On Campus

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.]

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