A Culture of Normed Behavior

by Zak Meghrouni-Brown | 10/23/14 7:24pm

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The warm hues of the falling leaves and the tolling bells of gleaming Baker tower make me feel like I’m in a blessed enclave of academic inquisitiveness. I’ve just arrived at Dartmouth, and already find myself settling in to a cozy chair in Sanborn, content. But all is not well. The academic culture here is not as relaxed as it appears — stress and anxiety roil beneath the surface. Even during my first few weeks of college courses, it seems as if studying is a series of sprints, a mad dash to make a deadline and call it good enough.

I’ve found that students often claim to not have studied nearly enough for tests or to have written papers at the very last minute. Perhaps you are aware of this phenomenon — or perhaps you even partake in it. Sometimes it can look like a race to the bottom — a bizarre comparison of who studied least or performed the worst on an exam.

But can it really be true that so many people get lucky every time they submit a paper, typed frantically in coffee-fueled twitches during the dead of night? Or is it more likely that students are misrepresenting their work habits to their peers? Allie Fudge ’18, a fresh-faced college newbie, believes that this last-minute, “not-enough” culture we see on a daily basis may actually be genuine.

“People procrastinate, and they’re busy — there’s a lot to do on campus,” she said.

And she’s not wrong — people here really do spread themselves thin. Every reveler on a Saturday, every pursed-face laptop poker in Berry at 2 a.m., is so much more than just a partier or a nerd. Indeed, one can only put so much time into what he or she chooses to do. Dan Calano ’15 is faced with this conundrum regularly — he is a member of a fraternity, a student band and an a cappella group in addition to taking some of the most intensive classes of his Dartmouth career. Even though he has been deliberately putting in extra effort this term, he still curses the finite property of hours and minutes.

“You can only ever prepare so much, and you only have so much time,” he said.

Despite the consensus that there is never enough time in the day to do it all, Calano admits that people tend to be more prepared than they let on, saying “it’s pretty common for people to downplay how much they’ve studied.”

Even so, students are already less than ideally prepared for most assessments. Having stayed up late studying, they still feel unprepared when it comes time to take an exam. Nicky Golini ’17 described the nervous chatter before his last assessment: “Lots of people were saying ‘I’m definitely not prepared,’ even when many had probably studied 10 hours.”

What is that invisible social force that makes students want to portray an image of someone with poor time management, shoddy forethought or, at the very least, an inadequate sleep schedule? At this shining hub of academic toil it seems that we should be willing to share with our peers the extent of our labors, because, after all, everyone is in reality working hard.

Likely, students aren’t willing to let on just how much work they do because, not despite of, the hardworking, rigorous nature of this institution. Classics professor Roger Ulrich ’77 posited a very simple reason one might not admit to hard work and preparedness.

“It’s boastful,” he said. “[If you boast] and end up falling flat on your face you look like an idiot. No one wants that.”

He believes this culture of concealment to be “a reflection of a highly academic student body,” and perhaps he is correct. This seemingly illogical culture that suggests the stigmatization of studiousness actually shows the opposite. Students put up a façade of indifference to hide the fact that they are indeed quite academically motivated, concealing the insecurities that lie below the smile of every Dartmouth student.

Calano placed this fear of academic underperformance in the context of a greater list of insecurities he knows wrack his peers.

“Insecurity is so prevalent among college-aged students — no one thinks they’re smart enough, have enough friends or are attractive enough,” he says.

By parading their lack of preparedness in front of their classmates, students create a new norm in which it is more acceptable to drop the ball every once in a while. On the other hand, this culture creates a poisonous and backwards ideal for which to strive. If one takes the conversation around studying and preparedness seriously, he or she will only be daunted by an impossible norm.

“We admire this mythic creature who seems not to have to study very hard and yet does very well,” Ulrich said.

This creature must be one of sheer natural talent. No student is blessed with enough luck or talent to always succeed without trying. The tragedy of the myth’s ubiquity in the minds of Dartmouth students is that people can’t admit when they are stressed out. There is very little conversation about emotional well-being on an everyday basis. Indeed, the levels of stress and the struggle and drive to succeed among college students is at an all-time high, according to a 2010 survey published by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

“You fool yourself or others into thinking that you’re happy or less stressed,” Fudge said, acknowledging the lies about stress students feed themselves on a daily basis. “It’s not encouraging people to [open up and] own their academic side.”

Likewise, Golini said he exaggerates his unpreparedness for little reason at all — just to ease social tension that a heavy workload can create.

“Maybe you don’t want to show off how much time you’re putting in,” he said. “When you’re talking about a test it’s easier in conversation to say, ‘I’m not going to do very well.’”

Undergraduate dean Deborah Tyson identified the social aspect of this cultural quiddity as the primary reason for students’ disingenuous behavior, saying that she would consider normed behavior without honest discussion to be detrimental.

“Students want to stay ‘within the pack’ regarding effort versus results,” she said. “No culture or relationship that is built on dishonesty is benign.”

At the end of the day, changing a stressful culture of isolation is as simple as refusing to be isolated. As picturesque as the campus may be, as impossibly perfect as its people may seem, everyone here is daunted by the same challenges and insecurities. Perhaps it’s better to face them together, with sympathy and honest conversation.

Fudge is a copy editor for The Dartmouth.