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2013 Winter Issue 4 (February 8, 2013)

The Overachiever Gradient

February 13, 2013
By Griffin Johnson

Like most Carleton students—or at least the formidable section of the Carleton population who are both stress-prone and ashamed of every piece of work they miss—I start to come within sight of a crossroads around sixth week. It’s at this point, after the act-break of midterm break, that I start to realize that I actually do have five weeks left of work to do, and, what’s more, the work is going to come faster and the weeks, as a result, are going to get longer. Einstein said that, or something.

There are people at this school, many people, who can skip reading and miss class and come out more or less emotionally unscathed. I am not one of them. I almost never miss a reading, and when I do it’s almost always an accident—I read the wrong thing, or I pass out, or I misread the syllabus. I stay up until my eyes are red and my fingers are tingling, struggling to push my consciousness past the final line of the reading, if only for the intangible cred that that will net me. I don’t know what would happen if I tried to skip my class; I think maybe I’d burst into flame.

It’s a real problem, because at least at Carleton, and probably at any college that works on the same semi-conservative model as Carleton, a certain amount of redundancy is built into the system. The faculty tend to assign much more than, I suspect, they think students will actually read. Presumably, if a professor assigns four readings and each student does a random two, then class discussion will proceed pretty much apace. Students will talk about what they read and space out when their blank spots come up. It’s a very economical educational model; this is after the Age of Crowdsourcing. Still, the students like me who read everything—i.e. twice as much as they should be reading—end up as effective as they would be if they had done no reading at all because they’re too tired to speak in class the next day.

I understand that this sounds a little vengeful, like, you slackers don’t know how good you have it, so let me clarify that I’m not setting myself up as the exemplar here. In fact, I think if anything us “good students” are screwing up.

The old Mark Twain quote that you shouldn’t let school get in the way of your education is probably apocryphal (aren’t they all?), but it holds especially true for Carleton, a school founded on a very traditional educational model and doing its best to maintain that model in a time and place where the idea of “tradition” gets more laughable every day. Convo speakers love to bat around the etymology of “liberal arts” and imply that the education we get here, in addition to its supposed career benefits, will somehow “liberate” us, in the vague full-being sense that that term usually accompanies—that it will somehow transcend the quantifiable facts of our time here and make us whole, enlightened people.

Two things about this idea: one, that the people who don’t have the privilege to attend a school like Carleton are unenlightened and therefore objects of pity, and two, that the harder we work at Carleton the freer we’ll be. And if we put those two points together, we get: the harder we work at Carleton, the less likely we are to end up like “those people.” Thus, there’s a clear gradient, even within Carleton that puts chronic slackers at the bottom and stressed, miserable overachievers at the top.

That’s not to make a “class thing” out of the complex and varied motivations we have for our compulsion to finish the work. Still, I think it’s critical to interrogate your habits, and if your habits are in some sense dedicated to differentiating yourself from “those people,” then it’s probably more productive—more educational—to move all the way down the gradient and become those people.

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