A Kick in the Ass

Sometimes it's the right intervention

I’ve told this story before, but one of the most important moments of my college career came in the fall of my junior year at Williams. I was majoring in Physics, but also playing rugby, and sinking more effort into the latter than the former. Especially the associated drinking and partying. This led to a lot of homework going undone.

A few weeks into the semester, my quantum mechanics professor, Kevin Jones, stopped me at the end of class and asked whether I’d handed in the homework due that day. I said no, that I had gotten it partly done, but there were a few points that I needed to fix. He then noted that I hadn’t handed in a couple of previous assignments, either. I said, yeah, well, same story— I just wanted to make sure I had everything absolutely nailed down before turning it in.

He nodded in a way that indicated he absolutely knew I was lying (I hadn’t started any of the assignments), and then said “You know, sometimes, you just need to cut your losses, and hand in whatever you have.”

He let me go after that, but that “cut your losses” hit me really hard. For probably the first time in my college career to that point, I skipped the big rugby parties that night, and hit the Physics library to actually do my problem sets. I handed in all the back work the next week, and found a group of classmates who met regularly to work on the physics homework together. Getting together with that group kept me from falling quite so far behind again (until the spring of my senior year, when I had a completely different (and much better) reason for being multiple weeks behind in a quantum class taught by Prof. Jones, but that’s a story for another time). I became a much better student, and started to strike a better balance between getting shit done and various rugby shenanigans.

I end up thinking about that a lot, because that kick in the ass was exactly what I needed at that time. I wasn’t behind in my work because of any lack of ability or resources, or because I was having any major personal crises (I was drinking an unhealthy amount, but that continued right on through graduation…). I was just fucking around, and needed somebody to say “Hey, dickhead. Get your shit together.”

At the same time, I recognize that for a lot of other people, that would’ve been about the worst possible approach. What worked so well to get me to reform my behavior would’ve sent some other people into a spiral of anxiety and self-doubt that would’ve ended very badly indeed. It’d maybe still be remembered as a turning point, but one in the wrong direction. Someone who was actually having a crisis, not just being an asshole, would need a more sensitive approach.

But the thing is, I’m also pretty sure that a more sensitive approach would not have made the same kind of difference for me. At that stage, I likely would’ve tried to parlay a gentler, more solicitous approach into official sanction for not actually doing much of anything. I certainly would’ve strung it out for a good while, and probably not ended up making the necessary changes as quickly and comprehensively as I did. I’m not sure I would’ve been successful in feigning actual problems to get out of doing work, but I was enough of a jackass at that time that I would’ve given it a shot.

This is a thing I think about a lot as a faculty member, when I have students who aren’t getting their work done: how to distinguish which students are genuinely struggling with something bigger, and which just need a kick in the ass? It’s really hard to get a read on this, though, and different people will assess the same students in different ways. What looks to one person like a student just being a douchebag may read as a learning disability to another, and vice versa. (I’m not sure whether I was giving off really obvious “Kick Me” signs back in the fall of 1991— likely yes, but at the same time, that was thirty years ago, and higher education was just a lot less solicitous of student mental health back then.)

Zooming out a bit, I think this is is of a piece with a bigger problem about the giving of advice. Hardly a week goes by without somebody on social media offering some really blunt tough-love advice for how to succeed in some field or another, and being castigated for it because that advice would be really terrible for people suffering genuine problems. And in slightly different quarters, hardly a week passes without some recommendation for a more touchy-feely approach being greeted with eyerolls and derision.

In the end, I don’t think the problem is that either set of advice is ill-intentioned, or even necessarily bad advice. In general, people offering advice tend to be saying “This is what worked for me” (even if they don’t say that explicitly), and aren’t trying to cynically manipulate or exploit young people. And I think both the tough-love and the touchy-feely categories of advice will work, just for different people. Some people who would collapse under tough-love will flourish given a more touchy-feely approach, while others who would fart around endlessly under a more touchy-feely approach would really benefit from some tough-love advice.

Some people really do need a gentle hand up, and they should absolutely get that. Others really do just need a kick in the ass, and they should get it, too. The tricky part is figuring out who is who.


This cheerful Monday morning topic brought to you in part by the knowledge that I have to start doing a thing that I’ve been putting off because I know it’s going to irritate me. If you would like to enable my procrastinatory tendencies, here’s a big button:

If you’d prefer to help somebody else procrastinate, here’s a different button:

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If you’d like to kick me in the ass and tell me to do my actual work, the comments are open.