When Do You Feel Smart?

What would it look like, Christopher S. Travers asks, if we celebrated the effort, growth and resiliency of black men just as much as we did their GPAs?

November 3, 2017
 
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We live in a world where we celebrate accomplishments more than growing or learning. That holds true even in education, causing some students to become paralyzed when they fail instead of modifying their efforts.

When I was growing up in Baltimore, my parents felt it necessary to teach me that no matter how far I go in life, the world will always remind me that I am a black man. Many of their lectures began with the phrase “As a young black man you must be twice as smart,” or “They’re expecting you to fail, so as a black man, you must always be sharp.” Even at an early age, I had a clear understanding that being both black and male meant the odds would be stacked against me in a way unlike any other racialized group in this country.

Media sources make sure to remind us of the societal stereotypes of black men -- that we are unintelligent, apathetic, lazy, disruptive -- just to name a few. Aware of those stereotypes, my parents would not let me exhibit such behaviors, particularly in school. When progress reports were distributed, my mother would ignore the overall A’s and B’s that I received and circle the D’s and F’s that I earned on specific assignments.

On the one hand, I was being pushed to pursue academic achievement. But on the other, I was becoming more concerned with grades than I was with learning and growing as a student. When I did perform poorly, I would perceive it as an indictment of my intellect instead of a reflection of my effort. I was constantly rewarded for outcomes (sports championships, high grades and so on) and less celebrated for my effort. I became that kid in the classroom who would turn over his test if the grade at the top of the paper was lower than an A or B. In fact, I felt most smart when I earned good grades.

Carol S. Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, would have described my beliefs about my abilities as fixed. She writes, “The fixed mind-set makes you concerned with how you’ll be judged; the growth mind-set makes you concerned with improving.” Two decades of research that she and colleagues conducted indicates that a simple belief about yourself -- namely, whether you endorse a fixed or growth mind-set -- can significantly shape several success outcomes, such as your GPA or response to failure.

I discovered that firsthand. While I was an average student during my adolescent years, it wasn’t until college that I met my mentor, who helped me shift my beliefs. My mentor maintained high expectations for me, pushed me to reach my potential and applauded me more for my work ethic, commitment and growth than he did for my achievements. I wasn’t aware at the time, but my mentor was moving me away from a fixed belief system to a more growth-oriented way of thinking.

Over time, I became more interested in my approach to learning and less obsessed with the final product. Sure, I still wanted to achieve at the highest level in everything I did, but my response to failure had shifted from operating in a state of depression to identifying what can be learned from how I approached the task. Even now as a doctoral student, it still stings when I receive harsh feedback from my adviser or reviewers from a journal, but I remember to adopt a growth mind-set and think about ways to adjust and modify my effort moving forward.

Given the wide-reaching potential of shifting mind-sets, we must re-examine the practical implications of Dweck’s work specifically for young black men. In the field of higher education, there have been more peer-reviewed journal articles, books and national reports published on black college men than any other group. Yet still only about one-third of black men who enroll in college end up graduating.

Black male collegians continue to report the lowest completion rate among both sexes and all racial/ethnic groups in American higher education. Certainly, we have much more insight about the collegiate experiences of black men today than ever before, but retention numbers remain the same. I say this not to perpetuate deficit language of black men. Rather, I am urging all those concerned with black male achievement to ask tough questions, craft innovative research and draw on constructs outside the field of higher education -- like mind-set.

Black male collegians with a fixed mind-set view setbacks as carved-in-stone qualities, meaning failure becomes indicative of who they are instead of what they do. As a result, they often disengage and stop pursuing higher education out of a sense they simply can’t succeed. But adopting a growth mind-set can lead black men to readjust their study methods, connect with peer tutors and attend faculty office hours when faced with challenges -- all factors positively associated with student success.

It is time to seriously rethink the messages we deliver to young black men. We need to honor their effort and growth. What would it look like to celebrate the resiliency of black men just as much as we celebrate (or criticize) their GPAs?

Reflecting on my childhood, caring most about grades restricted me from pushing myself in the classroom out of fear of failure. Educators must remain mindful of the ways in which they praise young black men and how their language reinforces a growth or fixed mind-set. In light of the many negative stereotypes and low societal expectations, Dweck’s scholarship on mind-set provides a much-needed addition to the conversation about black male student success. Let’s teach our black men what she so eloquently stated: “You have a choice. Mind-sets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.”

Bio

Christopher S. Travers is a doctoral candidate in higher education and student affairs at Ohio State University. His research and scholarship can be organized into three areas: issues of diversity in higher education, access and retention among traditionally underrepresented students, and black male student success.

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