• Michael Randall

Beware of the Peacocks, For They Walk Among Us: Ignoring Student Comparisons

As my last post on this blog discussed, as 2020 drew to a close, and 2021 started, I changed administrative position in the school, from Senior Tutor to 4th Year Honours Coordinator. It was a move met with some trepidation, and I am still figuratively getting my feet under the table in the role. However, so far (I’m sure this will change) the approach to the role is to, effectively, do a lot of the same things I was in the Senior Tutor role (although with no Spotify playlists and fewer irritating blog posts), but with added dissertation concerns.

The nature of the meetings that I am having with students has been slightly different over these past few weeks. This isn’t a bad thing/being critical of students in any way – I genuinely like speaking to students. But there has been a noticeable shift where a lot of the discussions are not (what I would call) “out and out personal circumstances”, but which can effectively be distilled down to students struggling with confidence. This can lead to understandable anxiety, which gets in the way of a student’s ability to succeed.

Now, I am by no means a trained psychologist or counsellor. But I have been a student before, and I’ve had my own difficulties with confidence in the past too. This has been during my studies, and at work. I therefore can’t act as a paragon of virtue, with a holier than thou attitude. But what I can do is pinpoint some trends from my time, both personally and in speaking to students, and spot a pattern/trend of behaviour, which I call “peacocking”.

What is ‘Peacocking’?

There’s a line in Scrubs where Dr Cox says that the word “hate” has been over-used so much that it doesn’t really carry its original meaning, and he therefore needs to find another way to express his disgust at something. So to be really clear, I don’t just hate it, I absolutely despise peacocking (apart from one notable exception, which I’ll get to). This is something I would tell my students about pre-COVID in person, but now, it is at its worst.

So what do I actually mean when I say "peacocking"? For me, it is the practice of individuals internally comparing themselves to others who are unnecessarily (but also inadvertently) showing off, in order to satisfy their own ego and validate how they work or conduct themselves. It goes beyond confidence, and I wouldn’t even say it is arrogance, because it applies to a specific context, where you are comparing yourself to others in the process. The thing is, it can happen.

I’ll give an example of the earliest example I can think of, where someone peacocked with me. Being from south of the border, I did GCSEs, not NAT-5s. Anyhow, come results day, I did well (8 x As, 1 x B, and 1 X D). If you had offered me those results when I was 13/14, I would have absolutely taken them. And I know in reading that, you have two questions: What was the B in? And what was the D in? The B was Food Tech (I like cooking, and the other tech options I would have struggled with). The D was in Music – I had a really good teacher who convinced me to do it. Unfortunately, they left.

At the same time, I had a ‘frenemy’ who also did music GCSE. I can remember after the results came out, we were chatting on MSN Messenger (a sentence which dates this anecdote considerably) in which they, knowing my mark, said that they were “disappointed to only get an A in music”. Now, that serves no purpose, other than to try and show off, and put me down by a direct comparison. Did it mean I was a bad student? No. Have I been scarred for life? No. I remember it, but no one has asked me about my GCSEs since about 2007, when I was applying for University. Even when I was at University and we got assessment marks back, you'd end up asking your friends what marks they got - having not read their work, or their actual feedback - and keep a mental tally of if you got less than them. Safe to say that mental tally has been largely forgotten now, but you could easily get sucked into a comparison that was wholly internalised.

The Oblivious Peacocks and Exam Time

That’s an example of a peacock who knows what they are doing. However, peacocks don’t always realise that they are being a peacock. In most of my experience, this tended to occur around exam revision and assignments. Work must not only have been done, but it had to be seen to be done. This usually was demonstrated by how long you spent in the University library. During revision periods, housemates would leave at 8am, come back in at 11pm, slump on the sofa, say how hard they had worked, and that they’d have to do it again the next day. I never liked working in the library – for me, it always felt oppressive in maintaining absolute silence. I like quiet, don’t get me wrong, but I like to be able to get up and stretch, have some snacks and drinks lined up. So my approach would be to work in my room by identifying 4 topics I wanted to cover that day – 2 in the morning, 2 in the afternoon. For me, that was far more relaxed, and I could take the content in. But the peacocks would, not maliciously, make you think that because you weren’t actively seen in the library, that you were somehow worse. If going to the library worked for others, that was fine – all credit to them. But I shouldn’t do something purely because I’ve seen other people doing it, if it doesn’t suit me.

What I was seeing from those students was burnout manifesting. One of my lines for dissertation students in meetings is “none of my best work was ever done at 3 in the morning on Red Bull”. But if someone else tells you that they’ve been pulling all-nighters, that gets the conversation going in your head as to whether you should be doing the same thing.

This would culminate in the actual exams themselves. There was probably some discussion in advance about what others were/weren’t going to revise in advance (I don’t like selective revision either – why restrict yourself?), but there would be conversations outside of exam halls about what you hoped would come up, and what wouldn’t, as others cowered in corners frantically looking at flash cards (I always thought if you didn’t know it at that stage, you weren’t going to suddenly know it now). You’d go in and maybe some people left the exam early – they must have nailed the questions, right? (they didn’t). You then left the exam hall, and had the post-exam debrief: “what questions did you answer?”, “what did you put for question 3? Oh my god, I didn’t do that”, “no, that question was about X case, wasn’t it?”.

This gathering of peacocks would be trying to check their standing vs others, when you couldn’t change anything, and you didn’t really know who was right or wrong. So I eventually just walked off home straight away after exams – why would I engage and stress myself any more? Chances were I had another exam coming up in a couple of days, and there was no point in (effectively) 'doom scrolling' back through my notes. I've had exams where I thought I had blown it, where I actually did well. I've also had ones where I thought I'd done well, where it turns out I hadn't. Fortunately, considering I teach it, Tort Law was one of the classes I did quite well in. Mind you, if you ask me to teach a session on Equity and Trusts, I'm running for the hills.

Group Chats – The Double-Edged Sword

Now, that makes me sound like I’m anti-social, and you can’t discuss work with each others. That’s not what I mean. I wouldn’t have got through University without the support of my peers. Still wouldn’t be able to tick along without checking in with those same people for advice (I asked some of them about taking on the honours role, for example). It is now far easier to access and contact each other than before. Facebook Chat wasn’t a thing. WhatsApp wasn’t a thing. Social Media wasn’t quite as big of a deal, where you project an image of yourself to the world in select highlights – if you were to look at my Instagram feed, you’d think I only went to rugby matches and walked in parks. The reality is that I’m probably sat on the sofa eating crisps whilst watching YouTube videos of cookery programmes.

However, this greater ease of communication with each other is a double-edged sword, and from what I can gather at the moment with dissertations, is leading to a lot of peacocking, which in turn is knocking confidence. It’s the way in which the work is discussed which is causing this, and it is incredibly disheartening. I see incredibly intelligent, bright and talented young students who don’t believe in themselves and second guess themselves and don't take advantage of opportunities. A lot of this is because students don’t want to (for want of a better way of saying this) get things “wrong” – that there’s only certain ways that you can do a dissertation, and any deviation away from that will backfire. It is absolute nonsense (cue a Roy Keane "nonsense" video to continue to convey my displeasure about peacocking).

Peacocking and Honours Dissertations

The thing is, by its definition, you can’t compare dissertations between students – they are individual research projects. Students came up with ideas independently of one another. They have different supervisors. They have looked at different information and evidence. They have different electives. Particularly for this year, they have different working environments at home, and different commitments and personal circumstances. You can’t really compare fairly at the best of times. How on earth is it logical to compare now?

The first thing I ask my dissertation cohort is “what is the biggest difference between this dissertation, and your other assignments?”. Often, you’ll get replies about it being the word count, or credit weighting, or the volume of sources you have to look at.

However, the answer is who sets the question. It is the student who is in control and determines the question. How can you get something wrong, when you’ve determined what the question is? You could be factually incorrect in getting the wrong outcome of a case, but given how much you work on that, it is highly unlikely. So if you design a different question from someone else, how can you answer it in the same way? Every dissertation meeting I am having at the moment, the student is a lot closer to having the core idea than they think.

For me, the biggest dangers with peacocks here are that there is only one metric that you can use to complete a direct comparison – word count. Progress on a dissertation, for peacocks, can only be judged by how many words you are on/have to get done this weekend, or else. Well if you are on 8,000 words and I’m on 5,000 words, good for you. Chances are, you’ll still need to edit it, and I’ve probably spent more time phrasing a difficult part of my argument more clearly, but I now know where I am going next with the work. If you're on 20,000 words cutting down, you're definitely going to be stuck in an edit - that might be the most effective way for you to work, though, and if so, that is fine. Who is in a better position? Someone with more words who isn’t clear on their argument, or someone with fewer words who is? Again, it makes no sense.

Degrees Are More Than Marks

I’m not a massive fan of grades and marking, anyway. What I find it does is reduces students down to a reductionist Top Trumps-esque comparison. I’ve had students in tutorials who have been excellent in their verbal communication and preparation, who haven’t got the highest marks. I’ve had people who are near silent in tutorials perform incredibly well in exams, too. Is one outright better than the other? On paper, yes, but in reality, absolutely not.

The whole point of the degree is that you pick up skills as you go, which you can employ elsewhere. You learn what your own strengths and weaknesses are, which will serve you well far-beyond the degree. I'm not the most organised person in the world, but I am someone who is pretty good at one to one communication. The chances are, after you’ve finished studying, you’re never going to write another exam. But if you were good at exams, then you can identify problems incredibly efficiently.

However, if I run a business and want to put someone in front of a client to represent me, I’m going to look for the person with the best verbal communication skills. Maybe I’m going to look for the person who has a work ethic, where they have shown clearly that they can work in a team environment. Maybe I’ll look for someone with organisational skills who managed care responsibilities and a full-time degree during a pandemic.

And this is where peacocking really gets to me. I speak to students who are upset with marks, thinking that they are at the end of a process and that their futures have been forever tarnished. They usually aren’t bad marks, and the perception that they are has come about through comparison. It destroys confidence, and people don’t apply for things, because they don’t think they’re good enough.

They also think that if their whole future isn’t resolved in September 2021, that they are a failure – that’s absolute lunacy. In 2011, no one would have predicted I was going to go on to do a PhD a year later. And in 2012, no one knew I was going to come to Strathclyde in 2016. In 2016, no one knew that I was at least half-decent at student support, and could step into the Senior Tutor role. And in September 2020, no one knew that I was going to move on to the honours role, based on the skills I’d picked up over that time.

Acceptable Peacocking

There is, however, one exception for peacocking, where I would actively encourage it. If you are celebrating handing in your dissertation, or your degree award. You have all worked incredibly hard and been through so much. It is the culmination of years’ worth of work. At that stage, you’ve absolutely earned the right to show off about your successes. I love seeing the hand-in photos, and the celebrations online – it is a highlight of the academic year, and last year gave some real brightness and positivity in a difficult time.

What Am I Actually Saying?

I think it is probably too much of a stretch to say that my point is “you should all be confident and believe in yourself”. It is far easier said than done. I can tell you that you’re a good student, but let’s be honest, I wouldn’t say anything different, and that might mean I seem less genuine. It is far more difficult to get you to believe in yourselves, and as I said in my last post on here, I went through a few years of really losing my confidence and struggling to get it back.

What I am trying to say, though, is not to get bogged down in comparison with other people. A lot of what I went through as mentioned in the last post on the blog was because I compared myself to others, whether that was others on the PhD programme, or other staff members when I first arrived. Focus on yourself. What are you good at? What are you specifically doing for your question, and how do you want to structure your argument? By all means support each other, ask how work is going. But recognise that you are only getting a snap shot of someone else’s progress and circumstances, so a direct comparison, quite aside from not being helpful, just isn’t possible.

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