On Academic Defeatism


Malcolm Risk

“I’m f—ked.” There might not be a more ubiquitous phrase in a UCC Student’s lexicon. You hear it everywhere, from anyone, to describe anything relating to the school’s academic program. Before every assignment, every test, every so-called “hell week” it echoes through the hallways. A greeting, a sign-off, even a point of polite conversation. Shockingly versatile, perfect for any concern on any sort of occasion, it has become an inescapable aspect of UCC life.

There isn’t a phrase in common parlance that I despise more deeply. There are two reasons for this. First of all, because it is almost always a lie. Second of all, because it is meaningless.

Anyone who’s been on a sports team understands how damaging a bad locker room culture can be. A tired cliché, to be sure, but it bears repeating: teams almost never win games going in thinking they’re going to lose them. Luckily for those of us who have had that experience, bad team cultures are few and far between. Why? Because coaches understand how crippling they are and do everything they possibly can to snuff them out. Because when someone says “we’re about to get cranked”, the captain tells them to shut up. Because every single person in that locker room understands that having a snowball’s chance in hell of beating a team that’s better than you requires belief.

UCC is a really really good sports team with a terrible locker room culture. That brings me to the lying part. There is nobody as well-equipped or capable as we are at handling the academic challenges the school throws at us. No matter how dejected or negative the language is going into a test or an assignment, the doomsday scenario never seems to arrive. When it does, it usually comes with the relative comfort of a bell curve, a make-up test or some kind of opportunity to avert the worst possible outcome. Regardless, for the vast majority of tests and assignments, the bark is usually worse than the bite. Students feel a momentary sense of relief that the heavens failed to part for them to be smote by Zeus’s thunderbolt, and then get on to feeding the next paper tiger the cat food of despair. None of this is to say that there isn’t a danger of arrogance, or no benefit to managing one’s expectations, but I’d venture to guess that the hype around our tests and assignments creates more stress than the tests themselves.

There are absolutely constructive ways to collectivize the anxieties and burdens that we face in a high-pressure academic environment. These ways should confer reasonable opportunity for others to provide actual material help and shouldn’t compound our feelings of mutual distress. “I’m screwed” says nothing about why you’re feeling stressed or concerned about something – it just feeds the fire of panic and makes you yourself feel more hopeless. There are those who say that such phrases are a legitimate call for sympathy without assistance or further inquiry. Not only do I think we’re worse off when we aren’t open about what is causing our stress, I also believe that to benefit from a community you should invest in it. Short, meaningless phrases only conveying pessimism are the academic equivalent of withdrawing from a bank without ever making a deposit. Phrases like “I’m really worried about this math test” or “I’m finding this IA really tough” contain meaningful information about why you’re having trouble and give people a more valuable chance to understand what you’re feeling. Funny how we’ve gotten to a point where those sound more pathetic to our ears than the thoughtless acceptance of defeat that drastically sells short our ability to persevere and fight our way through challenges.

We’d all like to think that our levels of anxiety are rationally determined based on a careful consideration of future possibilities. But our language does make a huge difference, and we should be mindful of that. That isn’t to say it has to be all sunflowers and dandelions, all the time – negative language absolutely has a role to play in dealing with the things that life throws at us. That negative language plays that role the best when it doesn’t preclude the possibility of hope and perseverance through trials.

So the next time someone says one of those phrases, ask them how much they mean it. Even tilting at windmills is better than cowering behind them.