Notes on being Less Than “Fine” at the University of Illinois
Wiley Jones
494

Hey man, I wanted to let you know there are a lot of people trying to address this problem at the university on the local and national level. I’m a PhD student in engineering education and this is my 8th year on campus. As someone who’s actively working to try and improve undergraduate engineering, I will address some of your points. Many of which I agree, and many of which I disagree. TL;DR — if we want change, we need mutual respect and understanding.

Time management is very important and when you address the importance of taking care of yourself, I wholesomely agree. This concept is actually called “life management”. Time management is an interesting concept because in reality (without time machines), you can’t control time. The only you can do is reorder your priorities. A healthy list of priorities includes taking care of your Mental, Social, Emotional, Spiritual, and Physical health.

When you talk about “telling an adult to waste an afternoon” and the confused reaction they give, I was wonder if you also give the same confused reaction in your education right now (i.e. “I don’t know why he’s telling me to waste an afternoon, but okay” and “I’m lost in class and I don’t know wtf he’s lecturing about, but okay”). Though I agree that there are many issues with our education, I wanted to point out that the way you’re “teaching” us to take an afternoon off is very similar to the way you say you’re being taught in our lectures, aka hypocritical. Once again, I’m not saying your point is invalid, but your prescription to “take an afternoon off” is not any better than the flawed “you should listen to the lectures because it’ll be good for you”.

Moving along. I do have to say, if you haven’t been to Engineering CARE or spoken with the director of CARE, you don’t know what you’re talking about when you slander what it has to offer. CARE wasn’t around during my undergrad so I can’t attest to its effectiveness. However, I’ve spoken with the director recently and I know that she is someone who’s actively trying to help. She really cares for the student who reach out for help and she does her best to make the tutoring/peer advising experience worth your time. Engineering CARE also has to report its effectiveness to the College of Engineering through retention and other quantitative metrics. I may not have exact numbers, but in short, it continues to operate because it actually helps. It can’t solve all problems, but it’s one step forward rather than one step backwards.

Also, if you haven’t been to the Counseling Center and haven’t experienced any of their counseling, you really don’t know what you’re talking about when you “promise” that “asking the typical student about their feelings will accomplish nothing”. You do realize the whole profession of psychiatry revolves around talking about how a person thinks/feels, and that therapy has the potential to help? (Not saying that psychiatry is the answer to the world’s anxiety problems, but it is one step towards the solution rather than a step backwards.) I apologize that I sound like I’m attacking you, but I’m trying to attack the biased thought process, not you as a person.

And I do want to point out, how do you know that “talking about your feelings” doesn’t work? You are treading the lines of anecdotal fallacy — using a personal experience or an isolated example instead of sound reasoning or compelling evidence (Wikipedia). If I were to use the same anecdotal fallacy, I will say that there are many students that I’ve mentored in undergrad where I ask them to share their thoughts, feelings, concerns, etc, and they tell me “thank you for listening to my rants/it’s nice to know that someone cares/it’s nice to get that off my chest”. If you’ve never said such phrases, you’re choosing to isolate a negative experience when the positive, opposite experience actually occurs more frequently.

You talked about how being lost in class is NOT an isolated incident. I highly agree! I would also highly agree that proud students deny being less than fine all the time. The fear of inferiority is another form of pride that keeps a person from asking for help. It makes sense: high performing student in high school, rarely experienced difficulties or academic failure, etc etc.

But why does admitting defeat correlate to wasting time? The sooner you admit defeat, the sooner you can start to objectively analyze what led to your defeat rather than using your ego as an excuse to say “this grade doesn’t define me” (grades don’t define a person, but in this case, it does: prideful loser won’t accept his poor performance). I’m not belittling the hours of sweat and tears poured in through effort. I’m saying: ask for help; it will save you a lot of unnecessary pain. You will still have to put in effort, but you need to be aware of what you’re stuck on and how to improve. Work smarter, not longer. Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb by using the same filament and working harder or longer. He used different filaments until he got it right. (It took time for him to find what worked, which is the effortful aspect, but he didn’t try to make a poor filament choice to work)

I do agree that there are many bad experiences tied to asking for help, i.e. when a professor treats you like a dummy or a TA doesn’t want to help/care. But they aren’t the only people you can ask for help. Ask your classmates, ask upperclassmen who’ve taken the course, ask public FB groups, etc etc.

Many students I’ve talked with on academic probation or people who’ve gotten kicked out of engineering have told me that getting kicked out of school finally made them accept that they failed. But that experience was crucial to them turning their life around by realizing that they can’t continue to do what they’ve been doing since high school, they have to find a different way of doing things.

Admitting defeat can be mutually exclusive from wasting time. You just need to change your mindset. You can lose a battle (admit defeat) but you can learn from it (which is not wasting time) and still try to win the war (working smarter).

I can’t believe I’ve written so much… haha. But moving on! Feelings of inadequacy is based on what you’re comparing to. For instance, if I compare myself to an Olympic gold-medalist, I can feel inadequate on many levels. But if my personal goals are not aligned with being an Olympic gold-medalist, I wouldn’t compare myself. Our metrics of comparison is often what leads to suicide — negative feelings of self-worth (comparing self-worth to what?), unable to achieve happiness (comparing happiness to what?), etc etc. What we choose to value and how we comparatively measure it greatly defines inadequacy (which is why racism is more a problem more about personal ego, wanting to feel above another human being by comparing something frivolous as skin color.) Insecurity stems from a lack of identity.

Anyways. I have to stop here. When you speak about the “location of the solution”, I do agree that a classroom is a great place and that instructors play a huge role in the solution. But if you don’t know what a professor’s life is like, then don’t judge them for their inadequacy in relational support (just like you don’t want to be judged for your inadequacy in perceived intelligence). I agree that the classroom experience in college often sucks. There is a huge push for more active learning in the classroom ranging from pre-K to high education.

If we want change, we need mutual respect and understanding.