The Perils of Academic “Potential”
We don’t need to accept potential as currently defined. We can change the questions we ask, the learning environments we create.
Right before I started my first year of high school, I broke my toe. Normally a broken toe isn’t a big deal, but this was a bad break, and it required surgery. I got a big purple cast to hold my whole leg in place and a pair of crutches. My third-floor English class was after lunch. Every day, I would slowly crutch my way to lunch, arriving late, and every day, as the bell rang, I would carefully navigate through the rushing crowds at the end of lunch, making my way to the elevator. The elevator was on the opposite side of the building from my classroom, and I was always late to English. I had to navigate to my seat in front of everyone, and I developed a look, half apologetic, half surly.
At Back to School Night, my teacher told my mother that I had a lot of potential, but my chronic lateness was a problem that was interfering with my learning.
“She’s in a cast and on crutches,” my mother said, “so that’s probably why she’s late.”
“Oh,” my teacher said. “I thought she wore a big purple sock for some reason. Kids are into such weird things.”
That my teacher saw my chronic lateness as a choice was not entirely her fault—the metrics on which she’d been taught to rely were based on normalized assumptions about a student’s bodily ability and health. The school itself had been built around those assumptions. There was only one elevator to be shared by all students, whether temporarily or permanently disabled, and the keys to the elevator were tightly controlled. School was shaped to meet the needs of those who were perceived most capable. It wasn’t just my school—education in the United States is focused on the students with the most potential.
Potential is a word I’ve thought about a great deal in the years since my English teacher told my mother I had so much of it. It’s an old word, a necessary word, one we need to distinguish between possibility and realization. It’s also a word shaped by assumptions of “normal” and “success.”
Human beings are all full of multiple potentials, but our picture of potential is limited by our assumptions. It is typically applied to people who have already done something that demonstrates that potential. It assumes intelligence, another word crackling with unsettled meaning. It relies on an idea of success measured by existing successes, and it also relies on demographics. I’m constantly excavating my own potential, unpacking it, trying to see where I’ve gone wrong and where I’ve gone right. I’m constantly questioning the foundations of that potential. It’s individual, but it exists in a context.
That context, for me, is historical. When I was a kid, I found history to be one of the most boring subjects. My history textbooks would list a series of dates and events, and we’d memorize them for an exam. Reading those books was like reading a grocery list. Scandals and mundanities were given the same weight and the same unemotional tone. This happened and then that happened and from it emerged America, which is great.
My teachers saw potential in me because I had demonstrated a strong grasp of the material, because I was able to raise my hand and answer questions, and because I am white.
In fifth grade, my history teacher was a nervous, alert middle-aged woman with the short, permed blonde hair I associated with aging white women. I didn’t pay much attention in her class at first—enough to pass exams, and no more. Then, one day, we came in, having read the night before in our textbook about the Alamo. The textbook listed the white American heroes who died at the Alamo, including Davy Crockett, a guy I knew from a Disney record I had at home. He was King of the Wild Frontier, that raccoon-hat guy. In class, when the teacher started to talk about what we’d read, her eyes widened and her voice started to rise. She told us that what had happened at the Alamo was a grave injustice, not against the dead Americans the textbook told us were heroes, but against Mexican sovereignty. She told us that white Americans were stealing Mexican land after being welcomed by the Mexican government.
“Remember the Alamo?” she cried. “TRY AND FORGET THE ALAMO!” She banged her fist against the desk.
I was sitting up straight, paying full attention now. The textbook wasn’t right? History could be interpreted? This was all new. I thought history was things that happened, things that could not be questioned, and here was my teacher, enraged by the very textbook our school had handed to us. That bang on the desk meant I could question history, that I could question textbooks. And just like that, I was interested.
Not that long before that incident, I’d taken a test for the school’s gifted program alongside classmates I knew to be smart and capable, and because the test focused on mind teasers and logic puzzles, which I liked to do for fun, I’d passed. Some classmates who’d taken it with me did not pass. The teacher had to recommend us for it in the first place, so not everyone got to take the exam. That, too, was potential. Who had been picked for the exam, and why? Why was the exam structured around logic puzzles? What did this say about giftedness? In gifted class, we got to do the types of projects I’d wanted to do all along, none of which related to logic puzzles. In small groups, we invented a country and drew maps of it, gave presentations in which we made tourism commercials for our country, invented governments for our country, drew pictures of our country. I loved the classes, but I wondered why they weren’t available to everyone. There was nothing we were doing that wouldn’t have been fun and engaging for all of the students.
That moment in history class came with a literal bang on the desk and showed me that perspective was everything. Most of the perspectives we encountered in school were the perspectives of winners, people who had shaped the world we were in to reward those already deemed successful. I raised my hand a lot in class, so I could be picked to take a test and get to take classes that were more fun and creative. The test itself rewarded me for enjoying logic puzzles, even though the classes I then got to take were not related to the test. It wasn’t fair, and it didn’t make sense, but there was a logic behind it. It was the logic that said the dead white guys at the Alamo were the only people to mourn. Americans wrote the textbook, so Americans could determine who the heroes were. There’s always more context. We are not operating in isolation from one another, from history, from the possibility of interpretation.
My grades in high school were poor, and if I hadn’t had a lot of AP classes, I wouldn’t have graduated with a low B average. I was excellent at school for a while, and then I got to junior high and things fell apart. Some of it was personal: My parents were getting divorced, I was experiencing some of my first depressions, and my friends dumped me by anonymous note. Some of it was likely due to undiagnosed disability. “She has so much potential!” my teachers would say, even as my grades began to sink and didn’t stop.
They saw potential in me because I had already demonstrated a strong grasp of the material, because I was able to raise my hand and answer questions and write good essays, and because I am white. I’m tall and deep-voiced and white, and I have a large vocabulary and some theater training. Imagine me as the Elizabeth Holmes of high school. I could play the part of people who had succeeded before me. Hell, I was probably even wearing black turtlenecks in the nineties. Plenty of people with great potential and skill don’t have these unearned assets. When people who don’t match a picture of preexisting success struggle, their struggle is often rewritten as natural, expected. When they succeed, it’s questioned or downplayed if it’s even seen at all.
It’s upsetting to me now that I didn’t get help back then. I didn’t get help because people thought I was fine, if a bit rebellious and lazy. Other people didn’t get help because the teachers never inferred their potential in the first place or missed when they succeeded.
Success is raced and gendered. Success is capitalist. Success is ableist. Access to academic success is not equal. This starts with the ways poverty forces some children to prioritize survival over academic success, and it continues with the ways colleges rank the quality of high schools. You can get straight As at a school in your neighborhood, but if your school is low-ranked, your As might not count as much as someone else’s Bs or Cs from a higher-ranked school. I went to a blue-ribbon public school in a wealthy community for high school. My potential is partly due to that.
After high school, I took all my potential off to art school, where I hoped I would somehow become better than I was. When I got into Maryland Institute College of Art, I was overjoyed. I was going to be a different person. No one in Maryland would know about my failures. No one in Maryland would see me as someone who didn’t do their work. I was going to become tidy. I was going to get straight As. I was going to be great. All that potential had been building toward this.
It turns out it’s not so simple to overcome yourself, especially when people diagnose you with potential and leave it at that. My grades in art school were pretty much what they’d been in high school. My room was still messy, much to the annoyance of my tidier, more disciplined roommates. I’d been given another opportunity, and I still hadn’t made it work. In my second year, I got pregnant and left.
It is possible to shift our perspective and focus on students and their needs rather than the metrics of achievement or the picture of success.
Potential is at heart about repetition. It performs a rehearsed scene, one that has played out many times before, one that our white-supremacist patriarchal capitalist culture recognizes as leading to success measured in influence, power, money, or some combination thereof. Students who demonstrate potential in areas our culture doesn’t recognize as leading to success are not seen.
But school is a historical construct with multiple meanings and perspectives. It does not have to remain static. It is possible for school to change. It is possible to shift our perspective and focus on students and their needs rather than the metrics of achievement or the picture of success.
In finishing my undergraduate degree, I finally got a picture of what a good school for me might look like in real life. I spent the years after art school having babies, being a stay-at-home mom, and taking community college classes when I could. I finally went back full-time in 2012. Much of what made school work for me wasn’t that I’d changed—I still struggle. But I went back; I had teachers who met me where I was and pushed me from where I was. I was in classrooms with students who frequently forced me to reexamine myself and my assumptions.
Colleges and universities, like K–12, are designed around a particular set of assumptions, many of which don’t fit the actual students who make up the majority of college students in the United States. While Americans with a college degree remain a minority, over two-thirds of those who graduate high school in the US will go on to college within a year or two. For various reasons, a lot of them, like I did, will have their college plans diverted. There are 36 million Americans who fall into the “Some College, No Degree” category. For many years, I was one of their number. Many of these students will try to return to college at some point, as I did, but the deck is stacked against them. One of the things that made my university work for me is that, as a historical women’s college, Mills had a background in the issues that drive marginalized genders out of higher ed, so I ended up at a school in which students over the age of twenty-three made up a quarter of the student population. Mills is currently slated to stop accepting new students after 2021 and to cease granting degrees in 2023. The fight for Mills by those of us who have benefited from it is ongoing, but schools like the one that nurtured me are endangered. Colleges and universities founded to address the needs of underserved or marginalized students are most in danger from the current wave of academic neoliberalism.
My two years finishing my undergraduate degree were marked by a flowering of possibility that came not just from educational attainment, but from the generosity of people who assumed I was trying. When I was late to classes because my bus was late, teachers did not assume I was lackadaisical toward my learning. When I was late for an awards ceremony and missed the presentation of the biggest award of my educational career because I was picking up my kids from school, a professor whispered to me that she’d assumed that was where I was. In one of my classes, our professor told us on day one that if we were ever having an emotional crisis or exhaustion, it was OK to use the time of her class to go to counseling instead. I had multiple teachers who put my humanity above my achievements, and for me, that allowed me to finally achieve. I went from hating school to loving it. I went from a college dropout to a college graduate, and then on to a PhD program.
The possibilities that were opened for me are not available to everyone, but they should be.
When we treat academic success and college attainment as static, rather than look to student needs as human beings, we create the conditions in which some people are suited to college and some are not. Most professors, administrators, and board members are people who followed the expected path. They come from comparatively wealthier, more educated backgrounds than their students, and their expectations are made in accordance with this background. There’s a Vox essay I love, by Alvin Chang, that starts with a little quiz about the skills college students should develop. College administrators tend to place emphasis on independent skills, which is reflective of a more privileged background, while students from poor backgrounds tend to need to develop interdependent skills. Expectations of independence from the top down exclude many students like me, students with people who depend on them outside of school. If I have to choose between finishing a paper and taking my sick child to the doctor, I’m going to pick the latter, and that might mean that I’ll fail by the metrics of achievement.
The possibilities that were opened for me are not available to everyone, but they should be.
What I value most in my college education is how I learned to learn, to think and to write and to understand the world. I spent many of my years out of school still learning, still thinking, still reading, still writing, but I did most of it alone. Without community, there was only so far all that learning could go. In returning to school, I was around people who could question my conclusions, offer new references, push me to go further, to think from a new angle, to learn together.
In recent years I’ve started looking into a diagnosis of my potential neurodivergence. When I first considered it, I was thinking about it to help make me better at what I do. Now I’m thinking about it in terms of survival. I started thinking about this topic again after reading an essay about how some students aren’t cut out for college—and that’s OK. It angered me. In many ways, I am not cut out for college, at least if we treat college as a monolith, an inflexible and unchanging institution that students must fit into. But college need not be monolithic, just as students and their “potential” are not.
This country celebrates success as individual achievement, but success is always built on context and support. Every white male scholar who is currently working on a monograph in lockdown without worrying about who is minding his children is benefiting from labor that won’t be visible in his final product. Academia may seem static, a place where people will either succeed or not, but academia is people. People move and change and interact in community. We don’t need to accept potential as it currently exists. The capacity for academic success is elastic. We can change the questions we ask and the environments we create. We can change the boundaries of our community.
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