One of my classes this semester, Grand Strategy, has, as its main assessment, a long-term group project. It involves turning in two papers, delivered about a month apart, providing a policy analysis of a given topic; the group needs to also present the content of their briefs to their classmates and faculty twice. The presentations take the whole two-hour seminar, partially because there’s a lot of material to cover, but mainly because from the very first sentences that come out of the presenter’s mouths, the professors are at their throats.
I don’t mean that in a bad way, necessarily — often the questions they ask are cutting and precise. The professors are skillful at sensing when a student is making an unsupported claim, and they’re swift to sniff it out and make it painfully clear. That is certainly a good learning experience: a trial by fire, of sorts, in thinking on your feet and making sure you have facts at your disposal to substantiate an argument. But a lot of the questions the professors ask often feel silly and trivial; they’re “gotcha” questions asked for the sake of seeing us squirm, and the professors bask in the power they have to catch us off guard.
As a presenter, and as a student, that obviously infuriates me. The prospect of my impending second presentation, coming up on Monday, fills me with dread and preemptive annoyance at the off-topic questions I know my group and I will be peppered with. But the inevitability of getting not only critiqued by our professors, but also publicly embarrassed in front of the other members of the class, has also had a fascinating effect on me and a number of my peers.
On a day-to-day basis, it seems safe to say that students here enjoy a general feeling of preparedness and intellectual confidence. Many of the best students I know at Yale are not only intelligent, but also adept at catering their comments, papers or test answers to the professor assessing them. High-achieving Yale students are not simply smart — they’re experts in learning how to please professors and do well in classes because of it.
Going into my first presentation, I had a deep-seated knowledge that there was a near-100 percent failure rate, if I was judging failure as anything short of my usual level of complacent preparedness. I knew they were going to ask me questions purposely to prove I didn’t know the answer. I knew that if I gave an argument skewed to appeal to the more liberal of the professors, the conservatives would lash out, and if I tried to pander to the conservatives, the liberals would eviscerate me. If my team tried a conceptual framework, we’d be critiqued for ignoring specifics, and if we delineated concrete issues, we’d be docked points for losing sight of the bigger picture.
With this project, there’s almost no winning. And I don’t love that. But if I force myself to take a step back from my academic insecurities, the most interesting part is experiencing the psychological effects that has had on me and others in the class. It almost feels like we’ve all been treated to an enormous social experiment: Take a number of students accustomed to being patted on the back and told that they’re clever and deny them the chance of guaranteed success.
The resulting effects on my thought process were not pretty: In the absence of that normal, smug feeling of assurance that I knew exactly what my professors wanted from me, I was left almost incapable of coming to any kind of conclusions on my own. I would come up with an idea, toy with it, and then immediately begin fretting about the negative backlash it would get. I’d flit to another possible topic in the hopes that it would appease my imaginary evaluators, only to come up short again. The knowledge that no matter what I did or said, my team would be berated, served as an enormous mental block.
This reaction both surprised and distressed me. It made me wonder: Am I am learning how to think for myself in bold and unconventional ways, or has my pursuit of academic success been predicated upon me learning how to successfully pander to the various professors who have come my way? I don’t really have an answer to that question, nor do I know whether one is strictly better than the other — for once, I’m not here preaching to you. But I do think it’s a worthwhile exercise to step back, look at the work you’re doing in classes and ask yourself whether you’re writing and thinking the things you are because you believe them, or because you know they’ll get you the grade you want.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a senior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.