Take what you’re bad at

When choosing your courses, be bold.


Recently, I came across the following advice and wanted to share it with the three of you who read this blog:

All through my undergraduate days, I worried that my limited mathematical talents might keep me from being more than a naturalist. In deciding to go for the gene, whose essence was surely in its molecular properties, there seemed no choice but to tackle my weakness head-on […] And so my Bs in two genuinely tough math courses were worth far more in confidence capital than any A I would likely have received in a biology course, no matter how demanding.

This advice comes from James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA.

It is good advice for today’s students who have, I have often noticed, a distressing essentialism when it comes to their abilities. Students often come to university convinced that they “can’t do math” or that they are “no good at writing essays” and that no amount of diligent study or sound instruction could ever remedy that deficiency.

One culprit, ironically enough in this context, may be a wide-spread misunderstanding of genetics itself, whereby people have come to see their genes as determiners of fate rather than generators of proteins. Another may be the current fashion for teaching based on “learning styles” that often imply that students can only learn in certain ways and should not be encouraged to learn in ways that are not easy for them.

But I agree with Watson. Students should extend themselves into those areas which they find intimidating, especially when they would otherwise miss out on what they want to study. If astronomy fascinates you, take the course and figure out how to do the math you need to do (or take the math, first). If medieval literature is your thing, get into that course and work your butt off learning how to write research papers. Others have done it, and so can you.

As Watson acknowledges, you may not be the best in your class, but what you learn will make up for it. And while there may be a few cases of genuine impairment, I contend that for the vast majority of qualified university students, there is very little that you really can’t do.

[An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified the author of the quoted passage as Francis Crick. The present author regrets any confusion.]


Take what you’re bad at

  1. You know, one of the great problems of university admissions based on GPA is that they discourage exactly this type of broadening of one’s horizons. I took a handful of courses I desperately wanted to take, even though I knew they’d be extremely hard. I now fear that the hit to my GPA may compromise my ability to get into the professional school I’ve applied to.

    It would be really great if those professional schools that demand “A” averages had policies permitting some flexibility for students who have clearly stepped outside their areas of expertise or talent.

    After all, universities are supposed to be places of higher learning, and on some level, a straight A average can be a sign that a student just isn’t learning that much.

  2. I agree with the above post. For students whose GPA matters, it isn’t worth taking courses which would, in all probability, drag down your GPA. Perhaps there should be some type of rule to drop coure marks from your GPA in some elective courses to encourage taking difficult programs. I would love to take some science and math courses, but because I am so right-brained I know I would struggle where I would excel in arts courses. I wish I could take some challenging courses.

  3. @Student

    Does your university offer a pass/fail option? I’m not sure if this is possible in Canadian schools, but I know the university I went to in the US for my undergrad, there was that option….Get a C or higher and you get a pass–no effect good or bad on one’s GPA. You could only do that a limited number of times, but with that I was able to take courses in fields outside my own that I was interested in, though in subjects that weren’t my strongest.

    • I find GK’s idea about a limited number of pass/fail courses fascinating. I’ve never heard of this at a Canadian university (though occasionally there are courses or requirements that are pass/fail.

      I’m thinking of suggesting such an option for my home university, though I can anticipate an objection: students might take the pass/fail option not as a way of expanding their horizons, but of slacking off in a course, just getting by, and not having it affect their average.

  4. I agree that universities discourage this kind of intellectual and academic exploration. During my studies I routinely commented that I was “trapped by my G.P.A.”. I relied largely on scholarships and working (approx) 35 hours per week to complete my degree debt-free. In order to keep my scholarships, I had to retain a high G.P.A. This means that classes I might have learnt something new at were passed over in favour of classes I knew I could do well in. I enjoyed my classes, but would have enjoyed the challenge and the opportunity to broaden my horizons. I just couldn’t afford that C.

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