Saturday, March 7, 2009

Degree of Difficulty

Degree of Difficulty

For a while, last week, I had four part-time jobs to go with my part time class load (six credit hours) in graduate school. That’s a bit misleading, because one of the jobs is self-employment as a potter/sculptor/furniture maker, which is ongoing, and chronic, and usually only as demanding as I make it. Still, I do have a new chair drying and some pots to take up to the Omaha salt kiln next week, so that job hasn’t been entirely dormant. The fourth part-time job, as an instructor at the local Arts Center, had been dormant (too many other teachers) and now it’s gone, so I’m back down to three.

I mention this because I’ve been thinking about how some of us make going to college more difficult than it has to be. And even without ‘pilot error,’ and poor choices, each of us has factors which can make it harder for us to go to school, or finish our degrees. I’m going to lump all these issues together under the title, “Degree of Difficulty,” and see what insights I can find.

I think we can agree that the GPA, Grade Point Average, is an incomplete measure of academic success. It does nothing to reflect the specific qualities of each class the student attended or the demands placed upon them by their professors overall. Usually, people will also ask about your Major and your institution. A high GPA from a local community college, in something as unintellectual as, say, ART, will never be as impressive as the same GPA, in aerospace engineering, from MIT or Cal Tech. Furthermore, no one will ever know just how hard you actually had to work for your GPA, wherever you went to school.

On the other hand, I can think of a few factors that would likely make any degree more difficult to earn. For instance:
· Blindness or deafness
· Being unable to walk
· Going to school in a foreign country
· Going to school in a second language
· Working full time, or its equivalent, while going to school
· Having a baby while going to school
· Having kids while going to school
· Learning disorders, such as dyslexia or Attention Deficit Disorder
· Being hospitalized for an accident or illness
· Addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or other major distractions
· Chronic insomnia, anxiety attacks, or other mental health problems
· Poor choice of friends or social circle
· Over-enrollment (an unrealistic number of classes simultaneously)
· Crippling shyness (a self-defeating reluctance to seek help)
· Having a high maintenance or abusive romantic partner
· Spending too much time looking for romantic partners
· Clinical Depression
· Poor mental health, or abusiveness, of a particularly important professor

Any one of these issues might be expected to interfere with earning a perfect 4.0 GPA as an undergraduate or graduate student. How much influence each has, particularly by itself, is hard to quantify. Maybe it’s just .2 over the total term of your course of study, but once you start collecting two or more of these handicaps, it’s easy to see the price you pay or the steepness of the slope.

I don’t wish to be entirely negative on this subject, though. There are counter-balancing positive factors to be considered, as well. For instance:
· A supportive soulmate
· Financial independence, through family, loans, or departmental support
· A great, mentoring professor or professors
· A family tradition in higher education
· Perfect health and sleeping habits
· Excellent preparatory training in reading, writing, and time management
· Talent

I don’t think we can assume that everyone who goes off to college has the talent for it. Some students make it look easy because for them it is easy. Whatever the subject, they just ‘get it.’ They still have to take the time to do the reading and write the papers and do the projects, but for them it’s only time. It’s not sweat, and doubt, and dithering, and confusion. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the subject for which you have that sort of talent, but there’s no guarantee and there’s no rule that you have to. What you choose to do, and work to achieve, that’s what you accomplish, regardless of how difficult it might be, or become.

And in the end, very few people will ever know, or ask, about the Degree of Difficulty you had to overcome to earn your degree(s). You might get a few stories out of them, but they’re just part of your internal armor, protecting you psychologically from future difficulties, and giving you the strength to get past those, too.

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