When "overwhelmed" might be okay

The overwhelmed student is a common stereotype, and one I think about carefully. The other day, a student visited my office and described feeling "overwhelmed" at her studies. At moments like this, I start asking questions to assess a student's personal situation. It's not uncommon to find students working full-time jobs while going to school full-time. Anybody would feel overwhelmed putting in 60 to 80 hours a week. The main lesson I learned from fellow anthropologist Rebekah Nathan's year living in a college dorm was the impact of changing semester schedules on student lives. College can be one long exercise in time management. Juggling priorities with a constantly shifting calendar is not easy.  

Still, there's one kind of student overwhelmed that I welcome, because I view it as a mark of learning. It's the kind the student shared with me the other day. Looking into the extensive literature on the topic that fascinated her, she felt her own ideas shrink in comparison. She wondered whether her ideas were worthwhile and where she should go next. She was stuck.

I assured her this kind of overwhelmed was the good kind. She had gone beyond a superficial interest in the topic to dig deeper. She was moving beyond the false confidence of having a little knowledge and getting a sense of all she did not know. She was moving from the position of a beginning learner to that of a sophisticated scholar.

She would be fine, as long as she let herself get unstuck. There seem to be two approaches to getting unstuck. One is to to find a piece of the academic terrain and lay claim. Sometimes students do this out of sheer frustration. Daunted by the variety of research in their field, they make a decision. Usually the decision is one that was sitting in front of them all along. Occasionally, the choice means taking a surprising new direction.

The other approach entails going at the matter obliquely, and this is the one I recommended to this particular student. She could see which part of the academic terrain claimed her. I recalled hearing about a Nobel prize winner who said he got his best ideas ice skating. There aren't many skating rinks in Raleigh, so I suggested going for a run, cooking, or some other purposeful distraction. Taking a break from a busy schedule is a sure way to indulge creativity. She could check back in on her ideas afterward and see if anything had popped up. If not, walk away and try again. 

We'll find out in the coming weeks if my advice worked. Getting past the "overwhelmed" stage in learning can require down time, something that seems increasingly scarce in today's student lives when even social events (with their inevitable social media postings) can seem de rigueur. I hope she breaks the mold.

Photo Credit: CollegeDegrees360, CC Share-Alike 2.0

Nora Haennteaching, thought piece