The nitty gritty of perseverance

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Every term at Brock University surely must begin with at least one professor showing Angela Lee Duckworth’s TEDTalk, “Grit: The power of passion and perseverance.” It seems instructors are contractually obligated to preach the benefit of grit — without any sense of irony — every September and January, like clockwork.

When it comes to highly privileged students coming from affluent backgrounds who are at risk of being spoiled, I absolutely agree that it is important to reframe our values to highlight perseverance and determination. However, as someone who has been through hardship, it gets tiring sitting through this same TEDTalk year after year while an affluent professor tells me all of the problems in my life are my own fault.

A key component of grit is an internal locus of control, according to Duckworth, meaning the propensity to attribute both failures and successes to one’s own actions. A student with an internal locus of control may believe they didn’t get the co-op job that they were highly qualified for because their resume was lacking, or their interview skills didn’t shine through. On the other hand, a student with an external locus of control may believe they didn’t get the job because traffic made them late.

However, some things are not within our control. For example, are wealthy, white professors and students really in a position to claim a black student isn’t working hard enough because the hiring manager was openly racist? Furthermore, studies including a research paper titled “Locus of control in maltreated children: the impact of attachment and cumulative trauma,” written by Antonio Roazzi, Grazia Attili, Lorenza Di Pentima, and Alessandro Toni, have shown that maltreated children typically have a more external locus of control. We should not blame survivors of trauma for the impact that trauma has had on them. In this sense, romanticizing grit can come across as victim blaming.

In challenging students to simply persevere when faced with genuine problems they should not have to overcome, we redirect a conversation from a discussion about abolishing the obstacle to the student’s work ethic. When professors attribute student struggles to lack of grit, it demonstrates that same external locus of control they condemn. Shouldn’t professors be more concerned with making their courses accessible than blaming students who struggle to succeed for not working hard enough?

Another core problem with romanticizing grit: the folks ignored in this conversation already have grit. Duckworth’s research focuses on privileged people — those in national spelling bees and elite educational institutions — and as such, it applies in those same affluent groups. Professors applying her work to our population show a distinct disconnect between them and the students they are here to teach. It indicates that most assume that we have all been afforded that privilege  and are not a diverse group of students from varying backgrounds as we actually are. Their unwillingness to question and challenge that assumption is further creating a schism between them and their students.

The professors who continue to screen this TEDTalk are preaching to the choir. Many students have overcome incredible hardships, and know that those struggles are not to be glorified. We should be striving to acknowledge them, understand, and prevent folks from having to experience those struggles moving forward. Many students know too well that perseverance is not necessarily a choice, or even an option, but a requirement for survival. Pushing through studying for a difficult test is wildly different from other instances where we have struggled, and both are independent challenges requiring different skills. It can be incredibly invalidating to be told that having difficulties with the former means we aren’t strong enough, when we have shown incredible resilience in other areas of our lives.

The conversation around grit does raise good points, but taking them out of context and trying to make them a lesson to students who are already wise beyond their years is patronising, and condescending.  This year, let’s skip the grit talk and focus instead on how to make learning more accessible for all students. Alternatively, there are several powerful TEDTalks on embracing diversity in the classroom and making learning accessible that professors could screen that would be more relevant in the lecture room.

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