Heads up: this post contains references (italicized) to the song “Help!” by the Beatles. Relevant verse reproduced at the bottom, for your convenience.
When I was younger, so much younger than today (in high school), I always thought of myself as more of a writer than a mathematician. I loved both words and numbers, but the former came more naturally. In no time at all, I could bang out essays that I was proud of, and loved coming to an understanding of a text through the writing process itself. I’m not saying that I never needed anybody’s help in any way, but I was definitely confident of my ability to write.
Then, I came here. These (high school) days are gone, and I’m not so self-assured.
This semester, all four of my classes have p-sets, and one of them, 24.900, has p-sets AND essays. This is Introduction to Linguistics: an awesome class, which opened my eyes to the intricacies and mind-blowing consistencies of language…and which lay the smackdown on my morale for a couple of months.
I couldn’t wait to write my first paper: to prove that I could write as well as I could manipulate equations. The topic was a “critical evaluation of an article”, and upon submitting, I honestly thought that I did a pretty good job.
Then I got the grade. Not what I expected. Stunned, I skimmed through the three paragraphs of comments my TA posted, feeling like I’d been slapped. The first sentence: “A good job, but there are issues you might want to work on in the future to make your writing better.”
Issues I should work on to make my writing better?
No one had ever said that to me before. I’m ashamed to admit that I spent a little while sulking, before steeling myself for the next paper. This was a fluke. I had been careless with my editing, probably, since a lot of it had taken place in the early hours of the morning. The next one would be the best paper ever written. EVER.
After the first paper, everyone in the class found a speaker of a foreign language, and conducted interviews to analyze particular aspects of that language (topics in syntax, compound word construction, inflectional morphology, etc). I paired up with a friend from my pre-orientation program, who is from Nepal. A shout-out to Pramod ’14, who has now spent hours and hours of his time (four of my papers!) being patient with me while I embarrass myself trying to speak his native tongue!
Anyway, when I got this second paper back, the first thing I noticed was the much-improved grade. Phew. That first one WAS just a fluke. And then I looked at the comments, and saw “writing-wise, there are some problems which you should try to address – your writing is quite good, but there are issues which are common to both papers of yours that I’ve seen so far.”
What? Again with the “issues”. What really hurt, though, was the last comment: “when it is time to write the third paper, please make an appointment with the writing tutor: I think talking to her is very likely to help you. It is not like you are doing badly in the class or anything – it is just that it would be good if you could use this class and its resources to their full potential.”
A writing tutor?! Again, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. He wanted me to go to a writing tutor? To admit that I had “issues” with my writing? No way.
I wish I could tell you that I took his advice and made an appointment with the tutor, but that would be a lie. I didn’t even look up her e-mail address. Why? Maybe it was partly pride, maybe partly laziness, but I think that more than anything it was stubbornness: I wanted to fix this problem myself. I felt that I had something to prove.
Which was stupid.
Third paper came and went and, surprise surprise, my grade went down. This time, my TA sent me an e-mail, which more or less broke my heart.
“a pattern which is best addressed than neglected”…”issues with the organization of the text”…and that suggestion – that humbling suggestion, which was now turning into more of an entreaty – to go see the writing tutor. “Don’t get me wrong”, he said, “I really enjoy your papers, they are thoughtful and interesting!”
AND GOOD PIECES OF WRITING!, I wanted to add. REALLY! I CAN WRITE! I SWEAR!
Or so I thought. I reluctantly e-mailed the writing tutor, and started work on Paper 4. I went to see her the day before it was due, and slouched in my chair and watched her pen with suspicious eyes. What could possibly be wrong with my writing?
The entire first paragraph, apparently. Bam. Not enough background information. Bam. Don’t assume the reader knows that. Bam. Imagine that this is the first time someone from the linguistics community has studied Nepali. Bam. This example isn’t clear. Neither is that one. Repeat the example down below, where you make reference to it. Summarize your points at the end of each section. Summarize it all at the end. And so on, and so on, and so on, and when I left the room I left behind my ego, and carried instead a piece of paper covered in blue ink.
It turned out that I wasn’t a bad writer, exactly; I just didn’t know how to write that kind of paper. I didn’t understand that I was supposed to address an audience who had never heard of Nepali: who knew very little about linguistics. I was introducing the public to Nepali for the first time, not reporting my findings to my professor. As a result, I wasn’t able to present the material in a way that made sense. This wasn’t my fault: I had never written this kind of paper before. What was my fault was the fact that it took me so long to figure out how the paper was meant to be written: if only I had checked in earlier, I would have been set for the previous three papers.
After a week or so, the grades and comments for that fourth paper rolled in. My grade shot up to the bar I set for myself, way back at the beginning of the semester. With it, the tone of the comments changed. “A great paper! Not only the research is very good – the writing is very good, too!”
To my surprise, I was proud of myself. More proud than I had been about any p-set, or any high test score. I didn’t expect to feel proud; I thought that by going to ask for help, I would in a way be “cheating”: it wouldn’t be a grade earned through my own efforts, but through the assistance of someone else.
Turns out that taking the time to see someone for advice – to get a pair of fresh eyes to look at your work, when you’ve hit a wall – is something to be proud of. It takes effort. It takes a little bit of courage, I think, and humility. It requires admitting that you can’t do everything alone, that you can always improve, and that you’re willing to go that extra mile to make sure what you turn in is really the best it can be.
At MIT, I have heard over and over again that students are reluctant to ask for help. Many come in from high school as the kid who was always asked for help: never one who had to ask. The transition from the know-it-all to the struggler can be confusing and upsetting, and qualities that made us successful in the past – stubbornness, belief in ourselves and our ability to figure things out on our own – suddenly hinder us. We run into walls, and keep banging our heads against them, instead of just asking for a leg up from someone else.
At our first MedLinks meeting, one of the officers addressed a question that we all had to answer in our application. “You come across a closed door. Your goal lies on the other side. What do you do?”
I remember staring at the question for a long time, wondering whether “open it” was the wrong answer. I went through all possible scenarios in my head: if it was locked, would I walk away? No. Would I break in? Possibly. Would I knock? Maybe. If it wasn’t locked, would I run in with no hesitation? Would I hesitate and re-assess?
The officer showed us the variety of answers he received. They ranged from “open it” to violent descriptions of forcing the door open (involving, among other things, chainsaws and explosives), to creative hacks, to “magic”. Not one answer, the officer pointed out, with a sideways smile, mentioned asking for help. Those that assumed a locked door assumed a solitary quest.
The MedLinks program is just one resource here. There is also S^3, Student Support Services, which can help when things get overwhelming, or just offer basic advice on time and stress management. There are the writing tutors, who I can personally recommend. There is the career office, who I made an appointment with to get help with my resumé, and who promptly smashed it apart and helped me fit the rubble back together. There is MIT Mental Health, there are GRTs (Graduate Resident Tutors), tutors available within specific departments, your professors during office hours…the list goes on and on and on. MIT takes care of its students: the help is there, if you can recognize that you need it, and then get over your stubbornness and reach out. My TA is a great example of this: his analysis of my writing and the arguments in my paper was probably more in-depth than my analys of Nepali. Seriously. He’s awesome, and so SO helpful in combing through every detail and pushing me to take my work to the next level, and I only wish that I took his advice from the beginning.
This kind of thing doesn’t just apply to MIT. At home, there are family and friends. There are teachers you’re close to. Guidance counselors. There are support networks through clubs and organizations.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve never had a problem asking for help. If that’s the case, then great! I don’t think it ever hurts, though, to be reminded that asking for help doesn’t mean “giving up”, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. People recognize that it takes initiative and courage to get help, and appreciate it. In an e-mail I received from my TA shortly afterwards, about something unrelated, he closed by mentioning my paper: “By the way, take a look at the comment for the paper 4 – it was really good! You have improved _a lot_ – you must have worked hard, and it really paid off.”
There was something deeply, profoundly satisfying about that. I would take it any day over a 100% on a p-set that I did on my own without too much effort.
So, learn from this obstinate MIT student, and remember that while independence and the ability to problem-solve on your own is important, equally important is the ability to recognize when you’ve hit a dead end, and need to open up the doors to reinforcements.
“When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors.”
-From “Help!”, by The Beatles.