Call Me Britney Because Oops I Did It Again
Posted on January 5, 2022 Posted by Athena Scalzi 122 Comments
Many of you have been asking about how my semester away from the blog went, and today I’m here to finally quell the curiosity!
Right up front I’m just gonna say: I blew it again. Old habits die hard, I guess.
I had signed up for four classes: Intro to Humanities, Intro to Communications, Race and Diversity, and Cell Biology. All were required, and all were 3 credit hours each (except biology which was 4). Cell Biology was on Monday from 9am to 11:15am, and the rest were back to back on Tuesday, starting at 10am and ending at 3pm. So, four classes, two days in person a week, it didn’t sound so hard. Or at least, it didn’t sound completely impossible.
I remember the night before I went to my first day of biology, I was in tears because until then I hadn’t thought to check the syllabus that was posted online, which said I needed to have read all of chapter one before the first day. It turned out I had purchased the wrong access code from the campus bookstore, so I couldn’t access the textbook to read the thirty pages, and it was already eleven at night. So I freaked out.
I didn’t want to go to class unprepared. Thinking of showing up without having read the first chapter gave me anxiety so badly I almost couldn’t bring myself to go to class, because the thought of the facing the professor killed me inside. What if she asked me something about the first chapter?! What if there was a pop quiz?! As most anxiety-inducing things go, it ended up not being even remotely a big deal, because no one had read the chapter and she didn’t really mind, she just said make sure you read it at some point this week.
For the first week, it was easy. Everyone loves syllabus week. That week of introductions and that feeling of getting back into things, color coordinating your folders to your classes (green for science, purple for humanities, obviously). And for a second you feel like you really can do this, and that things will be okay this time.
But then the assignments come. And the second you’re done with one, there’s another. Another paper to write, another virtual lab to do, another quiz to take. Then, when/if you finally get through all of that, there’s studying to be done for weekly tests, midterms, finals, you know how it goes. It’s just nonstop devoting all your time and energy to stuff that you don’t want to be devoting any time and energy to! But, them’s the breaks, right?
Every time I logged onto my laptop to do an assignment, I would pretty much freak out merely reading the instructions for the assignment. I have to read forty pages of a textbook, do 845 fill-in-the-blank vocab words, write a five-page paper on Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, cite all my sources in MLA format (8th edition), and take a chapter test? For just one class?! I think I’d rather lie down in front of a train. A moving one.
It all felt like too much, way too much, right from the start. I got the urge to drop something. I needed to do something that would take some of the weight off. So in the second week, I dropped communications. I picked this one because my professor was a fucking racist, sexist, homophobic piece of shite.
Anyways, now I only had three classes to focus on, which again sounded completely manageable. Three is easier than four. I could do this.
And yet somehow I couldn’t! I would spend hours with my laptop open, staring at an assignment, and not doing any of it. Just agonizing over the fact that I had to do it, lamenting that I could be spending this time doing something else, guilting myself for not just shutting the fuck up and doing it.
I’d crack open my textbook and spend what felt like forever reading the same page over and over again because none of it was processing. Something something hydrophilic covalent bond blah blah signal receptors yada yada polarized valence electrons. What the fuck was I reading? The words meant nothing, they were just letters strung together to form something that looked like a sentence, but I’m not convinced they really were.
I kept getting so mad at the fact I didn’t understand the content, and was so convinced I could never possibly understand it, that I would just completely wing the multiple choice assignments. What should’ve taken me three hours took me fifteen minutes because I would just choose one and figure I had a 1/4 chance to get it right. So I kept getting forties and fifties on the assignments, and tests certainly weren’t any better. And so I started failing biology.
And soon enough I started failing the other two. But I have much less of an excuse for those two. It’s not like I didn’t understand it, as opposed to biology, which I genuinely can’t fucking comprehend. The other two were filled with content I cared about. I love sociology! I love art! How could I not do well in something I care so much about?
Truthfully, I don’t know. I can go to class, and I can talk about paintings and flying buttresses, and I loved discussing deindustrialization and the prison industrial complex. I like learning. I just couldn’t do the work.
Homework is truly the bane of my existence. Even when I was a kid in elementary, I had the hardest time doing homework, though I exceled in the classroom setting and was top of the game in standardized testing. Homework has always been my downfall, and college is a million times worse than junior high or high school ever was.
I feel like I’m buried under a crushing pile of assignments. I drown in it. I can’t breathe. It kills me. Slowly. Surely.
And the guilt is the nail in my coffin, built out of paper. Made with the pages of textbooks, the pages of my five-subject notebooks, the pages of the final papers I never wrote.
Every day that I went to class, I would cry the whole drive home. Every time I would try to do an assignment, I would cry. Cry at my inability to do simple things, cry at my hatred for being forced to do something that means nothing to me and brings me no joy, cry at the fact that if I had just gotten this right the first time at Miami I wouldn’t have to be doing it now.
Cry at what a complete failure I am.
Then came the time to tell my parents again that I was failing again. A painful repeat, but I’m nothing if not used to it by now. After all, it is the fifth semester I’ve failed.
The next day, November 1st, was the last day to drop a class, so I walked in and dropped all three. So instead of a bunch of F’s, I just have a bunch of W’s. But we all know what those W’s represent.
Anyways, time to get back in the saddle. I go back to school in two weeks. I signed up for two classes this semester, Intro to Geology and Intro to Anthropology. Both are required, one is 3 credit hours and one is 4 credit hours. Anthropology is all online, and geology is Tuesday and Thursday from noon to two.
Sounds doable, doesn’t it?
I guess we’ll see.
That sucks that you’re going through that, and I hope this semester is better.
I’d love to offer you a magical solution, but I also struggle with issues like this, and all I can offer is solutions I’ve tried. I’m using an app called Sunsama to try to manage my day, and it’s ok. It’s better when I feel the rush to use it, and I’m not great with that over the last month.
Again, best wishes to you this semester.
Until recently, I was a professor of English. First of all: you are not alone, and you are not a failure. University usually caters to a very narrow learning style, and the pressure can be brutal. If you wish to continue, I recommend finding a trained tutor from the campus learning center to act as a coach. Meet with your professors early and tell them what you need, as best you can. You can always take a break, and continue to learn in different ways, in different settings. You can read, write, and think clearly and well. You are not a failure. And you were absolutely right to dump the racist, sexist, piece of shit professor. Most profs have no training whatsoever in how to teach effectively. And if they are assholes, it’s best to dump them immediately. Best of luck to you. I’ve worked with many students like you, and students like you often represent my best, favorite, and most rewarding professional relationships.
I took Intro to Anthropology eons ago, and it was such a fun, interesting class. I hope you enjoy your classes!
Aw man. I’m sorry to hear things didn’t go well :/
So, as a college instructor, with some experience with students in your situation, have you thought about more non traditional forms of college? Ones that focus less on grades and more on experience and interest?
I’m so sorry to read of all the emotional turmoil and distress you’ve been through, Athena. I know what that’s like, even though mine came from entirely different sources.
Please forgive me for asking, but have you tried therapy? I found it a godsend for my depression and anxiety. For what it’s worth.
Best of luck with the new semester. I think you are wise to take fewer classes this time around.
Also, I think your writing is steadily improving. This post is just beautifully written, even if the content is painful.
Hang in there, Athena. This too shall pass. Have you tried getting an accomodation from your college concerning homework? Maybe you can get them to assess your knowledge of the subject using a different method. And if it takes you a while to get your degree, at least you’re still working towards it. It took me 25 years to get my Associates Degree, but I was able to complete my Bachelor’s in 18 months. It’s worth it.
My son has what seem like similar issues. With some material he has an easier (not easy) time tracking if I read material out loud and he follows in the text. If he talks out his assignments and I take notes he can use the notes to regain the path his thoughts were on to then write out material for assignments. This has yet to work well for more than a couple of courses at a time, but he wants to take the courses and this helps.
He is your age. I tell him, and I can tell you, that this is not BEING a “failure” as a person. It is struggling with a particular type of task and maybe failing at it, and hoping to find your way to successes that are important to you.
He easily dismisses my attitude because I’m his father and I love him. But what I say is true—I won’t sabotage him with well intended lies. I’m pretty sure your folks are the same, and that they have solid reasons to not just love but also to respect you. I’m sure they don’t see you as a failure, because you are not.
I remember my days of “finding what would work for me”. I have four siblings, only 1 went to college, took 4 classes/semester and graduated in 4 years. The rest of us needed a different path to succeed. We’re an interesting group. I don’t know how my parents survived us but the important thing is, we all made it, our own way.
You are a fantastic human. If this is what you want you will find your way.
Higher “education” in our culture has morphed into something… not well designed for the purpose of turning out well-educated people prepared for a complicated and challenging world.
This is not the teachers’ fault, although some (like one you’ve encountered, obvs,) are part of the problem. The structure of higher education institutions is no longer oriented around education. It’s about sustaining itself through raising money, football revenues, etc., and cutting costs wherever possible, including the costs of building and maintaining a body of skilled, committed, excellent educators in a variety of fields who can excite their students and guide the amazing journey that higher ed SHOULD be.
So… do not blame yourself because you are “failing” higher education.
Maybe higher education is failing YOU. Maybe you don’t need a college degree right now.
Maybe what you need to do is find something that is so exciting, so inspiring, that you feel a little spark of passion inside you to LEARN ABOUT THAT. And the best way to learn about “THAT” whatever it may be, might be taking formal classes.
But those classes might not be from a traditional higher education institution. They might be from a ‘University Without Walls’ or a community college or even a commercial training business.
Or your passion might lead you into a community of other passionate people, who can point you in the direction of learning what you need to know less formally.
You are fortunate enough to have understanding parents who want you to find what’s right for you, and who are willing to help facilitate that.
Take your time, don’t kick yourself for the dead ends and lost ‘opportunities’ and unfinished business. They are just parts of the map you can cross off for now, and keep exploring.
I think you will go someplace amazing… but it may take a while. Work on convincing yourself that that is OKAY.
Because it is.
Maybe college just isn’t for you? That’s meant in the best possible way – I don’t have a degree and I’ve gone from being in foster care to earning a very good salary. Instead of forcing yourself into an impossible situation maybe it’s time to toss what everyone says you have to do out the window and do what’s best for you?
Absolutely, college can open some doors. But you can also open them yourself it just may take a little longer.
I hope whatever you choose works out wonderfully.
Okay, I was trying not to say anything, but if you really hate doing the whole school thing that much…do you have to? I suspect your parents are okay with that and if you want to be a writer ,that doesn’t require a college degree.
cry at my hatred for being forced to do something that means nothing to me and brings me no joy,
Because well, that doesn’t seem like something anyone would want you to do, or feel forced into. And if your life situation doesn’t force you into doing so, maybe it’s just not worth it to torture yourself over? School isn’t for everyone and college is at least optional.
I hope next semester isn’t as bad.
Just wanted to chime in with encouragement. I have worked with students in many (oh, so many) situations, and you are NOT alone! Plus, as an Anthropology degree holder, fingers crossed that you LOVE it as much as I do.
I started college in 1979, dropped out in 1980, and returned in 1996. I’m now a university advisor, helping a lot of students like you and me.
If two classes at a time work, great. If no classes and doing something else works, ALSO GREAT.
Good luck- do what’s right for you.
[Deleted for being an asshole — JS]
I feel this so much.
I bombed out of college my sophomore year. I had been to class for one week of the entire semester and called my parents the week before finals to say, “Help, I’m screwed.”
I’m 49 now, and I still have nightmares about going back. I mean, I want to get a degree (although not in computer science anymore, that’s what I’ve done for my career) but now that I know I was undiagnosed autistic and have anxiety, executive function disorder, and insomnia — all of those dysfunctional behaviors I exhibited make some rational sense. But even knowing that, and even with this lifetime of coping mechanisms I have built, I don’t think I could survive college.
I’m sorry you are suffering. Long ago, at an institution of higher learning in a faraway state (Tennessee), I experienced a lot of what you are expressing here. How I graduated is beyond me.
You will find your way along, wherever that way takes you. I am wishing you well.
I’m sorry this phase of your life is so difficult. Of course I don’t know what’s best for you — but I hope you’ll consider the possibility that you don’t need, and shouldn’t subject yourself to, the particular process (and in your case, the ordeal) that is college. You can thrive without it. And your parents can be very proud of you without your having a college degree (as I am of my younger daughter).
Executive function can be really hard even when you don’t have previous unpleasant experiences you have to break through, and even when it’s not a dystopian pandemic, etc. You tried; you figured out it wasn’t working and withdrew; this is something you can learn from and try again at, not a failure.
Study groups can be magical. Obviously, you do not do each others’ homework, but the human support/parallel play thing can work wonders with some material that needs… more horsepower?… to get through. It’s like the “jogging buddy” willpower-multiplier thing.
I know people who have done that virtually for their writing or other creative practices, but I haven’t personally tried it – the common format seems to be a brief “this is what I’ll be working on today” from each person, then a specified chunk of time working on the things, then a break/chat, sometimes another chunk of semi-silent work time. So you’re sort of there with the other people.
Given the freezing over assignments, a coach or tutor or school therapist or something who you could meet with weekly and talk through prioritizing assignments and how to break things down into manageable sections (and who can talk you out of existential dread) might also be available and useful.
Sometimes text is easier to understand if you read it out loud (or if you hear someone else reading it out loud). Other times it really just is impenetrable, poorly-written prose, though, so also, like… yeah. But give reading it out loud a shot, maybe? Also there are a lot of books I could understand with not-pandemic-brain and… well, my focus and comprehension just isn’t all there right now, and some of that is medical and a lot of it is ambient stress.
I guess: there are a lot of us having a hard time; you have written this extraordinarily well and it is extraordinarily relatable and it is very unfortunate that you have had to go through this series of very unpleasant, sort of humiliating experiences. But you can come out the other side well – you may need some assistive devices/people, but that is fine and not a failure. (I mean: using a wheelchair for mobility is not a failure; needing a seizure alert dog is not a failure; we don’t have the societal support for a lot of things that we should have, but needing help with things is not a failure)
First time you feel sinking or dread? Get a human – twitter, or in person, or a friend, or email me and I’m happy to “talk” by email (I assume you can get my email address out of the blog post sign-in thingy? It is totally okay if you need daily or more-than-daily help!) because you totally can do this even though it is… uh… not structured well to match your strengths. Recognize those early avoidance/guilt signs and get buddies to help knock out the things that are trying to get you down.
You can do it!
Sorry to read of your struggles and how you beat yourself up. It must hurt so much. Sounds like you are putting in the work, but something isn’t clicking. I’m not an expert in this, so that’s my signal to stop right there. Your parents and councilors can help you better.
This won’t help, but know you are not alone. I have a niece that finally dropped out because of her struggles at a university. She’s trying to figure out her next step now. A nephew went to community college but wanted to “do” vs sit in classes. So he’s off doing what makes him happy.
But let me end with pointing out an obvious talent you do display. Your writing. This was nice to read as you craft a nice flow. You do have your father’s talent.
Keep at it, you’ll find your way one way or another. Maybe school, maybe not, or one that is less than traditional. (I’m finding the other comments here interesting and some come from a better position than I can offer you.)
Just know we are rooting for you. You’re early in your life and it’s a heck of a climb you are looking at. Just follow your own trail up that mountain. :-)
Wow! I was not that motivated during College! And this was back when if you mentioned “my laptop” you were talking where you set your food order at the drive-through window! Keep at it! “_
Athena, I’m so sorry to hear you are struggling. I work at an R1 institution in central administration, and we have multiple degrees dedicated to educational psychology. I’m wondering if your school has a similar branch of study and can refer you to someone? You are not stupid; you are very intelligent and you clearly have the motivation to succeed. But the path for you may be a little different. Believe or not, even some of our doctoral graduates have also struggled mightily, but it’s resilience and perseverance that will carry you across the finish line.
This is just a little blurb about educational psychology:
[Deleted for more assholery. Run along, child — JS]
Other people have said a lot of potentially helpful things. I will only say, best of luck.
(Constructs blanket fort. Provides hot chocolate, or the emotionally healing beverage of your choice.)
I have no advice to offer as I have never been to college, but I just want to let you know I’m rooting for you, no matter what you end up doing.
Good luck Athena! You are brave for sharing.
Hope you can find an approach that works for you.
Take the time you need! Don’t set yourself up for trouble. My best free at college took 8 years to graduate. Later he became a successful lawyer and lived a good life. Do what YOU need to do.
As someone who is suffering from severe anxiety right now and is on a leave of absence from my job I can very much relate to what you are experiencing and the emotions it generates
I do want to second the previous comments that you are not in any way a failure. You have a number of skills as your writing here shows
I do hope you are doing whatever you need to treat the anxiety and it’s related emotions
Other forms of education may or may not be an option for you
I wish you the best of everything
Sigh This is why I have no degree after High School. I am a terrible student. I will enthusiastiaclly do what I want to, and diligently procrastinate on the rest until it is too late. Just remember, FAILING CLASSES DOES NOT MAKE YOU A FAILURE. I’m not saying don’t find a way to pass them, just that there are many paths to every goal. It may be that your goals require a degree. In that case you have to figure out a way to get that degree that works for you. Not making suggestions, that is up to you. It may be, however, that you don’t need one at all to do what you want to with your life. Societies norms aren’t for everyone. It is obvious that you are super smart. You will figure this out.
You can get through this, but you have to find what works for you. Someone got great suggested that might not be “higher education” in the form of college and it is certainly worth considering if college is right for you.
Another thing to bear in mind is that most “professors” are not naturally gifted teachers, indeed they become professors by being good at their subject and/or playing the “tenure game” well. Teaching is a requirement of what they do but not their principal role (esp. in their heads).
When I was 17 I went to University and blew it spectacularly, late nights and away from home (and parental supervision) for the first time, new town, some medical issues: the works. I took time to get it together and my parents were more understanding and supportive than I had any right to expect, as I know you’re will be. My first degree took 6 years (I now have 2). So it is possible!
Second time round I had MAJOR status anxiety come exam time. What the he’ll was I thinking when I signed up? But luckily I got through it . . .
Lastly, have you considered some kind of remote learning? Most universities/colleges offer some kind of online degree these days. you could work from home (or a nice beach!) and at your own pace. Worth investigating maybe.
Best wishes for your future. Don’t let the anxiety define you.
PS: sorry about terrible typos. It is 4 am here and I am using my kindle for this – not a great combo
Your recounting the anxiety over not having read the chapter for class strikes a strong resonating chord in me. I finally switched my major to what I wanted it to be, History, but that required me to put myself through school, so I started working a full-time job on campus. History required a foreign language, which required not only classes EVERY day (that I had to make up the work time for), but also extra hours every week in the language lab. I couldn’t do this. I got behind. I couldn’t stand the idea of being called on in class and just sit there unable to answer, so I’d stop going to class. I tried three separate times with the intro language class, failed every time. 37 years later, I’ve retired from a good career in IT at the campus, but still no degree. I seriously thought of finishing up in Psychology, a dept I worked in for my last 11 years, since they had a BS option, but that still required a foreign language in high school, which I never had.
Someone mentioned counseling. I think that would have helped me at the time. I was dealing with a lot of depression, made worse by seemingly becoming an academic failure after coasting through high school at the head of my class with no effort at all (and thus, no study habits learned). If you want to continue with college, please, take advantage of whatever help is out there. Talk to a counselor, find out which learning methods work best for you. You’re not stupid (and I wasn’t either). You just need to learn the techniques that work best for you to master the material and do the self care necessary to keep yourself in the right frame of mind to handle the work and stress.
Also, if necessary, take a few years off, working a full-time job in the interim. Sometimes it takes a while to get to the point that you’re REALLY ready for college. But whatever you do, don’t feel you’re a failure. I’ve worked in academia for 37 years and I have a rather jaundiced view of the entire system now. I’ve learned the degree sometimes is just a paper to say you can start making X amount of money rather than a real indicator of whether you’re an educated person. Some become educated in spite of the university.
I enjoy reading your posts and admire the courage you show in sharing something that it is a struggle for you. It is surely giving hope and comfort to others who struggle also, or love someone who struggles.
Not completing something in an artificial timeframe is not failing, and journeys are not always straight lines.
Be gentle with yourself.
I’m so sorry to that you are having such a tough time with college. I wanted to suggest some things, but others have already suggested them. I do hope you are using the resources at your school to help you find your path. Please contact your schools learning center the first week so you will have support from the beginning and will hopefully not get so overwhelmed, which just piles onto the anxiety.
You are not a failure! You are smart and bright and an amazing writer. I wish you all the success and hope you find ways to work through the University system.
Athena, I want to cry with you. People think if you ace tests all your life, then hey college will be a blast for you.
Your story is pretty much mine, and no one should have to be that miserable. There’s a church building that looks to have a lot of possibilities.
Hi, Athena – you have received a lot of good advice here. In the end, you need to follow your heart. You write well, and you are lucky that higher education is not required for writing (ask Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, who attended Howard but did not graduate – and he has a MacArthur.) Higher education is struggling as an industry right now, because it isn’t structured for learners who don’t check the standard boxes. Did you know that only about 40% of people in higher education institutions are 18-24? Lots of people drop in and out of school for many reasons, none of which they should apologize for. Perhaps part of your struggle is that you haven’t found what you love. Have you thought about volunteering? The other reality is that the workplace changes. Regardless of what you choose to study, you will need to continually acquire new information long after you graduate. I had to start over in 2005 (I was 45!) and build a new career because the job I loved, as a printing plant production manager, basically disappeared, as many small press jobs have done. Ten years later I had a PhD, and was the oldest student in my cohort (and it was so much fun!). Even with a university degree, what you do with it is likely to change over time. Instead of worrying about “learning” within the structure of higher ed, maybe think about learning what you need to do to become your happiest, most engaged, and best self. Never apologize for being that self.
I’m not going to give you suggestions, because you don’t need random internet strangers doing that. But I will say that I was 38 before I managed to actually finish a bachelor degree, after sporadic attempts for nearly 20 years. The reasons aren’t terribly important, as my brain weasels are almost certainly not your brain weasels.
I understand the guilt you’re feeling, and I know how terrible it feels to not be able to force yourself to do something you KNOW you’re capable of. Try to give yourself some grace, and credit for continuing to try. And you’re not alone.
I think you’re pretty damn brave to write this post. I loved my anthro classes in school and I hope you enjoy the course.
Having the guts to be honest about your experience elicited a chorus of “me too” and also empathy from those of us who have been there in different ways at different times. 2020 and 2021 have been brutal and the best gift we can give is to be kind to ourselves and to others. One liberating gift I gave myself was permission to do things badly. Sometimes it helps.
Hi, Athena. I just wanted to echo that I think you’re really sharp and good at writing (and getting better all the time, especially on these very personal posts), and that you’re courageous for sharing this struggle you’re having with all of us. Even though you’re having a difficult time right now with our country’s inadequate and narrow university model of education, please know you are definitely NOT alone and definitely NOT a failure. (And I’m speaking here as someone in academia.) There isn’t only one path to or definition of “success,” and just because a person completes a degree (in four years or longer than that) doesn’t measure their worth as a person. Neither does not finishing a degree. Those are just details in some people’s lives. You come across as a pretty terrific person on this blog, and my best guess is that you will find the path that’s right for you, whatever that happens to be. I hope my encouragement — along with these dozens of other people’s encouragement — of you will at least help you to understand that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you and who you are. No failure at all. Remember: many paths are possible. Not everyone finds them at 18 or 20 or even older. No one is supposed to have everything figured out or to peak that young. :) I wish you all the very best.
Oh, Athena, I’m sorry that you’re having such a hard time. I wanted to reiterate what others have said: you’re not a failure. You’re someone having a hard time with school.
People have said lots of wise things in the comments. I know so many people who learned what they wanted to learn, and to do what they wanted to do, in nontraditional ways: with gaps in their formal education, or by taking classes at their own rate (one at a time rather than four at a time) or without going to college or by going to a community college before transferring to a four-year school….or completely different ways.
It’s so much better to do whatever works for you than it is to struggle with the “standard” educational route.
Wishing you the best and especially hoping that your anxiety and feelings of being a failure ease up.
Athena, while I didn’t go through what you are going through, I definitely had that feeling of failure when I was almost done with my education degree and realized I absolutely HATED what I was doing. I almost quit two months before I finished a masters. Then one of the teachers I was working with told me the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard. She said that just because you’ve been doing something doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. I’ve never used that degree, and I’ve never regretted that. You’re a smart kid (everyone under 30 is a kid to me now sorry) and you’ll figure it all out. You’ve got parents who obviously love and support you, and you’ve got a lot of time to get wherever you’ll end up. Never be afraid to quit. There’s always something new to try.
Speaking as someone with a similar experience of (non)study, executive dysfunction many of the feelings you’ve shared with us here, you have all my sympathies, empathies and understanding.
Good luck with whatever direction you find your life going from here, and try not to be too rough with yourself. Even though I know how that’s even harder than the study and assignments.
My son was prescribed Vyvanse during high school, and its effects were magical. It’s possible that seeing a psychiatrist who could suggest medication if called for could ease the struggle. (There was no horror story. His personality isn’t any different when he takes the medicine and when he doesn’t. It “just” helps him focus on his work.)
I want to say that I’m sorry this is happening to you, but the truth is that trying school multiple times and learning that it might not be the best use of your time, energy and talents is perfectly acceptable, no matter what the “you-must-go-to-college-or-be-forever-branded-an-uneducated-loser” peeps might say.
I say this as an instructor at three major universities (adjuncts must do this or starve) and as someone who has recently had to award several incompletes and excused withdrawals to students who just…couldn’t this semester.
Also, school is taxing enough without the added stress of trying to pull it off remotely and in the midst of a pandemic.
I say take it slow and only do as much as you can handle. 12 units a semester is a lot, especially at the undergrad level; there tends to be much more busy work assigned to undergrads than grads in my experience.
It took me waaaaaaay longer than it should have to matriculate from a two-year to a four-year, and that’s because I refused to burn myself to the ground attempting 12 units every semester. There is no shame in pacing yourself, particularly if it means you Ace two classes rather than failing or earning Ws in four.
I also think part of the stress you feel when reviewing assignments has to do with the sheer refusal or inability of some professors to write clear or concise prompts. For example, a four-page prompt for a five-page paper is shitty pedagogy in my book (it’s bad no matter the assigned length, to be perfectly frank), particularly when the writing task and requirements aren’t separated out or specified. Students also need a clear, concise and student-friendly (student friendly specifically meaning the rubric is worded for students rather than for colleagues) set of scoring criteria to work from as they craft their work so that they know what to do and what not to do.
Another issue is course design; there are different things you should do when teaching an online or even remote class that many instructors might not be doing because of that same inability or refusal. Many people think you just slap a bunch of haphazardly organized course content on a learning management system and call it good. What many don’t realize is that that kind of approach hypes up the anxiety and serves to reinforce some students’ feelings of under-preparedness or academic inadequacy.
Of course, this might not have been the case for you, but it might explain some of the experiences you had when engaging with the material. My point is that what happened last semester might not have been completely on you; there may, in fact, have been factors at work that served to make your college experience more stressful than necessary.
Should college be stressful? I think so. But it shouldn’t be so stressful that bright students with enormous potential are made to feel like they can’t hack it or shouldn’t even try.
That’s just my .02.
PS: Good call dropping the RSHD’s class. No one needs that in their classroom, no matter how “coddled” (Haidt) they might be as a result.
I got my Biology bachelors back in 2005,and my MA Social Work in 2012. I’m fairly good at academic work, but I wish I could fiction. I keep meaning to give it a go, but never push myself to. You have a gift for writing, so I don’t think you should ever consider yourself a failure. People just have different skills, and I think it’s important to remember that. Interest in subject material is a must for academic work, so hopefully this time you’ve found your niche and it will be much easier.
I am sorry that you are struggling. Starting small is probably a good idea. Anxiety can be a monster, but I think that you will figure out what works best for you. Keep plugging.
Once again, I can relate. I remember complaining that my chemistry textbook sounded like English, yet I couldn’t understand any of it. Tara Westover, in Educated, said something like, her ability to keep after subjects even though she didn’t understand them, until she did, was what enabled her to actually become educated. In graduate school, they leaked the secret that all academic work is designed to turn you into an academician. So if you want to do something else, you do need to follow your own course. G. M. Hopkins, I think, when studying to become a Jesuit, astonished me in his memoir, when he said, the topic of today’s meditation is X, that’s fortunate, because that’s what I’m thinking about. The nerve of the guy–he was going to think about what he was thinking about! Among all the bits of good advice above, I wonder if you could approach homework the way you do your snack box reviews, one snack at a time, sort of? It might be a way of dividing and conquering those assignments. Or to try to train yourself to get an emotional reward when you do accomplish part of an assignment, like the aha! feeling I get when I find the missing puzzle piece of a jigsaw. Best wishes, going forward.
Oh, Athena, I am so sorry. You have written this so eloquently. You are not a failure. Your story sounds so much like my older son’s. Plus he had access to so many support systems on his campus but he wanted to “go it alone” and didn’t use any of them — verified accommodations, tutoring groups, tutors, audio books, etc. He just… didn’t.
So that is a thought, as others have said. Might help. He did not finish college but has a good job now!
But given the level of pain and anxiety that you are having, I have to ask: Do you even WANT to go to college? If it makes you so miserable, why are you even there? It’s not a rule that everyone MUST go to college. You don’t have to put yourself through this. And you are NOT a failure.
There are many paths to a happy and successful life. I know you will find yours. Be kind to yourself.
If you are learning online, why not try outside the American system? British and European students specialize earlier than in US ones, which means, at 18, you are studying your passion –which is SO much easier that struggling with diddly little courses you don’t care about. I studied Astronomy simply because I was fairly good at Physics and Maths and MAD about SF. My eldest son took History and Politics, because he can argue the hind leg off a donkey. We both went from middling student to top grades.
Athena- I’m not saying anything others haven’t, but I think repetition helps.
I work in higher ed supporting students in your boat. Sometimes cutting credits down- even to just one class- helps. Sometimes peer tutoring helps. Sometimes mentoring helps. Sometimes the right sort of therapy helps. Sometimes talking about priorities and goals helps clarify what the student actually wants- and sometimes the answer isn’t college now.
My favorite intervention is to ask students to think about what they want their life to look like in ten years. NOT what job they want, but how they want their home/work balance to look. How much money they need to be content. How much they want to travel. How much control they want over their schedule. Picture that and then think of careers that create that reality. Then work towards that career and that life. It may include college classes, but it may not.
I had my 18 year old son (he has learning disabilities and manages anxiety) do that and his ideal life was low on stuff and high on travel. His plan for next year is to haunt our local airport until he gets an entry level job (ideally putting luggage on planes) that comes with travel benefits. Then he’s going to work and travel until he wants to prepare to do something else.
I hope you listen to everyone who has said you are not a failure. College is really hard and it’s absolutely not designed for everyone. Remember, only about 40% of people in this country have a 4 year degree. And SO MANY of them don’t complete that degree until they are over thirty.
Good luck this term and do what’s right for you.
Athena, you’re a brave kid for sharing this and you write very well, so you are clearly talented. I think that there’s a lot of good advice above from other folks, hopefully some of it helps you.
My daughter is 23 which I think is close to your age and she has started nursing school after a few different attempts at different schools. As a dad, I have never thought of her as a failure – everyone learns differently and takes different paths. I’m proud of her for her persistence and you should be proud of yourself for yours as well.
I went to Polytechnique de Montréal, an engineering school known for impossible homework tasks. They explained at the first day presentation that you can’t do it alone. Homework assignments are meant to be done in teams of up to 4 or 5 people. We were meant to learn to do teamwork from the very beginning. And we had 5 course semesters. My most successful semesters were when I managed to do just the equivalent homework for one course and collaborate with others to do the 4 others. We were meant to work on our strength and learn to collaborate on parts where we’re not as good.
One of the best collaborations I remember was an electronics project where I did all the digital parts and my colleague did all the analogical parts, I was good and digital and he was good at analogical. We had one of the best products out there.
Another project was where I only worked on making it look good for the presentation and we got a very good grade.
Another one where I only optimized the shape recognition routines and our project was among the best.
Without teamwork, I would never have this engineering degree I have now.
Find friends! You can do it!
Yeah, I have a college degree which I have absolutely never needed for anything. I have a good pension and very good health insurance (which transformed into extremely good medicare supplemental health insurance when I reached that age) from a nasty-but-someone-needs-to-do-it job that I didn’t mind too much and it didn’t require a degree.
Maybe you can find something you enjoy that pays enough and that doesn’t require a degree. College isn’t for everyone, and, yes, it’s a type of learning that doesn’t AT ALL address everyone’s best way of learning.
Adding my voice to the chorus of voices reminding you that you are not a failure. You are on your own path. And you’re learning that there is no magic secret to adulting. We just figure stuff out as we go. And that’s what you’re doing right now. Yay, you!
Also, Terry 9:05pm is spot on.
Athena, I am a college professor and I want to thank you for explaining your experiences. I often talk to students with similar struggles and they can’t articulate what’s happening with them, let alone why, understandably. Your posts are useful for generating questions to help my students figure out where their difficulties lie. Wholehearted support for you, whatever form your education takes.
Like a few of the above people, I work in higher ed. You’re reminding me of a student of mine from a few years ago. Very bright, very engaged in class, naturally curious. But I observed that her assignments and essays were well out of step with everything else – some of them were not done at all, and the rest were incomplete or rudimentary. While it didn’t make me critical of her, it did make me guess that there was something else going on, some kind of challenge involved above and beyond what most students are dealing with. She eventually asked me for a meeting to talk about the course; I think she was a bit embarrassed. She mentioned that her homework was not going well, and I nodded. She started by brushing it off with, “You know how everyone procrastinates sometimes,” but I waited and she eventually revealed that for my course and all of her other ones, she was spending hours not getting around to dreaded assignments/papers and then sometimes completely halfassing them so as to get them over with. She’d failed a few classes as a result and said she despised herself for it – by this point in the meeting, she was near tears. She called it “being lazy,” but that was clearly not what it was – not when it was this recurrent and causing this much anguish. I sent her to the campus’s disability services office to talk with a specialist about whether she needed to be evaluated for anything, and it turned out to be ADHD. It bothers me that she spent so many years questioning herself and wondering why she was “being lazy,” when it was simply a matter of the educational system holding everyone to rigid neurotypical standards.
Can you turn your homework into a game for something that’s fun for you? And then give yourself a reward for doing it?
I know. It’s homework and it’s so stressful it’s causing your executive function to short-circuit. It’s not fun. Trust me when I say I understand the Perfection-Avoidance Circle of Hell. I understand freezing when I think I’m imperfect. It sucks.
But what if you changed the goal? When you have 40 pages to read, what if you break it into 5 or 10 pages increments? Reading 5 pages is a lot less daunting than 40. And then when you read those five, give yourself a reward. Celebrate it. Take a walk, or play a video game, have some coffee or make damn sticker chart. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it makes you feel good about what you did.
Because you did something and that something was hard. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t finish it all at once. It doesn’t matter that you think you should be better at it.
Good luck. We’re rooting for you.
I have three different degrees, have taught college and law school, and am an attorney.
And I came within a whisker of failing out as an undergraduate.
As so many others have said, it can be a long and hard process to figure out what works for you, and it may or may not be traditional college. There’s a ton of good advice above, but I would add that you should talk to your professors about the problems you’re having at the start of the semester. When students struggle in silence, it’s impossible to help and very frustrating for the instructors (only the biggest of a-holes (and every profession has its share) enjoys giving Fs). Talk to them and you will likely find them willing to be flexible and help you in ways that you may not have imagined. Again, not all of them may be receptive, but more than you think will be. Helping students who want to learn but have these sorts of struggles is one of the more rewarding parts of teaching.
Landmark College (https://www.landmark.edu/ ) specializes in students with learning differences. In fact they call themselves “ The College for Students Who Learn Differently” and have assistance for Dyslexia, ADHD, Autism, and Executive Function Challenges.
There are other schools with good academic help programs, too: Peterson’s has a list of 20 (https://www.petersons.com/blog/20-great-colleges-for-students-with-learning-disabilities/?amp).
That said, you don’t have to go to college to be successful in life. You’ve demonstrated right here that you can write very well, and there are a lot of places that can take you. My husband doesn’t have a degree and makes $100G+ because he did what he loved and the money followed. Figure out what you love. Do it. And then keep doing it. It will work out.
I have a daughter your age, she did very will in high school, scored a 30 on the ACT and was offered a full ride scholarship to one of the top engineering universities in the US. She majored in electrical engineering for two years and did well academically. She then decided to switch majors to english. After a year of english, and only two semesters away from graduation she just bailed out.
She told me over lunch one day and was in tears about her decision. I just looked at her and said “all ive ever wanted for you is to be happy, kiddo”. It hurt me to see her drop out so close to graduation, im also a college dropout and it took me a long time to work my way to a desk job in my technical field. I was worried as hell for her. But i never said a word of that to her, i just sat in that little mexican restaurant and held her hand and told her everything would be ok.
She moved to a neighboring state and is working on her certification as a doula – which im pretty sure is a sort of midwife thing.. Honestly, i dont give two rats asses what exactly it is – shes happy with her life, and happy at the thought of helping others. Every time we are able to meet and spend some time together, she is absolutely glowingly happy and she can cover her bills (happiness is great, but food and electricity are pretty damned important also). And thats all i really care about as her dad.
All of that just to say – life is too short to be miserable, work on your happiness, and dont give up hope of finding that happiness.
Throughout my career I’ve known lots of people in your current situation.
They have invariably done FINE in life.
Some of them take a shorter break– when I was a residential advisor, one used her break to get a degree as a masseuse and came back ready to completely change majors (creative writing) and with less perfectionism.
Some of them drop out entirely– we have friends from high school who are extremely successful salespeople, high level customer service (all now managerial, but they started out in people-facing roles), or computer programmers. While college degrees can open doors, only ~30% of people have bachelors degrees and they’re not necessary.
Some of them drop out and years later go back to college and keep going for even higher levels of education. I see many of these as returning students in my classes where I have masters students.
Whatever path you take, you’re going to learn and gain from the experience. You’ll figure more things out. And you have a safety net, so you have the freedom to make tons of mistakes and try risky things that might not pay off but could also pay off spectacularly. You are going to be ok.
Lives are long. You are NOT a failure, no matter what happens with school. College is useful, but it isn’t necessary. You don’t need to have your life planned out in your 20s. Life is a journey, not a destination (I mean, the destination is kind of depressing, and hopefully many many decades in the future.)
I DID get dropped from college – because I spent too much time in the library, reading what was interesting to me, and very little time on classwork. (To a bibliophile, your first visit to a good-sized college library is much like a cocaine addict being dropped head first into a vat of the stuff.) I was able to come back and finish a BA because of semi-understanding parents, but it took some extra years. (My dad did arrange to have me spend a summer working on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania as an object lesson, but I will note to J Scalzi that this does not work, so don’t try it – learning to drive a cleated tractor and muck out calf byres are not really useful tools in a modern skill set.)
I’m not sure if I could have handled distance learning, either.
Just remember – this is NOT A RACE. It’s not even the only path you can take, as others above have stated.
NCI, as the Brits say.
P.S. One thing I don’t see is study groups. I could not have gotten through high school or college without doing my homework in groups with other people. My MO was always to sit in the front row of the class on the first day and exchange contact information with all the other people sitting in the front row. Those tended to be people who started the homework as soon as they got it rather than the night before (YMMV).
I sometimes form study groups for my students– it really does help the people who are struggling with just doing the work to have other people there. There are a TON of people who start the homework the night before it is due and just sort of hash it out as a group together. Another good way to find study group people is to go to office hours and introduce yourself to the other people there– they tend to come in two types, conscientious people who are having problems with the material and conscientious people who want to learn more. For students who are struggling, getting in a group with conscientious people who are also having problems with the material can be life-changing (at least over the course of the class).
Sorry one more thing and this will be the last, I promise.
I have students who come to office hours and start their homework and just sit there doing their homework in my office. This is true both in person and virtually. I am totally fine with this. If other people are there, they can listen to questions being asked and work on the problems the other students are working on. If not, they just start with problem 1 and ask questions as they go, or I’ll give them hints on the questions that most people have trouble with. (The people who do best academically, I’ve found, tend to be the ones who aren’t afraid to ask dumb questions.)
Having a tutor like someone above recommended is also a possibility. Because sometimes you just need someone else there that you can talk things over with or to just say “yes, yes, that’s right” to get over that initial anxiety lump. Heck, I still have to do this with my actual work sometimes when I’m having anxiety problems. I make DH sit behind me and just kind of gently prod me. (Better to do this with a tutor than with a loved one though!) Or if it’s something I’m stuck on, just talking about it with someone, even someone who has no idea what I’m talking about, can help me get unstuck.
This really resonates for me. It took me 13 years to finish my BA, with much of the same agony you describe, even though I loved school and loved learning. Finishing assignments was the hardest thing for me.
Now several decades later I realize these were all ADHD symptoms, and I am finding techniques for coping more widely available. But as many have pointed out, college is not the only option in life. The ability to make yourself do things you don’t want to is a useful skill, but life works much better if there is some joy in most of what you do.
Find your joy. You deserve joy in life. Everyone does.
is a good description of the average white-collar job, but it is an even more cogent description of… parenthood. Be warned.
Hi, Athena –
You haven’t asked for advice, and I don’t know enough to give specific advice (I haven’t stalked your every move on your dad’s blog), but I am a college professor (Biology, actually) and so I have some questions and general advice, much of which echoes others’:
Are there things that require lots of work you don’t really enjoy/want to do that you nevertheless manage to do and enjoy? Like, is this an issue with anxiety/avoidance of the inevitable tedious practice that comes with everything, or is it school-specific?
Because if there are things you are able/want to do the practice and perceived busywork for, then maybe college just isn’t “for you” – or maybe traditional college isn’t for you. I completely understand why that would be a tough line of thought to follow, because of the value society places on traditional education, but still – I’m a college professor whose brilliant artist sister hated college and left after her AA. Not everyone digs school.
A lot of what you describe sounds like it might be treatable in therapy, if you want to treat it. Not a therapist, but I am familiar with the college behaviors of students with both ADHD and anxiety disorders, and they’re similar to much of what you describe.
The only real advice I have: I’d advise NOT signing up for more classes without a specific plan (with help from a professional of some sort – maybe a therapist or a counsellor who specializes in this sort of thing) for how you’re going to change your approach. Because the constant try-and-fail is going to increase your anxiety and make it harder and harder to succeed.
Also this: be easy with yourself. You’ll figure it out.
I went to a community college. The degree I got was supposed to take 2 years, but it took me 4 years. That is because I took 2 classes just about every semester. It worked for me. One year my uncle suggested taking more than 2 classes. It was a little overwhelming for me, but I made it. If you really want to go to college, you should do what works for you. And you can take classes without getting a degree if you want. That way there is no pressure.
I’m so sorry about this. Please follow some of the good coping advice in the above comments: there is help available for students with these kinds of problems which are not uncommon.
I was always good at not drowning in the flood of assignments at school, but I’d regularly have nightmares about having forgotten something, e.g. I put off working on a term paper for one class because of more urgent assignments for others and then it slipped my mind and I didn’t realize until finals that there was such an assignment and I’d never even begun it. That never actually happened, but I sure dreamed it a lot.
But I did occasionally get a mental block that prevented me from focusing on particular tasks, no matter how long I sat there and demanded of myself that I do them, and I suffer from that to this day. In fact I’m writing this post rather than get done a rather simple task I should have done in October.
Athena, thank you for writing this. As you can see by the comments, you’ve struck a nerve on both sides — people who have experienced it and people who have tried to support others experiencing it. We relate to your experiences so much that we can’t help offering condolences and advice even though we know you have supportive parents and a good head on your shoulders.
I fall on the academic side of the equation. I sometimes joke to my nieces that I was such a slow learner it took me 2 decades to learn enough that they’d let me leave school. And with that Ph.D., the question I find myself asking students more and more is: what do you want to do? Do you have to get a degree to do it? If so, how much of a degree? If not, do you love it?
Those are the big reasons to be in school…either you love it or you need some credential as a baseline for your field. School is hard even if it’s what you want to do, so if you aren’t sure you want or need it, it’s gonna be torture. And it will always be there for you later if your needs change.
You’ve also heard a lot of us say you aren’t a failure. I don’t know that it helps to hear people you don’t know say that, so I’ll just say…yep, it sucks exactly like it’s supposed to.
I’m also curious about the class schedule. 2 hours each T Th for geology sounds like what I had, which were usually either 1.5 hours T Th or 1 hour M W F. But your previous schedule was classes that met only once a week, and the only classes like that I had were 3-4 hour seminars.
I would strongly recommend meditation. it has help me with my mental health problems. But you have to be trained how to do it.
This program is produced by a medical school and your insurance will pay for it! That is two gate keepers of quality.
Like running, it takes practice on a repeated basis.
University of Massachusetts Medical School, Mindfulness program.
Google the above and press “I feel lucky”
As others have stated, what will you be doing in ten years time?
Lots of others have given great suggestions. I like the study group idea. It is easy to let your self fail, but when you are accountable to others, that is a different story.
An effective study group accountability method, is that the person who does not (show up, complete an assignment, etc) must bring an item from the group. Since it was a morning class, it was donuts. If it was an evening class, it would have been the 1st round.
Everyone on this board is in your corner.
The questions that I think of when reading this are:
* Do you need or want to go to college right now? Maybe this is not the time — certainly it is a challenging time in general, and a challenging time for you. Maybe later would be better.
* Do you need to go to college at all? Maybe it isn’t for you. Maybe an alternate form of education/apprenticeship will work better for you.
* And most important: what do you want to be doing right now, and in the future (if you know this yet)? How does college fit in to that, or not fit in to that?
I wish you the best of luck, and I am rooting for you !
Can I just say how heroically brave you are for writing about these struggles publicly? Your account really resonates with analogous struggles I’ve had and your writing is very successful at evoking those feelings. And it’s incredibly helpful to have people like you with the guts to go there on these topics, so that the rest of us can know we aren’t alone or somehow unique in our challenges.
Best wishes for your geology class! I love geology, I read about it for run and I find it a really beautiful and moving discipline in its exploration of deep time, incredible forces and changes, shaping of the history of life, and all resulting in endless arrays of unique and fascinating landscapes around the world. I truly hope you have a teacher who is able to convey that beauty and epic sweep amidst all the nuts and bolts.
I started back to grad school in 2020 and immediately got super overwhelmed with exactly what you describe– one assignment after another, forever and ever. You can’t put them all off to the last minute, but if you stress about them all, you won’t get anything done either.
It’s totally not my business if you have been diagnosed with ADHD, but even if you haven’t, a lot of ADHD coping skills can help everybody. Things like using Trello to put all your assignments in front where you can see them– and where you can drag “do this week” to one column and then have a little celebration when the week is done (even though you still know there are 4 things next week) are SO HELPFUL. Trello has saved me so many times.
Don’t feel bad about crying. It’s normal and natural when you’re frustrated or overwhelmed– which you are. Cut yourself some slack and make time to be a human with feelings instead of a portal to the stress dimension. (And if you never go to college again or you wait for 10 years to give yourself some life experience first, you’re still a worthwhile human being and people will still love you.)
Forgive me if this is something you’ve covered before, but have you ever considered that you might have ADHD? Because, as someone who was diagnosed as an adult, what you’re describing sounds very much like inattentive ADHD. It goes highly undiagnosed among girls in particular because it often presents differently than many people – including doctors – expect. You seem very smart, so, if this is what is happening, you were probably able to compensate for a long time, which works for a lot of us right up to the point where it doesn’t.
Many others have suggested that college may just not be for you, and they could be right – there’s no shame in taking a different path. But college seems to be important to you, and looking into this may be a way to help. I spent YEARS feeling stuck and hopeless because there were things I just could not seem to do, despite achieving some social and professional markers of “success”, and while I still struggle, getting proper ADHD treatment has made a huge difference. There’s tons on information on this topic online, but one of the best resources I’ve come across is a YouTube channel called How to ADHD – it’s a great starting point if you want to learn more.
I hope I’m not coming across as presumptuous here – I’m just sorry that you’re in a rough place, so on the off-chance that my perspective would be helpful, I felt compelled to speak up. I hope that whatever comes next for you brings you peace and happiness.
I agree with Alison. Your description of your grade school experience sounds just like the one I had. I had several terrible experiences getting through school. It wasn’t until my early 40s that I realized I had ADHD. Once I started getting that treated I smashed my Masters and am now a happy librarian.
Many good suggestions here; I just want to add that maybe a humongous university is not your best option. I went to a small southern Colorado college and had some exceptionally fine instructors (who wanted to teach, not play the academic games about constantly being pressured to publish) and it was a good fit for me. You need to find a good fit for you, and it’s possible where you’re at isn’t it.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Somehow, college courses seem to be your own personal Kobayashi Maru. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means that, for you, those courses are just a “no-win scenario.” So far, you seem to have held up well under the “test of character” part of that.
From here, there’s two paths to beating it. You can be like Jim Kirk, and change the rules of the game. Or you can be like Nog, and do the unexpected. (He opened negotiations with the Klingons, and wound up crashing the simulation because no one else had thought of that.)
What does that mean? It’s just a metaphor, but one which might lead you to a solution, especially when combined with all the excellent suggestions already in these comments.
I know I only got through college with a lot of help from a certain doctor and her grad-student assistants. I’m sure you can come through this much as I did.
I have no advice for you, but do want to tell you that you are one of the strongest and bravest people I’ve ever seen. To put your heart out here for strangers to read, empathize with, and even advise, is magnificent honesty and courage. In this current social media age, most people try to only present their glamorous side. You are very special and definitely NOT ANY KIND OF FAILURE!
So, I have this problem that might or might not be similar to yours. I love to draw and have fun sketching caricatures of people. And I love to write and will bang out stories and novels just because they delight me. People have suggested I should have a career doing these fun things and getting paid for it. . .
And the wheels come off. Suddenly I can’t be motivated to do them, either for money or because I now feel I “have to.” I can’t explain it and don’t know what’s wrong with me. Your Dad has fun getting paid doing something he enjoys, and I envy him that ability, but I just don’t have that gene.
Don’t know why I even told you that, other than the vague feeling you are good at things and love them until under pressure to do them. But, I don’t know you and am probably just projecting.
You are far too nice a young lady and such a gentle soul to have this much stress. Please don’t be so hard on yourself. As you can see from the comments above, you are pretty normal.
College isn’t for everyone. Maybe it’s time to admit that it isn’t for you either.
Another commenter chiming in to say: do consider the ADHD thing.
I aced school and college, but I totally fell apart in my doctoral studies. Over 15 years later, I tried doctoral study again, and, while I didn’t break so badly, I am struggling massively. I’ve recently been diagnosed with ADHD, and am awaiting a medication referral, so hopefully I will see some improvements. ADHD is one of the most treatable learning disabilities out there, which is great. And it’s massively underdiagnosed in girls and AFAB people like me.
The thing that really chimes with me is the stuff where you want to do it, but you just can’t get started. And then you get motivated close to the deadline, but there’s no time. Or you know you can’t do well, so you don’t bother, just blast on through.
You also mentioned having a disability: do check out your school’s accommodations (and be prepared to fight for your rights). It’s not “taking the easy route”: it’s levelling the playing field so that you get a fairer chance to study. Do use office hours, on-campus tutors, writing groups, etc. This is what your tuition dollars pay for!
Also: beware the sunk cost fallacy! Just because you’ve put a ton of time into school, you don’t have to do more school to get the credits at the end. However, if you find that your chosen jobs need certain qualifications, you might find it worthwhile persisting; that’s up to you to decide. Mostly, I find that I don’t have too many problems at work, but then I work in a job that’s very varied, intellectually challenging, and that has a lot of deadlines to keep me focused. But to get to that kind of job, I had to do a couple of clerical jobs that didn’t need a degree, and I failed out of those jobs so hard. However, things have improved a lot, especially as I can now be more compassionate towards myself, because I’m not lazy, I’m not trying to piss people off; it’s just my brain doesn’t have a working reward circuit.
I’m sure in the long run, you’ll find yourself in a good place. Here’s to hoping that in some of these comments you find a quicker route to that place, and one that doesn’t take you through such dark places.
First, as a 30 year veteran educator, let me assure (as others have) that YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. It sounds to me like the way your brain processes information (your learning system) is simply not matching up with the way colleges traditionally instruct. That doesn’t make you wrong or broken. You just don’t quite fit their narrow teaching method. That’s not your fault. Many people don’t fit that mold.
We are just at the beginning of applying neuroscience to education, and sadly instruction in these methods isn’t out there to enough educators yet. But there are some sources that students like you could use that might help. If you would like advice, I recommend checking out the work of Dr. Ellyn Lucas Arwood. Her work in this area is groundbreaking. She has achieved enormous success in helping people work with their learning systems. Her book “Language Function” gives an overview of her theory and some basic tools. She has also put out a quick guide called “A Guide to Cartooning and Flowcharting – See the Ideas” that you may find helpful. Some of her writing is geared toward the K-12 area, but the techniques apply to adults as well.
Best of luck to you. I know I’m just a random stranger on the internet, but if there is anything at all I can do, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
Oh, Athena! I’m sorry things didn’t work out this time! I admire you so much for your persistence and honesty. Those characteristics alone will take you far no matter what you decide to do. Your description of reading your biology book did make me laugh as that was the hardest class for me and it always felt like my brain was translating it as blah, blah, blahty blah. You captured that perfectly!
Have you considered a specialized trade while trying to figure yourself out as opposed to a formal college education for a bit? For example, there are multiple Class A Commercial License training courses in Ohio that cost roughly $6K. Do that for 1 semester, get your permit, and look at the large volume of Class A jobs in the Dayton area. Many are openly advertising they accept students and jobs start at $50-60K and go up to $100K+ once you are experienced. Once you decide you want to go back to school, it is possible to work a reduced schedule (weekends only) and still make decent money to support yourself while going to school.
Good luck on whatever you do!
I have two master’s degrees in two different fields. I have a BA summa cum laude. I also have a term with nothing but Ws from a university I could not graduate from, or even really pass very many classes at.
When I had to tell my parents that I had pulled all those Ws, after four previous terms of failures, they said, okay, come home. Then after I had arrived home with some plan to take a couple community college classes (which was what my brother was doing while he worked part time in a warehouse) they said no.
They said I could live with them rent free for two years if I were working full time. They said that after those two years, if I wanted to go back to college, they would keep paying for it. But for two years, they wanted me to live a life that wasn’t consumed by the conflict between what I hated and what I evidently thought I was supposed to want.
So I got a job answering phones at a company that processed financial aid forms and for two years I did the most tedious work imaginable. And I learned a bunch of stuff about how to make myself do what I was scared of doing, how to allow myself to fail without deciding I was a failure as a person.
I wanted so badly, after those four terms and then all the Ws, to climb back on the horse and prove I could really do this thing. But the truth is, I probably couldn’t have done that thing. And it was really good for me to be forced to walk away from it completely.
My poor parents, they had two kids with college issues living in their house at the same time. But ten years later, they had two kids with two masters degrees (and 15 years after that, I got my second masters). They pushed my brother to stay in school when he wanted to run away from it and they forced me to walk away from school when I just wanted to keep on keeping on.
I don’t know what you should do, but the fact that you write about this as if it was awful, well, maybe you should listen to that. Not going to school right now doesn’t mean never going to school. Or maybe it does, and that would be okay, too, because college is not your path.
What I learned, eventually, is that my mind knows what I need. If I try to force it to do a Wrong Thing, my mind will force me to fail. Not everyone’s mind does this to them, but mine does. I have been much happier and much more successful since I learned to listen to myself before my mind gets to the point of having to blow things up just so I will stop doing whatever Wrong Thing I am trying to force myself to do.
@ Susan and @ Athena
Same as Susan mentioned. I went after and received a masters in Teaching : Higher and Foundations because I found that a lot of teaching styles and a lot of teachers might really know their material, but know shit about how to teach. A lot of peoples learning styles don’t fit in the auditory/visual style that is taught in most schools along with the penchant for cramming a lot of extra online bullshit components into coursework.
I designed most of the online curriculum for Ivy Tech Community College next door to you in Indiana for the Criminal Justice program, and the hardest part was to thin down all of the bullshit that the department wanted to include into the coursework.
And where did they get it, you ask? Textbook manufacturers. Sells more books too, which the school also gets a cut from.
Kiddo, you are by no stretch of the imagination a failure. You have been defining your idea of success by fighting it out with the whole academic thing. I have been reading incomprehensible/barely literate student papers for decades. Trust me, you have writing skills. Anyone here will tell you that.
Redefine what you want to get out of education and go at it any way you want. If the instructor wants a lot of bullshit that stresses you out, do the parts you like, read the stuff you find interesting when you goddam well feel like it and then write about it. Fuck APA, take all that good stuff that you got out of what you dug up and groove on it. If you don’t follow their rules and get an “F”, who gives a shit? Get your money’s worth out of what you are doing and enjoy learning.
I know, this is dragging on. Sorry but over the years I have seen SOOOOO many bright, intelligent people like you, screwed over by the system and turned off of learning. You want to talk, drop me a line.
A few people mentioned this already but I will add my two cents. The last time I went to school was to get a degree in Veterinary Technology. I was having a super hard time with Chemistry. After talking to some classmates I discovered that there was a Learning Center with free tutoring! I spent several hours a day a couple times a week with different students who volunteered as tutors. My instructor was a good teacher but everything moved so fast. At the LC it was completely laid back with people explaining things in a way that was much easier to understand. I ended up getting an A which never would have happened on my own.
Good Luck, don’t be too hard on yourself! “Failing is a necessary component of Learning “
I’m not going to add to the rolling blanket of affirmations because I think you know all those things already about yourself. What you’re struggling with is how to do something (and do it well) and that frustration, instead of helping you, is tossing you into a roiling sea of emotional reaction. All those huge feelings are not Truth, they are by products of fear. And while most everyone who commented means well, I think they are doing you a huge disservice. This is an important fight. You shouldn’t bow out from facing it down. Avoidance is one of the worst things you can learn from this situation. It’s easy, it makes you feel better, and it will cut your legs out from under you without you realizing it.
It’s an excellent start to write out your feelings about what’s going on because I think once you vomit up on the page all the emotions clogging your brain and stomach, you can strip down what feels like a huge insurmountable problem into the bare bones of what’s really happening. Emotions are a valuable and necessary part of every day life, but they can also blind you and distract you and take away your ability to deal with a problem. Because you can deal with this problem. You’ve already dealt with lots of difficult problems growing up (your Dad can remind you, if you’ve forgotten, how many ogres you’ve slain over the years. Dad’s are so valuable a resource for those reminders). Take the feelings out a second and break the problem down into its component parts, like a math equation. You don’t have to solve it all at once, just start with a piece.
For example, the reading assignments. If you can’t go thru a problem the traditional way, there are a million ways to go around, under, sideways, over, wormhole tunnel thru, etc. Start generating ideas. And here’s the important bit: don’t forget, you aren’t the only person dealing with this issue. Talk about ideas with people who know you, and with others who don’t. You are looking for ideas to TNT thru this problem. Life has been and always will be a series of problems waiting for solutions. The joy of difficulties comes in finding kooky, crazy, and incredibly inventive ways to overcome them.
I have severe ADD. Meds help but they cannot shortcut the work I have to do every moment of every day–that no one else has to–while simultaneously managing my emotional reactions which are like a bag of furious feral cats in all out war. Pay attention to us, they say, we are all that matter!
Instead of just reading the readings, try outlining them. You retain the info so much more and it’s less pressure to understand while you are doing it–you’re just outlining what someone else is trying to say. This will give you such a huge edge when it comes to studying, and it gives you amazing writing skills as well, being able to quickly break down what an author is trying to say and how he’s trying to communicate his message. It’s something to enjoy even if the subject matter is horrifically boring. Also, when reading something, look up pictures of what you’re reading. The more senses you engage, the more interesting something gets, the more connections you can make, and discover some pretty amazing “what it’s” along the way. If you’re more of a visual learner or if you’ve never tried it, draw/doodle something you read about in each paragraph before moving on to the next.
Whatever you discover, don’t walk away from this fight. Life is always going to be a series of challenges and having a string of “I got thru this, I can find a way thru that” notches on your belt is a constant reminder that you really can do this, because you’ve done it lots of times in the past already. And you are a intelligent, wildly creative, free thinking daughter of the Scalzi clan. Throw in a couple of screams of defiance here and maybe a little ice cream for those pesky emotions, and go forth to battle. And don’t forget to ask your parents about some examples of problems they thought were insurmountable and how they solved them, too.
I suggest the one class you need to find is essentially a class on going to college.
Your current approach seemingly operates on the presumption that you should just know how to succeed at college (because assumedly everybody else must know, right?).
But absent building the tools and skills that are designed to succeed in college, seemingly all you’re really doing is changing the number of classes and trying again.
As others have noted, simply going back and trying again without modifying the underlying issues (whatever those may be) is, most likely, simply going to repeat the previous outcome.
And as you do that with progressively fewer classes, you will beat yourself up progressively more, surround the entire the entire process with progressively more anxiety and negativity which will only reinforce the probability of a similar negative outcome.
This is a solvable problem, others have had to deal with it. But there’s likely tremendous value in learning from what’s worked for others than simply trying to figure it all out on your own.
Even if I were going to try to “solve it all on my own”, I’d suggest that the best way to do that is to carefully pick a topic that you love whose workload is consistent with one at which you know you have a history of succeeding. Given your reasonably successful past at producing text on Whatever, taking a class on composition, English, journalism, etc, where all the deliverables are shorter written pieces. Given the seeming avoidance mechanism of tackling larger projects, ideally, perhaps not a class that draws on two major written projects across a semester, but one that is dependent upon shorter weekly or every other week deliverables.
This might help you to begin to redefine your college career in its successes instead of its perceived failures.
As you’ve identified patterns of behavior that result in negative outcomes, you might also consider looking into cognitive behavior therapy to see whether or not there are benefits from that approach that might allow you to more proactively identify negative patterns of behavior and proactively replace them with new patterns of behavior more likely to result in your desired outcome. You’re seemingly well into the first step of identifying patterns that aren’t working for you. Learning to consciously replace them and arrest the anxiety feedback cycle could be tremendously helpful with tackling college.
Good luck. You will find you way. And god knows there’s clearly no shortage of those of us who will suggest things. ;-)
You are one incredibly brave soul to share yourself so fully. Thank you.
“…a lot of teaching styles and a lot of teachers might really know their material, but know shit about how to teach. A lot of peoples learning styles don’t fit in the auditory/visual style that is taught in most schools along with the penchant for cramming a lot of extra online bullshit components into coursework. And where did they get it, you ask? Textbook manufacturers. Sells more books too, which the school also gets a cut from.”
Amen! The “sage on the stage” approach + the lazy employment of textbooks and learning management systems almost always = high rates of student burnout and/or anxiety. A lot of this comes down to harmful assumptions about what those who “belong” should know and be able to do.
One thing I picked up on as a student and that I notice in other instructors (myself included) is the tendancy to ignore struggling students in favor of the “smart” students’ who can read a dense chapter straight through without asking clarification questions, pausing to define buzz words or asking you to help decode thorny sentences. I’m sorry, but you haven’t taught a class if only the handful of “good” students are walking away having learned.
And don’t get me started on the asshole “teachers” who make it their mission to “weed out the slackers.” This is usually evidenced by mountains of busywork, the aforementioned rubric-less/convoluted assignment prompts and the decontextualized reading assignments that teachers don’t bother to walk through in class. the “I don’t go over the readings in class but expect students to understand them on their own” rationale for failing (these are the failures here, not the students) to help students unpack the material is what distinguishes someone as a bad, or at least inexperienced, educator. Just because you think the material is straightforward and should be accessible to those with “brains” doesn’t mean that this is so, and assuming you’ve done your job because you’ve given a lecture and assigned some chapters is the height of laziness.
Teaching is so, so much more than sitting, standing or stalking back and forth in front of a somewhat captive audience, telling them what to read and write then leaving them to fend for themselves on Canvas or with the book. You have to employ scaffolding and other check-ins to make sure that students are actually learning.
Scaffolds function to A, help students who may be anxious about a major assignment accomplish low stakes preparatory tasks and B, ensure that students get feedback on each step before tackling the high stakes assignment worth 20 percent of their grade.
Of course, this means more time in grading jail and more intensive prep between semesters, something some people don’t want to deal with, particularly if their primary purpose is to research and publish.
And of course, you have your egotistical jerks who take clarification questions personally because they imply that they aren’t as clear or brilliant as they think they are at delivering material or giving instructions. How dare a student ask them to explain their grading criteria or run through the requirements one more time!
Some instructors never learn to take the student-first approach to teaching. it is very, very uncomfortable at the beginning because it essentially involves taking a sledgehammer to your pedagogical rationale and course design and thinking beyond what works for the kind of students you’ve defined as ideal.
The experiences you described, Athena, sound a lot like what other students report when they’re making their way through courses that are instructor focused or that are designed to weed people out.
To echo what others have and continue to explain, noping out doesn’t make you any kind of a failure. It may very well have been the case that your instructors may not have been fit for the classroom.
Best of luck with whatever you decide going forward.
I wish I had some advice for you. All I can tell you is I have my daily battles with self-esteem and anxiety, and look back at my life with some regret. I know from your writing that you’re very bright, and your struggles do not lower my opinion of you.
My brother told me when he went to school in the ’80s in California, the average age of an undergrad was 25 years old. Going from HS directly to college was not the path for everyone. Putting yourself through this is doing you no good whatsoever. You are putting expectations on yourself you are unable to meet right now, and making yourself miserable. Step away for a while. If and when it is time to finish this, you will be prepared to do so. Good luck!!!
Athena: you might look into CLEP – College-Level Examination Program.
If I understand it correctly, you can get study guides for a wide variety of college subjects, self-study at your own pace, in whatever way works best for you, and then you test to demonstrate your mastery of the subject, which gives you college credits which can then transfer to traditional schools to count toward a degree.
I see the advantages as 1) less costly, 2) flexible in terms of schedule and methods, and 3) no downside, really.
And as many others have said, it’s possible that college isn’t what you need right now. Best wishes, whatever you decide.
I’m so sorry you’re struggling with ye olde college rigmarole! And ooph, I can empathize.
I had (what sounds like) a similar experience growing up – very bright, maxed out the standardized tests, top of the class in class.
And I had a deep, abiding loathing for homework. I forced myself when I found the will, but I often didn’t have it in me. I can still (at 36) viscerally feel the embarrassment and guilt of being put on the spot in front of the class for not doing an assignment. For a long time, I believed what I was told – that I was lazy, undisciplined, wasting my potential.
I always managed to scrape by (albeit with lackluster grades). Part of this is due to testing well, but a major contributor was finding teachers that were understanding enough to let me modify my course requirements. To this day, I’m grateful to my high school physics teacher – he saw me acing the tests and super engaged in class, but pulling a C- halfway through the semester. Instead of telling me some variant of “suck it up”, he offered to waive all my homework requirements for the rest of the year, in exchange for an independent research project. I accepted in a heartbeat, and thrived. It was incredibly liberating to be more in charge of my education.
When college came around, I floundered. Through a mix of AP classes and summers at the community college, I started as a mid-year junior. But I took four full years to graduate. (Oh god – when you listed the exact last date to withdraw from your classes. I remember that feeling well, and found myself in the registrar’s office SO many times.)
Anyhow! Sorry for maundering. Just wanted to say that you’re not alone in your current predicament.
Practically speaking, what I found super helpful was going to office hours for my professors. It gave basically gave me extended class time. I could start a discussion and then steer the conversation to the topics I was most interested in (or struggling with). And I suspect it helped humanize me for the person grading my work. 😅
I’ll close by echoing what others have said: having a rough time of college doesn’t make you a failure. At worst, it says that you’re not great (yet!) at a very specific, narrow bit of life. Hugs, and good luck next semester!
Hugs Athena. Don’t beat your self up too much. I just wrote a long response and then accidently deleted the whole thing so maybe it wasn’t what I was supposed to say. All those courses would overwhelm me as well.
I have a son who is about your age and is a round peg who won’t fit into a square hole. Believe me, we tried. I read all the books about learning styles and ended up learning more about myself than him. Upside Down Brilliance about visual spatial learners is an eye opener. Also include books on auditory learning styles. If you haven’t already, figure out your learning style. You may be off with one on one versus a lecture course. You may learn better in a quiet environment versus a room full of other students. Online classes may be the route to go.
We homeschooled our special needs kid from k to 12 because he was the round peg who didn’t fit into the box. He graduated from high school and we’re doing a soft start with online courses through the local junior college. Two or three at a time would overwhelm and we’re in no hurry. Once we discovered his learning style, auditory, we ended up reading a lot of textbooks and living books together and discussing them.
We found online courses taught by amazing professors on Great Courses Plus which exposed him and us to statistics and physics and a slew of other courses we enjoyed. There are many many free online college courses through coursera, MIT, Stanford. Whatever you want to learn, it’s out there.
I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree until my late 40’s so there’s plenty of time.
Maybe you need a soft start with one class or maybe now just isn’t the time. If your house is like mine, its full of books – both fiction and nonfiction. Branch out and read genres you normally wouldn’t, read the classics, read historical fiction, biographies. Create a DYI educational program from yourself. Find your comfort zone. The world is your oyster, babe. Write it your way. Hugs and love.
I like all the comments, with little to add.
As for Ron’s, two above, at my campus around the year 2000 the average undergraduate age was 26, the same as servicemen in WWII.
For an easier university, the private one that disinvited Hirsi Ali, Brandeis in Boston, is probably closer to a daycare than a university (as someone on CBC radio put it) but the students might not be bright enough for you.
For being around brighter people, you might get a full time job, off campus, while hanging out for years at the local university, doing vicarious learning, including from visiting one-lecture experts, and grad student presentations, until you are ready… If you worked nights you could simply learn where every out-of-the-way couch on campus is.
That sucks. I’ve been a high school teacher for years, and I have lost track of how many students have struggled with the transition to university. If you aren’t learning in my class, I try different methods to get it across, work with you one on one, find more resources, etc. I currently teach about 65 students, and some professors have that many students in one class. Many are experts in their subject, not in teaching. (I’m not trying to disrespect university teachers, who are often fantastic. It is a different job).
I tell students to see what support a school offers. There might be a writing center or others who can help with assignments. Or, as some have said, see if you can get a tutor. They can help with the subject and help you learn how to go about being a student.
I considered quitting because I hated business classes then switched to subjects I like more. I have a lot of friends who never went to university or dropped out and found something they want to do with their life. If you hate what you’re doing consider what you might want to do.
Best of luck
Rather than address issues of success or failure, I want to repeat a point made by the then-president of Hampshire College when I drove my older daughter there for accepted-students day in 2014 (she ended up elsewhere; too much cigarette smoke):
The majority of today’s students will find careers in fields and disciplines that don’t even exist yet.
You haven’t asked for advice, so I won’t offer any. I simply wish you well, in whatever you choose to do.
Echoing what at least one other has written, this post is a beautifully written one. Thank you.
I know from people I care about that your struggles are not unique. Only hindsight is 20/20, so I certainly can’t advise you whether to persevere or change tack.
I think it’s ultimately a neural path-making thing. If you manage to take all the steps you need to complete and pass a course, then do it again, and again, habits will become engrained and staying in sync with the syllabus will become easier.
But creating those initial paths is not easy. I think the advice someone gave of regular meetings with a tutor could help. Comedians become action stars with the help of personal trainers, they don’t just start doing a Navy Seal workout all on their own. (And Navy Seals have drill sergeants.)
I work with Boy Scouts (ages 11 – 18), and as they finish up high school and head off to college, or wherever, I give them all one piece of advice: Find something you enjoy doing, and work to make a career of that if you truly enjoy it. That may not mean going to college – it doesn’t for some. It may mean a trade school, or a farm in Iowa, or the mountains in Montana,… In your case, maybe try to find an internship somewhere that helps you towards the writing career you have mentioned, or in a field you are interested in. Sometimes college can get in the way of what you plan to do, what you would like to do.
I admire that you are not giving up. So my only other advice is to remember that more important than passing classes is figuring out what you love to do. Good luck!
@ C. Steve Allen. “So, I have this problem that might or might not be similar to yours. I love to draw and have fun sketching caricatures of people. And I love to write and will bang out stories and novels just because they delight me. People have suggested I should have a career doing these fun things and getting paid for it. . .
And the wheels come off. Suddenly I can’t be motivated to do them, either for money or because I now feel I “have to.” I can’t explain it”
This is my son too. Writes and draws all day long, wonderful with imitating voices. Anything he loves doing, doesn’t want to turn it into a paying job. Would rather work as a janitor at our shop rather than make money doing the things he loves because it will spoil his creativity. You aren’t alone.
Athena, I loved my geology course and it opened my eyes to the wonders of the world. Anthropology sounds fun as well. Whatever you choose, try to enjoy yourself.
I recognise the feeling you’re talking about and you’re right – it’s horrible. That feeling that “I should be able to do this! It’s easy! So why can’t I?! I must be stupid and worthless. Why am I even here?”
I have that even about things I can inconsistently do, too. Some weeks I can make myself drinks and food, fill up the dishwasher, shower without it taking me an hour and a half to navigate through it. And then some weeks I can only eat beans on toast, I couldn’t get food/drink for myself if my life depended on it and I thank my lucky stars I’m living with my partner.
My partner’s brother has the exact same struggles as you. He’s super bright and, in his case, he truly loves entomology. But he just cannot focus on written assignments. Even now, when he’s applying for jobs, it’s been over a year and he’s still struggling.
Now the backdrop to both of these is that myself and my partner both have diagnosed autism (and I have probable ADHD) and his brother has ADHD. These absolutely make us who we are and we wouldn’t change it for the world, BUT there are still challenges.
Before we were diagnosed, we would think “but I’m playing on the same terms as everyone else – it must be a personal fault that I can’t do it!”. Truth is, you aren’t playing on the same terms and it genuinely isn’t your fault. You are actually trying. You’re signed up to the classes. You’ve gone back to college repeatedly. You care about doing the work enough that you get severe anxiety and distress about it. The issue is not whether you’re commited. The issue is you aren’t playing on the same terms. It is incredibly important not to judge yourself for that and to focus on finding practical solutions.
For my partner’s brother, he was given medication to help focus and it has absolutely, totally, changed. His. World. Now he sits down to do things and can actually focus and do them! Because the motivation was there all along. But his brain couldn’t cooperate – it needed a little help.
For me, I have a range of strategies I use, #1 being to listen to my body when it says I don’t have the energy budget for making my adult self food today. But also working out practical strategies with my partner, including for example him going through the task with me to help me focus and get me engaged. It truly helps.
It’s not my place to say you do or don’t have a neurodiversity, but I would implore you to consider getting tested for it. It will truly change your life if you do and you get the support you need to achieve your dreams. I can’t emphasise how much it has changed our lives to finally have that bit of paper, that legitimacy and that advice.
Coming in relatively late (I followed a trail of breadcrumbs from Twitter), I read through the comments and initially didn’t think I had anything to add…
…and then realized that there actually is an observation that I don’t think anyone else has made, and which may be relevant to your case – if in a sideways, tangential sort of way.
And that’s this: based on the descriptions of people’s experiences, more and more people (and more larger and/or more commercially minded colleges, although many of them may not want to admit it) are re-defining the “college experience” as a one-to-one equivalent for the experience of working a full-time job, in which you only interact with the college as a student, and there are relatively few if any extracurricular opportunities for students and faculty to interact with one another outside the classroom.
This is not, however, the only model by which a college may function, and it’s not necessarily the best model for all students – perhaps especially for those who may be neurodivergent or who otherwise occupy demographics on the outer reaches of one or another social continuum. What I’m here to point out are the unique virtues of the residential college – and particularly the residential liberal arts college – because it’s in my mind that residential colleges may be, on average, much better equipped to help students through the difficult parts of their college life than “classroom-only” or mostly classroom-only schools.
The thing is, a residential campus – particularly at the sort of Small Liberal Arts College in the New England Tradition™ where I went – is one that views its student body not only as individuals and students, but as members of a community, and which therefore provides the components of a community – food, shelter, at least a minimum degree of medical care, and most importantly a set of non-academic social structures in which community members may interact – student government, student-run media, concerts, film series, musical and theatrical performances, Greek organizations (or their equivalents, et cetera. It’s expected and understood that you will spend a significant part of your time on a residential campus outside the classroom – in study groups, yes, but also playing D&D, shooting pool in the student center, throwing Frisbees™ on the main campus quadrangle, talking till 3 AM about anime and/or Pokemon and/or Scalzi novels, piling into a minivan for the hour’s trip to a movie theater in the nearest larger town to see a premier of an MCU movie, et cetera again.
This has a couple of effects that you simply don’t get at a degree-mill campus (or a degree-mill online institution). It allows – heck, more or less forces – you to actually get to know people as individuals, not just classmates. Initially, this can be stressful – my first-semester freshman roommate and I were spectacularly mismatched – but over time, it allows for even the shyest person to find not just friends, but really good friends, and exposes a lot of people to a wider view of the world through their fellow students’ eyes than they’ve had up to that point.
At smaller residential colleges, the social community often also includes faculty – in my day at least, more than one professor at my institution was known for having groups of students over for barbeques, a professor or two sometimes got a show on the student-run radio station, and others might lead or join groups on weekend hikes or ski trips.
And the result tends to be that it becomes much, much easier to approach fellow students and/or professors about classwork, precisely because you don’t just know them as classmates or lecturers – you know them because you’ve slain dragons together, sold them hot chocolate from behind the barista counter at the campus coffee bar, or shared a telescope at the campus observatory to check out what Saturn was up to that week. I remember typing a paper for a friend that we delivered to the professor’s house on our way out of town before an academic break, for which the submission date was rendered as “Somewhere In Time” because it was just that late – but that was OK, because the professor knew how my friend worked.
The residential experience was immensely valuable to me, even if it didn’t break me entirely out of my shell (and even though the degree has only been specifically valuable in one and a half out of my four working lives to date), precisely because it did immerse me in a micro-version of a (mostly) well-rounded life. One reason, of course, that it’s much less common than it once was is economic – a residential campus is particularly expensive to run – but I think it’s an important thing to keep alive, because when the residential model works properly, its graduates tend to go on to practice real-world community-building in their later lives – and that works against the kind of divisiveness we see in today’s political landscape.
Whether a residential-campus option is either practical or viable in the Athena-specific case is, at the end of the day, an Athena decision. But I think it’s an option worth at least some thought, and one that the academic world needs to keep alive. “Full time college student” need not and should not be construed to mean that said student ought not have a well-rounded life outside the classroom, and were I to someday hit the Powerball, one thing I’d consider seriously is moving next door to a good residential campus and soaking up the sheer enthusiasm for life and learning that it generates.
Man, this hits a chord with me.
I dropped out of my first dregree for almost exactly what you’re describing. I couldn’t force myself to do the work, even when I knew how to do it and that it would be easy(ish) once I started.
I stumbled across a really useful analogy a little while back – that for folks with ADHD and similar things, starting a task can be like trying to put your hand on a hot grill. Your body won’t let you, no matter what the brain says, until or unless there’s something even scarier out there to make the scorching-hot grill the least-worst option… (ie, large gentleman saying ‘do it or I break your kneecaps’, or in more practical terms, ‘this essay is due in three hours and you haven’t started it yet’)
As someone who’s spent the majority of his life trying to get a good hold on the grillplate of academic and corporate success, I feel your pain. And I second, third, and fifty-seventh the good advice from folks in this thread – and if this analogy feels as right for you as it did for me, I’d really recommend looking at ADHD as a potential cause.
I am college faculty, and without having had you in class, I can’t really float any advice (besides which, there’s just about a textbook’s worth of advice above). I just wanted to tell you some things that I tell my students because I teach some moderately difficult classes, and some very difficult classes.
Struggling in a class does not mean that you lack intelligence or character. It just means that you’re struggling in a class.
2, EVERYBODY FAILS. I lost a scholarship when going from a community college to a 4 year university. I was placed on academic suspension – the “don’t come back for a semester” kind – after a very difficult time in my first year of grad school.
Your response to failure is very important. I see you not giving up, which is admirable. It took me some therapy to make sense of how I was short-circuiting myself (definitely not saying you are) and after that, I managed to complete the M.S. and also get a Ph.D. I took a lot longer with both degrees than I should have, but I never gave up on them because I really wanted them. I hope you won’t give up searching for that one thing that inspires you.
There’s nothing wrong with not going to college, as long as you can be happy and support yourself. One of my best friends in community college didn’t graduate, but got an electrician’s license instead and he’s made a hell of a lot more money than me doing something he enjoys.
I wish you happiness, and a road that you ultimately view as the best one you could have taken.
What does “getting a W” mean?
That you dropped something? Does it influence your averages and such?
Sorry, I don’t think we have that where I live, first time hearing about it.
A “W” or “withdrawal” is a notation that appears on a student’s transcripts when they drop a course.
Depending on the institution, multiple Ws can impact your GPA or, at the very least, put you in an unfavorable light with whoever happens to be reviewing your records.
I think that post-2020 Ws are going to be viewed quite differently because…pandemic, and it may even be the case that institutions are rethinking the way they deal with student drops. For example, at one of my institutions, students can withdraw from a course about three weeks before the end of the semester with a notation that doesn’t impact their GPA or appear on official transcripts. There are issues if they’re on financial aid but, overall, dropping a course won’t follow them from institution to institution, at least for now.
In the before times, though, you really did want to keep the Ws to a minimum, as they could imply some not-so-great things to someone reviewing transcripts as part of application materials. Ws look especially bad if they’re in classes directly related to your major. If you’re an English major, for example, a bunch of unsuccessful attempts at British lit aren’t going to look good, but I digress.
At the aforementioned institution (I graduated then went back to teach), the deadline for dropping without a notation of W was much earlier in the semester, and you had to pay back any financial aid funds you were awarded.
Honestly though, I noped out of several classes when I attended that school and managed to earn some degrees and get a job doing what I love.
Were I Athena, I wouldn’t worry all that much about Ws; they look a hell of a lot better than Ds and Fs.
More importantly, A and R (admissions and records) evaluators and prospective employers reviewing transcripts are usually looking for where, when or whether or not the degree you listed on your CV or resume was actually awarded; they usually don’t have time to scan individual grades from applicants’ freshman or junior years unless that information is relevant to the job or academic program to which you are applying.
@Laci, a W just means that you dropped a class past the point at which you could have dropped the class without a W. Most US colleges will allow you to drop fairly late in the semester, but if you do so beyond (something like) two or three weeks in, there will still be a record of the class on your transcript. It doesn’t influence your GPA, but I guess some people might look askance at a ton of Ws. (That said, one of the secrets of adult life is that no one actually cares about your grades.)
As a college freshman I took a W for Calculus II. I was not ready, but wouldn’t admit it to myself until October.
[Deleted for being a bit jerky — JS]
Just wanted to add my short note to say that I think of you every time I am reading Whatever, which hopefully sends some small dose of positive energy your direction. Your courage in being honest with your struggles blows me away, and gives me strength to face up to and (sometimes) communicate my own. Lots of good comments in the thread that I don’t need to add to. There are many paths through adulthood, career, etc., and academia is just one. And fortunately one that is available throughout our adult life for whenever it fits in best. (Now that I think on it, that actually might be something relatively unique to the US?)
We are all hoping for the best for you. And more enameled pins. And Japanese treats, lots of those.
University/college is meant to be hard, it’s the pinnacle of what some of us can reach for. If a degree was easy, it wouldn’t be raised up on a dais like it is.
I failed my 2nd year of engineering, i had a complete burnout and would just collapse on my books. That autumn i resat and failed maths and industrial electronics again. I had to re-take those exams the next summer. Maths was first, and i thought i did ok, but i had a complete blank in the industrial electronics and failed it for the 3rd time. I really went in that exam in a ‘i am a fish’ way (if you get the red dwarf reference). The 5th time i sat it in that autumn, i had noticed that one of the lecturers, who set half the paper would set the same questions in the re-take as the summer. So i knew exactly what half the paper was, and one question had been on the previous year’s paper. I still got that question wrong on the 4th attempt. However, i just scraped the exam overall, graduated age 24 (when my school friends did age 21) and am now a senior programme manager in a Government department i cannot name on a blog.
You’re an intelligent person who can achieve your goals and you’ve got time on your side, you just need to figure out a way how to achieve them.
Good luck, we’re rooting for you:-)
I wish you all the best for next semester! You can do it! Just don’t give up trying!
@nicoleandmaggie upthread has the best advice. It reads like you are trying to do it alone, and you don’t have to. Find friends and study partners. Visit your instructors in office hours, if only to say “Hi!” Your college has resources to help. Don’t be afraid to walk in the support services office and just read a pamphlet.
Ellen, the fact is that some people just don’t function well in a formal classroom environment. I’ve always been good with school because I’ve never minded doing menial busywork of the sort that characterizes student life (and, conveniently, also the sort of white-collar jobs these $150,000 degrees enable you to access). My brother, on the other hand, loves working outside, with his hands (to be honest I think he’s the more normal of the two of us). He dropped out of college after his first year – I think he passed a total of two courses out of eight – and got a job in construction. He loves it, and does perfectly well for himself. I would hate it, and probably get fired inside of a month.
Athena, it sounds like what you need is more accountability. You’re clearly intelligent enough to pass a bunch of basic gen ed college classes (if nothing else, your writing attests to that) but you aren’t doing the work. I think you would benefit from a system of checks for each assignment prior to the formal due date, with consequences if you aren’t on track.
I just dropped by to reiterate some things others said: It sounds like you are suffering from severe anxiety and possibly some ADD problems. (I know this because I have recently been having similar issues and this is what my doctor diagnosed.) Please consult a professional. And, after consulting said professional, take the diagnosis to the college and get appropriate accommadations.
Here’s hoping Ellen is not any kind of educator. Her ultra helpful jab at Athena indicates that she would not be good for students.
Took many things from that, including some encouragement in the face of my own recent failures to pick up on new subjects – but I want to leave all that aside, just to say wow, your writing style has improved immeasurably! You’re really killing it now. Don’t know how that fits into everything else in your future, but it can’t hurt!
Athena, I hope you believe that you’re not a failure, and that your worth as a human being isn’t measured by your academic performance.
It isn’t even measured by your skill at writing—and you’ve become a very skilled writer!
Others have pointed out your generosity in sharing your experience. It’s helpful to those who are going through similar things; it’s educational for those who haven’t experienced the same struggles.
Best of luck with the new semester. If you try any of the strategies others have suggested, I hope some of them help!