the beginning of a success story, right?

Alas. I failed the chemistry final with a resounding 32, and I spent almost every “elective” space I had in the next two years of my high school schedule taking extra science classes so I could graduate on time.

The Chemistry of Compassion

I have watched students fail. I have put failing grades on students’ papers, and on their term reports. It pains me every time. After that year in Chemistry, I never failed another class, but I believe that I learned more about human compassion from that failure than I have ever learned from my successes. Survivorship bias, a term I always tellingly misremember as “success bias” tells us how easy it is to misattribute the causes of  success (or survivorship) because of missing the causes of failure. As much effort as we might go through to attribute our successes to accurate causes, it is so easy to credit one’s own hard work and effort and leave out the various elements of luck, support, and institutional structures. But failure, and especially a failure such as this one, a failure when nearly every possible resource in the world was marshaled for my success, this helps me understand that we do not know the internal life of someone else, or, in the words of Bob Dylan: “You’ll never know the hurt I’ve suffered, nor the pain I rise above. And I’ll never know the same about you… and it makes me feel so sorry.”

College Success

So this is the beginning of my posts on the field of college success and the field of mentorship. For me, the shift in focus from the teaching of English to the world of college success is about compassion as much as it is about structural injustices, the latter surely a subject for another post in the near future. The further I get into this, the less I think I have “left” academia, though I am not currently employed by a college or university. But I’m learning so much about the stories that bring people to our classrooms. The paths they have walked, and the paths they have deviated from. I look forward to sharing my paths with you.