Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Importance of Grace in Education

Francis Edward Su, a Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, has made public the text of a stirring talk he recently gave upon accepting (a clearly well-deserved!) teaching award, in which he expounds on the "Lesson of Grace in Teaching".

He summarizes the "lesson of grace" in two statements: "1. Your accomplishments are NOT what make you a worthy human being. 2.  You learn this lesson by receiving GRACE: good things you didn't earn or deserve, but you're getting them anyway. "

His definition and exposition of "grace" crystallizes beautifully what I have felt and experienced myself but could not articulate so well. I will never forget the mentors in graduate school who offered me warm, unconditional, support and advice. I am grateful to have the chance to pay it forward in my own interactions with students, and do my best to treat them as worthy individuals deserving of encouragement, advice, help, or as they most often need, a friendly, non-judgmental, ear.

We live in an achievement-oriented society, particularly in academia, with its pervasive emphasis on competition, external evaluation, recognition. Much harm is done by this system, not only to those students who do poorly, but counter-intuitively, even to those who do well, because it reinforces a fundamentally flawed connection between self-worth and achievement.

I wrote about something related a while ago in the context of the "impostor syndrome" (the name given to the feelings of inferiority that many students suffer from while doing the Ph.D.).

I wrote in that post that "having given the matter much thought over the years, I feel that what exacerbates the impostor syndrome, or perhaps even gives rise to it in the first place, is adopting the world view that ties one's sense of self-worth to one's achievements and treats achievement as the goal of one's efforts." I argued that it is important for students to cultivate a mindset that places a greater emphasis on learning and discovery as ends in themselves rather than as a means to success through achievement.

Francis's talk calls upon educators to think differently, and to treat the individuals they encounter with grace, regardless of their academic performance as measured by tests and exams. It is a call that, if heeded, would have a tremendously positive impact on the lives of many.


Chih-ping said...

At the MIT diversity summit 2013 ( a couple days ago, Valerie Young gave a wonderful keynote address about impostor syndrome. Two things I found interesting:

1. Top universities no longer adopt the mindset of "look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won't be here by the end of the year." Instead, they let students understand the notion of impostor syndrome on the first day of class, and help them get through it.

2. According to statistics, the percentage of female professionals having impostor syndrome is slightly higher than that of male professionals; but the difference is not much. In one category male professionals are more likely to have impostor syndrome: Male professors.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Very interesting. Following up on your comment brought to my attention that Dr. Valerie Young has written a book titled The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women . She writes that "While the impostor syndrome is not unique to women, they are more likely to agonize over tiny mistakes and blame themselves for failure, see even constructive criticism as evidence of their shortcomings; and chalk up their accomplishments to luck rather than skill... It can make her more risk-averse and less self-promoting than her male peers, which can hurt her future success."

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