Real Live Prof

Social Comparison, revisited.  It was a late afternoon, as I recall. I was chatting with two of our junior profs, when one said, “I am just so puzzled by my students. I give them an easy assignment to do and they just seem to ignore it. Don’t they understand that not doing it will impact their grade in bad way?”

So I told them this story:

The famous "A" row,  situated near rthe front of every classroom.

The famous “A” row, situated near the front of every classroom.

I recalled being equally disturbed about student apathy when it came to their grades. Five years ago, I was teaching an intro to sociology class when I did one of my favorite first day exercises. I was teaching in Marshall Hall 107, which is an amphitheater -style room.

As we were starting the first day, I asked, “Is every one comfortable with their seats?” Everyone agreed that they were.

“Well”, I said, “That’s kind of sad…because you all have to find a new seat. Here is what I want you to do. Starting with this seat (far left, front row, I demonstrate by pointing), I want you to seat your selves in reverse alphabetical order.”

Someone always asks, “Can we have the roll?”

“No. You have to do it yourselves”

They groan. A lot. And then they stand up, and someone begins by stating, “My name is Zach Zedikiah, so this is probably my seat…” and he sits down. It is painful and awkward as students state their names, introduce themselves to each other, and slowly find their seats. After Alyssa Amanda Applewhite has taken the last seat, we check it, and then (always) correct it. And then, I tell them they have already begun seeing sociology…leadership, lack of leadership, social loafing, meeting someone who will turn out to be a friend,  etc., with the added bonus of being reminded of the alphabet song. (They always manage to look really unimpressed.)

After this part, I state that there are some, for whatever reason, who need to be really close to the front of the room.  And, I suppose, it might even be possible that some may need to be towards the back. If you can persuade someone to change seats with you, you may switch. However, I always point out, the front row is where the most “A”s are made…and the back row is where the most “C”s are made.

As I share this story with the junior profs, I tell them this is my “Aha” moment in to the enigma that is the modern student. One student, James W., who was unwittingly placed on the front row by virtue of his name, stood up and announced, “Dr. Miller, I only want to make a “C” in this class, so I will happily trade with anyone on the back row.”

Fortunately, someone on the back row needed to be on the front row, so I let them change seats. As I followed James’ semester in the grade book, I soon realized that, though very bright and active in and out of class, James really only wanted to make a “C”. I was astounded. Why be so smart and aim so low?

I asked the two profs, “What kind of students were you in college?”

They both humbly replied, “”A”s and a very few “B”s”.

“Who did you hang out with in college?”

“Other good students”

“And when you got to grad school?”

“Other good students”

“Did you or your friends you hung out with ever start a class and not try to get an “A”?

At this point, they proved their sharpness and mental acuity by realizing that perhaps they were (socially) comparing themselves to students who were in school for very different reasons and with very different goals, than they had been.

“At some point”, I said, “We realized that good grades would help us in our careers. In fact, if we are honest with our nerdy selves, we liked school and studying. I think we unwittingly (and unfairly) compare our experience as good students who wanted good grades, with those who only want or need, to pass.”

The great irony, of course, is that James W. went on to grad school…and by his accounting, did very well.

Real Live Prof

I equal YouSocial Comparison: according to my Social Psychology text, we all do it. (Irony, already?) It seems we have self knowledge (“I can catch fish.”) but social comparison allows us to make sense out of our self knowledge (“I can catch fish, but not as many as Uncle Si”.) Social comparisons are most meaningful when we compare to others in our same categories.  Students interpret their test grade, for instance, by comparing it to those sitting around them. “How did you do?” they ask with urgency after every test. They also have to know, “What was the highest grade in the class?” and, of course, “What was the average?”

We make upward comparisons to those who are much better than we are at something. This might depress us, or encourage us to strive harder to improve. We also make downward comparisons to those who are much worse at something than we are. Often this helps us feel better about ourselves. (“At least I can catch more fish thanWillie!”)

At this point in the lecture, I asked my class, “So, who do you compare yourself to when you want to know how you are doing, spiritually? Do you compare yourself to the people at church? (I asked the class knowing full well that they were among the least-churched demographic in America, 18-25 year olds.)   

“You mean like the Church Lady?” one student responded, referring to Dana Carvey’s SNL character.

Another commented, “They are all hypocrites at church anyway.” I let that slip by, without comment. (I am learning restraint, Mom.) Their comparison group is probably their peers, who also don’t go to church very much.

Social Psychology also suggests that we can choose to compare ourselves and how we are doing to “standards”. I suggested to the class that if they wanted to know how they were doing with love, for instance, they might compare themselves to the Bible, and its standards as set out in 1 Corinthians 13:    1Cor13  

“What should we think about when we do compare ourselves to “impossibly” high standards like these?” I asked the class. “Should we give up because we will never measure up? Or should we be inspired to try harder?” (Apparently the class assumed it was rhetorical, because there was not much of an answer…)

Our culture’s standard of love would have to include “hooking up”, “friends with benefits”, serial monogamy, divorce, infidelity, and “shacking up”. All this under the narcissistic banner of: “WHATEVER MAKES ME HAPPY!”

So, I have a choice. I can compare myself to the 1 Corinthians 13 standards of love and often fail and need to ask for forgiveness, but, with an extra measure of grace, try again. Or, I can compare myself to my culture’s standards of love, and succeed every time.