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November 6, 2012

Talking like first-years

Academic bravado, pseudo-intellectualism of ‘That Kids’ stem from our high-stakes environment.

“Do you want to see the requirements for my major?”

Looking up, I saw a guy talking to two of his friends, both girls. They’d just finished despairing over the unjust difficulty of their math class. Their problem set, the course, and all of mathematics are impossible, it turns out.

One of the girls let out a nervous laugh. “Not really, actually,” she said, turning back to her homework.

But his arms were already extended over his textbook to the keyboard of his laptop, and he was typing with a smirk on his face. After a couple of seconds, he turned his screen toward the girl.

“Nineteen requirements, the most of any major! Look at this shit,” he said, slowly scrolling down the page, inviting her to feast on what I’m sure was an impressive array of course numbers. The girl looked at the screen politely, probably unsure as to what reaction she was supposed to have.

“I’m going to be a biochem major,” he declared.

“Oh…”

The whole conversation—the academic despair followed by scholarly bravado—struck me as very familiar. Over the next couple weeks, as I saw this pattern repeat itself among my classmates, I realized that it is, in fact, typical of first-years. I reasoned that there must be some underlying cause.

I talked to eleven upperclassmen in Hutchinson Commons to add some perspective to my own observations. When asked to reflect on his first-year experience, one student said, “In the beginning, I think I had the ‘impostor syndrome,’” helpfully explaining, “I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’” Impostor syndrome arises out of a need to answer that question, and it’s easy to see why first-years, new to the rigors of higher academia, would feel it especially acutely. Faced with much more academically competitive classmates and new courses that are probably harder than anything we took in high school, our past achievements fade into irrelevance, making us wonder why we are here in the first place. Adding to our identity crisis is the new social environment, in which we all initially feel like outsiders and feel a need to compromise—or, at least, compensate—in order to fit in.

As much as some of us feel like impostors, the fact is that most of us were the top of our high school classes. We arrived here driven by a desire and ability to succeed, which has given many of us a high level of confidence in our own abilities. Some students that I interviewed mentioned a “competition factor” they felt as first-years—an internal pressure to distinguish themselves on an initially level playing field. Interestingly, some said that they felt this need more strongly because the competition was tougher. Being in a competitive pool rouses a paradoxical reaction in students: On one hand, they feel anxiety about their inferiority; on the other hand, they won’t settle for anything less than superiority, coveting a place at the top of the U of C pile, which, for most of us, is unrealistic.

The result? You’ve probably seen it many times before. Your chem professor draws a phase diagram on the board and says that the change from liquid to gas is boiling, the change from liquid to solid is freezing, and the change from solid to gas—

“Sublimation,” the student sitting next to you mutters under his breath, just loud for everyone sitting around him to hear.

Most students surrounding him know the term already, and for those that don’t, the professor says it a split-second later. So why does that student feel the need to say it? Probably because of that competitive impulse—that need some feel to prove their worth, not only to others, but also to themselves in this new environment.

This type of student has famously been christened ‘That Kid’ by College students at large. When I asked for a physical description of That Kid from my interviewees, some students immediately launched into a vehement description with a specificity of detail that left no doubt that they were describing real people (descriptions that, as an interesting side note, consistently included Caucasian and male). Perhaps more revealing than the descriptions, though, was the way that the students answered. Many students failed to stick with a physical description of That Kid. Most of them couldn’t help but to spill into other personality traits (“socially incompetent”), or to insert their own emotional reaction to them. And all of that sounded pretty familiar.

Here at UChicago, we think of ourselves as a bastion of academia, a place where students can pursue knowledge for its own sake and perhaps discover something larger than themselves. Such an institution implicitly values intelligence and, inevitably, a hierarchy springs up around that attribute. Yet, in spite of all that, we have our own troubling hierarchy—and our own version of the star high school quarterback. Aloofly looking down at the throng of commoners that surrounds him is That Kid, whose letterman jacket is the New York Times folded under his arm and his horn-rimmed spectacles. As long as we continue to link self-worth with academic performance, we will also continue to create a culture where we pursue knowledge to satisfy our egos, rather than to see beyond them.

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