Extraordinary students are rightfully praised from kindergarten onward, and universities like MSU find countless ways to celebrate them with stories about their remarkable accomplishments. From individual stories of achievement on the front page of the university’s website to the students introduced at the MSU Board of Trustees’ meeting each spring for graduating with a 4.0 GPA, extraordinary students’ successes reflect positively on the university. So, MSU and other universities have good reasons to promote stories about their high-achieving students.
However, unintended negative consequences emerge when extraordinary stories become the norm. The standards by which each of us measure ourselves and our own personal accomplishments are inflated to unrealistic extremes. After all, the extraordinary is by nature not normal, and the celebration of outcomes too often ignores all the work that went into them. Extraordinary stories also assume a set of standards that are inherently inequitable because it ignores the incredible variety of experiences and types of preparation among Michigan State students.
The stories we tell are tremendously influential in supporting or discouraging student success. Take, for example, the heroic stories of accomplishment common in science textbooks. Science educators have demonstrated that students who learn about the many failures, dead ends, and struggles of scientists have more realistic expectations about the pathway to success and are more likely to engage in the work necessary to become successful. Janet N. Ahn, co-author of a study on the effects of different kinds of stories about scientists, said their research challenges a tendency in American education for teachers to focus on their students' successes and not their failures. She explains that stories that ignore failure and struggle leave children with the impression that successful scientists are geniuses and if children don't think they are geniuses, then they will never succeed as scientists.
Colleges and universities have long understood the importance of telling stories to stakeholders like their alumni and state legislators. Lately, they have begun to better understand how stories shape students’ perceptions of themselves and of appropriate measures of their success. Leaders of the University of Utah’s Student Success and Empowerment Initiative host a website that introduces two dozen students who work as Student Success Advocates and encourages students to “get inspired to create your own student success story!”
In the Office of the APUE, we have begun to make a concerted effort to tell “normal stories.” That is, stories about everyday people, who are working hard and overcoming challenges, weathering setbacks and forging ahead. We want to tell the stories about the tens of thousands of amazing people who have chosen to work and study at MSU and about how they navigate the entirely normal struggles of being a college student. And we want to find ways to allow them to tell these stories in their own words. The Student Success Express videos are one way we are trying to do this, and profiles of faculty, staff, and students are another. We are going to try to focus more on process and less on product. Instead of trying to make the extraordinary normal, we are going to tell stories that demonstrate that the normal is extraordinary.