Who Told You It Would Be Easy?

Everyone, that's who.

I've been reading a lot lately about America's "Culture of Praise," and while it's not a new term, it is one that's finally enjoying parlance beyond academics. I first became familiar with the term via Zaslow's "The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work" (which you can read here), but I had witnessed many manifestations in my classrooms and even in colleagues. I routinely distributed this article beside the NYT's "It's All About Me" piece and had students analyze both for audience, purpose, and appeals. I found that they couldn't get past resenting the message to really frame the argument. Most times, their feelings were hurt or they felt particularly persecuted, both of which the articles say is a typical response from a member of the Praise Generation. (Edit: Here's an additional article from The Atlanta on "The Indulgent Age." Very apt.)

Every time I start a new semester--no matter the level of course I'm teaching--I have to have the "Who Told You It Would Be Easy?" talk. Alternately titled the "You are Not Really a Unique Snowflake" talk and the "College is the Last Place Anyone is Fully Invested in Your Success" talk, these few class days usually center around professionalism and language (the typical "how to send an email" thing, but also rhetorical listening, nonverbals, all that). I can see the students cycle from anxiety to frustration to disbelief to anger to boredom. I can't say I blame them. What they're coding as harshness or condescension on my part, I'm coding as empowerment. I figure knowing the map is half of the battle, right? But most of them don't want to know, and when they do know, they figure that they're certainly not one of the poor kids laden with false praise. All of their praise was rightly earned. This is an awkward talk to have.

I fall prey to the same Magical Thinking, though. Sometimes when I struggle, I am too quick to place responsibility outside myself. Because it could never be the way I approached this specific task or that particular project that was the problem. It couldn't be my planning (or lack), my time management (or lack), my irritability (no lack). I should pause to say that I'm actually a pretty great time manager, and I'm not really irritable, which makes these events seem very bad when they do occur.

Today, I struggled for a few hours writing a proposal. No big deal, just 500 words, but I've been working on it for a solid week, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better (longer, but not better). I had a moment of, "Geez, why is this SO HARD FOR ME? Stupid proposal." See? I'm not so different from my students.

Turns out, I wasn't done thinking about my idea. I hadn't fully considered all the frameworks I claimed to invoke. Twenty minutes of research and sketching, and I was able to move past the irritation and blame-laying to produce a few hard-fought paragraphs. What I had coded as a lack of viability on my proposal's part turned out to be a lack of preparation on my part. I am working on getting better at troubleshooting my affective responses to stress. It's a process.

I'm so sick of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" signs. I want someone to start producing the "Who Told You It Would Be Easy?" sign. My office walls are pretty bare, and I seem to need the reminder.


zemmely said...

I've faced similar hostility when I teach Lauren Slater's "The Trouble with Self Esteem" and Lakshmi Chaudry's "Mirror, Mirror on the Web."
It's interesting to see the non-traditional students (at Pellissippi, especially in the evening classes, I'll have a good few of them) argue with the younger ones who are used to constant praise. Thanks for posting on this.

Casie Fedukovich said...

I am very jealous of your generational diversity! I am often tasked to speak for anyone who's not 18-20 and cast as the "old person" who "doesn't really know what's going on." I am comforted, though, in knowing that I'm not the only one talking about the trend. Makes me feel less isolated. Thanks for replying! (I'm I'm stealing those two articles. I've never read them!)

zemmely said...

I teach those two essays fairly late in the semester, and I can usually make a pretty good example even of the younger students. I tell them that their belief in their own infallibility is what makes them read my comments on their essays less carefully, and thus continue to fail papers. Let me know if you ever teach those articles; glad to be of help.

Casie Fedukovich said...

This article was posted on a friend's FB today: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/2/