I thought about posting this at the beginning of this week, but decided against it, figuring that I should end ’13 on a more positive tip. But it must be said that one of the critical issues that we in higher education face in terms of college retention and success is the sheer lack of honesty surrounding student performance, especially in the first year or two of any student’s enrollment. No, I’m not talking about grade inflation — for students doing okay, especially at elite colleges, that’s another rampant issue. It’s about the lies students tell themselves, each other and their loved ones about their performance prior to either being caught in a web of them or, worse still, dropping out altogether.
As a college student and as a professor, I found and find it fascinating and disheartening when I’ve learned of the fantasy life of a student’s alleged good grades being shattered by reality. I fell into this trap myself during my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I only tell part of this story in Boy @ The Window. Yeah, I was nowhere near dropping out after a 2.63 GPA first semester (A in Astronomy, B- in Pascal, C in Honors Calc I, and a C in East Asian History), but I relied on an annual GPA of a 3.0 or higher to maintain my academic scholarship.
Yet from about the second week in December ’87 until I received my grades from Pitt on this date twenty-six years ago, I maintained the lie that my GPA was “around a 3.2.” The main difference — I gave myself a C+ in Honors Calc and a B in East Asian History. Mind you, I hardly showed up for either class most of the month of November! I was homesick, heartbroken, and unhealthily horny (and on two occasions hung over) most of the last six weeks of that semester.
So I told my former classmates like Laurell and Erika that my GPA was a 3.2. I told my dorm mates Samir and Chuck the same. It was a mild lie, I realized even at the time, and I knew that if I buckled down, that I could overcome my own lie, especially since I could lose my scholarship if I didn’t. And with a 3.33 second semester in Winter ’88, I did pull my GPA over the 3.0 mark, and in the process, decided not to tell any lies that big ever again.
But over the years, I’ve learned that I was hardly alone in the lying-about-my-college-experience category. The first time I figured this out was at the end of ’88, twenty-five years ago this week. It was a lunch outing with Laurell, her friend Maria and former classmates JD and Joshua at a pizza shop in the Fleetwood section of Mount Vernon. After the previous sixteen months of the Phyllis obsession, rage and grade-raising campaign, homelessness and financial struggles, I was finally fully on track for graduation and potentially, grad school. With this group of former classmates, though, almost all White, all but Laurell with upper middle class resources, I realized too that their struggles, or blues, weren’t exactly like mine.
As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:
There was a lot of “everything’s goin’ well” type of discussion going. Yet I got the sense that things weren’t all that great. Then JD admitted that he was a semester away from academic probation at Berkeley. His engineering classes were kicking his butt. From the looks of things, he was doing much better athletically than anywhere else, having bulked up to 190 with twenty extra pounds of muscle. Josh then admitted that his academic and social life wasn’t exactly going as planned. “I don’t know which one is worse,” he told us. He’d grown four or five inches since MVHS, good enough to put him around five-five or five-six. Laurell, of course, had a killer GPA at Johns Hopkins…and just loved things there. What she didn’t mention, between home and school, was that she was on the verge of burnout, 3.6 average or not…As for me, I talked a bit about some of my new friends and a couple of my classes. Nothing, though, about the drama of the previous year.
Given how they had reacted to my previous revelations of tiny nuggets from my life while we were in high school, I knew that they would have nothing to say about overcoming homelessness and my Phyllis obsession, much less my now 3.2 GPA overall. At the same time, though, I thought it better to say nothing at all than to tell half-truths and bald-faced lies about my college performance and experiences.
I’ve seen so many students do what I and my former classmates did during our first semesters of college over the years. They lie to me about their issues with my courses, they lie to themselves about their performance and preparation. Mostly, they lie to their friends and family to protect themselves from embarrassment. They lie until the truth of their performance shows up, in their grades, in academic probation, in suspensions and expulsions, in dropping out, in other myriad and dangerous ways.
And we in higher education encourage these lies, as if the money and grade trail won’t expose the reality of struggle and failure for so many. This is where we as educators and administrators need to be much more proactive, to encourage students to seek help, to tell the truth and not bury themselves in a coffin of lies.