• Cat Hicks

Originally posted to medium here

I’ve always been the kind of person who forgets it’s an option to raise your hand and ask a question. I nearly slipped down a grade in a history class despite unimpeachable exams because I hardly opened my mouth during lectures; it just seemed kind of silly to me that there was a participation requirement in a history class. History has, after all, already happened. I was usually a student who just wanted to listen.

Nevertheless, fortune favors the bold…which we say, mostly, about the loud. Which are really the people who are allowed to be loud. After all, education systems are both the explicit systems that we see and the shadow systems underneath, that tricky multidimensional thing that operates with long chains of consequence.

There are many rules for being a student, and many ways that rules operate, and then many possible consequences of breaking those rules, depending on who you are. Research in sociology and other fields continually illuminates how much secret advantage exists in who can negotiate and for what in school. We know that even very young children worry about reactions to disclosure, that discouraging classrooms warp students’ motivations and active engagement, and that beliefs about whether someone like you belongs in a place like this can dramatically impact whether you participate in the learning around you. And research into the ways that Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and other underserved students are punished for being vocal or asking for help is so vast it’s difficult to even know where to start. Here’s one place. Here’s another.

Maybe this is a big beginning for a small post, 30,000 feet up when the only answers I have are small conversations, quiet, iterative. But I am a social scientist at heart and I see learning less as individuated actors making independent motions and more as an ecosystem, all of us coming together and impacting each other in many directions. I think about environments before I think about anything.

And I thought it was useful to start with how I have come to see the action of a student asking for help: courageous, difficult, and precious.

Last spring my youngest brother’s college sent them home; in a globally non-unique fashion, his learning experience became disjointed and chaotic. Students navigate and contrast different performance and achievement expectations, but also differing access to information. First the classes were cancelled, then labs reinstated, then the lectures for the labs were cancelled, then the labs were cancelled. Housing was revoked and reissued, cities and universities tossing liabilities back and forth like student lives were so many volleyballs. But my brother lives in Canada, and so he is lucky: cases were low, rent was lowered, spirits were high.

But of course it was scary, and the cracks in the experience emerged swiftly and mercilessly, the domino effects of change that would roll out for any learner undergoing it. Switching from the classroom to video calls in his stuffy small bedroom was depressing, and noisy environments make it hard for him to focus. Absent a unified learning plan, individual faculty made their own and communicated them via haphazard emails and unclear wording. He got instructions to download surveillance software before instructions about whether grading would change to account for the projects they could no longer do. Teachers and people care, but School as an institution seems not to care where students live, or whether they have a room to do their work in — until it occurs to someone in some office of their own that students could use their cramped bedrooms to cheat. Then School demands access, and information, and control. All the things that students are losing, the world’s worst game of no-return volleyball.

I think about that a lot, this year. That as learners, sometimes it feels that we only have bodies that exist when institutions want to control them. That the responsibility to build an environment only goes one way.

Because I didn’t go to school for years and years and then clawed my way back into it, I feel like a bit of an expert in being a ghost. I exist only from a certain point of view, in certain systems. When I took a prestigious internship, my first job in tech, I waited patiently in a lobby full of free snacks while HR sought a solution to a combinatorial datapoint their software system would not accept: you couldn’t list a PhD institution, if you didn’t list a high school.

Many learners lead such transient digital lives. There might even be more of us than there are of you. I’ve mentored a lot of students who have spent significant amounts of time out of school, and are trying to get back in. As an education researcher, I often hear people talk about drop-out in education like a single line on a chart, that bad cliff that goes down. But drop-out is really fascinating. It splinters, when you talk to people, into a thousand small thresholds, the trap-doors they walked into. People drop out because a teacher yelled at them, or a law changed around them, or they no longer believed they could do it, or they hated math, or, sometimes, because all of the schools closed. I mentor a lot during normal years — but of course for many of us normal was always a finite quantity, unevenly distributed. It is hard in 2020 to remember being a grad student at a small conference arguing that it was important to study the longitudinal engagement of students in online environments and whether they believed they could succeed, a decade ago. It is hard to remember how I didn’t find funding to explore access, back then. It is harder, in 2020, to wonder if I could have helped prepare us better.

My brother is a better texter than talker, which I take a certain delight in because I taught him to read. It’s nice when we get to see teaching pay off. When his school closed, I couldn’t get him on the phone but I got him on WhatsApp. Some people have doctors in the family to check in on their colds. He has a doctor-of-data to ask, have they turned you into a ghost?

Surveillance software for proctoring can be invasive, and threatening. Across countries and universities, such software demanded access to eye movements, room scans, and head tilts. It made punitive demands: don’t move, don’t drink water, don’t have roommates, don’t be not-white. Don’t ask for help, especially.

The proctoring software gave my brother a panic attack. That didn’t matter, he could handle its crushing impact on his own performance, he said (you learn to be a ghost pretty quickly), but it wasn’t just him. It was all of them, students in cramped bedrooms trying to get by, pretending to be learners, hoping for the small kindness of not being humiliated.

The world is so weird right now, my brother wrote. It’s been intense, living in history. There are students in this class who are going through an incredibly difficult time, and I need to stand up for them.

He wanted to ask the automated proctoring to stop. This software was still under the control of an individual instructor who probably didn’t mean all this harm. So I helped him write a letter, an argument, a research-backed thesis about data privacy. As a tech worker, I knew how to push back on biased software. As a learning scientist, I knew how to channel evidence for just what kind of environment this was creating. As a sister, I was proud, and mad, and in much the same place that I’ve been in since I clawed my way back into the education system, fifteen years ago. Convinced that the only way we make a human environment, is to treat those inside of it like humans.

There is something particularly fine-grained about the damage you take when someone makes you feel ashamed of yourself after you ask for help. All kinds of threats can hide underneath instruction. In a world of tech-mediated learning, even small cues about who is allowed to ask for help can become weapons. I got an entire PhD in the disclosure of achievement: and it has taken me this long to decide that it was ok to talk more about not being in school — and what was worse than not being in school. Making it back to school, and feeling unwelcome.

It is hard, in 2020, to have been a student out of school and then to watch so many people talk about what it means to have these students out of school. It doesn’t mean one thing, of course — it is always the splintering, the thresholds, the trap doors. Yet the education conversation has centered on performance, because we have developed little else in the way of a vocabulary around what a learning environment is. But what would it mean to ask less about performance, and more about sustainability and care? There is a paradox in education measurement, and it looks like this: sometimes when learners start to believe in themselves more, they start to look worse — because they experiment, and we don’t usually operationalize this as anything but problematic. They ask questions, and behave in unexpected ways, and yet we design systems around finding and crushing the unexpected.

This approach isn’t going to work when education is disrupted. I know it; I’ve lived it. When we drop out of school, it isn’t just about what breaks but what gets repaired. It isn’t just about treating us like ghosts, alien, our experiences invisible because they’re unexpected. Evaluating learning loss is part of how we deal with this, but it’s such a smaller part than bringing learners back in the first place. It’s about preparing our systems to hear and hold and value those differences, and rising to the challenge of making our education ecosystem the welcoming one we’ve always promised.

This ecosystem is more of a dream than a reality for me. Some learners get to have bodies and classrooms and desks, but so many are muted across video screens, alienated from their own reality down to their eye movements, on guard against hostile software and vicious evaluators. There is no learning without safety.

But there is also hope. Because spending most of your life outside of school also gives you this: the knowledge that learning lives everywhere. I have at least an infinite optimism that someone will always raise their hand, and start asking questions, and because of it, things will get better. In this one class, my brother was one student who got one piece of software removed. Today, a lot of things are broken. They were broken before, but the brokenness has caught up with us, scaled with the force of our institutions, scaled across our shared experience of crisis. And yet in the middle of this, learners persist.

we have to stick together through this kind of stuff, my brother texted.

The borders closed between us during a pandemic that canceled his graduation and my wedding, and neither of us can see our family or friends or coworkers. Nevertheless, we are always part of each other’s ecosystem. We are cues, too, reaching out past screens and texts and fear.

I told him, there are lots of people out here on your side. It is ok to fight back when you think things aren’t fair. Tell me how I can help.

Thanks for listening, he said, you helped already.

  • Cat Hicks

Updated: May 25

It's alarming to write something really simple like, people deserve to have environments that don't destroy them and have it resonate with a lot of people.

Lots and lots has been written about burnout lately, ranging from doubt about whether it is a 'real' phenomenon to Anne Helen Peterson's wildly viral piece on it as a generational experience.

As a psychologist (at least, a research psychologist, which I emphatically remind people is not the same as a clinical psychologist but does give you a tendency to put numbers and mechanisms behind any number of very personal conversations about widely-shared human experiences, to the annoyance of your friends and loved ones), I tend to think that if a concept resonates with a lot of people that makes it meaningful. It's certainly not new to talk about being tired, overwhelmed, or stressed-out. But the nature of the conversation about why we continue to be tired, overwhelmed, and stressed out--without apparent time for recovery--is a sharp and poignant one at the end of a year (/years) filled with cascading systemic failures. And as any good social scientist knows, when the individual and the environmental crash, the individual rarely sustains.

Something I was thinking about with this silly tweet is: environments hold so much power, the cause for so much of this, yet we situate solutions on the individual. We diagnose experience at the individual level, but individuals are often sampling the environment. As a researcher, I often work at the intersection of individual and environment. We often find it easier to talk about individuals, and to measure their data. But I often wonder if everything we think is easier, is. The thing we can probably intervene on the best is the environment. So if so many people are experiencing these consequences, we need to ask what put them there. We need to ask what is benefitting from our exhaustion.

Seeing this missing piece, the missing accountability from our environments, is deeply frustrating. I hear that frustration from students who are asked to show up to a school that doesn't care how much they have lost this year. I hear it from friends who feel that the performance expectations in their workplace have promised an understanding that never came. This is what I meant about time off not fixing it: burnout is not solved at the level of the individual. Or maybe the solution will come in a form that an organization won't like: maybe time off from a bad environment can give people an example of another way to live. But vacations are not the same thing as cadences of work that make sense, or policies that let people be parents as well as workers.

Sometimes people say the solution to burnout is becoming more resilient. Well, I dunno, it feels like your brain and body asking for an escape hatch from a terrible environment is pretty darn resilient. We do have a tendency to pathologize an adaptive response to maladaptive circumstances.

When I mentored students in difficult circumstances--in crisis, much of the time--I thought a lot about how at its core, the concept of resilience is about that adaptive moving forward despite adversity. It's not about being stuck, and changing yourself into a person who isn't affected by adversity. It's definitely not about becoming a person who choses terrible adversity. But sometimes that's how people talk about resilience, and sometimes that's their advice about burnout. That the fault and the problem lies with individuals, and that individual people are simply too weak to overcome a bad environment. That can provoke hopelessness. Am I really supposed to just be resilient in the face of unfair things, of terrible environments?

If there's one thing I repeat over and over again in a hundred conversations these days, in my mentoring, in talks to undergrad classrooms, in coffee chats with friends: it's that you responding to an environment is just part of how it works, not something to blame yourself for, and that response is a valuable thing. It's meaningful. Including feelings like burnout. Real resilience is a strategy, not a shield that turns you into something else. It's a set of behaviors that help you to move away from the things that are damaging you.

I'd like to write more about resilience, thinking of all this. This isn't the kind of thing that has easy answers. But at least we're not alone in it. That is where change seems possible; after all, environments may provoke our responses, but it's always individuals who create environments.

I published this piece to medium in 2018, here. I'm copying it over to this blog for self-archival purposes!

A few years ago I decided to offer to help students with grad school applications. I had a lot of travel time and I’m a fast reader. Plus, I’m a big sister. Something about that sticks with you. I’ve always been interested in assessment, predicting potential, in whatever getting in means. Picking the lock on the door of opportunity and changing everything. I’ve also always felt like I still live precariously balanced between those two worlds: the conference room full of scientists and committees that get to judge, and the dorm bedroom where a kid who can’t afford the campus meal plan stares at a word document and wonders whether the right words strung together can conjure a chance. Maybe someone like me out there needed to hear that they can. Every fall I open up my email and get takers. Over airplane rides and Saturday afternoon skype sessions, I’ve given feedback on dozens of research statements. I explicitly ask for underserved learners: a blanket phrase for students marginalized by difficult backgrounds, underrepresented identities in race and gender, international paths across changing countries, housing insecurity and other risk factors. Nearly all the students I meet are low-income, some severely so.

Feedback starts with listening. I taught an undergrad who had a 3.8 GPA, a three-hour commute to campus, and five siblings to worry about every night. She was only going to apply to three graduate programs, because she couldn’t afford the fees; she hadn’t ever heard of fee waivers. She wanted to study clinical interventions in autism, because she’d spent an average ten hours every week for the last two years supervising such care for one of her siblings. She was fantastic to have in class, the kind of student who sat earnest and leaning forward in the second row and downloaded an app that would read the pdfs of research papers out loud while she drove inland every night. None of this was in her application. She’d gone to academic advising and gotten grammar notes, but her research statement still made a lot of mistakes recognizable to anyone who reads these things often: too many vague statements about the value of science, not enough evidence that she’d cultivated skills for doing it. She didn’t know a single person with a PhD. She wasn’t totally sure what a PhD was. But she loved research, everything about it. I do qualitative interviewing, so I know how to ask the same question over and over again: tell me more. It came out of her gradually, all the science she’d found amazing because it helped explain her life, the hours listening to papers in the car. We workshopped her statement over pastries and then sandwiches, putting scientific language to the things she hadn’t thought anyone would care about. In our class, she’d been fascinated to learn that you could ask interesting questions with survey research. She’d designed a tiny experiment of her own and run it online in several campus clubs. It was a survey about how many of her classmates had siblings on the spectrum, what interventions they’d ever seen, and at what age. “Are you kidding me, that’s amazing,” I said, taking notes as she talked. Everything I said was a shock to her, so I just kept saying it, over and over. Amazing. What you did is amazing. I am a person with a PhD and I think you are amazing. Now she knew at least one. I wrote out a list of grad programs with fee waivers while she got a second cup of coffee to fuel her long commute home. “It doesn’t always feel fair,” she said, like she was admitting a great big secret. “It’s not fair,” I said. “But you have to try.” She got in.

The doubt that underserved learners face is pervasive and confusing. Growing up disadvantaged and succeeding anyway means living in a world of constantly shifting expectations and norms. It’s not easy to drop twenty or more years of hiding where you come from, not easy to read the cues for whether your hardships will be perceived as strength, or weakness.

The students who come to me have read a thousand “how to apply to grad school” blogposts. But they’re still confused. They’re often putting in tremendous hours of work, only to be steered wrong by careless cues in the copy on old, outdated websites, or misconceptions from their peers. No one helps them detangle the personal from the professional. No one gives them encouragement. Everything they do is framed as their mistake.

All applicants need to make a case for themselves. But underserved learners need to translate a wildly different world into something the academy can understand, often before they’ve ever met a scientist.

Most of all, I’m struck over and over by the huge difference in the way these learners can talk about their research plans and skills, versus the way they write about it. They’ve never seen someone quantify the evidence in their favor.

I try to talk to students before reading their statements, because their apps are so constrained by hidden assumptions. When we talk I learn about huge things that are missing. I hear that students are afraid to write about projects that they don’t think are relevant or prestigious, even when they are actually amazing. But they’re also confused about sharing personal details and emotions. College admissions often involved sharing personal stories, and they don’t know why everything changes for grad school.

In this way, graduate programs continue to fail to communicate what they want from applicants. Generic advice and shallow feedback are worthless. We need to find these learners and listen to their actual lives.

I met a student who was finishing college and mentoring students at his previous high school at the same time.

“Really the hardest is just to get them to apply. I like to go back and just be like, hey, college is cool. I’m still cool,” he laughed, before we turned to his own application. We were talking over Skype. He looked cool, tattoos and a sharp haircut, guitars in the background of his video and my pet rabbit in the background of mine. The rabbit helped — it gave me something to talk about with this student, who got so quiet when I opened his file that I thought he’d signed off.

His grades had started sliding in his junior year of college. Getting in had been a triumph, but he worked fulltime to cover housing costs and classes got harder. He had never written long essays before, had never been told what a primary source was. There was constant construction around his cheap apartment, making it difficult to study, and no one had ever taught him how to study anyway. His parents divorced, making money even harder, and he hadn’t known about things he later thought he needed, like accommodations for testing, until it was too late.

We talked grade cutoffs and studying for the GRE, which he called “scary as shit.” I told him about checking out ten-year-old SAT study guides at my local library, the first place I ever read the words standardized test. We talked about master’s programs, taking a year off after college, brainstormed ways to get more chances. He hadn’t known it was possible to apply to grad schools after working, that there were more options than the same top five PhD programs that came up when he googled.

“Look,” he finally said, “You were one of those smart kids. Is this just stupid, a dumbass like me applying to grad school?”

“You are not a dumbass,” I said, “You are brave.” I told him about research on resilience, on how putting math problems into more recognizable contexts like grocery store prices made low income kids like us way better at them. I told him that most higher ed students in the US are in community colleges, that the whole world isn’t captured in a New York Times writeup about R1 schools. I told him about four years of college working nights, that I’d once misread an assignment so badly I turned in a paper thousands of words shorter than the minimum.

He told me he didn’t feel like a role model when he went back to his high school. He went back anyway, because he was one of the only kids who’d ever made it to college. They looked up to him, and then he went back to campus, where he wondered if he was just a loser.

“The way they feel about you is the real part,” I said.

He took a year between college and grad school working with his high school and a local nonprofit tutoring center. He applied to a master’s program nearly a year after we talked.

He got in.

The distance traveled metric is an idea I often mention when I’m working on hiring and selection scenarios. I like the way the Kapor Center describes this in their advice on diversity in tech: that “distance traveled” measures take into account where a candidate comes from. That it gives credit. This resonates with me, as someone who sees marathons behind some kids and easy strolls behind others. I also like it because I’m a social scientist working on data, and I think measuring change over time is always better than a snapshot.

We advise underserved learners to cut away the personal from their statements, tell them how to put on a mask that makes them look more like all those confident, successful, expected kids. And to be fair, I give this advice too. I help with the jargon and the foot-in-the-door and I tell them how to code switch their makeup and clothes. But I wish I didn’t have to do it so much.

For underserved learners, their life is work. I don’t have all the answers for this complicated assessment situation, but I wish that grad programs could see this more clearly: that for a student surviving extraordinary circumstances, a B grade can be a fundamentally different measure, a striking achievement. That we need to reach out to them, that twenty minutes asking for their stories can change everything about what we think of their potential. That there is so much that they already have done, to earn getting in.

When students write back to tell me they got in, there’s one thing I always say. It is, I think, the truest thing never said to a underserved learner: “They’re lucky to have you.”

Many thanks to the wonderful students who graciously shared their stories for this.