Playing the student: attitudes to learning as social roles

This is a post about some­thing I no­ticed my­self do­ing this year, al­though I ex­pect I’ve been do­ing it all along. It’s un­likely to be some­thing that ev­ery­one does, so don’t be sur­prised if you don’t find this ap­plies to you. It’s also an ex­er­cise in in­tro­spec­tion, i.e. likely to be in­ac­cu­rate.


If I add up all the years that I’ve been in school, it amounts to about 75% of my life so far–and at any one time, school has prob­a­bly been the sin­gle ac­tivity that I spend the most hours on. I would still guess that 50% or less of my gen­eral aca­demic knowl­edge was ac­tu­ally ac­quired in a school set­ting, but school has tests, and grades at the end of the year, and so has pro­vided most of the pos­i­tive/​nega­tive re­in­force­ment re­lated to learn­ing. The ‘at­ti­tudes to learn­ing’ that I’m talk­ing about ap­ply in a school set­ting, not when I’m learn­ing stuff for fun.

Role #1: Overachiever

Up un­til sev­enth grade, I didn’t re­ally so­cial­ize at school–but once I started talk­ing to peo­ple, it felt like I needed a per­sona, so that I could just act ‘in char­ac­ter’ in­stead of hav­ing to think of things to say from scratch. Be­ing a stereo­typ­i­cal over­achiever pro­vided me with easy ma­te­rial for small talk–I could talk about school­work to other peo­ple who were also over­achiev­ers.

Years later, af­ter ac­quiring ac­tual so­cial skills in the less stereo­typed en­vi­ron­ments of part-time work and uni­ver­sity, I play the over­achiever more as a way of re­duc­ing my anx­iety in class. (School was easy for me up un­til my sec­ond year of nurs­ing school, when we started hav­ing to do scary things like clini­cal place­ments and prac­ti­cal ex­ams, in­stead of nice safe things like writ­ten ex­ams.) If I can talk my­self into always be­ing cu­ri­ous and find­ing ev­ery­thing ex­cit­ing and in­ter­est­ing and cool I want to do that!!!, I can’t find ev­ery­thing scary–or, at the very least, to other peo­ple it looks like I’m not scared.

Role #2: Too Cool for School

This isn’t one I’ve played too much, aside from my ten­dency to put study­ing for ex­ams as maybe my fourth pri­or­ity–af­ter work, ex­er­cise, and sleep–and still hav­ing an A av­er­age. (I will still skip class to work a shift at the ER any day, but that doesn’t count–work­ing there is al­most more ed­u­ca­tional than class, in my mind.) As one of my LW Ot­tawa friends pointed out, there’s a sort of counter-sig­nal­ling in­volved in be­ing a ‘lazy’ stu­dent–if you can still pull off good grades with­out do­ing any work, you must be smart, so peo­ple no­tice this and re­spect it.

My brother is the prime ex­am­ple of this. He spent grades 9 through 11 al­ter­nately sleep­ing and play­ing on his iPhone in class, and main­tained an av­er­age well over 80%. In grade 12 he started pay­ing at­ten­tion in class and oc­ca­sion­ally do­ing home­work, and grad­u­ated with, I be­lieve, an av­er­age over 95%. He had a rep­u­ta­tion through­out the whole school–as some­one who was very smart, but also cool.

Role #3: Just Don’t Fail Me!

Weirdly enough, it wasn’t at school that I origi­nally learned this role. As a teenager, I did com­pet­i­tive swim­ming. The com­bi­na­tion of not hav­ing out­stand­ing tal­ent for ath­let­ics, plus the anx­iety that came from my own perfor­mance de­pend­ing on how fast the other swim­mers were, made this about 100 times more ter­rify­ing than school. At some point I de­vel­oped a weird sort of un­der­con­fi­dence, the op­po­site of us­ing ‘Over­achiever’ to deal with anx­iety. My mind has now cre­ated, and made au­to­matic, the fol­low­ing sub­rou­tine: “when an adult takes you aside to talk to you about any­thing re­lated to ‘liv­ing up to your po­ten­tial’, start cry­ing.” I’m not sure what the origi­nal logic be­hind this was: get the adult to stop and pay at­ten­tion to me? Get them to take me more se­ri­ously? Get them to take me less se­ri­ously? Or just the fact that I couldn’t stom­ach the fact of be­ing or­di­nar­ily be­low av­er­age at some­thing–I had to be in some way differ­ently be­low av­er­age. Who knows if there was much logic be­hind it at all?

Hav­ing this learned role comes back to bite me now, some­times–the sub­rou­tine gets trig­gered in any situ­a­tion that feels too much like my swim coach’s one-on-one pre-com­pe­ti­tion pep talks. Taek­wondo trig­gers it once in a while. Weirdly enough, be­ing eval­u­ated in clini­cals trig­gers it too–this didn’t origi­nally make much sense, since it’s not com­pet­i­tive in the sense of ‘she wins, I lose.’ I think the as­so­ci­a­tive chain there is through life­guard­ing courses–the hands-on eval­u­a­tion as­pect used to be fairly ter­rify­ing for my younger self, and my mon­key brain puts clini­cals and lab eval­u­a­tions into that cat­e­gory, as op­posed to the nice safe cat­e­gory of writ­ten ex­ams, where I can safely be Too Cool for School and still get good grades.

The in­con­ve­nience of think­ing about school this way re­ally jumped out at me this fall. I started my semester of clini­cals with a prof who was a) spec­tac­u­larly non-in­timi­dat­ing com­pared to some oth­ers I’ve had, and b) who liked me from the very start, ba­si­cally be­cause I raised my hand a lot and an­swered ques­tions in­tel­li­gently dur­ing our more class­room-y ini­tial ori­en­ta­tion. I was all set up for a semester of play­ing ‘Over­achiever’, un­til, quite near the be­gin­ning of the semester, I was sud­denly ex­pected to do some­thing that I found scary, and I was tired and scared of look­ing con­fi­dent but be­ing wrong, and I fell back on ‘Just Don’t Fail Me!’ My prof was, un­der­stand­ably, shocked and con­fused as to why I was sud­denly re­act­ing to her as ‘the scary adult who has the power to pass or fail me and will definitely fail me un­less I’m ab­solutely perfect, so I had bet­ter grovel.’ I think she ac­tu­ally felt guilty about what­ever she had done to in­timi­date me–which was noth­ing.

Since then I’ve been do­ing fine, pro­gress­ing at the same rate as all the other stu­dents (maybe it says some­thing about me that this isn’t very satis­fy­ing, and even kind of feels like failure in it­self...I would like to be pro­gress­ing faster). That is, un­til I’m alone with my prof and she tries to give me a pep talk about how I’m ob­vi­ously very smart and do­ing fine, so I just need to im­prove my con­fi­dence. Then I start cry­ing. At this point, I’m pretty sure she thinks I should be on anti-de­pres­sants–which is prob­le­matic in it­self, but could be more prob­le­matic if she was the kind of prof who might fail me in my clini­cal for a lack of con­fi­dence. There’s no ob­jec­tive rea­son why I can’t hop back into Over­achiever mode, since I man­aged both my clini­cals last spring en­tirely in that mode. But part of my brain protests: ‘she’s seen you be­ing in­se­cure! She wouldn’t be­lieve you as an over­achiever, it would be too out of char­ac­ter!’ It starts to make sense once I stop see­ing this be­havi­our as ‘my learn­ing style’ and rec­og­nize it as a so­cial role that I, at some point, prob­a­bly sub­con­sciously, de­cided I ought to play.


The main prob­lem seems to be that my origi­nal men­tal mod­els for so­cial in­ter­ac­tion–with adults, mostly–are overly sim­plis­tic and don’t cut re­al­ity at the joints. That’s not a huge prob­lem in it­self–I have bet­ter mod­els now and most peo­ple I meet now say I have good com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, al­though I some­times still come across as ‘odd’. The prob­lem is that ev­ery once in a while, a situ­a­tion hap­pens, pat­tern recog­ni­tion jumps into play, and whoa, I’m play­ing ‘Just Don’t Fail Me’. (It’s hap­pened with the other two roles too, but they’re is less prob­le­matic.) Then I can’t get out of that role eas­ily, be­cause my so­cial mon­key brain is tel­ling me it would be out of char­ac­ter and the other per­son would think it was weird. This is de­spite the fact that I no longer con­sciously care if I come across as weird, as long as peo­ple think I’m com­pe­tent and trust­wor­thy and nice, etc.

Just notic­ing this has helped a lit­tle–I catch my mon­key brain and re­mind it ‘hey, this situ­a­tion looks similar to Si­tu­a­tion X that you cre­ated a stereo­typed re­sponse for, but it’s not Si­tu­a­tion X, so how about we just be­have like a hu­man be­ing as usual’. Re­mind­ing my­self that the world doesn’t break down into ‘adults’ and ‘chil­dren’–or, if it did once, I’m now on the other side of the di­vide–also helps. Failing that, I can con­sciously try to make sure I get into the ‘right’ role–Over­achiever or Too Cool For School, de­pend­ing on the situ­a­tion–and make that my de­fault.

Has any­one else no­ticed them­selves do­ing some­thing similar? I’m won­der­ing if there are other roles that I play, maybe more sub­tly, at work or with friends.