Despite the fact that Stanford is one of the best universities in the nation, many of our introductory classes are huge and fairly impersonal. I’ve been frustrated by the heavy weight of exams in class grading. Back in the heyday that was high school, there were points for class participation, projects and turning in homework. Here at college, Stanford’s big quantitative classes weigh more heavily content and test performance. Talking to one Economics professor, I got a bit of faculty insight on the lay of the Stanford land.
A bit of background: Scott McKeon is one of the best professors I’ve had at Stanford. He writes extensive and comprehensive lecture notes, stays after class to answer his students’ questions, replies to emails and generally is engaging and understandable when teaching econometrics.
When a friend posted an article about his time teaching at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business on my Facebook timeline with the subhead “All Hail Scott McKeon,” more than 20 people liked it. When Asian tourists pass Econ 102B, they take pictures of Scott McKeon. He remembers students’ names. In a world where students are sometimes taught by teachers who, to put it diplomatically, focus more on research than teaching, McKeon is available, funny and invested in his students’ learning.
I emailed Professor McKeon to ask how I could improve my performance on exams at Stanford. There was probably some frustration between the lines. I wrote it after disappointing myself on an exam, and generally feeling crushed by the academic excellence that is seemingly personified by everyone else at the Farm. Should I apply for extended time? I wondered. Should I transfer to somewhere easier? Professor McKeon responded with these words:
“This school is different. I believe most professors here write exams with the intention of forcing a fairly low average, so they can get a curve (although sometimes that’s the very thing that prevents a curve). Writing a test that averages above 90 percent causes huge grading problems; grades are then dictated by minuscule differences in student performance. Most professors overcompensate by giving brutal exams. There’s no way to say whether that philosophy is right or wrong but my point is that the issue here could be the testing philosophy as opposed to something with you personally. I assure you that Stanford’s culture can give you a very warped view of your place in the world.”
He noted in closing, “…my sense is that you are unfortunately just as normal as the rest of us.”
Stanford is hard. It takes resilience to be here amongst a lot of intelligent, ambitious people: We have people doing big things, and our successes take different forms. The bubble isn’t an easy place to practice failure when it seems to contrasts so sharply with the success we drown in.
Consider Scott’s wisdom: “My recommendation is that you quit being so hard on yourself,” he told me. “For better or for worse, nasty exams are the culture of this school for quantitative courses. When I was a business school instructor, class averages were about 85 percent. There is simply no question in my mind that you would have finished those exams very well ahead of time and you would have simply crushed the other people in the room.”
“Duck Syndrome” pressure can cause small or serious problems. This year, I had a conversation with someone falling through the cracks that inspired me to take the class to work at The Bridge, a student-run counseling center with a mission to help and support others through personal interaction.
In the last few weeks, we covered suicides. According to their numbers, our university has about 70 suicide attempts a year. From bad midterms to bad breakups (or weird hookups that come and go without ever really being defined), life isn’t perfect, even at Stanford. The Residential Dean who spoke to the class said that at any given time, attempted suicides have usually put about one student in the hospital.
My Dad once told me, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Regardless of what we’re going through, it’s important to remember how valuable every member of our community is and to take time out of our busy schedules to care for those around us. Stanford is a humbling place, and it’s OK when we don’t always succeed in ways that we’d like. Coming from a professor, McKeon’s words are touching as we work to maintain perspective at college.
McKenzie hopes everyone is taking care of themselves as the quarter comes to a close. Contact her at [email protected].