I feel like college is ruining my life and I'm not sure what to do about it.
March 10, 2012 10:27 AM   Subscribe

I feel like college is ruining my life and I'm not sure what to do about it.

Originally, I was going to write a post about how I don't enjoy anything in life, and how I see no point in living, existential crisis, blah, blah, blah, but the more I thought about it, my real problem isn't any of these things, it's college.

I've tried highlighting the most relevant bits in bold.

I've been miserable since I started college. I feel like some of the key factors in this are:

I feel like my course work is taking over my life, and that my teachers are impossible to please.

We get a lot of homework as it is, but I also feel like I can never determine what it is my teachers want, or at the very least will be satisfied with.

I've tried asking them to elaborate on the things they would like to see from me (I go to school for graphic design) but the answers I get are never really all that specific. They'll tell me things like, "You have to do the project you want to do," or "Find your own voice," and so on.

There's nothing wrong with this advice, but the problem with executing it is that whenever I try to start a project I'm sincerely interested in and that I want to do, the concept will hardly, if ever, be accepted. The projects I suggest are always criticized as either too banal, too esoteric, too literal or too abstract. The more I try to figure out why this is and try to make my assignments more to other people's likings, the more I feel like an alien from another planet who is totally incapable of relating to other human beings on any level.

I have a really difficult time relating to and understanding the reasoning behind their non-objective feedback, and it seems like the more I try to pry for more information about the way they feel like they do, the more backlash I get. Even when I specify that I'm asking these questions because I want to know more, and not because I lack confidence in the teachers or other students, I don't think it's taken that way. Maybe I'm being overly self-conscious, but the impression that I'm getting is that asking "too many" questions is frowned upon.

If I ask the teacher to recommend a book or name some key terms so that I can do my own research, they'll say, "You have to look on your own, " or "There are no books or words for that. It just is what it is." More than once after hearing this, I've given up on looking for a book on a particular topic, only to coincidentally stumble upon the exact kind of book that I was looking for months or years after my class was over. Sometimes when teachers say that there are no books written on a certain topic, I'll find out that one of the other teachers has been assigning the exact book I was looking for as required reading for the past five years, or that the teacher that I asked has a similar book in their own library.

All of this is making me feel extremely confused and cynical. I alternate between feeling like I can't trust any of the authority figures at my school and feeling like I can't trust myself. I have no clue if it's me or them. I don't see any reason why my teaches would want to sabotage me, but I also don't think I'm doing any thing to warrant some of the responses that I'm getting (i.e. Being told something doesn't exist when it's sitting in the room down the hall.). I can understand how I might be interpreted as annoying, but I also don't think it's possible that I'm THAT much worse than any of my classmates.

I feel like I spend more time stumbling around than I have to. I don't understand their input and I feel like I wind up misdirected a lot when it comes to looking for outside research. I don't think that any of this would be bad or terrible or even significant all by itself, but then the element of time comes into play and ruins everything.

Assignments are large, and have to be completed along a strict timeline. Between multiple assignments, proposals, revisions, revisions of revisions, and so on, it's not unusual that homework will wind up taking up most if not all of the free time that I have outside of class. That by itself is not bad to me. I don't mind working hard. I don't mind spending 8 to 12 hours in front of a computer working on an project, and do so of my own accord frequently when I know I have the spare time.

The thing that makes doing this so difficult when it comes to school work is what was mentioned in the above. I don't understand the feedback or direction that I'm supposed to take. As I revise and revise, I create more and more work for myself while having an extremely difficult time arriving at solutions that will satisfy myself and my teacher.

It's not like I expect to coast by in every class, but the amount of effort that I have to put into classwork seems extremely unbalanced. I don't have any time for a social life, or hobbies, or to even learn about anything else I'm interested in. All of my time is spent stumbling around in the dark and hoping that I manage to trip across something that will earn me a passing grade. Ever since I started college, I've developed worse and worse problems with "anxiety" and "depression" that are really caused by me not knowing what to do, and being miserable and suffering because of it.

It's incredibly difficult for me to keep my morale up when I feel like I'm sacrificing so much, and still have no clear path forward. Sometimes I'll spend an entire day just sitting at the computer, not doing schoolwork, but not doing anything I enjoy either because I feel like I'm dooming myself no matter what move I make. If I try to lighten up the mood by going to see my friends or family, or by playing video games or instruments or whatever, I feel like I'm screwing over my future self because I'll just have to do even more impossible work later on in less time. If I start the work, I feel like I'm sacrificing every other thing that I care about or am interested in. If I want to stand any chance of succeeding, I feel like I have to go through every possible solution imaginable, and I'll be forced to spend all of my time doing that. Once I start my homework, it literally is impossible for it to ever be finished. Something about the concept could always be stronger, better, more visually appealing whatever.

I've snapped out of it now, (though occasionally I relapse) but there was a point about a year ago where I frequently felt like it was more practical to slit my wrists or try to kill myself than it was to go to school with a bad project or a project that I was unable to complete.* I want to finish school and I want to do well, but the pressure is making me do and think things that I've never done before, most of them not good.

I get mostly good grades- mostly As and -As, with usually one B or -B. -B is the lowest grade that you can get at my school without having to take a course all over again for credit. I never make the Dean's List or anything like that. I don't think the grades that I'm getting are worth what I'm sacrificing. I also feel like the work that I'm creating isn't good enough to get me any kind of steady job in the field I'm pursuing. I don't have any sweet connections to help alleviate this. All of this adds to my anxiety. I feel that after all of this, if I don't at the very least get good grades, then I pretty much have nothing.

I'm not sure of what, if anything can be done about all of this. For financial reasons, I really can't go to any other school that's as good as this. I want to try and find a way to make this work.

*I tried talking to counselors at school about this, but they basically told me that the only way that I would be able to overcome any of this stress was by taking antidepressants. This obviously didn't work, since my problems aren't chemical, they're obviously situational. Once I get away from school, I'm usually fine. I explained this, but the only help they're willing to offer is ineffective medication, and counselling that consists solely of telling me that I should be feeling better just as soon as my medication kicks in.
posted by jumelle to Education (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Is it possible that you're dealing with some perfectionism? You say your professors are "rejecting" your ideas, but you're still getting As and Bs. I wonder if your professors are simply offering you feedback and you are just taking it too much too heart.

Here's something you have to learn if you're going into a creative field: your work will never be perfect, and people in authority will never 100% love what you do.

What if you gave yourself a limit on the amount of time you worked and just cut it off at that? It might be worth a try. Also, you say your work isn't good enough to get hired - I suspect that this is, again, perfectionism speaking. You don't have to be the best graphic designer in the world right now. You're a student, you're just starting out. Keep pushing yourself and get better, but don't expect perfection or you'll always feel like this.
posted by lunasol at 10:35 AM on March 10, 2012

Sorry, what I meant to say in my second paragraph:

people in authority will never 100% love 100% of what you do.
posted by lunasol at 10:36 AM on March 10, 2012

Design, and creative fields in general, can be really frustrating when you're starting out, because there ARE no literal right answers. There is never a point where you can be done and stop, because there's always more you can do. What you're experiencing is perfectly normal, and every creative person feels it - you get better at working with the uncertainty as you get more confident in your own voice, but it never completely goes away.

What concerns me is the amount of anger you seem to have about this process. You can definitely succeed in a creative field as a perfectionist, but to do so you have to find some part of you that blossoms under the creative process. I agree with lunasol that you're taking feedback as straight-up criticism rather than open discussion, and demanding literal direction from your professors is not a very useful response.

To be honest, your professors' feedback and your counsellor's suggestions all seem perfectly reasonable to me, and I've been through art school, architecture school, and taken anti-depressants. It's your responses that seem off, and it's very possible that depression/anxiety might be coloring your perspective. It's really easy to mistake chemical depression for situational anxiety. Maybe give what other people are telling you 'the old college try' (sorry) before completely dismissing it?
posted by ella wren at 10:48 AM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

A few things stand out to me:

Once I start my homework, it literally is impossible for it to ever be finished. Something about the concept could always be stronger, better, more visually appealing whatever.

Have you ever heard the phrase "the perfect is the enemy of the good?" Stop trying to perfect your work. You know based on your previous grades what an "A" project or a "B" project looks like. Do the bare minimum to get the grade you want. Start your work later if you have to. Or set a time limit. You will work 10 hours a week per class and no more. Whatever you can do in that time is what you turn in.

Budget in some free time for fun activities and don't feel guilty for doing them. It is all part of your time management plan.

If I ask the teacher to recommend a book or name some key terms so that I can do my own research...

Stop asking professors for books they don't seem to want to provide. Does your campus have a library? Ask a librarian.

I also feel like the work that I'm creating isn't good enough to get me any kind of steady job in the field I'm pursuing. I don't have any sweet connections to help alleviate this.

Start making those connections! Look into internships or volunteer projects.

Finally. like the others have said, ease up on yourself. It is the professor's job to find things to critique you on. You don't always have to agree with them, but you should at least consider what they are saying. Let yourself make some mistakes. So you fall flat on your face, so what? That is what learning is all about.
posted by ephemerista at 10:57 AM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you have a number of problems that you are kind of mentally smooshing together and it's making things seem a lot worse than they are. Number one-- no kidding, going to school for graphic design is incredibly intense and competitive, and it will eat up all the time you give it and still make you feel like you are not done. Can you do something to make your lifestyle a little less claustrophobic, like allow yourself an hour every night to read a novel or bake cookies or something? There is usually a point where you can shave a bit off the amount of time you are spending at your desk, without the results suffering that much.

The interactions with your professors sound very frustrating. Since it seems to be happening with more than one professor, there may be something you can change to improve them. Having been a teacher myself, I am guessing that for whatever reason, the professors don't understand what kind of help you are asking for. Or they don't think (based on your grades so far) that you really need help. Is there any way you can try to make your requests for help more focused, or just hold them back until you encounter an actual obstacle?

The job market and the future, you can't control. It may be that what you really want to do is to change your major, or take time off from school, and rethink your whole direction, but that's not the sense I get from your question as written. But this might be a good time to think about whether you are getting what you want from this school and this degree. If you are, a certain amount of misery is probably worth putting up with. People always say that college is supposed to be a fun time in your life, but if you are driven, it is usually in fact pretty stressful. However, there should be at least parts of it that you enjoy.
posted by BibiRose at 10:57 AM on March 10, 2012

The way your classes go would have driven me nutty when I was in school (or now for that matter). But I got a degree in science. I won't say that that track is all defined and clear either, but it is surely *more* defined, in terms of assignments and evaluations, and a major facet of being a scientist is learning the skill of defining the problem that is presented. It sounds like you crave the skill to define things. Is it possible that this isn't the field for you?

Your grades and the fact that you've been steered toward this type of study indicate you must have some aptitude for it, but maybe you can apply your talent to a more defined field. Or maybe you just need to dabble in something that will give you some practice in defining things, and then come back to design?
posted by Tandem Affinity at 10:59 AM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

The thing that makes doing this so difficult when it comes to school work is what was mentioned in the above. I don't understand the feedback or direction that I'm supposed to take. As I revise and revise, I create more and more work for myself while having an extremely difficult time arriving at solutions that will satisfy myself and my teacher.

Are you a perfectionist? Do you have the ability to say "Well, it's not exactly what I wanted but it's good enough. Time for a beer"?

There is definitely a point of diminishing returns with your coursework. At a certain point, additional hours you spend working on an assignment add to your mark less and less. I think you should practice stopping your work before you think it's completely finished, handing it in, and seeing what happens.

I didn't go to art school, but I certainly saw similar situations when I was in college. There are lots of instructors who will never say "yep, that's perfect" if you show your work to them before it's due -- even if it's work that they would give an A to if you handed it in right then. If you're a perfectionist I can see how that might drive you insane, but the fact is instructors don't like to talk in certainties before the due date.

Maybe give yourself a firm X-number-of-hours limit on each assignment. This will also be good practice for when you're out of school and you'll need to be a lot more judicious with your time. Maybe your marks will suffer a little bit (but maybe they won't!) and your sanity will surely improve, which I think is a worthwhile tradeoff.

If nothing else works, I really think you should consider talking to a counselor at school and asking about a leave of absence. It's not failure to take a break and come back to it when your head's on straight -- it's the smart thing to do if college is really ruining your life.

Finally, lunasol's advice upthread is worth reading again:

your work will never be perfect, and people in authority will never 100% love 100% of what you do.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:23 AM on March 10, 2012

Maybe you don't actually like your courses that much? I often feel this way about um, my job and part of the problem is that sometimes things just aren't a good fit.
posted by bquarters at 11:26 AM on March 10, 2012

Also, not being flip, but responsibility is often inherently stressful. And to some people much more than others.
posted by bquarters at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're getting good grades. Relax, you're fine. You're also worrying way too much about pleasing your professors.

I think you're struggling to come to terms with the fact that you have to make decisions and see how things go. Which is fine; it's stressful. But you're at a point where you need to exercise judgment--rather than be told what to do--and it's going to take some adapting.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2012

Whether or not or started as situational.....meds on a temp basis could help you over this hump.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Let me see. I don't feel like I have to create work that's "perfect" I just feel like I want to create work that isn't bad or mediocre. I feel like I have to put in a ridiculous amount of effort to accomplish even that.

Chopping down the time that allow myself to work makes a lot of sense, but I can rarely muster the...I dunno...willpower to pull this off? If I say that I'll only spend 5 hours on something, I'll very rarely be able to follow through on that. I'll spend the 5 hours, and maybe even reach the goal that I set, but after that I always feel like I NEED to do 5 hours more work on top of that. And then another 5 on top of that. I wind up feeling lazy and guilty if I stop. This especially becomes a problem when the first idea that I try to execute doesn't work, and when the second and third don't either.

It's not that I mind the coursework, I just dislike being stressed out.
posted by jumelle at 11:35 AM on March 10, 2012

What is with your professors? I've had professors tell me they weren't quite sure what I was looking for exactly when I requested a book, but I've never had them tell me "that doesn't exist," or get pissy about it. Maybe you should ask a librarian. It could be that you're being too insistent, but if not, it sounds like your professors are ignorant.

Do you go to a good school, or just a school you can afford? I had a friend who went to art school, who chose the cheaper option between two schools, and she was constantly aghast at how downright offensive and incorrect her professors could be. In another art school environment, she thrived.

I'm kind of like you with coursework-- it takes me a really long time, and putting a time limit on it would not be practical. Plus, I want to do the best work I can do. What I've learned to do is prioritize projects I love or which are important over other projects I'm not as interested in.

Also, if you're getting A's and B's, your work is good. Even on my best work, I get some constructive criticism along with praise. Are you sure you want to be studying graphic design? If you like it I don't think you should give up, but when I was in a different major I was similarly consumed with work I was never happy with. I'm sorry you're having such a dissatisfying time at school.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:45 AM on March 10, 2012

Best answer: What you describe in your update (the fear of mediocrity combined with being unable to stop due to fear of feeling guilty/lazy) is textbook perfectionism, even if your goal isn't consciously to be perfect.

Perfectionism (I deal with a certain type of it, though mine expresses itself more through procrastination/fear of starting creative projects; my sister deals with it more in the way that you seem to describe) is often grounded in a sense that your value derives from what you achieve, rather than who you are. (In fact, for the perfectionist, the notion that those are two entirely separate things may not even compute.) If some of this rings a bell for you, this page (from the University of Illinois counseling center) may be useful. I'd also suggest meeting with a counselor at your school.

Good luck!
posted by scody at 11:53 AM on March 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think you sound better suited to a field where there is only one correct answer and once you have it then you stop - like physics, mathematics, biology - anything where opinions do not matter. Art is very subjective and perhaps you are out of sync with current styles, mimicking them or your own style is too different or not different enough. I think you should try a dramatic course change to see if that is the problem. Perhaps you are trying to shove yourself into a mold where you simply do not fit and its hurting. You sound pretty logical, almost too logical to be very artsy. Being logical is a strength is many fields.
posted by meepmeow at 12:02 PM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

scody's statement is very wise, I think, and worth repeating: as a perfectionist you may have "a sense that your value derives from what you achieve, rather than who you are".

I'm probably 15-ish years older than you and still struggle with this, so I promise you you're not alone. If I could wish both you and my 20-year-old self wisdom, it would be to take a longer view. You're getting A's and B's and therefore doing an awesome job -- don't forget that.

Another thing that would have helped me was learning the difference between high-stakes projects (an exhibit that the entire college and possible employers will see) and low-stakes projects (a first-week course assignment to familiarize you with basic color theory). That way you can try to figure out what's worth the five versus fifteen hours of work. I think perfectionists often have trouble with time management because everything is Oh My God The Most Important Thing Ever, which (a) isn't true and (b) is totally exhausting.

Good luck!
posted by lillygog at 12:24 PM on March 10, 2012

Transfer. Transfer. You have to transfer. Or, take a break to like, backpack across China and then transfer.

Why am I saying this? Three reasons. One: these professors sound (relatively) crazy. Two: you sound (relatively) sane. Now, I'm not saying they are all crazy, but clearly you're in the wrong place. So find another place. It is that stark and simple. Three: I believe strong both in a liberal arts education and in the value of the arts for any student, whether or not you're 'meant' to be a graphic designer; if you were at the right place, you will benefit from the arts no matter what you end up doing. It's not a waste of time no matter what. You just have to be at the right institution for you.

Even though you say another place wouldn't be 'as good', let me say this: 'good' with college is only about what's good for you, what drives you to stretch your boundaries and succeed. There is literally no other 'good'. Forget all that hype, it's just propaganda. There is only 'the right college for you'. Do some research about the philosophies/faculty in different institutions, and odds are the right school will give you a scholarship so you can come. There are tons of scholarships out there on a need basis as well. Take a year off and dedicate it to finding them and applying.

More broadly, I'd say find a good liberal arts college and take graphic design there. Arts schools are insulated and only appropriate for certain kinds of students. You will get a more well-rounded education if you're not just doing creative projects, and your stress will be more diffuse and manageable, at least potentially. Plus bigger schools have counseling, resources, and a large(r) range of professors and approaches.

I've had very gruff, no-nonsense art professors, very approachable and supportive and teaching-oriented professors, very down-to-earth and reasonable professors here in my public liberal arts school. I don't want to literally be like, 'come here! we're awesome!' every time people have a problem, because this isn't about my school, but I am saying that it's quite possible to find a place where people mean it when they say 'pursue your passion': here, at least, they mean it, and I'm sure there are other places like that. I will say that in progressive institutions, you wouldn't get far asking what the teacher wants either; it really is self-motivated and about your own development rather than their direction or management. However, you will find certain professors will lay out some super-clear structure for you at first if you need it. It's really about looking around and finding these people, talking to them at Academic Fairs, networking with other students for info and so on. This is not about 'college': it's an unfortunate intersection of your attitude towards authority, these particular professors, and the culture of the institution you're at.
posted by reenka at 12:28 PM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, reading your question I'm baffled as to why you are sticking with this field. It seems like it doesn't play to your emotional strengths.

You know, I almost didn't answer this question because I know nothing about graphic design. But I do happen to know quite a bit about choosing a profession based on intellectual ability, and then finding out that the career is not emotionally not the right thing for me at all. Did you choose graphic design because you are a gifted artist? It is possible to have a knack for something and then find that the realities of doing it for a living (or in your case, of getting a degree in it) are not right for you. I bet clients will be just as capricious and subjective as professors if not more so, and if this bothers you, it might be smart to get out now, and find something else to study and do for a living.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:29 PM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am a designer who went to one of the top design schools in the country (after having already gotten a degree at a traditional college). All I did for those 3.3 years was design. I had virtually no life outside of design. So I can't imagine what it would have been like if I was doing that and other college classes.

That said, if this is happening with all of your teachers, you really need to look at how you are communicating. (And I don't believe that they are all out to sabotage you.) Because when you get into a professional environment, you are going to have to understand and take direction from your senior designers, art directors, creative directors, and clients. And you are going to need to produce that work yesterday. It sounds like you are looking to your teachers to give you definitive answers as to how to complete a project. That's just not how it happens in design. You are given a brief and, if your lucky, some good direction, but then you need to come back with your interpretation of that brief—and you need to be able to back up why you did what you did. There are no "right" answers; only good and bad solutions. There are no books that are going to tell you how to do it either, altho it's always a good thing to be a thorough researcher but as it relates to your concept overall. A big thing with design is that it is a distillation of ideas. And because of that, it is more helpful to talk about larger issues surrounding the concept of the assignment itself rather than go micro with the assignment specifically. I think designers have more success when they discuss the macro and then go back to their work and hash out the take away from that and interpret it for the project. That's the difference between a "designer" who spends his/her life laying out a catalog and one who changes the game. And that sounds more in line with what your teachers are offering you rather than specific answers for how to complete a project.

I think there are a lot of designers who are perfectionisists (me included but only with regard to my work) but you have to realize that you will almost never be "finished;" there is always more you could do. Good designers know how to get to a finished enough place in a limited time frame—and let it go.

Honestly, you don't sound like you like what you are doing. No matter how crazy things got for me at art school, I always loved it. And when I think of the classmates I had whose work I respected were the same. I loved my work, I loved what I was learning, I loved the environment. I was the type that did projects on my own outside of coursework in addition to my coursework. A dozen years later, i still LOVE it. There are a million mediocre designers out there, and many, many good ones and, in my experience, the good ones really love what they do.
posted by violetk at 12:31 PM on March 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

You seem to be unable to correctly evaluate the quality of your own work. This is pretty much textbook perfectionism. If you turn in an assignment that a professor judges as A or B quality and you still don't feel like it's good enough, that's a huge red flag. Experts are telling you it's good enough, but you can't believe them.

I'm going to tout out the whole mefi cliche of therapy, specifically Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) because it's pretty good at addressing these sorts of issues.
posted by zug at 12:33 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

From the force, clarity, and enviable fluency of the writing of your question, I have the impression you may be uncomfortably verbal for the general run of graphic arts teacher, and that, insofar as they have a conscious pedagogical aim in view as they deliver these koan-like responses to your questions (probably not far at all, really), they could be seeking to wean you away from a reliance on language itself through sheer frustration.

If so, I think they're making a big mistake, because there is no reason to think great visual imagination cannot thrive coupled with a talent for language, and many reasons to think just the opposite (Lawrence, Shaw, Miller, Van Gogh, Wolff, Nabokov, Pynchon, etc.).

As Blake-- a great poet, a great artist, and a very talented graphic designer-- wrote in the 'Proverbs of Hell' section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
posted by jamjam at 12:40 PM on March 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."
-Ira Glass
posted by kamikazegopher at 1:03 PM on March 10, 2012 [25 favorites]

I feel like my course work is taking over my life, and that my teachers are impossible to please

That is pretty much what college is.

You are getting As and Bs, so obviously whatever you are producing is turning out well.

Your problem is that you have poor chemistry with your professors, and the school you're attending might be temperamentally unsuited to you. Quite possibly the professors just aren't the "mentoring" and intellectual types who guide you through intellectual expanse of the field but rather hit you with a lot of assignments that you're expected to churn out so that you get experience and build a portfolio.

Once I start my homework, it literally is impossible for it to ever be finished. Something about the concept could always be stronger, better, more visually appealing whatever.

When I was in grad school, we had a saying, "a thesis is never finished. It is abandoned." you work hard on it until the deadline, and then you present what you were able to do within the parameters of the assignment.
posted by deanc at 1:10 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I see a couple things going on here, and I find them to be common among college-age students. I teach college, and many, if not most, of my students struggle with ambiguity in their assignments and in the expectations of their assignments, largely because they haven't encountered it much in their previous educational experiences. They're used to - and most comfortable with - concrete answers, and very uncomfortable with vague ones, understandably.

However, we build in this ambiguity for a reason, because life is ambiguous and lacks concrete solutions. These often loose expectations are by design to increase your comfort with ambiguity, because it's not going to get any easier from here. So a lot of what you're describing sounds like the process of coming to terms with this reality, and resisting it, which is natural.

But coupled with that seems to be a strong need for external praise and accomplishment, rather than finding merit within yourself and in your own work. It's also very much tied in to doing what the teacher wants, rather than what YOU want. You're there to learn, first and foremost. You may find that in some cases what you find merit in doesn't jibe with what your teachers appreciate. Your task is to figure out what's worthwhile to you, and take from your teachers what can, while rejecting what isn't valuable to you. It requires an open mind and being very open and comfortable with criticism, but the key is to find value in what you do, and not depend on others to assign value to it. Easier said than done, I know, but this is what I pull from your post.
posted by Ms. Toad at 1:12 PM on March 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

largely because they haven't encountered it much in their previous educational experiences.

If you were a star in high school, accustomed to praise from authority figures--college isn't really like that and the working world isn't like that at all. Your own standards sound disproportionally high for your college work. In the real work, on time, on budget and great are three things to strive for, but you usually can achieve 2 of the 3.
You might end up someday working for a client whose taste doesn't jive with yours--and that's fine.
I'd say that you might ramp it down a notch and schedule an afternoon where you do yoga, go to a bar, or walk in a garden and forget your deadlines for that moment.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:46 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

And then another 5 on top of that. I wind up feeling lazy and guilty if I stop.

Work on your perceptions, it's lazy if you have a 5 hour project and you cut out for a beer after 20 minutes. Give yourself a deadline then stop, get some outside feedback to determine if you need to do anything else.
posted by sammyo at 3:13 PM on March 10, 2012

Wow, I think many people are missing the boat here. The poster may or may not be a perfectionist, but some of the responses of the teachers are horribly confusing and unhelpful. I don't buy that point blank telling someone "that doesn't exist" when it does is "building in ambiguity for a reason" (!) These teachers sound awful, unhelpful, de-motivating and just plain bad. You shouldn't have to have ESP in order to determine what your teacher is looking for.

Poster, I know you would prefer not to transfer out, but I can't help thinking that there are colleges with more helpful design teachers than this. Do you talk to your design peers about this? Are they having similar issues with their teachers, and how are they coping? Can you find someone who truly supports your work, even if it is outside school (maybe talk to local artists at gallery openings, or write to some of your favorite designers)?
posted by parrot_person at 3:48 PM on March 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I just want to say one thing, which is that I think some people just are not cut out for school. I am one of those people. I've been in school for most of my life either full time or part time, and I am the first to admit that my relationship with coursework, professors, exams, grades - basically anything that comes part and parcel with the educational process - is extremely, deeply unhealthy. I'm in school because I feel I need the credentials, but I've made my peace with the fact that I absolutely fucking hate it. I have other things in my life that I like and am good at, and have decided to treat school entirely as a burden to be borne until it's over. I resent pretty much every minute I spend doing schoolwork, and I have for as long as I can remember - so, like, the last 20 years or so, probably, since I started being assigned homework in the first grade. I graduate from my current program in 5 months. I am counting the days.

Can you just keep your head above water and do the best you can until you're done? I know the feeling so well of wishing I could drop dead rather than do this homework or take this exam or whatever (in fact, I am feeling that feeling at this very minute). But after so, so many years of being in school, I've come to recognize that while I may feel like this will never end and I'll never feel better and life will never be worth living, I know in some more rational part of my brain that once I've turned this problem set in I'll suddenly be joyous as a newborn baby.

I'm not like this with my full-time job, or my family obligations, or anything else. For some reason school just twangs a bad nerve for me, and I've never found a way around it. But we live in a society in which degrees open doors, and so here I am getting a degree, like a chump.

It sounds like you have the same unhealthy relationship with school as I do, is why I even bothered posting. The same perfectionism, the same feeling of hopelessness, the same inability to relax and enjoy yourself when you know you'll have to go do an assignment afterwards. How long do you have left? I know it feels like forever. You don't have to love it, you don't even have to like it. In fact, you can hate every accursed minute of it. But you really, really should finish it. You've been through so much already.
posted by troublesome at 6:06 PM on March 10, 2012

I want to second a few things people have been saying above:

1. Use librarians and other resources to find books. Don't rely on your profs. There may be sound pedagogical reasons why the profs are not telling you about books. If they are worried you aren't "finding your own voice" or something, they'll be reluctant to let you get your hands on anything that might provide too much of a template and let you avoid finding it for longer. Maybe. I don't know that's what's going on, obviously, and as someone who teaches at a university myself, I can't imagine ever thinking it's okay to lie to a student and say no book on topic X exists when I do know about such a book. But librarians are awesome! And one of thing students are meant to be learning at university level is how to find their own resources. I am pretty sure, for example, that if a book on a certain topic exists in the world, I can track it down. That is the sort of skill (and confidence) you want to build up. It will help you in everyday life outside of graphic design too.

2. Antidepressants are not just for non-situational depression. I used to think that too. But sometimes you really are stuck in a shitty situation for a certain amount of time, and it triggers depression, but you can't escape the situation. That's something the drugs can help you handle. The neurochemistry seems to be similar in situationally-induced depressions and ones that have no obvious situational trigger. Also, sometimes it's the depression itself that isn't allowing you to get out of the situation because it saps all your strength, and that's really when meds can help. It wasn't clear from your post whether you did actually try the medication or not, but I recommend it.

3. I want to second what was said above about part of the problem being that your educational experiences in the past haven't set you up for this right. Floundering around without a clear idea of what "good" looks like, and having to discover it for yourself rather than being spoon fed will give you a much stronger sense of ownership of your designs in the end when you do get it right (and when you are getting those As, you are getting it right.) What will you do in the future if a client can't exactly specify in design terms what he/she wants? With this experience you are having now, I expect that won't freak you out!

4. 8-12 hours on an assignment doesn't seem all that insane to me. I expect my students to spend 15-20 hours per assignment, but they only get maybe four assignments per semester, and they generally take 4-6 classes per semester, each with 3 hours per week face-to-face instruction. So that's about 100 hours work per class = 400-600 hours total over a 13 week semester. Which works out to 30-46 hours of work per week depending on how many classes they take.

Have you done these sorts of calculations for your university? It might be worthwhile, because you will either find out that (a) your teachers are assigning too much work for a student taking a standard courseload; (b) that you are taking too many classes; (c) that your university in general has ridiculous weekly hourly work expectations for its standard course-load students. Whichever of those is true will determine how you proceed. If (a) or (b) you might have to drop a class to free up more time. If (c), you can start campaigning for things to change.

What I often find with my students who complain that their workload is not achievable is that either they are trying to hold down a full-time or close to full-time job on top of it, or that they are losing a lot of hours during the day and then trying to make them up at night. If you have to work a full 8-hours on your classes each day to keep up and have a social life (or time to earn money) in the weekends or evenings, you can't afford to lose the time between classes, or take a long lunch break, or goof off on Fridays, or whatever. It's easy to sleep until 10, go to a class from 11-12, have lunch until 2, go to a class from 2-3, grab a coffee, chat with your friends, go to the library from 4-6, go home, have dinner, and then you find it's 8:30pm and you only got 4 hours of your necessary 8 done during the day, even though it feels like all your free time was spent in class or studying. You have to work efficiently, or accept that those "lost" hours are actually your leisure time, and you'll be studying until midnight most nights and often on the weekends too.

This might not be you. But I'm just spelling in out in case it is at least part of your problem. I see it so often.
posted by lollusc at 7:11 PM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I came in here to quote Ira Glass at you, but someone beat me to it. However, a few years ago, something clicked with me in regards to creative feedback, and it might help you. Try to view yourself as a conduit for good work rather than the work as a conduit for your own praise, or esteem, or pride, or brilliance, or whatever. Compliments are only meaningful in that they mean you're achieving good work. Feedback is always valuable--even if negative. Even if feedback does not pertain to your particular vision, it tells you how someone with a vision different from yours might view the work. Once you become good at reading audience feedback, and once you master basic artistic skills (again, not as a way to gain praise but so better to express yourself artistically), you'll come to be able to manipulate those perceptions, play with them. But that's for later. Right now, focus on getting better. You need to have solid skills of artistic expression to be able to say anything, to develop a promising voice.

I feel like I have to put in a ridiculous amount of effort to accomplish even that.

Yes. Yes. Yes you do. True mastery requires tireless work toward improving your skills, an almost obsessive focus on self-improvement, and a refusal to accept good enough. It might not be worth it to you, but honestly, I'd rather not encourage mediocrity. You have it within you to create awesome art. You're not there yet. But if you work really hard, some day, you will be--and the world will be better for those works existing. That's why we work, isn't it? To leave the world better than we came into it?

In other words, you exist for the work, not the other way around. I wish someone had told me this sooner. It would have saved me a lot of angst and frustration and striving.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:40 PM on March 10, 2012

Oh, and something else: in my experience, when you're striving and struggling and just starting out, you sometimes feel like you're treading water, not getting anywhere. You work so hard and you just don't have the skills yet and you end up throwing so much work out and it all feels so wasted, wasted.

And then one day there's a break in the clouds. You sit down to do your work, and it comes easily, like instinct. I know it's difficult for you to believe that now, but I've found it always, always happens--the struggling, the misery, and then the inexplicable moment when you've moved beyond that. Only . . . it's not inexplicable. Because all that miserable work was not wasted. It was a foundation on which to build later mastery. You have to throw out a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. Success in the arts is built on a whole mountain of crap. That was once true for your professors, too. Have faith that your work is never wasted, even when it's terrible. It's all a part of the process.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:49 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have a solution, but I do have an employer's perspective.

As an employer, I value young applicants with high GPAs not because I believe GPA is inherently tied to intelligence or domain knowledge. I value it because I believe it's tied to the ability to satisfy a large number of professors, many of whom will give frustratingly vague, contradictory, and sometimes nonsensical requests.

To get a high GPA (which it sounds like you have), you need to hone your ability to do a reasonably good (not perfect, reasonably good) job of determining what all those people wanted, and then to give it to them.

Just know that the problem you're facing is common, and it sounds like aside from the personal stress, you're doing well.
posted by grudgebgon at 11:41 PM on March 10, 2012

> 4. 8-12 hours on an assignment doesn't seem all that insane to me.....So that's about 100 hours work per class = 400-600 hours total over a 13 week semester. Which works out to 30-46 hours of work per week depending on how many classes they take.

> True mastery requires tireless work toward improving your skills, an almost obsessive focus on self-improvement, and a refusal to accept good enough.

I agree with both these statements. I study a pretty technical and scientific field. I spend about 35-40 hours a week (depending on what topic we're covering) outside of class just studying. Sometimes I’ll do 40+ hours and get a B on a midterm that's 50% of my final grade. I don't have a life outside of school. But I love what I do, so I don't feel like I'm sacrificing that much. Honestly, it doesn’t sound like you’re all that passionate about what you’re studying.

As an aside - pretty much every response I've gotten from my professors about outside resources has been "go to the library and look at the department's section." Yeah, the section that hasn't gotten a new book since 2001. I don't agree with their responses but I'm dedicated enough to my field that I would dive into a volcano to find the article that will explain to me a key concept in just the right way.
posted by OsoMeaty at 3:25 PM on March 11, 2012

"go to the library and look at the department's section." " Yeah, the section that hasn't gotten a new book since 2001.

Yeah, I didn't mean that, when I said ask a librarian. I meant ask a librarian to show you how to find out about what resources exist in the world. You may have to purchase some of these resources yourself. But a librarian will know far more than simply the inventory of your university's library shelves. If you describe what sort of book you are interested in finding, or what your specific problem is, the librarian should be able to demonstrate to you how to use catalogues, the internet, international library book catalogues, databases, etc to locate such books. Sometimes there are non-obvious tricks to choosing and combining the right keywords.

It is probably also worth finding out about your university's policies for interlibrary loans, and for requesting new purchases. At ours, undergrads have to pay for loans from overseas, but it still often works out cheaper than buying the book, and loans from within Australia are free. Anyone, even undergrad students, can request that the library purchase a book, and these requests are decided on by an interdisciplinary committee. Most people I know say that most purchases they request are approved; the exception generally being journal subscriptions and multi-hundred dollar reference works, or anything that is very out of date.
posted by lollusc at 9:30 PM on March 11, 2012

just as a heads up bc there seems to be a veering toward talk of books here. designers just don't use books in the sense that more traditional majors do. it's why i thought it was a little odd that the OP was so fixated on not being able to obtain books or think his teachers were withholding books for whatever reason. books for what? no book is going to really teach you how to design. i used books to research for my projects but it wasn't really that in-depth that i needed a librarian to find something from me from some other university. in fact, in my daily work now, i research almost exclusively on the web and that is more than sufficient. and i (amongst my art school brethren), coming from a research-heavy university prior, was one of the few who did much research in that regard. we looked at design books. we looked at design history books. but there were no books that were going to unlock any design secrets for us in the way that the OP seems to think will happen if only s/he was able to get his/her hands on that book.
posted by violetk at 10:43 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If they are worried you aren't "finding your own voice" or something, they'll be reluctant to let you get your hands on anything that might provide too much of a template and let you avoid finding it for longer.

This is just so dumb (not you, lollscu, but that they would act like this). I do poetry, and no book is going to teach me "how" to write poetry, but if I'm interested in a certain perspective or effect and want to read more about it (or see more examples of other people doing it), that has always been encouraged by every teacher I've ever had. Similarly, the friend in art school that I've mentioned has come back from office hours with fantastic book recommendations from her professors that are right up her alley. Seriously, these teachers sound bad (who says there isn't a book about something if they're not 100% sure?) I wonder if maybe your frustration is coming off as resentment of them and they're too annoyed to take your questions seriously?

Anyway, OP, I've heard people struggling with the same issues you are say that it has to do with their ADD-- they spend a lot of time on work that they feel should take much less time, and are never able to research in a pointed and satisfying way. In that case, medication might help. Or you might decide that school is just not the right environment for you and keep making A's and B's until you can work on your own terms.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:54 PM on March 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thank, yall.

The time that I spend working on each individual project is usually much more than 15 hours a week, but I think it would make a lot of sense to try and force myself to cut back to that. I feel like the comment about perfectionism is probably the most accurate assessment of what's happening here, so I guess I should so some research on how to deal with that.

"'I feel like I have to put in a ridiculous amount of effort to accomplish even that.'

Yes. Yes. Yes you do."

More than fair enough. The most troubling part of this for me is that I feel like I'm behind the curve even after all that. But there are obviously no shortcuts.

"i thought it was a little odd that the OP was so fixated on not being able to obtain books...no book is going to really teach you how to design...we looked at design history books. but there were no books that were going to unlock any design secrets for us in the way that the OP seems to think will happen if only s/he was able to get his/her hands on that book."

Ahh...The OP doesn't seem to think that will happen because the OP, like most people, has read books before and is aware of how they function. The OP is not 'fixated' on obtaining books, the OP just thinks that it's odd to be told that there are no books in existence pertaining to the subject of typography, when there are many.

If I'm trying to create a typographic layout for a project, and I don't know anything about how grid-systems work, I'm going to be at a disadvantage. If I'm trying to create a typeface for a project, and I don't know anything about the processes through which one goes about doing this (Should I work directly on a computer? Should I sketch first? Is it ethical to use other typefaces as a springboard?) then, again, I am going to be at a huge and unnecessary disadvantage, because there are dozens of books on the subject just lying around, and after reading them, they have helped me immensely. I just don't believe it makes much sense to arbitrarily decide not to seek out information because it won't instantaneously make me an expert on a subject.

I don't ask for books because I'm expecting them to teach me everything about design, nor did I say that I do. If you're confused about my intentions in requesting a research material, please feel free to ask me for clarification. Please do not feel free to jump to jump to conclusions or decide for me. It's not my intention to be rude in saying all this, but I did feel it necessary to address that before anyone else mistook it for the issue at hand here. I do know how books work. Thank you very much for taking the time to post. I appreciate your taking the time out of the day to address my issues.
posted by jumelle at 8:58 AM on March 12, 2012

More than fair enough. The most troubling part of this for me is that I feel like I'm behind the curve even after all that. But there are obviously no shortcuts.

You might want to read up on the Dunning Kruger effect. As wikipedia says, "Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, 'the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.'" It's likely you're misjudging the competence of others and mistaking their wrongful confidence (which arises because they're not very good) as actual ability.

However, let's say you're right and you're not as good as your classmates. Perhaps you're lacking in inherent talent or ability. That doesn't mean that your work is worthless. In fact, someone who works hard at art but is less talented is (in my experience) just as likely to get ahead as someone who is naturally talented but doesn't work hard at it. I'm not a Christian, but I've found the Parable of the Talents helpful in this regard.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:25 AM on March 12, 2012

maybe this defensiveness of yours is part of the problem you are experiencing with your educational experience.
posted by violetk at 9:33 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a university student in a graphics-heavy program (landscape architecture), and what's interesting to me is that you don't mention other students at all. Is everyone else spending the same amount of time on projects as you, with the same results? Do other people struggle with understanding some of the same concepts, and do they get the same responses from your instructors? Do you turn to other students for help when something's not working for you? Do you work together in studio? Your cohort is a good benchmark for the amount of work you should generally be spending on things, and a good resource for bouncing ideas and concepts around. Even with my most infuriating classes, my peers were helpful in understanding concepts and providing general support in the face of a crummy teacher. Most of our studio time is spent together without a professor around, so we rely on each other.

Also, university libraries are a lot more than books. Ask the librarian to help you source things. There's tons of stuff online these days that a university should have a subscription to, like graphics and design journals. I'd be surprised if there aren't inter-library loans available to your campus library. My school has dedicated librarians for subjects; look into this and try setting up an appointment with a librarian at your campus if your professors can't supply the resources you need.

Yes, graphics courses will take over your life to an extent. You can't cram or BS, because you've got to have something to show. But if your peers still have social lives, maybe you're working too hard. Can you go part time, or lessen your load in other ways? Have you spoken to your advisor about this?

I would also look twice at your defensive response to violetk. What she pointed out is true about graphics and design, and you can take it or leave it without assuming it is a judgment about your ability to use books. This is true of everything that you're going to hear as a design student as well. Learn to evaluate statements for their usefulness (or future usefulness) and proceed accordingly. Don't read personal stuff into information or critiques, or you'll never make it through a design program.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:44 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think you were being defensive, jumelle. The language in the comments about books was frustrating.

I came to comment because I second the idea of working with or in groups of other students. Is there an on-campus studio or lab where other students work? You might be able to evaluate how much work other students put in by being around. Also, a lot of students don't sleep, and some are medicated, and some don't care if they get B's. Everybody has different ways of coping.

It also sounds from your last comment that you might struggle with the fundamentals more than some other students who just jump right in-- that can often be a symptom of perfectionism, but it is likely to decrease with time and practice (and intent).
posted by stoneandstar at 6:19 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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