16 November, 2012

50 First Drafts

The is the time of semester when the hallways and offices are filled with advice. Course scheduling for the spring semester is upon us, and our students are asking us questions to confirm they will be enrolled in the courses they need to achieve their goals or too often, sadly, the goals of their parents. They're also asking their peers what courses to avoid or, more likely, what professors to avoid.

It's an interesting time, especially for our newest students - mostly freshmen. We are a few weeks past the point of no return when they can no longer withdraw from a class to avoid an anticipated "F." They are worried about how they are doing and frequently uneasy about the challenges ahead. So often I hear a student remark, "but I have never received a 'C.'" Or a "D." Or whatever. "It's terrible." They are being intellectually challenged and perhaps genuinely so for the first time.

I am thinking of one student with whom I spent some time last week. He was concerned with the high cost of college and the work load, and he was very anxious about whether he would get the high grades expected of him, grades that would make the investment worthwhile.

Searching my own experiences, I tried to find a story which would help ease some of those concerns and remembered a story I had read nearly two decades ago. I told him about a time when Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State, was a professor at Harvard and had asked an assistant to prepare an analysis on some incident that had occurred in the Viet Nam War.

This assistant worked night and day for a week and had the document delivered to Dr. Kissinger’s desk only to receive it back within an hour. Attached to the report was a note asking that it be redone.

The assistant dutifully redid it and supposedly slept a total of only nine hours for a week. The document again went to Dr. Kissinger’s desk, and an hour later it was returned with a note from Dr. Kissinger asserting that he expected better and asking that the work be done again.

And so the assistant went back to the drawing board once more. Another week of intense work. Then the assistant asked if he might present it personally to Dr. Kissinger. When he came face to face with Kissinger, he said, “Dr. Kissinger, I’ve spent another sleepless week. This is the best I can do.” The professor said, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”

I told the student not to worry about the grades. Just do the best that he could - that was all that mattered. And if he did his best, his parents would be proud of him, and so would I.

I hope he and all our students remember this is what is really important. It's not about the grades; it's about what you learn. Just do your best. Give it 100%. Everything else will follow, and it will all be worth the investment.