Spring quarter last year I took a super interesting class with a random professor called Nations and Nationalism. I hadn’t ever learned anything about nationalism before or any of the countries we were going to be discussing, but I was enthralled by everything I was learning. I have to admit, I did feel a little dumb in this class, but I was never subjected to any comparison because it was an asynchronous class, so I didn’t feel particularly discouraged about the quality of my contributions to the class. In fact, I ended up feeling really good about my contributions to the class when I received full marks on my final essay and final exam.
I enjoyed that class so much that when this professor offered another history course, I jumped on the opportunity to take it. In comparison to my Nations and Nationalism class, this was a European synchronous class (which I’ve never taken before) , and the class met every Thursday to discuss the lectures and readings we had been assigned for that week. I was a bit apprehensive about this because I’ve never been one to participate a lot in Zoom lectures, nor had I been exposed to any of the sources we were going to be talking about.
By the second week of the class, I knew without a doubt in my mind that I was the stupidest person in that class. The class itself was tiny, perhaps fifteen of us, including the professor and everyone in my class seemed to have such a deep understanding of the texts we were reading. In contrast, the contributions I made to the class were so surface-level and flimsy. I so desperately wanted to show my classmates that I had a brain and could contribute thoughtfully to our discussions… but it never worked out that way. It was such a disheartening feeling, and it really affected how I felt about that class. Every time I engaged with course materials I felt a wave of anxiety, and even when I tried my hardest to think critically about the course materials I struggled, sometimes even with the content itself.
If I wasn’t making basic connections, I wasn’t thinking at all.
But a lot of this stemmed from my own perception of myself. In the second week of the course, I labeled myself as the stupidest person in the class, branding myself and causing a mental block that limited the content I could produce for the class. Even if I had a profound connection that my peers enjoyed, I doubted myself and my capabilities. It wasn’t until I received good feedback on my first essay that I was starting to feel good about my place in the class. My peers thought my essay was interesting and my professor was delighted with the connections I made.
Still, I felt really stupid, and in part, I don’t necessarily think this was a bad thing. My anxiety of being the worst in the class reminded me of how much I possibly could learn. I was presented with this wonderful opportunity to be uncomfortable in a class and learn so much. Because I felt so inadequate, I was eager to listen to whatever my peers had to say. I was pleased whenever they commented on my discussion posts because it typically deepened my own understanding. I worked really hard in this class because I was so insecure and uncomfortable with the content, and in its own way, it paid off. While I’m still not the greatest student in that class, I feel secure that I deserve a place in this class and that the contributions I make to discussions matter, which is a strong contrast to how I had felt at the beginning of the class.
So while it’s okay to feel stupid in your classes, it’s not okay to label yourself as the stupidest person in class. If you do that, you’re inherently setting yourself up for failure. Had I not been so hard on myself and accepted that this class was going to be difficult, but not impossible, I wonder if my contributions would have been stronger. It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to not know what you’re doing in your classes, trust me, I’ve been there. But let this feeling motivate you to work as hard as you can in that class because ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you compare to your peers, what matters is how much you learn.
And isn’t that what school is all about?