How can I accept being the slow, stupid student?
May 10, 2015 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Two weeks ago I started college for the first time. My own intellectual deficiencies, impatience, and self-hatred as started to rise to the surface once more.

What made me choose to take a software development program at a college was the accident I had in December – I was working as a truck driver and rolled a tractor trailer unit off a highway while driving in icy conditions. It was a horrible experience to put it mildly.

Now in college I once more feel like I am the stupid, slow student that can never understand anything. Each time our teacher asks us to do these practice exercises, it seems that the rest of the class is done them all and are moving onto harder exercises or are surfing Facebook because they have nothing else to do, while I am still hopelessly stuck on the first exercises until a smarter student or the teacher saves me. Example: many of the students were done the exercises by the end of class on Friday, it is now Sunday and I still haven’t been able to finish them. I emailed a smarter student to see if he will once more help me, otherwise I am hopelessly lost using my own intellect.

Online I asked computer programmers on a forum for help; the response I received was that the code I made was so horrible that there is no way that I could have thought about what I was doing even after two days of working on it.

School has forever been like this for me, causing me to seriously doubt the claims made by my therapist and what few friends I do have about how ‘intelligent’ I am.

In elementary school I was the ‘retarded’ student that failed all his classes to a point that some schools graduated me only so that they no longer had me as a student. Later I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and in high school I was placed into the special education class, where I did better academically than I had previously but still not without the regular intervention of staff members.

After high school I had no money to afford a higher education (I was ineligible for loans), therefore I went to truck driving school which, under certain circumstances, is publicly funded where I live. In the end I did complete that schooling, although not without failing it twice, the highest amount of failure of any student in the class.

My therapist says it is because I ‘learn differently,’ but sometimes I think that that is just the politically correct way of saying that I am stupid.

Sometimes I am so tired of my life being this uphill battle, from having a father that liked to rape me as a child, to being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and failing in school, to being wholly disowned and unwanted by my family, to struggling to support myself financially, etc. I feel worn out, exhausted, and frustrated with myself and my life.
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Education (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're having a difficult time, for totally understandable reasons. You mentioned that you would find yourself stuck on an introductory exercise until you got help. Once you got help, could you then do the work? Once you have seen someone else move through the problem, could you--even partially--replicate their approach? If so, I would suggest that you weren't "hopelessly stuck," for what that is worth.

Have you spoken with your teacher--perhaps in their office hours--about the approach you took to try to reach an answer in the early problem sets? If you are putting in long hours and still struggling, perhaps the problem lies in your method, which might be something that your teacher can help you to adjust. It's OK to talk to your teacher about the problem sets that are already completed.

I wonder as well about the efficacy of reaching out to an internet forum instead of to the resources at your institution--such as your teachers, and perhaps the accessibility services office. Where I teach, we are able to accommodate students who need more time to complete assignments. Your institution may have a similar office.

As someone who doesn't know you, but who does work with lots of students, I can tell you that people do learn in different ways. Some people need to see a model of a completed project; some people need to talk through the work, putting it in their own words; some people need to take things apart in order to see their separate elements before putting it all together. Do you know how you learn? If your current method isn't working, have you asked your teachers or peers or advisors what other study habits you might experiment with?
posted by monkeymonkey at 8:03 AM on May 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Just the two cents from a college instructor: the quality of your writing in this post is far better than most of the papers I get from freshmen and sophmores. You are not stupid. In addition to monkeymonkey's suggestions, you might consider speaking with your therapist about whether or not you might be helped by medication, i.e. stimulants, especially if the problem you have is an inability to really sit down and focus. Sometimes the difference between the "smartest" kid in the room and the slow kid is just a matter of sheer power of concentration.
posted by dis_integration at 8:09 AM on May 10, 2015 [68 favorites]

I don't think a stupid person could have written what you wrote.

My own intellectual deficiencies, impatience, and self-hatred as started to rise to the surface once more.

The impatience and self-hatred stood out to me in this sentence. It's difficult to give yourself a chance to learn a new topic if you are impatient and hate yourself. It's even worse when you compare yourself to everyone else.

Is this your first time in a programming class? I would venture to guess that many of the other students knew at least some of the material before taking the class and perhaps that is why they seem to be breezing through the exercises.

You said you had difficulty passing the trucking exams. Once you became a trucker, did you find it difficult? I ask because some people find school difficult, but once they are in the real world, they excel.

I really think you need to work on your self hatred and impatience. I don't think you're intellectually deficient (from what you wrote), but hating yourself and being impatient can make it impossible to really do well in school.
posted by parakeetdog at 8:15 AM on May 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'm really sorry that you're going through such a tough time. You have indeed been dealt a crappy hand, but you are doing the best you can.

Please try not to pay too much attention to the students around you. Everyone learns differently and you need to give yourself a bit more time to work out what works for you. You will also not ever really know what's really going on with the other students. You might think that someone who has finished a task quickly has done so because they really know what they're doing. In reality, they might have done a terrible job. Speed is not always the most important thing. Sometimes people who "get" things straight away become nonchalant and actually end up learning very little overall, while a student who takes a bit more time to understand the task ends up grasping it much better.

Make sure that you make the most of your teachers' office hours. They are there to help you.

Which forum were you using to get help with your code?
When I was trying to teach myself computer programming, I found that I could find most of the answers I need on Stack Overflow. I didn't even have to ask anyone, I just had to think of the right key words to search for. I don't think I've ever thought of a question that hadn't been asked before somewhere on the internet. It's worth a try, at least.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 8:19 AM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I remembered your user name and looked back at a few of your questions. I don't think this is about school in particular, I think you have some other issues that are interfering in all aspects of your life (I mean, you're asking about academics but mention childhood rape, AS, financial ruin, family disowning you, etc.).

So while you could get some advice here about how to do better in school, it'll be the equivalent of scurrying to put out a small flame when there's a gigantic forest fire to your right.

You appear incredibly intelligent and you've gone through some rough stuff, professionally, personally and now academically.

I mean this with the utmost compassion.

I don't think getting academic support for this is nearly as critical as finding an excellent therapist and possibly a prescribing psychiatrist and unpacking your issues. Many areas of your life WILL get better, but you need to get some help. I'm not in any way minimizing your academic issues, by the way, I just think you'd be best served to step back and get help for the larger picture.
posted by kinetic at 8:28 AM on May 10, 2015 [23 favorites]

For what it's worth, I can trace my entire career in computer programming to a conversation over 40 years ago with a friend on the college quad. He told me there was an opening for a work-study student in the college's computer center that I might be interested in.

Up to that point I was torn between math and library science and though I had decent grades I had no particular love for either and probably would not have done well. I wonder how I would have felt if I kept going in either of those fields seeing myself fall farther behind those who had a real talent for it. I am so thankful to that college friend.

Maybe you really don't have any particular talent in computer programming, maybe it's like math is for me (an interest but not a talent). If you want you can MeFi message me to get a second opinion on whether your code was awful or just that of a beginner (though I may not be qualified in your particular language).

I also agree with a lot of the great advice up thread (instructor during office hours, looking for answers in stackoverflow by searching for questions, and getting help for any emotional issues since removing obstacles is always wise for any endeavor).
posted by forthright at 8:39 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with the others that you write very well, and I'm so sorry that your past experiences have led you to believe that you're stupid. I'm also sorry that your first experience back in school is so discouraging for you.

At the risk of making you feel badly about the choice you made, what besides your accident made you choose to study computer programming? I ask because I work at a community college and we find so often that students pick a program not because they like the topic or have aptitude for it, but because it's something they've heard of. That may not be the case for you, but now have another choice to make: you can fight through this - either because it's something you feel passionate about, or because you want to "beat it" for the sake of beating it - or you can walk away from it. Either choice is completely ok. Discovering what you're not good at, or what you don't like, is NOT A FAILURE. It's a gift.

Please take advantage of the resources available at your college: your instructor; the tutoring center; academic counseling resources; and a career center. Every person I know who works in education (on the student-facing side, at least) is there because they really, truly want to help students be successful. They literally sit in their offices wishing that students would come in and ask for guidance. There is not a single iota of shame in telling someone that you feel like you're in over your head, or don't understand, or you don't know what to do next, or even that you feel like you may have chosen the wrong class or the wrong program.

You don't have to be defined by your past. You don't have to be defined by this class. I hope you will allow others to help you find a program where you can be happy and successful - there definitely is one out there for you.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:40 AM on May 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

From experience, most people who take intro to programming classes have experience programming already. They may not know a specific concept or have used that specific programming language, but they have programmed or at least scripted before. Also, most programming classes are taught so poorly, that is kind of required to do well.

Second, doing well in class is a specific skill. It's one that people go to college tend to self select for. It's not a measure of intelligence, any more than being able to climb a tree is a measure of intelligence. (E.g. People who are good at climbing trees know which trees are good for climbing, how to get started, where to grip, what's dangerous, etc. But you wouldn't say someone who couldn't climb a tree is stupid. Just maybe they haven't learned, and maybe they don't have natural aptitude.)

I think if you know you do well when someone helps you, one on one tutoring (or small group tutoring) is the right thing for you. Ask your school or professor if they can set you up for this either with a more senior student or with a grad student. My school also had open lab hours where students could go and ask TAs all the questions they have.

Some people do have an aptitude for programming, but a lot of it is simply grokking how the computer thinks. And the computer thinks differently than how humans think. So it's counter intuitive until it becomes intuitive.

Good luck! Feel free to shoot me a PM if you have a specific programming problem.
posted by ethidda at 8:42 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry you're frustrated because it is a frustrating situation. It doesn't mean there is something "wrong" with you. Think of it this way. Society is not very good at nurturing and dealing with students who are not "the average student". As a system, the education model is geared towards educating large bodies of students all at once and is optimized for a certain type of student. Those who fit into that mold do well and those who deviate may not because there isn't enough support to sufficiently help those who fit outside the parameters defined as "the average student".

Not being "the average student" does not make you dumb! It does mean you may have different needs, learn and different ways, and, perhaps more importantly, have different and valuable skills that aren't being recognized and nurtured. I don't mean this as a putdown to education, but as a reminder to be aware that the system sometimes may have limitations that have nothing to do with the individual in the system. I advise checking out this Ted Talk about education, specifically the part towards the bottom about Gillian Lynne. Being someone who responds and expresses himself/herself differently doesn't make a person dumb. It just makes them different and need to find different methods of coping and thriving.

In case you didn't realize this, your question itself demonstrates the ability to think and respond in intelligent ways. You haven't just accepted life the way it was, you sought improvement and made changes. You're seeking help with your struggles. Intelligence is not the same as being good at something. It's the ability to think and respond in better ways. Also in case you didn't notice, you didn't write your question in simple short sentences with a simple vocabulary. You have an ability to think and write -- to form complex ideas and express them in a clear, straightforward, and intelligible manner. The ability to convey complex situations and personal feelings clearly to others is in no way easy or a given. I think the world could avoid a lot of problems if we all learned how to communicate properly. I hope you will keep that in mind anytime you start to doubt your intelligence.

To help wrap up, I'll just mention a brief anecdote I heard about a wealthy investor who didn't particularly care how well his son did in school as long as his son was consistently demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit. When you get impatient about how you're doing in some areas, it helps to remember you're ability to excel in others.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 8:59 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also: some people are just arrogant jerks. Don't give one programmer on the internet who calls your code horrible too much weight.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 9:08 AM on May 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you're new to programming, keep in mind that other people in your classes may well have been messing around with programming since they were little kids. And on top of that I notice that in your previous AskMe you said you'd signed up for
a one year program that seems like a fit for me – software development and design
When I was in college (albeit not during this century) I don't think there even were any one-year programs in software development, so I'm wondering if maybe the program you got into was planned around an average student with a substantial amount of programming experience to start off with. (And in that case it's effectively designed so that people starting from scratch will feel like they're climbing Mount Everest.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:15 AM on May 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can pretty much guarantee that many of your classmates are surfing Facebook because they have no idea how to get started and are too embarrassed to ask for help.
posted by yarntheory at 10:27 AM on May 10, 2015 [13 favorites]

I agree with the others - your writing indicates that you are definitely not stupid. And a one-year software development program sounds WAY accelerated and probably intended to appeal to people who already have some programming experience. It's no wonder you feel like you're drowning! Consider the fact that SW development is complex enough that many developers go through 4-5 years of college, often in addition to another 2 years of graduate school. It's NOT something you master in one year.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:30 AM on May 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I was an academic kid at school, I studied computer science and found it easy and then got a job in software.

What I didn't do at school was sports (too busy being nerdy!), so when I took up skiing in my late twenties I found it really hard to learn. Then for unknown reasons I got determined to become a qualified instructor. It seemed like everyone else in the business was the sporty kids from school that already knew how to learn and how to train and practice. I spent what seemed like forever being the worst person in the class, and not only that, these classes had regular video feedback on our performance right in front of everyone! I felt like a doofus a lot of the time. I sat there telling myself in my mind "It's OK to feel like a doofus. It's OK".

I was SUCH a slow learner but I stuck to it and stuck to it and eventually you bet I did qualify as an instructor. And what I learned was:

1. You're not stupid just because you don't know something yet.
2. Half the battle is learning to manage your own state of mind, for example, by finishing a difficult training session with something easy and satisfying, or by building up to something challenging with simple steps rather than aiming for the big thing to start with.
3. It's OK to take a zillion times longer than everyone else. They probably really took the same amount of time as you, it's just they did a lot of their time years ago, and you have to do it all now.
4. It's OK to ask for help.
posted by emilyw at 10:32 AM on May 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

I just want to echo that your writing is clear, concise, and better than average. I just went through a round of interviews to hire an entry-level marketing/comms person, and we considered both people with a 2-year degree and a 4-year degree, and the quality of your writing exceeds 90% of what I saw in applications, and is certainly higher than 2 of the 4 people we interviewed. Chin up, play to your strengths - durinh this past search, I literally was looking for "a moderately intelligent person who would be happy at this pay scale and can write a cogent email."
posted by samthemander at 10:40 AM on May 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

A few things.

In my experience intelligence has nothing to do with educational success for most people. I spend most of my working hrs surrounded by people who have at least an undergraduate degree and professional qualifications and some of them are very intelligent and some are very much not so. The higher up the ranks you go in my organisation the smarter people are in general, because the less smart ones do not manage to navigate the various things they need to navigate to succeed. Your posts sound very intelligent to me. So try to be less mean to yourself here. You are one of the smart ones and you will find a way to succeed in some way or other.

Were your past learning problems addressed enough so you actually know how you learn, as opposed to most other people. And were you given tools how to approach different materials/learning environments/requirements in a way that allows you to learn the way you learn? It doesn't sound like you were given these tools so start to work on how to approach this course so it works for you with your student services/academic counsellors/therapist.

That may entail getting some accommodations. It doesn't sound as if an assessment has been made what/if accommodations should be made. I have no idea if you are entitled to accommodations or not but it is something to explore, just as soon as you know how you learn.

Many moons ago, I was a study skills advisor when I was at university. My remit was limited to supporting your average students with practical study skills coaching because they found the step up from secondary school difficult, no complex learning requirements, so they would not have directed you to me for example because your needs seem to be more complex. My key take away was that doing well in education is not about intelligence but about knowing how to learn and how to pass exams (not the same thing at all). There is a way for you to learn as well. From the frustration in your post I don't think you've found it so far.

Lastly, yes, not all people have an equal aptitude for all materials, kinds of learning and learning environments. So your current course may be a poor fit in some way as well.

But start with the study skills and the accommodations. Once you've explored all of that and you are still not doing as well as you would like consider fit. But you should be able to define the problems a lot more clearly before you can say it's poor fit as opposed of the other things that are going on.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:46 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you have a learning disability? Have you ever been tested for that? Do you know how you learn differently? Might there be a way to discuss it with the professor so you can learn the way that you learn? Could there be strategies for you on how to minimize difficulties and help you learn the way you need to?

Because based on your question, you do sound very smart and capable. Most people, to be frank, cannot string together coherent thoughtful sentences the way you just did. This sounds like one of those cases where someone says "I'm bad at school" even though I know they are very smart -- you're not dumb.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:56 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I remember your other questions, and I know that your writing - about complex world issues - has gotten enthusiastic support from people qualified to evaluate it, and, that it's been published. You're the farthest thing from stupid. You have strengths and weaknesses, like all of us do. It may be that this subject isn't one that falls under your natural strengths. Which is ok, too, that doesn't mean you can't progress and achieve in this area, with the right help.

Don't be so quick to blame yourself for the difficulty you're having with these exercises. I'd guess that others are probably right that your classmates have already been doing some kind of programming for a while. And this isn't a subject that that you've spent a lot of time on prior to this course, right?

Also, it's at least possible that the instructor might not be explaining things in a way that makes sense to complete novices. A few years ago, I signed up for a stats class. I was nervous. The last time I'd taken anything math-related was in 11th grade, one million years ago, and I did only moderately well in it; my version of hell was (and is) having to work out a restaurant bill. . That prof rushed through his explanations at a surface level, assuming a ton of background knowledge, and the textbook he used was impenetrable to me. I freaked out and dropped that class in the second week.

I later took the same class, this time with another prof known for his teaching ability. Before the class even started, he sent us resources to help those of us without the necessary background bring ourselves up to speed (pre-calc stuff). His explanations clicked for me (and many other students), and the text he chose was clear as day. His TAs made themselves available 24/7 via email. I went in thinking I might scrape by with a C; I wound up with an A.

Get the help you need, from a study skills advisor or tutor, if it's not available through the class itself.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:03 AM on May 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think you should look for a book called "C for Dummies" by Dan Gookin. I learned programming from that book.

No, listen, I really really recommend it.

Get the book, work through the first couple chapters, if you're still stuck memail me and I will help you with your programming homework.

You're a good hardworking person, and nobody who writes as well as you do could reasonably be considered stupid.
posted by tel3path at 11:04 AM on May 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's just a small thing but try to get in the habit of substituting the term "more advanced" for smarter. And "beginning" for slow and stupid. It's just a mental trick but I think it really works. Stop. Force yourself to say the new term. Then continue on.

...stuck on the first exercises until a smarter more advanced student...

I emailed a smarter more advanced student to see if he will once more help me...

...I am the stupid, slow beginning student

I'm back in school after 25 years. I feel you on being intimidated. But I am feeling much stronger and confident after doing the work for a bit and focusing on my strengths - problem solving, life experience, etc. I'm trying to look at my classes in terms of what I bring to the table. I'm taking economics and now I can tell you I have a lot to offer. I have experience with paying taxes, mortgage, budgeting, political insight. I haven't done homework or written an essay as recently as these young whippersnappers(!) but I have something to offer as well.

Sit down and write out what you can offer. And you can offer a lot. Dude, I've read your posting history. You have serious survival skills. Driving a damned semi truck takes skills - problem solving, time management, responsibility, work ethic. Financial management (perfect credit rating). Dealing with complicated family issues takes negotiating and intellect. And you have a fantastic self-awareness.

I know it doesn't seem like these could translate to a computer-type class but they can and will:
-Problem-solving? Check.
-Time management? Check. (So what if you are slower than others? You are working hard and being thorough.)
-Work ethic? Check. (You are honest about your work. You know where you need to improve. You don't try to BS your way through.)
-Self-awareness? Check. (You know your weaknesses. I just hope you can believe you have strengths.)

I'm also wondering if your therapist is really helping you make progress. You seem to be dealing with so much. If you feel like you are moving forward, great. But don't be afraid to find another if this one isn't helping you or helping you enough.

Good luck! And just for fun: You can do it!
posted by Beti at 11:05 AM on May 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Go to your professor's office hours. That's what they're there for (and when I was a grad student I kept office hours every week and had one student come to see me once. I would have been happy for someone to show up regularly!).

Also, is it possible for you to hire a tutor? If there's an online newsletter or (physical) bulletin board at your school you could advertise for a fellow student who's been there longer to walk you through the work a couple of hours a week for $10/hour or so.
posted by telophase at 1:53 PM on May 10, 2015

I want to specifically respond to this part of your question:

Each time our teacher asks us to do these practice exercises, it seems that the rest of the class is done them all and are moving onto harder exercises or are surfing Facebook because they have nothing else to do, while I am still hopelessly stuck on the first exercises until a smarter student or the teacher saves me.

I am a graduate student and a teacher of college students as well, and I guarantee you that the majority of students who've "moved on" to surfing Facebook during class time are not finished with any exercises, they're just slacking off. Please, please do not judge yourself against these students who are not working or trying nearly as hard as you.

I currently teach introductory level statistics to students who have mostly never had statistics and are pretty anxious about the subject as a whole. Having a student like you who cares about their learning and is working their hardest in the course is worth 100 of those students who barely try and spend class time messing around on Facebook. I personally LOVE working with my students one-on-one and seeing someone who is struggling start to gain confidence and skills. It is truly what I'm there for as a teacher. Don't feel bad for going to your teacher with your questions or needing extra help. YOU BELONG IN THIS COURSE just as much as anyone else who is there and deserve the same amount of respect and support as all of your fellow students.
posted by augustimagination at 1:58 PM on May 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

I always thought I was "stupid" when it came to learning languages. I've tried every trick in the book (or so I thought) - Rosetta Stone, Immersive Study, repetition and memorization, etc. What little I could retain would slip out of my memory like sand. 3 years of intensive Spanish and I can count to 10 and tell you your blouse is beautiful - that's it.

It wasn't until I started listening to the podcast "The History Of English" that I have finally stumbled across the most helpful way for me to understand and begin to learn a foreign language. The host is incredibly well spoken and SLOW as he takes you through how we've gotten to the current form of English that is spoken. It's very phonetic based, he starts at the very beginning and has explicit examples of each form a word or phrase has taken over 6000 years. He also gives a historical timeline that explains why a dialect changed, or why a certain group of people started shifting sounds.

I finally get it, I'm finally able to understand whole sentences in French, German and Spanish, both reading and when it's spoken. Because that's the way my brain is wired! What I should have done in school is have extensive testing on the best way for me to learn. But I was convinced that something was wrong with me, not that something was wrong with the way I was being taught.

If nothing else, try different ways of absorbing the materials you're required to learn. Find a podcast or audio version of beginner coding, watch youtube tutorials, start a study group for beginning programmers and everyone take turns projecting onto a screen while they are programming.

Like others above, I work with people who have MBA's and graduate degrees that don't express themselves as wonderfully as you have asking this question. You are intelligent, you're just stuck trying to force yourself to learn in a manner that does not work for you.
posted by lootie777 at 2:29 PM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

My therapist says it is because I ‘learn differently,’ but sometimes I think that that is just the politically correct way of saying that I am stupid.

I say that to my students who learn differently, and what I mean is that they learn differently from other people. It's not at all a comment on their intelligence, because the two things are unrelated. How we learn and our capacity for learning are two different things.

I remember your previous questions. Obviously I don't know you personally, but from what you've written here and in your other posts, I can tell you're intelligent, you're a good writer, and you're a survivor.

I can also tell that your perspective is skewed and you don't recognize your own intelligence and abilities. Please keep going with therapy, because we can all reassure you of your intelligence (which is real) but it'll be hard for you to believe us until you can find a way to quiet the internal voice that's telling you otherwise.

Best of luck--you deserve it!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:08 PM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I showed your question to my husband, who is a professional technical writer who works with software developers at a major game company you have definitely heard of. He said flat out "Nobody can write this well and be stupid. 85% of the developers I communicate with can't write this well." He went on to say that he thinks you probably have a pretty hefty case of Impostor Syndrome, that you might be a true beginner in a class with a lot of students who have previous informal experience, that you may even specifically have trouble with a standard reading/lecturing teaching environment, or possibly a combination of all three -- but "stupid" just isn't on the board for you.
posted by KathrynT at 3:20 PM on May 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

A person can be very smart at some things and seriously dopey at other things. In 4th grade they tested me and said I had collegiate-level verbal skills and the math skills of a kindergartner. I am smart, and dumb.

It was really driven into my skull a few years back when I went to a trade school to become a dental assistant. I was surrounded by younger people who frankly didn't strike me as very smart, yet they were absolutely smoking my ass in the class. I've probably talked about this on Metafilter before, but there was one girl who couldn't understand the sort of jokes kids told in elementary school. (Like, "Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 9." Somebody had to explain to her very carefully that SEVEN ATE NINE, that one number devoured another number, and even then I had the feeling she was just nodding and pretending like she got it.) She was a dumb bunny, and somehow she ran rings around me in that class.

It devastated my self-esteem and I felt like an idiot... but the other students' brains simply didn't work like mine did. We were good at different things.

Look on Youtube for the clip of Stephen Fry trying to put together an Ikea shelf. The man is seriously brilliant, and if you watch QI you will be dazzled by his wit and knowledge. But faced with assembling an Ikea shelf he is reduced to a helpless, sweating mess, and the shelf he produces looks like it was made by an ape.

You also may want to Netflix that episode of Frasier where he and Niles take an auto repair class in night school. They're so bad at it that they start behaving like surly juvies, passing notes and goofing off in class. They're obviously smart guys, but they encounter a subject where they are just dumb and it freaks them the hell out.

I gave dentistry a real shot, but after a year or so I had to give up because it just was not right for me. Every day was a struggle, and I never got better. It may be that you're just not made for software development. Now is the time to take a hard look at the field and figure that stuff out. If this is something you really WANT to do and you have reason to think you'll be happy in the field, don't give up.

But if you are a square peg trying to make yourself fit a round whole, be honest with yourself about that. I promise you, there is some job out there that won't make you feel like a fool.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:44 PM on May 10, 2015

Also, since it sounds like you're worried about leaning on other students, I happen to be very good at school, and I honestly enjoy helping fellow students with exercises like that, provided that they're trying. I learn more because the other person has a different perspective on the problem and because I have to explain my answer (which often makes me realize I don't understand it as well as I thought).
posted by momus_window at 5:16 PM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Re programming, not everyone has the programming brain. Most people don't. Doesn't make you stupid if you don't have it.

That said, if this is your first programming class, I would not leap to any conclusions, and especially not based on comparing yourself to the other students. Give yourself some time, give your subconscious some time to work these new ideas over. Try to measure your progress against what you understood yesterday or last week, and not what some other student is doing.

I wouldn't quit as long as you still want to get proficient at programming. If you get to where you hate the very thought of opening up the coding editor then it's time to quit.

From what you say you're fairly young, probably early 20s. Early adulthood can be tough. It's a rough world out there, and you got an especially rough start. Maybe this isn't what you want to hear, but it can take some years to find your way. Hang in there.
posted by mattu at 6:34 PM on May 10, 2015

Just wanted to come back to highlight kinetic's comment. I know you're keen to move forward, but it sounds like you need a break, honestly. Are you doing a full course load? Paring the workload down to one or two courses might make things easier. It's difficult to focus when you're depressed, and you've had a hard time of things lately (to say the least). If you have a diagnosis and are under the active care of a psychiatrist (or psychologist, or MD), it might be possible to study on a part-time basis without losing your funding. Ask your student services department about this.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:38 PM on May 10, 2015

Hey, you don't have to feel bad about yourself because it's hard for you to learn this hard thing. Nobody knows everything. People who have a 150 IQ and find programming easy sit around banging their head all day on things that are hard to learn for them, too.

If you care about learning to program, just keep making progress. Focus on finding little bite-sized things you are confused about and try to zero in on them and understand them one thing at a time.
posted by value of information at 6:50 PM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

It took me years to get any level of comfort in programming. I'm OK at it now, not great. My way in was the Groovy programming language, which I found intuitive and clean. If you're trying to learn basic programming skills with Java or C#, you might want to try Groovy, Python, or Ruby instead.

The trend now is to Teach Everyone How To Program. It's as if that were the only type of job available in high tech. However, not everyone is cut out to be a programmer and it certainly is not any kind of gauge of how smart you are in general. Have you thought about tech writing, business analysis, software testing, or data analysis? Have you tried to learn SQL? You're a great, CLEAR writer so I think you might be a shoo-in for tech writing.

I swear to God, my observation is that when some really smart people fail, they fail spectacularly... I think that explains your "high failure rate" in some areas. There's no such thing as the gentleman's C for some of us.

And if you wanted to see "klutz," you should have seen my first efforts at clawhammer banjo a couple of weeks ago. I thought I was going to have to give it up. After a week or so of consistent 1/2 hour a day practice, things are quite different already - not quite ready to busk yet though. Incremental improvement, especially when it comes to learning as an adult, can look like putting one piggy toe in front of the other.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 6:52 PM on May 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Is it worth investigating learning styles? I might be totally wrong, but it sounds like you learn best by discussing things with other people, as opposed to written information. Do you have a learning centre on your campus? If so, go and make use of them. See if they can help you learn how to learn.
posted by kjs4 at 7:33 PM on May 10, 2015

Now in college I once more feel like I am the stupid, slow student that can never understand anything... I am still hopelessly stuck on the first exercises until a smarter student or the teacher saves me... I emailed a smarter student to see if he will once more help me, otherwise I am hopelessly lost using my own intellect.

Dude, will you cut yourself some slack? Like seriously: read your own language here. I can't imagine you would ever talk about another human this way; why would you even imagine it's OK to talk about yourself this way? Declaring yourself to be stupid, slow, less smart and in need of saving isn't going to help you move forward.

The point of school is to learn. It literally makes no difference if you learn more slowly than the other students in the class as long as you learn the same thing. Programming requires a certain, I dunno, mindset, and if you've never programmed before, it is totally natural for it to be a giant, blank mystery at first, especially in the first two weeks of school.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:05 PM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Are you in a job retraining program? If your schooling is sponsored by a job training program, they may pay for a tutor for you. If you are on your own with this, perhaps you can pay for some tutor time. Also, does your school have a study center? The study centers that I have had experience with always had three tutors in the room to help people with various subjects and professors often held office hours there. I have known people who pretty much lived at the study center and did all of their assigned work there. Absolutely yes go talk with your instructor to get some good advice and to show them that you really care about learning.

I went back to school as an adult and, even though I did well academically in high school, it was fucking HARD. Trying to remember even HOW to go to school, never mind trying to recall chemistry I had had 20 years ago. If I had topped all that off with not having done well back in the day, I don't know how I would have made it. You have picked a rigorous subject to start with and you can do it. You can do it! Be kind to yourself and don't be afraid to be the slowest in the class. To hell with all those kids! They can go play their judge-eri-doos someplace else!

If you are not already in a state sponsored job retraining program, I really suggest you try to apply in your state. You would be exactly the candidate they are there to serve - a very good reason why you can't continue in your current career, highly motivated to retrain, and with a documented learning disability. Not only would they help you come up with a plan, they can offer a lot of financial assistance and will go to great lengths to see you succeed.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:49 PM on May 10, 2015

I don't think people should be reinforcing this smart-dumb dichotomy, because looking at OP's post history, this is a big thing for them.

OP: Looking at your past questions, I have no doubt that you have the innate aptitude to pursue almost any major you wanted to in college. Your past struggles, your own learning style (yes, this is real and not secret code for "dumb as heck"), your own interests, your own insecurities and your own habits are the things that will influence your ability to do well in courses. It is not due to any intellectual inferiority you may have, OK? I know everyone has said that in this post so I do hope you manage to internalize it, but I know it's not so easy.

And yes, past exposure makes a huge difference. Again, so does learning style. I have a lot of anxiety about this stuff too, so in class exercises make me feel like an idiot, and the comparing-myself-to-other students thing has really, really gotten me down before. What eventually was true for me was that it wasn't that I couldn't do these things, and thus couldn't succeed in the class; rather, it was realizing that it was important for me to get over those things as much as possible before I could start doing well. I had a similar experience in high school with programming. I took the course, and everyone was complaining about doing badly, but the difference between everyone else's doing badly and my doing badly was that my grade on average was about 30 points less. I think I was the first person to ever be allowed to drop a class in my school. It was that bad, because most people got Bs/As in the class. I concluded that I was fundamentally dumb at CS and couldn't hack it.

In my junior year of college (and I had been having consistent difficulties up until this point) I, for some reason that is truly inexplicable in retrospect, decided I wanted to take the intro CS course for majors (aka not the fun one). I quickly had the same issues and along with just floundering in every aspect of my life, I let it spiral out of control. The lab was so awful for me because I could see everyone doing the exercises while I just sat there typing fake code, and in class I just doodled because I felt too panicked to write the shit down that I knew made zero sense to me, and would just "go to the bathroom" if I sensed a group exercise coming. Because of the way our homework's were distributed, I was aware I was below the class average. Eventually I got to the point where I couldn't figure out the midterm project and just stopped going to class, planning to withdraw. When I notified the prof about this, he (for reasons that are still unknown to me) suggested a lot of options and I eventually decided to take an incomplete in the course since I had to take incompletes in all of my other ones, and had to do half the semester's work by myself at home.

This actually helped me tremendously, because I was in a situation where I literally could not compare myself to my classmates and didn't have the course-lecture anxiety and the lack of that sort of structure actually enabled me to figure out concepts so much better than I would've otherwise and I actually ended up doing very well on all my remaining coursework and got a good grade in the course, then I got an even better grade in the next course. If I'd had more time in college, I would've kept taking more CS courses.

The point of this response wasn't to just arbitrarily pontificate about myself, I promise. The point is I went from a situation in which I was very much the "stupid one" in my CS courses to having As in my courses and a large, large part of that was removing the comparison to other students and managing my own insecurities. From your AskMF history, you have had a lot more shit to deal with in life to me (and frankly seem "smarter" than me, but let us abandon this useless and ill-defined concept!!) but we have a lot of the same insecurities. I cannot overstate the effect these insecurities can have on performance, not to mention combined with a vastly atypical learning style and mental health issues and past trauma. All of this is to say DO NOT ACCEPT BEING STUPID BECAUSE THAT IS NOT A FACTOR HERE. The more you try to "accept" yourself as being stupid and keep placing importance on intelligence (especially relative intelligence), the more you will hinder yourself.

I think other people have responded with great advice about what to do with your career, and your therapist, and with school. I recommend that you do talk to your profs about this, maybe your school's study centre also, and investigate further your different learning style (this was important for me, the kind of lecture-based classroom learning is 100% useless for me and it took like 20 years to figure it out) and keep working with your therapist on your negative self-image and overcoming the importance you place on inferiority/superiority, intelligence, mediocrity vs. achievement etc.

TL;DR - you are absolutely not too dumb for this, or not wired in a way that CS is just not possible for you, or inferior to your fellow classmates. I'm not sure about your program so I can't offer specific advice there. If you find you don't like this subject area or think you might like something else better, it is fine to abandon it. But it's not because you can't do it, you just might not be able to approach it in the straight forward way other students do. I will bet my life that either they aren't doing as well as you think or they've had past exposure to the subject. Not to mention that your educational background is less traditional, so they have an advantage in that respect. But with some targeted work and figuring out what works for you, you can absolutely catch up (and probably go beyond) in any field you want to. Sorry for the super long response, but I just hope you can find a way to realise that you are not stupid by any means, and this sort of thinking needs to go out the window ASAP (I know it's way, way easier said than done).
posted by hejrat at 11:10 PM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

8LeggedFriend, a quick read through your posts to MetaFilter would convince anyone that you are an intelligent person. Your own friends have confirmed this, all the available evidence says that it is true. Just accept it :)

You’ve dived straight into a degree which is notorious for being conceptually difficult for many, many people, including those who would be described as “intelligent” by everybody around them. The ability to grasp Computer Science concepts quickly & intuitively is not a test of your intelligence or worth as an individual.

If you take nothing else away from everyone’s comments above, take these two things:

1) You are a person with qualities (your writing ability for a start) that are so obvious to everyone else that they don’t question your intelligence for a second.
2) Computer Science is really hard for many people. It’s OK for you to be one of those people. Finding CS hard is not a judgement on your intelligence or value as a person.

You’ve been at college two weeks, in a subject where the foundations (discrete mathematics mostly) are probably something that you haven’t thought about in a decade or more, if you ever studied them at all. Cut yourself a little slack - give yourself permission to be bottom of the class for a term or so. Also, it’s totally OK to decide after a term “CS is not for me” - given your obvious writing ability perhaps something in that line would be a good idea? - In that case, don’t let anyone tell you (including you yourself!) that trying something new out is nothing but a good thing.

Thinking about the courses you’re taking right now, the worst thing to happen in a class in my experience is to miss out on understanding an early concept that serves as a foundation for later learning - these concepts are like lego bricks that the course will use later on to build more complex structures. If you have the time to go back over your lecture notes from the beginning, doing them over a second or third time in your head might help you identify where the missing lego bricks (for you) are. Sometimes finding an alternate course textbook helps - just reading a different description of the same thing can help make things click together. There are a lot of online resources & even complete textbooks online these days.

If you want a bit of direct help, memail me - if nothing else we can work backwards to see if we can identify those missing mental lego bricks.
posted by pharm at 3:19 AM on May 11, 2015

You sound like an amazing person, who has overcome all sorts of obstacles. That may not help with your pain and doesn't address the trauma of your experience. I hope therapy is helping with that. But you sound like you have a lot to offer. You sound articulate and intelligent to me. You have formed complex ideas and communicated them to us. You are resilient.

One of my friends struggled in college. When we graduate, she got a job and recruited me to the company. I soared while she struggled. She seemed "stupid" and eventually got fired. It was the best thing that ever happened to her. She gave up on work in our field. At the time, I thought she was dead wrong. But she got a job in the banking industry. Now she is an executive. She was in the wrong field! Her inability in one field and all the things holding her back turned out to be assets in a field where she had to focus on relationships, set processes and particular details. She'd been in the "wrong" major, the "wrong" career and even hanging out with the "wrong" people.

Another friend went through school, junior college (she didn't finish) and work, thinking she was stupid. After a divorce, she got a new job as a secretary and took a night class at junior college - where she met me. Well, it turned out she had never sought accommodation for her disabilities before and that she had no idea how to get support for them. With the right support and a plan for her education, she transferred to university, where she eventually did work for one of the top professors in her field. She took a long time to graduate, but she stuck to it. She realized she needed a job that would flex around her work, so she started a business, grew it, started another, grew it, and then founded another business with her husband. She's well respected and earns a decent living. This was the "stupid" girl who struggled with working as a secretary. Wrong field, wrong supports - all turned around later.

I encourage you to talk to your therapist about accommodation at school and in the workplace. It doesn't sound like anyone has advocated for you or set up supports for you, at least not the right supports.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:05 PM on May 11, 2015

You seem to be good at telling stories. Perhaps you are too good at that for your own good? Or rather, the stories your tell yourself aren't doing you much good.

I have a similar problem. One of my stories of me I've told myself is that I do well enough at something that people develop expectations of me, and once they have, that I will end up disappointing them and frustrating myself. The basic facts presented themselves when I was in elementary school. I recognized them as a repeating theme by my freshman year of high school. By early adulthood, I was psyching myself out. Raises and promotions at work made me uncomfortable, because I had a sense of foreboding about what would come next. For the last 10 years, I've been working through the stories I've told myself. I recognize that I've been reasonably successful despite the fear that I'll drop the ball. I recognize that the things I've done to avoid the disappointment haven't always served me well, that in sum, I'd have been better off taking more risks, and the disappointments that came from some of them, because they would have been outweighed by the rewards.

For you, I'd suggest that thinking of yourself as slow and stupid is some comfort to you, that it gives you an out when things don't come easy. You might do better to think of yourself as flexible, determined and pragmatic. You went to commercial driving school because it was the best option forward that you could see at the time. You got through it, but then reconsidered your choice one you learned more (that continuing to be a commercial driver could get you killed). You found a new path forward. That path has been challenging, but you've done the best you can to find a way forward. You've looked for help with programming on forums, and you've come here to get advice on whether there is a better way for you to approach life. You are flexible, determined and pragmatic. Over time, the results of that approach can be surprising.

The narrative of myself that I've struggled with stems from ADHD tenancies, and the emergent behaviors the spawned and reinforced over my life. One result is that I tend towards embracing the new at the expense of the old.

There is a notable exception to this pattern. A decade or so ago, I was frustrated and unhappy with my job and the career options in front of me. I took the opportunity to get involved with my alma matter's alumni board.

I had a simple goal, and quickly found allies with overlapping goals.
We pushed forward, and received support from the larger alumni board. We worked with relevant staff. Progress was slow and frustrating. My collaborators dropped out.

I kept pushing forward, I tried new approaches to the narrow issue I was interested in. I realized that there were broader issues, and other opportunities. I tried things. I found new collaborators. Most of the things I tried failed outright, or struggled to take off, but I took stock of my failures and refocused myself on the problem at hand. Some of my collaborators dropped out.

I persisted. My efforts were recognized and I was asked to join the leadership of the alumni board. I hesitated, concerned about the expectations people had. Rather than shying away, I confronted the issue and shaped expectations. I accepted the call, and began my 4 year term.

Half way in, I was asked to figure out a vision for the organizations next 10 years. I solicited input from dozens of alumni over the course of the next 8 months. There were lots of good ideas, but I couldn't figure out anything that made sense to tie them together. I felt defeated. I beat my head against the wall for weeks. I was up late, in a dorm room, the night before I was supposed to deliver my report. I started a draft, through it out, and started another. I thew it out, and started another, this one I finished: I proposed that the board should focus its effort on the issues I'd been focusing my efforts on for the past decade.

It was a relief, though I had doubts that I'd actually accomplished anything. My proposal was received well, but still my doubts persisted. I struggled to start putting my plan into effect. I struggled so much, that, combined with the other stresses in my life, I had a small nervous breakdown. To recover, I worked quickly to shed myself of as much responsibility as possible. I gave up on some of the battles I was fighting at work, and I tried to hand-off responsibility for implementing my plan to collaborators.

Then a funny thing happened. The thing I'd struggled with for a decade without clear signs of progress started picking up steam. I doubted that my efforts had much to do with that. I thought, at best, the progress came not because of me, but despite me. With some reflection though, I realized that previous efforts, whether mine, or others, had struggled; Now, most seemed to be thriving. The only real thread that connected the two was me and my efforts to understand the issue, the way forward, and to socialize what I learned, to develop a common understanding among volunteers, faculty, staff, and students, about the issue, its importance, and how it might be tackled.

Perhaps I'm just telling myself a new story, but its new, and it tells me something about myself I didn't know, that I can persist, for years, that I can recover from distraction and discouragement and pick things up again, and that my persistence has paid off.

You are persistent, determined, and flexible. You will find a way forward, somehow, just as you always have.
posted by Good Brain at 12:11 PM on May 11, 2015

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