Idiosyncrasy Credits: Earning Credibility in School

September 25, 2009

Yesterday I wrote about being a self-directed learner and finding something that interests you to study on your own throughout your time in school. One of my interests was why people drop out of school, but I had another interest I’m still pursuing: adult students. When I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to understand myself—and others like me—better. We were commuting. We were working. We were parents. We had complicated obligations outside of school. We weren’t experiencing college in ways I’d always imagined.

I interviewed other students. I asked professors what students do that drives them crazy. I read lots on my own and, whenever I could, I made some aspect of adult learning part of my coursework. I got a fellowship to write a non-traditional student handbook that paid my tuition for a year, so my personal interests definitely paid off.

Most professors won’t tell you if you’re being irritating. There are some things they address in their syllabi: tardies, late work, absences, for example. But there are others they may not say anything about that can affect their willingness to recommend you for opportunities that may arise, especially in your major. These behaviors can also affect your ability to have choices about your learning. Talking too much and dominating the discussion is one thing. (Usually profs will say something when you’re talking when you should be quiet!) Another is acting bored and not paying attention. You may think it’s a professor’s responsibility to keep you interested, and while I don’t disagree, it’s very difficult to be interesting when you face a sea of clearly uninterested faces, people whispering to their neighbors, or a bank of laptops you suspect are hiding games of solitaire, emails, and websurfs.

My least favorite student behavior is sucking up. I really dislike it when a student tries to flatter me in hopes I will look kindly on inadequate or sloppy work. I’ll probably smile and not say anything about the flattery (although I often return work without grading it when it isn’t ready to be graded). The student will never know how I feel about the attempt at flattery, although s/he may guess when it doesn’t equal an A in the course. Only excellent work will earn that grade.

A student’s caring, high quality work gives us something genuine to talk about, inspires me (people don’t go into teaching just for the money), and is often the basis for enduring friendships long after graduation. Even students whose work isn’t particularly good to start with earn my respect when they take feedback and use it to improve their work. Some of the most memorable students I’ve had have struggled with understanding course materials, or struggled with writing or research or some other academic skill, but they stuck with it and went on to produce markedly improved work. This can be especially exciting for teachers—student learning keeps us going!

These students—those who do excellent work and those who work to improve their work—earn idiosyncrasy credits with me. This concept is one I first read about in psychology books I bought at a thrift store. I encountered it later in Debra E. Meyerson’s 2001 book, Tempered Radicals. She describes idiosyncrasy credits as initial conformity that later allows you to advocate for change or ask to do something a different way.

In other words, you do what a professor asks in the way s/he asks and “bank” the credit for conforming so that when you do ask to do something different, it is clear that you understand—and can comply with—requirements. Once a student has gained credibility through classroom behavior and high-quality work that meets stated objectives, I’m much more likely to trust that her or his “outside-the-box” ideas will meet requirements as well.

All of this works on the job too.

What else can students do to earn idiosyncrasy credits in school?

The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but the rote and mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude.
• Robert M. Pirsig (1974),
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


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