Compass and the Fear

Aug 5, 2010   //   by Anna Zaniewski   //   Compass News, Summer Program 2010  //  2 Comments

The Compass summer program is about to begin.  And I am afraid.
I am a graduate student, in physics, and I’ve been doing a lot of the coordinating for the program.  The goal of my efforts has been pretty simple:  enable the incoming students to build community amongst each other and with the older Compass students and graduate students.  I have been involved with Compass for three years now, and I know we are going to have a great program – everyone involved from the teachers to the RAs to the coordinators – have been working together for months to build something beautiful and unique.  But here I am, just over a day away from the start of the program, and I feel a little sick in the stomach.

Is it from too many cookies consumed this afternoon at the cookie party?  Perhaps.  The home made thin mints and “smooches” were quite addictively delicious.  But really, I know the reason: the Fear.

The Fear is one of the primary motivators of human behavior, or so I learned from a psychology class; by the Fear I mean the fear of failure.

The fear of failure is not so much the fear of getting an F in class, but the fear of being judged a failure by your peers.  In academia, the Fear is a motivator not only for late night study sessions, but also procrastination.  After all, one can’t really be a failure if one didn’t really try.  It extends throughout all of academia:  professors are bad teachers (at least partly) because of the fear of losing authority, which leads them to inflate their lectures with jargon and assume a hierarchical class structure.  They often subconsciously gear their lectures not at their students, but an imaginary jury of their former teachers and mentors.  As a graduate student, nearly every day I fear being judged unproductive or not smart enough.   And with respect to Compass, I honestly fear the judgment of the students.

I want them to experience the program as a success.  I want them to share enriching experiences together and emerge as friends.  I want them to judge the program, and by extension, me, as a positive force in their lives.  And I fear failing.

I know that the students, at this moment, are probably going through similar feelings, though the details are different.  They are unsure of how they will fit in with their fellow students.  They are afraid that they will be judged, that they won’t make friends, that they aren’t as smart as everyone else.

Though at this point, let’s be honest, we’re all feeling apprehensive, Compass tries very hard – harder than any other academic institution I’ve ever experienced- to be inclusive and nonjudgmental and to encourage the letting go of these fears.  The primary motivator in the classes is good old fashioned curiosity.  There are no grades or exams.  The classes are not lecture driven, but are group work driven, so that each students’ contributions are critical to the success of the class.    Everyone, regardless of their prior knowledge of the subject, is valued as a contributor.  Yet, however hard we try to tell the students that we aren’t here to judge, that they can relax and really explore the subject without being labeled “smart” or “not smart”, the students retain the fear of failure for almost the whole first week into the program.  Even though there are no grades, even though we are not PhD professors, but graduate students just a few years older than they are, and even though we constantly are telling them this, it always takes a few days for the students to believe us, and a feeling of trust start to emerge. At this point, and not before, the students to allow themselves to pursue the subject with curiosity, and without (or at least, with less) fear.

This is one of the lessons of Compass, and one that extends to the scientific community in a profound way- though scientists often try to posture themselves as brilliant (a consequence of the fear of being deemed unworthy), it is only through building a strong community that trusts each other that true curiosity driven science can emerge.  It is an important lesson, and one that I need to better learn myself.


  • Thanks for this honest account Anna. I think each of us that has been in your shoes in previous years has felt exactly the same way. I’ll never forget the way I felt your very first year when I received a call from the first Compass student to arrive..three hours early.

    “Oh, great” I thought. “We haven’t even started and done anything yet and we’ve already lost a student.” Luckily the student wasn’t too traumatized and had a good time in the end.

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