Ever feel disenchanted and doubtful about your self-image as a successful student? Strive though we might, successes at our studies don’t guarantee a standing ovation from those in our lives or even a satisfied sense of accomplishment. Sorry, kids. Everyone around us has their own stuff going on and, unlike at a brick and mortar university, we at AU typically aren’t surrounding by others of our academic ilk. How we see our progress is largely up to us.
Here in the peaceful backwoods of our studies there are no grades posted on the walls to let us compare ourselves to others, no kudos from professors and peers to gloat about in conversations with family, and no classroom discourse to make you realize that the way to avoid dalliances is to go home and study the textbook for yourself. (This latter may be the single best attribute of distance education: less distractions from the actual learning objectives).
For many of us all this isolation is great; who needs a chattering class to tell us that we’ve learned something and demonstrated that knowledge. Our heads are down like motivated dynamos combining the best of passion with the essence of motivation. And yet something may yet seem missing in our academic identities; let’s pause and reflect on what your AU means to you.
Through the Looking Glass…Which You Looks Back?
We see ourselves through the eyes of others, in many ways, and that includes the ideal version of ourselves that hangs in our mind over our many more mundane iterations. Charles Horton Cooley’s 1902 conception of the ‘looking glass self’ applies; we see ourselves reflected in the reactions of others and judge our efficacy accordingly. People’s identities arise in terms of “judgements they receive from others” such that folks “measure their own worth, values, and behavior” on the basis of these, often interpreted, reactions. (Lesley University) We never know how we look in another’s eyes, all we have to go on are their actual responses in words, tone and body language.
To be sure, loved ones and friends (and even acquaintances inquiring about our AU swag—go buy some and be a social scientist in action!) may remark positively about our academic progress. Tutors also add to the chorus of positive reinforcement. But, in our heart of hearts, we are in the same boat as humans across the tinted spectrum of our species: we’re social apes and our “self-concept is built not in solitude, but rather within social settings” (Lesley University). These settings depend upon our assessments; how do we define what goes on in these fleeting moments where others provide us with feeback? One need not be a Seinfeld fan to know that minute details can ruin a day (or provide cannon fodder for many episodes about nitpicky details). Likewise, if we predispose ourselves to a negative self-image, we may have cracked our mirror in advance; we hear condescension, platitudes or disinterest in the voices we encounter in the context of our studies.
May the Force of Good Self Esteem Be With You
But fear not! One of the greatest minds ever interviewed by CBC radio, in the humble view of this Fly on the Wall, was the psychologist Rollo May. In 1966 May described the truth about our looking glass selves: they’re totally subjective, and yet, thanks to the nature of social consensus, we see the world as a series of objective facts. As we tease out external circumstances from personal reality, we uncover the fact that we are the arbiters of all that we see and feel in this life.
The truth is that there are no objective facts in our social lives. How we feel depends upon our interpretation of our reality. This takes on a sinister tone when we consider that old bugaboo of peer pressure; in society we are surrounded by images of ourselves that others portray in their reactions to our behavior. Yet at AU this clamor falls away and we are left alone with only ourselves and our self-image as we imagine it to be. Thus, we make life according to how it feels but this whole process may feel natural rather than intentional.
In other words, ask yourself if you’re proud of your work on a given essay or exam and your answer will be the truest answer on offer. Why lie to ourselves? (Why we do is beyond the scope of this present article). Likewise, remember when a teacher would ask you to self-mark an assignment? Most of us probably under-evaluated our efforts, being polite Canadians and all. The same is true in our AU studies; we easily can feel a bit uncertain or even panicky about our progress but once we look in the mirror of self-reflection we’ll know how things feel to us.
Know Thyself To Thyself
Nobody knows ourselves better than ourselves and May demonstrates how even our basic language and culture unwittingly function to take this self-knowledge away from us.
“The capacity to relate to oneself is of tremendous and basic importance…It is the grasping of what something in the world means to me – eg. This bouquet of flowers on my desk is a reality and has a special meaning to me. D.T. Suzuki, a leading interpreter of Zen Buddhism to the West, has remarked that in Eastern languages adjectives always include the implication of ‘for-me-ness’, that is to say “the flower is beautiful” means for me the flower is beautiful. Unfortunately, in our Western dichotomy between subject and object, we have developed the habit of thinking that we have said what is most true of the flower if we can say it is beautiful entirely divorced from ourselves, as though a statement is most true in proportion to how little ourselves have to do with it” (May, 7) Flowers by other names might be just as beautiful, and have scent just as luscious, but the meaningful nature of the flower is not in its name or its meristem. Flowers resonate sublime magic because that is what they do for us. Likewise, others see us through the lens of their own perceptions and needs, hence the phrase, “what have you done for me lately?” We’d feel different if we spotted a certain chrysanthemum that we associated with funerals or a daring dahlia that had last crossed our vision prior to us being abandoned at the altar. To learn is thus to learn for ourselves personally; we make true connections with our textbook when we impart to the material the unique tones of our being.
Whither objectivity? Perhaps. For the sake of our self esteem it helps to ask ourselves how we really feel about our studies rather than how we imagine that we ought to feel. Consensus is based on agreed realities, but, when the reality of asserting a life-affirming identity as a scholar is in question, we may have to become a support army of one. We can’t expect the social media landscape to see the same erudite beauty in our essays as we do; social media is not a university classroom, it’s a realm that rewards memes and video. You can’t make a silk scarf out of a swine’s, oh never mind. And anyway, memes can be fun!
Positive Identities Online
For academic identities, positives do exist in the web-o-sphere. Mary Aiken, following Cooley’s conception of the looking-glass self, studied how “a person may possess many versions of the cyber self” and thus test out a panoply of personas. The “cyber self is far more malleable” than face to face interactive reality, and it allows participants to curate various selves to curry favour with various audiences. We probably know this personally, but it’s just as applicable scholastically. We at AU are largely self-dependent when it comes to our self-image as successful scholars; nobody else is physically in our class, so it helps to do some introspection and ask ourselves about our progress. Further, we can sign up on social media groups to discuss the topics we’re studying. We just need to be aware that anyone can claim knowledge of a theorist or topic without having actually studied it, either in private or through a university.
We partially inhabit a virtual world, and AU is, in 2020, more normal than ever before. Even classroom courses often have an online platform with forums. As Cooley noted, how we see ourselves through the eyes of others is really down to our interpretations of what we expect from their perceptions. We are the mirrors we’ve been waiting for just like everybody else.
For her part, Aiken’s research found that the cyber-self involved “self-concept changes ranging from being more accepting of their physical appearance to gaining confidence” (Lesley University). Good things come from being online and that includes our studies. Sonja Lyubomirsky notes that “the more social comparisons you make, the more likely you are to encounter unfavourable comparisons, and the more sensitive you are to social comparisons, the more likely you are to suffer their negative consequences” (Lyubomirsky, 13). So, before we fall into the timeless trap of being bored or disgruntled for lack of positive feedback in our immediate surroundings (what are we, puppies?) we best remember that our image is up to us. How you feel personally about your schooling is the truest assessment of your reality. And reality, in the last instance, is yours and yours alone. You are your own mirror!