Playing the student: attitudes to learning as social roles

by Swimmer963 4 min read23rd Nov 201223 comments


This is a post about something I noticed myself doing this year, although I expect I’ve been doing it all along. It’s unlikely to be something that everyone does, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find this applies to you. It's also an exercise in introspection, i.e. likely to be inaccurate. 


If I add up all the years that I’ve been in school, it amounts to about 75% of my life so far–and at any one time, school has probably been the single activity that I spend the most hours on. I would still guess that 50% or less of my general academic knowledge was actually acquired in a school setting, but school has tests, and grades at the end of the year, and so has provided most of the positive/negative reinforcement related to learning. The ‘attitudes to learning’ that I’m talking about apply in a school setting, not when I’m learning stuff for fun.

Role #1: Overachiever

Up until seventh grade, I didn’t really socialize at school–but once I started talking to people, it felt like I needed a persona, so that I could just act ‘in character’ instead of having to think of things to say from scratch. Being a stereotypical overachiever provided me with easy material for small talk–I could talk about schoolwork to other people who were also overachievers.

Years later, after acquiring actual social skills in the less stereotyped environments of part-time work and university, I play the overachiever more as a way of reducing my anxiety in class. (School was easy for me up until my second year of nursing school, when we started having to do scary things like clinical placements and practical exams, instead of nice safe things like written exams.) If I can talk myself into always being curious and finding everything exciting and interesting and cool I want to do that!!!, I can’t find everything scary–or, at the very least, to other people it looks like I’m not scared.


Role #2: Too Cool for School

This isn’t one I’ve played too much, aside from my tendency to put studying for exams as maybe my fourth priority–after work, exercise, and sleep–and still having an A average. (I will still skip class to work a shift at the ER any day, but that doesn’t count–working there is almost more educational than class, in my mind.) As one of my LW Ottawa friends pointed out, there’s a sort of counter-signalling involved in being a ‘lazy’ student–if you can still pull off good grades without doing any work, you must be smart, so people notice this and respect it.

My brother is the prime example of this. He spent grades 9 through 11 alternately sleeping and playing on his iPhone in class, and maintained an average well over 80%. In grade 12 he started paying attention in class and occasionally doing homework, and graduated with, I believe, an average over 95%. He had a reputation throughout the whole school–as someone who was very smart, but also cool.

Role #3: Just Don’t Fail Me!

Weirdly enough, it wasn’t at school that I originally learned this role. As a teenager, I did competitive swimming. The combination of not having outstanding talent for athletics, plus the anxiety that came from my own performance depending on how fast the other swimmers were, made this about 100 times more terrifying than school. At some point I developed a weird sort of underconfidence, the opposite of using ‘Overachiever’ to deal with anxiety. My mind has now created, and made automatic, the following subroutine: “when an adult takes you aside to talk to you about anything related to ‘living up to your potential’, start crying.” I’m not sure what the original logic behind this was: get the adult to stop and pay attention to me? Get them to take me more seriously? Get them to take me less seriously? Or just the fact that I couldn’t stomach the fact of being ordinarily below average at something–I had to be in some way differently below average. Who knows if there was much logic behind it at all?  

Having this learned role comes back to bite me now, sometimes–the subroutine gets triggered in any situation that feels too much like my swim coach’s one-on-one pre-competition pep talks. Taekwondo triggers it once in a while. Weirdly enough, being evaluated in clinicals triggers it too–this didn’t originally make much sense, since it’s not competitive in the sense of ‘she wins, I lose.’ I think the associative chain there is through lifeguarding courses–the hands-on evaluation aspect used to be fairly terrifying for my younger self, and my monkey brain puts clinicals and lab evaluations into that category, as opposed to the nice safe category of written exams, where I can safely be Too Cool for School and still get good grades.  

The inconvenience of thinking about school this way really jumped out at me this fall. I started my semester of clinicals with a prof who was a) spectacularly non-intimidating compared to some others I’ve had, and b) who liked me from the very start, basically because I raised my hand a lot and answered questions intelligently during our more classroom-y initial orientation. I was all set up for a semester of playing ‘Overachiever’, until, quite near the beginning of the semester, I was suddenly expected to do something that I found scary, and I was tired and scared of looking confident but being wrong, and I fell back on ‘Just Don’t Fail Me!’ My prof was, understandably, shocked and confused as to why I was suddenly reacting to her as ‘the scary adult who has the power to pass or fail me and will definitely fail me unless I’m absolutely perfect, so I had better grovel.’ I think she actually felt guilty about whatever she had done to intimidate me–which was nothing.

Since then I’ve been doing fine, progressing at the same rate as all the other students (maybe it says something about me that this isn’t very satisfying, and even kind of feels like failure in itself...I would like to be progressing faster). That is, until I’m alone with my prof and she tries to give me a pep talk about how I’m obviously very smart and doing fine, so I just need to improve my confidence. Then I start crying. At this point, I’m pretty sure she thinks I should be on anti-depressants–which is problematic in itself, but could be more problematic if she was the kind of prof who might fail me in my clinical for a lack of confidence. There’s no objective reason why I can’t hop back into Overachiever mode, since I managed both my clinicals last spring entirely in that mode. But part of my brain protests: ‘she’s seen you being insecure! She wouldn’t believe you as an overachiever, it would be too out of character!’ It starts to make sense once I stop seeing this behaviour as 'my learning style' and recognize it as a social role that I, at some point, probably subconsciously, decided I ought to play.



The main problem seems to be that my original mental models for social interaction–with adults, mostly–are overly simplistic and don’t cut reality at the joints. That’s not a huge problem in itself–I have better models now and most people I meet now say I have good communication skills, although I sometimes still come across as ‘odd’. The problem is that every once in a while, a situation happens, pattern recognition jumps into play, and whoa, I’m playing ‘Just Don’t Fail Me’. (It’s happened with the other two roles too, but they’re is less problematic.) Then I can’t get out of that role easily, because my social monkey brain is telling me it would be out of character and the other person would think it was weird. This is despite the fact that I no longer consciously care if I come across as weird, as long as people think I’m competent and trustworthy and nice, etc.

Just noticing this has helped a little–I catch my monkey brain and remind it ‘hey, this situation looks similar to Situation X that you created a stereotyped response for, but it’s not Situation X, so how about we just behave like a human being as usual’. Reminding myself that the world doesn’t break down into ‘adults’ and ‘children’–or, if it did once, I’m now on the other side of the divide–also helps. Failing that, I can consciously try to make sure I get into the 'right’ role–Overachiever or Too Cool For School, depending on the situation–and make that my default. 

Has anyone else noticed themselves doing something similar? I’m wondering if there are other roles that I play, maybe more subtly, at work or with friends.