Ask v. Guess Culture exists. What about trying v. not trying culture?
April 26, 2022 5:57 AM   Subscribe

As with ask versus guess culture, the trying hard versus not trying at all culture seem very much at odds. What are the unwritten rules and expectations of each culture?

I’m mostly considering this question in an academic environment. For instance, it’s respected to try hard if you are studying engineering, or if you are a pre-med struggling with organic chemistry. Even the professors expect that you go all out in your studying.

However, outside of STEM things seem to be very different. The professors have no reservations about saying that they think students care too much (and are trying too hard).

What is behind these two types of cultures? I’m interested about understanding in it an academic context, but also in society at large.

In my experience “guess” culture is associated with “not trying” culture. Is this right, and why is this?

Perhaps most importantly, what do you do when you’re a natural “try hard” trying to succeed in a “don’t try” environment? How do you fit in?

I feel like this has some overlap with having “passion” for something and being a “natural” at it, versus just doing something and giving it your best effort. Why is okay to try in some contexts (STEM) but not okay to try in others (non-STEM)?
posted by GliblyKronor to Education (51 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, your assumptions about non-STEM academia are entirely inconsistent with my experience, as is your association of guess culture with lack of effort. Some specific examples are needed, because your generalizations are wrong.
posted by jon1270 at 6:10 AM on April 26, 2022 [34 favorites]


(Also, sorry, I don't mean my response to come off as hostile; I'm just genuinely confused and I suspect most other non-STEM people are too. My partner is a STEM person, by the way, and we were together for our senior years of university and throughout grad school, and then we both taught college, so I do have points of comparison.)
posted by wintersweet at 6:11 AM on April 26, 2022 [6 favorites]


I don't feel like this maps to STEM/non-STEM the way you suggest - the "hustle culture" attitude seems just as prevalent among the musicians I know as it does among the software developers. And when I worked in pharmacy colleges we definitely talked about kids who were working too hard and wasting their time and energy on all-nighters.

I don't feel like it really lines up with ask/guess that way either - as a native speaker of "guess" my inclination is to try hard to anticipate what I need to do and get that done before anyone asks.
posted by mskyle at 6:12 AM on April 26, 2022 [3 favorites]


This is not my experience in non-STEM fields at all (BA, MA, and ABD in English). The closest I can come to it is the idea that creative writing can't be taught, but even then, nobody says you don't have to work at it. People in the arts and sports are seen as needing some natural talent, but then also having to work very hard.

If you know professors who say students work too hard, perhaps this is a reference to students who are just focusing on grades and not on understanding the material?
posted by FencingGal at 6:13 AM on April 26, 2022 [19 favorites]


I have non-STEM grad students and what I want is for them to try harder because what I see is mostly lazy-ass bullshit.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:14 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


Respectfully, I think that while you're noticing a real difference in the humanities vs. STEM, you're reading it wrong.

The professors have no reservations about saying that they think students care too much (and are trying too hard).

I, a humanities professor, have definitely told students they seem to be caring too much (about grades, perfection, etc.) when they say, reveal they have been barely sleeping, if they write me a long email about how between the pandemic, their bi-polar disorder, and the recent death of their beloved grandparent (to give just one example) they are having a hard time staying on top of their work. That's when I'll say something along the lines of, "Deep breath, there are way more important things in life than college - now is a time to prioritize your health, physically and mentally." Like, I've had another student apologize because a paper was late, then noting she had been stressed out due to a recent cancer diagnosis which she's been keeping secret(!!!). So yeah, I feel pretty comfortable saying that many students are pushing themselves way too hard.

As for why you might see a different between STEM and non-STEM faculty. Certainly, for many STEM classes, the way grading is set up there is often less wiggle room. And then there is the material of the potential importance of the material - nobody is going to die if a student half-asses English 101, but someone could die if a pre-med student misses some essential material.

But I think a bigger reason is, at the risk of painting with too broad a brush: humanities faculty on average have somewhat higher social IQs than those in STEM. At ever institution I've been it, it's the STEM faculty who are most resistant to any sort of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiative, it's the STEM faculty who tend to complain more about students and balk at having to make any sort of accommodation with neurodiversity, etc. I once took a 10-week diversity training course that was university-wide, and the differences were....noticeable.

But all academics work extremely long hours, regardless of field, I promise.
posted by coffeecat at 6:17 AM on April 26, 2022 [46 favorites]


I wonder if what you're trying to get at is more effort versus results?

Like is it valued to put in extraordinary effort such as pulling all nighters on a regular basis even if that is likely counterproductive in the long run. in terms of retaining that knowledge?
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:18 AM on April 26, 2022 [3 favorites]


When my partner was teaching an undergrad elective art class to non-art majors, most humanities students gave their best effort, while many STEM students did half-ass jobs, thinking that an art class was just an easy grade class. Oh boy, were they disappointed with the amount of work and their grades! So maybe this is a common naive misconception amongst a certain group of young people.
posted by plant or animal at 6:26 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


I've been told that I was trying "too hard". I believe, now, that the people saying this were struggling to find a way to say that I was evidencing stress, which in turn stressed them.

I think this has to do with the fact that the people who often succeed in their fields were generally from a background that gave them a kind of unquestioning confidence.

I definitely did and do need to work more intently to succeed, but mainly because there are a lot of needed insights I didn't get as a child that aren't taught formally.
posted by amtho at 6:26 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: I have spent limited time in “guess” culture and I’m sorry that my perception of it being a “don’t try” culture is wrong and offensive. I’ll re-evaluate my biases.

From the responses so far I’m getting the idea that my question is at best ignorant and at worst just plain obnoxious. Sorry everyone!

This ask was based on a real discussion I’ve been having with a young person. But if we are completely off the mark it’s good to know that.
posted by GliblyKronor at 6:38 AM on April 26, 2022


I am a "guess" person who transitioned from a STEM field to a non-STEM field. The difference I observed wasn't about trying hard or about efforts/results. It was that in my STEM work there was very little regard (and in fact a great deal of sexist contempt) for me as a person; only the work mattered. In my non-STEM work there was a culture of acknowledging and caring about the person behind the work. The work mattered, but not at the cost of harm to the person creating it. Trying was valued, but there was a recognition that at a certain point, if you burn yourself out trying SO hard, you hurt both yourself and the long-term prospects for the work.

There was also more of a focus on doing your work as part of a team/culture/society, so if your going all-out at your work was in some way making things harder for other people, that was a consideration in a way it hadn't been in my STEM work where there was much less focus on collaboration and mutual structures of help and support.

I don't think what I experienced was some sort of general "all STEM is like THIS and all non-STEM is like THAT" rule but for what it's worth, that was my experience. I did not experience it as related in any way to ask vs. guess culture.
posted by Stacey at 6:43 AM on April 26, 2022 [10 favorites]


I think you're onto something, but I think your STEM vs. non-STEM framing is leading you down the wrong path. It's not that people in non-STEM majors don't try hard. I did, at least, and a lot of my classmates did. But then again, a lot of my classmates didn't, and that's what I think you're picking up on. There are a lot of college students who don't try very hard, and yeah, a lot of them tend to major in things like psychology or communications or marketing or English. It's not because those majors require less effort. It's because those are default majors. A significant proportion of people majoring in English don't choose that major because of their love for Charles Dickens. They choose it because, well, they need to choose a major, and they've heard of English before, and the people who will interview them for jobs after graduation have heard of English. STEM majors don't get that default enrollment as much. Which is not to say they don't at all; I mentioned in another recent thread that I knew someone who, halfway through his junior year, realized he hadn't declared a major yet and, because he'd taken a single upper-level math class, decided to major in math; he ended up working at Abercrombie and Fitch's home office. But generally, if you're majoring in engineering, it's because you intend to work as an engineer after graduation. There are a lot of jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, though, sales being probably the most common. But future salesmen have to major in something, and if the choice is between pre-professional training as a civil engineer and a more general liberal arts education, the liberal arts major makes more sense. This is part of the reason why attrition is such a problem in law school. A lot of people seem to think it's kind of like a finishing school for liberal arts majors, when it's actually intense training for a specific job.

I also think that non-STEM work is a different kind of work, and so STEM people have a hard time viewing it as "work". I was a history major, and most nights I'd have over 150 pages of reading assigned. That's a lot of reading. It gets old fast. I had friends who were engineering majors, and they'd have technical drawings and graphing calculators all over their study tables, while I'd be sitting on a couch reading a book. To them it looked like I was relaxing. To me, it looked like they were doodling and letting their calculators do all the work. Were *they* actually trying very hard? In my high school math classes, calculators were discouraged, after all. (Yes, I realize that engineering majors are doing harder math than I did in high school, but my point is that it's easy to make a bad faith assumption.)

To the extent that trying hard is a STEM/non-STEM issue, it's possibly because there's a lot of academic work in non-STEM subjects, especially psychology, that burnout is a real problem, and some of these professors have tried to take their own advice to avoid burnout. On the other hand, people in STEM, especially computer programmers, seem to regard burnout as a goal. Is trying hard to burn out actually a good idea? In the humanities, you're encouraged to think about these things.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:48 AM on April 26, 2022 [11 favorites]


I think I understand what you’re trying to get at. I’ve definitely experienced that it’s “ok” to say stats is hard, or that you spent all week studying for your bio final but if someone said that they spent all week struggling to “understand” Moby Dick they may be critiqued. I don’t think people would critique a someone doing a deeper analysis or review on Moby Dick, but for “most” readers if they said they needed to read it twice to “get it” people might look at them askance. (And I just pulled Moby Dick out of a hat, insert any work of lit here). Overall I would say this is really a result of devaluing the humanities. They aren’t “important” so needing extra effort or time to work at them is even as being stupid. While STEM is valued and said to be “hard” so it’s ok to need to put extra effort into them to get it. There was a similar thing when I look Latin in high school. It was ok for Latin to be hard and take more effort and studying, but no Spanish because it was considered “easier”
posted by raccoon409 at 6:53 AM on April 26, 2022 [16 favorites]


Not connected to STEM vs non or ask vs. guess, but this old MetaTalk I asked about geniuses vs. grinds, and the posts it references, are about trying hard or not in school.
posted by daisyace at 7:01 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


I’m not sure this is what you’re getting at, but I do think there’s a difference between cultures where people want to be seen to be working hard vs. cultures where the desirable thing is to make it look effortless.

I would guess that the latter has become less common in academia as education has become more expensive, but it’s a long time since I was in that environment.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 7:04 AM on April 26, 2022 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure if it's the same thing you're referring to, and I haven't associated it with a difference between academic fields. But I have seen, among a very small set of upper-class WASPS, a certain amount of disdain for "try-hard" culture. Like the ideal is, you're not only supposed to be good at everything, but it has to appear effortless. You just naturally know the right way to dress, so you look better than the person who follows all the recommendations in the "right" magazine, because obviously they're trying too hard. You get good grades (not the best grades, maybe, but good enough) because you are naturally smart, unlike those nerds who spend all their time studying, what a bore. This overlaps a bit with Guess Culture because it is also a natural habitat of those upper-class WASPS, but I don't think the two have much to do with each other intrinsically.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:07 AM on April 26, 2022 [20 favorites]


Best answer: I'm very very glad you asked this question. This kind of thing needs to be discussed, and the ways in are going to be clumsy and imprecise. If we're too afraid of accidentally offending someone with a _sincere_ question, we will make zero progress on issues that people actually care about, on issues that really matter.
posted by amtho at 7:08 AM on April 26, 2022 [14 favorites]


The phenomenon you've noticed is known as growth mindset versus fixed mindset. Growth mindset comprises the idea that through effort, one can become good (or at least better) at something that they're not good at now. Fixed mindset is the idea that one is born with certain talents, and will never develop any others. Obviously, in an academic setting a growth mindset in the students is of great value!

There has been a lot of scholarship-of-teaching-and-learning work in STEM fields on promoting a growth mindset among students, which may be what you're picking up on.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:11 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I haven't seen it show up as a STEM/humanities divide but I've definitely seen a cultural divide between (about equally hard-working) groups of people whose instinct is either to performatively upsell or to performatively downplay the amount of time and effort they put into a particular pursuit, which does, I think, reflect some underlying divergence in values between toil and talent.
posted by eponym at 7:11 AM on April 26, 2022 [8 favorites]


However, outside of STEM things seem to be very different. The professors have no reservations about saying that they think students care too much (and are trying too hard).

I actually think that something like these cultures might exist (I'll mostly spare you my theories) but the premises in this question set them up all wrong (there's no general STEM vs. non-STEM alignment in my experience, I have degrees in both and currently teach in a university STEM department). I want to suggest that what you're getting are individual perspectives from specific faculty that have nothing to do with STEM or not, and that you probably shouldn't generalize them. I also suspect based on past questions that you're getting a fairly filtered version of whatever this feedback is (via someone who is ~ a first-year undergraduate) and so are on even less of a ground to generalize the cultures in question.

Second, since you mention pre-med -- I also think that faculty members outside of pre-med (and maybe other specific sorts of intensive undergraduate programs) often have a pretty negative impression of what these programs require of students, and this could well end up saying things like this to advisees or mentees who seem somewhat unhappy in such programs. I routinely have had advisees that are just miserable, don't actually want to be taking orgo, and are working like crazy to actually manage this on top of everything else (pre-med often enforces a very heavy load). I wouldn't phrase the issue as you have reported but I'm not surprised that someone would, and I have said to pre-med students things like, "look, this is a really rough experience for you and it's not getting better, you need to figure out what you want, not what your parents want". In general, I would not be at all surprised if there are generalizations about non-STEM faculty having deep reservations about the structure, intensity, etc of pre-med coursework (or that of certain other programs) -- I'm STEM faculty and I certainly do. On the other hand, faculty who have gone through similar gauntlets may be more supportive of them.

Third: I do think that guess-oriented students have a harder time learning to participate in class discussion at the university level, just because their threshold for asking questions may be much higher, and they have less patience for any sort of performative class interaction. But this is entirely independent of their take on whether they should be trying or not.

As I said, I do suspect there are valid and interesting generalizations about "tryhard" ("keener", "striver", ...) vs not cultures independent of all this, and there's a sort of elite culture in the middle that's expected to appear effortless but still perform at the top. But really these cultures are cultures among the students themselves that emerge from primary education and earlier. I don't encounter this much any more at a highly ranked university, but among certain types of students the appearance of effort (discussion of grades, class interaction, etc) is definitely stigmatized and can lead in some cases to pretty unpleasant dynamics among the students themselves, up to and including bullying. On top of this, going to university is often a place where they suddenly shift dynamics from whatever was happening in their high school to an environment where certain kinds of publicly-visible effort may be (much) more rewarded, at least in some contexts. At the same time, students learning to interact in intellectual settings may go through phases where some of this interaction does read as performative, which not everyone has patience for. (And in academia, for some, these phases don't end.) I don't think this situation is overall very easy for students to navigate because the peer dynamics are complex and messy, while they are still learning to understand themselves and what they want to get out of education.
posted by advil at 7:14 AM on April 26, 2022 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: I wonder if what I’m asking about, is really about the toxic perfectionism that can exist in STEM versus, as someone pointed out, the higher emotional IQ in non-STEM. So maybe it seems to me that STEM is “try hard” be perfect and non-STEM is “stop trying so hard” because perfectionism is unhealthy.

I was not intending to put down humanities or say it is easier because I (and the young person I’m having this conversation with) both think humanities is incredibly difficult!

And yes, I think I’m also interested in the difference between cultures where people want to be seen to be working hard vs cultures where you’re supposed to make it look effortless. I can see how it was wrong for me to split it up along STEM/non-STEM or ask/guess. How to describe and understand the difference between being perceived as working hard v. effortless?
posted by GliblyKronor at 7:15 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


I just wanted to add that the big danger of fixed mindset that promotes a "don't try" attitude is the idea that if you have to struggle at something, it means that you don't have a natural talent for it, and this is terrifying for a person with fixed mindset because it means they'll never be good at it (and it carries a strong negative value judgement). I have read that fixed mindset tends to be promoted by praising young children for being smart or talented when they do something impressive, while growth mindset is promoted by encouraging them to try things they're not actually good at (yet) and then praising the improvement or the hard work.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:16 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


> cultures where people want to be seen to be working hard vs cultures where you’re supposed to make it look effortless

This is a social-class thing, as Daily Alice says above. Broadly speaking, trying hard is a working class attribute whereas effortlessly succeeding is a bourgeois attribute. Why would you work hard when your privilege is doing all the heavy lifting for you?
posted by rd45 at 7:27 AM on April 26, 2022 [3 favorites]


How to describe and understand the difference between being perceived as working hard v. effortless?

I mean, ultimately a lot of this is about figuring out what works best for you, personally, and not judging your insides vs. other people's outsides?

If you're in a group that values effortlessness, you may end up thinking "I'm working so hard and my peers aren't and therefore I'm a failure!" when, in fact, your peers might be working hard but concealing how hard they're working, or not working hard and doing less well than they let on. As amtho mentions, "You're working too hard!" can effectively be a way to say, "Don't bother me with your personal problems and/or need for remedial instruction." And focusing on the "effortlessness" part can definitely be part of a fixed mindset (not helpful).

On the other hand if you're in a group that values performative hard work (I saw SO MUCH of this working in pharmacy schools, mostly driven by the students as far as I could tell - obsessive study groups, students basically bragging about how long it had been since they'd showered or had non-energy-bar food, students taking Ritalin and Modafinil as study drugs), again you might think, "I'm sleeping a full eight hours almost every night! Why can't I be more disciplined and study until 2AM like X does?" and not really considering whether that's a healthy or productive way to live your life. (Also sometimes it's possible to participate in the performative busy-ness without actually doing the work - no one can tell whether you were really studying until 2AM alone in your dorm room.)

I think it's probably best to think about it as a continuum.
posted by mskyle at 7:30 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


My initial reading of the difference you're seeing was the same as Daily Alice's - that it's in line with a class distinction where "upper class" or people higher in the hierarchy are still meant to succeed and get things right but it's supposed to look effortless, like they aren't trying. Trying too hard looks "uncool" or as if you're not naturally good enough. (There can be a ton of hard-to-understand pressure that goes with the expectation that you need to be magically good enough without seeming to try! Reassure your young person that other kids are also feeling that pressure, that it's a myth and most people need to put in work and develop skills, that's why we have school in the first place.)

Sometimes there's a similar thing with clothing or other trappings of wealth I think - that if you're rich, you might dress down, eschew brand markings, act as if you don't care about clothes or as if caring about clothes is tacky etc - whereas if you're poor you might place an emphasis on dressing up in whatever way, might prefer to wear things with visible luxury brand markings, etc.

I don't know how that maps to what the current generation of students are experiencing in terms of how they and their peers perceive norms/each other, though.

(Also - a ton of students are having a really hard time right now with even basic aspects of being in school, turning in work, learning with pandemic brain, and your young person should know they are very much not alone in finding it to be a really difficult time.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:31 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


Trying too hard looks "uncool" or as if you're not naturally good enough

I haven't been in college since the 1990s (I was in the Arts & Humanities side of things), and I don't remember much conversation about try-hards, but I do remember a lot of talk about posers and sell-outs, which feels tangentially related.
posted by thivaia at 7:35 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


Perhaps what you are noticing is a different in ways of learning different areas of study.

I think there is more memorization of information involved in STEM areas. This could look like "putting in effort" to sit down and study and memorize.

For humanities fields, what is often involved is reflection and creative inspiration. These are things that don't always look like "trying" or "sitting down and studying for" but they definitely require a lot of thought and energy. Just looks different.
posted by bearette at 7:45 AM on April 26, 2022 [2 favorites]


trying hard is a working class attribute whereas effortlessly succeeding is a bourgeois attribute

I think this may not entirely be the case (which is fine as these are all very fuzzy things!)

I went from a white-collar environment where everyone was "busy," "swamped," etc., even those coming in from a upper middle class, or in the case of one organization, upper class environment were either actually busy or performatively busy. At work. In my more working-class job, coming in early, staying late, answering emails out of hours - all things stupid try-hards do.

That's different than in school for sure, but I'm not quite sure how that would translate on a campus. I think it might depend on the school status and the program, actually, and I think there's a lot of insight into the program aspect above. If you're talking about a university that caters largely to "regular folk," where tuition is not insane, you might get more the dynamics I listed above where a more expensive, elite school might go the other way, where those who have had to really excel to get there are Visible High Workers.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:47 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: This young person has struggled for a long time with “trying hard” vs “being a natural.” In middle school this person was rejected from the gifted program but then was ranked first in both 7th and 8th grades. (No, I have no idea why they rank middle school students, and no, I don’t agree with the practice.) I think this a large part of why I framed this question the way I did. I do think this young person is very growth mindset oriented.

It is confusing for them to encounter, at the college level, attitudes that seem to imply that effort is a bad thing. I think framing this as a class issue is helpful.

Other major experiences with effort being judged as a negative were among “family” who were working class guess culture. It’s a very limited sample I admit and I see also how that biased my ask.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me try to understand!
posted by GliblyKronor at 7:55 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a prime example of 'not trying at all' culture. His haircut, his general dishevelled appearance, his approach to speeches, they are all designed to give the impression that he does not need to try to accomplish. As the linked article suggests, it is not at all clear that he genuinely doesn't try. I think many people would think better of him if they thought it really was effortless. In a British context, it's absolutely part of the class system.

For many people it is harder to pull off the 'not trying at all' vibe in STEM subjects. However, I found that I had the knack for mathematics up to and including early graduate level work, and I really didn't have to try that hard to understand the work and complete the problem sets. Nor did my fellow students who also scored the highest marks. We all thought that the amount of work required (eg pages to write) in arts/humanities subjects would have meant expending significantly more effort for equivalent results. I still believe a first in an arts or humanities subject is substantially more impressive than a first in a science subject.
posted by plonkee at 8:07 AM on April 26, 2022 [3 favorites]


I was both a STEM major and a Communications major in College, and I never noticed any real differences in study habits between the two schools. An accounting project might involve 50 pages of reading and then doing 3 pages of accounting ledger entries, where as a communications paper might involve 50 pages of reading and then writing a 6 page essay.

Also I don't think class distinctions have much to do with it, at least at the college level, considering how middle to upper class heavy *all* 4 year universities are.

Finally 'try hard' is an insult, and people who insult fire like a shotgun and see which one hits. Maybe its 'try hard', maybe it's 'fat', maybe it's 'ugly', maybe it's 'dumb' --> shotgun.

Finally, you cannot really take how hard someone says they are working as gospel nor as a measuring stick. Some people spend more time on certain subjects and some spend less, depending on what they enjoy. You will really notice this in graduate school, especially if you take grad school years after starting working. Some people will sleep through certain courses because they live tougher questions in the same field every day, while some may have only basic academic experience in the same subject.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:15 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


Tryhard vs effortless dynamics pop up all over the place: I went to a high school full of (mostly middle class) immigrant children and the "smart" kids all downplayed how hard they worked. There were actually kids with similarly high grades but they weren't seen as "smart" because they visibly tried too hard. In this context, though, tryharding was not just about visibly working hard. It was actually acceptable to put work in if it was your passion. You just couldn't seem like you were grinding specifically for grades.
posted by airmail at 8:30 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


When I was in grad school, my colleagues in the humanities were given reading lists that seemed so long that it really seemed hard to imagine that they would read and take notes on the whole corpus. Rather, part of the idea was that they would learn the skill of digesting it efficiently, in part by skimming. Whereas in science classes it really is expected that a student, for example, do all the assigned problems. Is that part of the difference you're seeeing?
posted by grouse at 8:41 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


As a parent of a kid who has incredible "natural" talent in some STEM areas, but who doesn't try very hard very often, I wonder if you can try to shift this away from broad generalizations like "In STEM, it's this way..." I'm not sure it's ever very helpful to make these kind of vast statements about fields, disciplines, people, etc. Plenty of people hustle at times and not at other times. Some people want to work hard and have it be known, and some people are more excited to have other people take the spotlight. Some of these might be micro cultures (it's going to be different at different schools, colleges, employers, etc).
posted by bluedaisy at 8:49 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


In my experience “guess” culture is associated with “not trying” culture.

Real effort and perceived effort are basically never the same thing.
posted by mhoye at 9:03 AM on April 26, 2022 [3 favorites]


Best answer: A suggestion - maybe ask a question about people's experiences with gifted programs and grades. MetaFilter is kind of a magnet for certain ways of interacting with/adoring information + people's thoughts and you might get some thoughts that would help your young person!
posted by warriorqueen at 9:04 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


The "try-hard" question belies an anxiety about what other people think. Why should they care about casual remarks from peers and instructors?

The children of professionals who are going into the same profession get solid career planning advice at home. On the other hand, first generation anything, that is, the first in the family to do anything different, have to figure it out on their own.

Some catch grief from family members who say things like "we did fine without a degree" or "are you too good for us now?" Others get vague advice like "follow your dreams!" which is lovely and supportive, but lacks specific, actionable advice.

If you know a student with anxiety about what or how much to study, then help them find mentors and cultivate relationships with people deeply invested in their success. Advice means nothing without a relationship.
posted by dum spiro spero at 9:22 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


When I was in grad school, my colleagues in the humanities were given reading lists that seemed so long that it really seemed hard to imagine that they would read and take notes on the whole corpus. Rather, part of the idea was that they would learn the skill of digesting it efficiently, in part by skimming. Whereas in science classes it really is expected that a student, for example, do all the assigned problems. Is that part of the difference you're seeeing?

This is funny because--as an English professor--I often find myself explaining to STEM/social sciences students that in English classes you actually have to read the whole thing. Moreover, you have to do so very carefully, and possibly more than once. I don't say this to disagree, but to point out what a varied set of educational and intellectual practices is encompassed by the phrase 'the humanities.'

I also want to nth all the answers above about how effort looks different in the humanities than it does in the sciences, and add that the kind of critical engagement work in the humanities requires isn't really possible when you're exhausted--if you're constantly pulling all-nighters and skipping meals, the quality of your thought is going to suffer. This seems very likely to be true in STEM as well, but perhaps it's less obvious in the undergrad context, where you're not being asked to do as much original thinking?
posted by dizziest at 9:23 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a prime example of 'not trying at all' culture. His haircut, his general dishevelled appearance, his approach to speeches, they are all designed to give the impression that he does not need to try to accomplish. As the linked article suggests, it is not at all clear that he genuinely doesn't try. I think many people would think better of him if they thought it really was effortless. In a British context, it's absolutely part of the class system.

The most aristocratic degree classes are the first (equivalent to the top 10% or so of performers) and the bare pass.
posted by atrazine at 9:53 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


I don't quite buy the explanation that class is a factor here, at least not for faculty - yes, the idea of "trying hard" = uncouth is very much tied to class, but I sincerely doubt any professor is urging their students to not overwork themselves because of this reason. I think some of the answers here are perhaps not aware of the extent of the mental health crisis among college students these days - there have been too many suicides lately on college campuses, many faculty are actively worried about contributing to that rising number. They aren't urging students to not overwork themselves because of their class position - the stakes are high.

Now if they are being made fun of by their peers for "trying to hard" that could be related class (especially if they go to a fancy university), but it also could be prejudice against "dorks" if they go to a party-school. So, hard to say what they are noticing about their peers without knowing where they go, but - I have had the same conversation with a student in office hours, where they tell me "Oh man, I wish I could major in [humanities field] but my parents say I won't get a job that makes enough money after college if I do, so I'm majoring in [STEM]." And you know, especially these days, that's probably accurate. I'm just guessing here, but I wouldn't be surprised if the average student in STEM is more likely to have family pressures to make money post-college to support their extended family, vs. the average student in the humanities.

But another factor, as mentioned, is that everyone in higher-ed (students, faculty, staff) are really burned out from the pandemic, online learning, etc.

In middle school this person was rejected from the gifted program but then was ranked first in both 7th and 8th grades.

Oh man, I totally relate to this - I still remember how in 8th grade I had an A in science, but was recommended for "regular" biology in 9th grade. I fought this and won - and went on to excel in honors bio, but the reason was because I was a total mess of student in terms of binder neatness, handwriting, etc. I have a learning disability, and I guess the teacher didn't trust that my success at the 8th-grade level could sustain high-school pressures?

Anyhow, I'd advise this young person to really give college their all, and take advantage of as many opportunities as they can (being a research assistant for a professor, applying to university grants/funding opportunities for undergraduate research/internships/etc.) Truly no need to worry whether people think they are trying too hard.
posted by coffeecat at 9:57 AM on April 26, 2022 [4 favorites]


I work in the arts, where most successful people are quite dedicated and ambitious BUT people do try not to seem to try too hard because overthinking and over preparing squashes creativity, inspiration, and flexibility, and makes the person annoying to work with. At the same time it’s expected that an artist be well-researched, well-prepared, and reliable- just not trying hard to the point of being joyless, anxious, cut-throat ambitious, or inflexible. Looseness matters!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:30 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


This is part of the reason why attrition is such a problem in law school. A lot of people seem to think it's kind of like a finishing school for liberal arts majors, when it's actually intense training for a specific job.

I wouldn't say this is a problem for law schools at all - they get to keep all that yummy tuition money once the student drops out.
posted by Crystal Fox at 10:32 AM on April 26, 2022


I wouldn't say this is a problem for law schools at all

Ha, yeah, not for the schools. For the students, though...
posted by kevinbelt at 10:47 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


This young person has struggled for a long time with “trying hard” vs “being a natural.” In middle school this person was rejected from the gifted program but then was ranked first in both 7th and 8th grades. (No, I have no idea why they rank middle school students, and no, I don’t agree with the practice.)

I want to touch on this a bit. This is not unusual at all in my local school district which uses a combination of ranking + lottery for selection into the most competitive programs. In my experience, this means about 10% of the chosen students are absolutely 99.999th percentile on exams + glowing recommendations and the remainder are a mix of lottery + diversity + programmatic needs (the theater/music program needs an oboist so the last spot goes to the musician rather than the poet but the science program has all students chosen purely by lottery + diversity.) Those students not selected of course will still excel in their local facilty.

These kind of competing needs can be challenging for 10-14 yrs old to understand and even more so for their parents who were raised in a less competitive/more spots open academic world. I've seen amazing frustration and anger from those who didn't realize until their later high school years that not knowing how the game is played so that you get a 5.0 rather than a 4.0 works leads to you being rejected from your college of choice. Then reading in the media that the one who "got your spot" can't keep up (as many colleges aren't well designed to support first gen students esp those in STEM programs.)

See also the spate of lawsuits on this such as the current one with the USA Supreme Court. Additionally the Wall Street Journal recently did an article on a excellent student who did not get into any of the Ivy League schools and buried in the comments was an interesting comment from a college application reviewer that detailed why she really wasn't all that when compared to the nationwide applicant pool--which I'm sure was a hard thing to read for her and her parents.

How colleges could avoid this by spending money rather than saving it all for their endowment is a different issue.
posted by beaning at 11:48 AM on April 26, 2022


A final thought...

What you and this young person have observed might also have to do with how learning in STEM tends to me more commutative than outside of STEM, with the exception of languages.

What I mean: in the spring of 2020, when we all had to quickly adjust to online learning and pandemic life, many humanities profs (myself included) cut down on whatever was on our syllabi. The students were clearly struggling, so there seemed no point in acting like things are normal, and this was easy for us to do since there would be no long-term repercussions for this. Meanwhile, my colleagues in STEM were in a trickier spot - I remember one chemistry teacher noting that if the students didn't get through all of the usual material for Chem 102, then that meant they'd struggle in Chem 201, and if they didn't make up the lost material at some point, that will put them in a weak spot for medical school applications, etc. There tend to be department-wide hard requirements for the material covered in each course in STEM, whereas in the humanities, there is more leeway in each individual course - if a professor sees most students are struggling, it's easy for them to reduce the work load.
posted by coffeecat at 11:53 AM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


There can be some strategy involved in what specific peers say and do about "trying hard". If a class is ranked or curved, it improves one student's grade to persuade other people to not try. (Until they're not trying too much and the whole class learns less. I have TA'd group projects that I'm pretty sure collapsed that way. Extrapolating to the whole country... well, maybe.)
posted by clew at 12:30 PM on April 26, 2022


1. It's near impossible to find a career (not a job but a career) in which you can be successful without working hard, regardless of (so-called) natural talent.
2. There are very few people who naturally have tons of innate talent. Nearly everyone else develops skills by working at them.
3. In an ideal world, YYP will find a career that is the perfect center of the Venn diagram of "interest," "ability," and "lifestyle (fulfillment, salary, hours)."
4. I know from first-hand experience that remarks like the professor's can be hurtful and make students doubt themselves. Unfortunately, another part of growing and finding success is learning which comments to ignore or at least not give undue weight to.
5. I suspect that YYP suffers from perfectionism. They will likely benefit from a handful of therapy sessions where they can talk about perfectionism and their career anxiety.
posted by Taro at 12:54 PM on April 26, 2022 [1 favorite]


Sprezzatura, "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".

It could be argued that this is actually more work, little duck feet paddling furiously while appearing to glide across the water.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:04 PM on April 26, 2022 [2 favorites]


I am one of those humanities professors who counsels against working too hard. Primarily when I have a toxic perfectionist who doesn't submit work because they are writing and rewriting for a mythical perfect mark, writing well over word count, crying if they get things wrong, and so on. It is a personalised thing. I do remind my students to take breaks and that we are in the midst of a major pandemic.

I am not just teaching them media or communications. I'm teaching them skills. The 'hard' part of STEM isn't that it's difficult, it's that there are specific correct answers. Elsewhere the answers are softer, you've gotta support your answers and they aren't clearcut. My students don't just get an answer and then check it and done. There are dozens of approaches and ways to write it and analyse it. They can spend forever on it. Part of what I teach is when to stop working.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:56 PM on April 26, 2022 [2 favorites]


I am a professor in the humanities at a very STEM heavy school. I initially bristled at your questions because I get attitude all the time from STEM students and STEM faculty who assume that what I do lesser in terms of what it requires in thought and effort (and importance), but as I've read the answers and your responses, I can see you reframing it and reworking it into something closer to what you may be asking. The class element may be part of it, but I also would not discount the potent influence of the individual culture of any given school. I attended an undergraduate liberal arts college where it was normal -- nay, expected -- for people visibly to work very hard and to be vocal about it. [A normal conversation starter: Omigod I've been working for weeks on this term paper for my Religious Studies minor and I can't wrap my head around this concept!] Then, when I went on to graduate school, I went to a very different place, a large university where it was never acceptable to be seen struggling or contending with the material, but rather, you acted as if you understood everything immediately. In point of fact, everyone was working very hard but it was gauche to talk about how hard you were working. The concept of sprezzatura, mentioned above, is exactly this. In this one anecdotal case, the class alignment that's been suggested here doesn't work; both institutions draw upon the same upper-middle class groups, but have developed very different norms and expectations around how one presents one's public persona in relation to academic study.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 4:03 PM on April 27, 2022


I was part of an artistic circle in my youth where I definitely picked up the idea that it wasn't cool to put effort into your art; it was just supposed to be there, I guess. But years later some of the people from that time have put out biographies or lengthy interviews and I've learned that they actually were working very hard on their art behind closed doors, with other people who were also working very hard.

I don't know if other people from that time also had the "it's supposed to be effortless" impression that I did, but I bet many did.

> When I was in grad school, my colleagues in the humanities were given reading lists that seemed so long that it really seemed hard to imagine that they would read and take notes on the whole corpus. Rather, part of the idea was that they would learn the skill of digesting it efficiently, in part by skimming.

That was not my experience getting an MFA. We were supposed to carefully read all the work, and be able to discuss the details.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:27 PM on April 28, 2022 [2 favorites]


« Older Paxlovid again?   |   Seeking secure USB wifi extender compatible with... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.