I’m a University Success Story, and I Think Undergraduate Education is Completely Broken

I’m an unlikely person to be writing this article.

In many ways, I could be considered a university success story: I used co-op to break into the job market, became bilingual, made great contacts, and earned a degree that (combined with experience) has seen me steadily employed since graduation.

What’s not to love, right? Results as advertised.

But the system that helped me achieve these things is deeply, deeply flawed. It fails students every single day, and despite the fact I came out armed with a half-decent education, it failed me on the regular as well.

One of the things my BA taught me is how to write an essay. And while that is not so useful in the “real world,” I think it could be useful here. So here we go.

My thesis is “Undergraduate Education is Broken.”

My proof is:

1)      Students don’t give a shit.

2)      Professors don’t give a shit.

3)      The return on investment just isn’t there.

If you’ve been to University recently, you probably can see where some of these arguments are going. If not, please join me on a journey into the land of postsecondary education. Keep in mind this is all based on getting a Bachelor of Arts at a middle-of-the-road Canadian University. I’m sure students from other faculties and institutions have different experiences.

(I hope they do, anyways. Maybe you’re doing it right, and can help us fix this.)

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There are a few reasons students don’t give a shit.

It starts in high school, where we’re all told we need to go to University because that’s just what you do. Students who aren’t particularly cut out for academia, or who are unsure of their true interests and goals, apply. They get in.

Why do they get in, you wonder? Because it’s a fucking business transaction, that’s why.  Schools spend tons of money on recruitment, piggybacking on the university=job security myth. Once they convince kids to apply (because what else are they gonna do?), they squeeze as many students as possible into the freshman class. Admission decisions are usually based on grade 11 and 12 grades, which mean very little. Case in point: My grade 12 English teacher was a total hardass who (rightfully, in my opinion) gave me lower grades because she knew I could do better. Meanwhile, I met plenty of people in University who had high English marks but couldn’t string a written sentence together.

This truly sucked for both parties. Overprepared and underprepared kids generously admitted on the basis of super subjective grades is not a great start.

Here’s what happens after that:

Students who aren’t academically inclined go into crazy debt pursuing a half-interested “education” when they should be pursuing jobs or entrepreneurial ventures which actually match their young talent.

Students who are academically inclined have their passion stifled as they sit through (and pay for) required basic essay writing classes.

We all lose here.

This, combined with coddling in high school and cynicism about education in general, means a good chunk of students don’t give a shit from day one.

It may take a while, but (most of) the rest will stop caring, too.

Maybe they’ll stop caring when they first watch an employer scan their resume and realize that coursework doesn’t cut it. Maybe they’ll be focused on hustling through 3 jobs to make their tuition payments. Maybe they’ll have a mental health issue and be discouraged with the lack of support.

Personally, my breaking point was when I was repeatedly forced to choose between the challenging courses I truly wanted to take and the bird courses that would allow me to keep my scholarship or get into grad school. Sure, trial & error may be an important step in learning, but GPAs don’t really make room for that. Higher education is often sabotaged by the pursuit of good grades (or, if you get jaded enough, the pursuit of a passing mark).

You know how this story ends. By the end of their education, many students just don’t care about school and quite probably haven’t learned a whole lot. The power of the degree is weakened by the low standards needed to achieve it (sing it with me–Cs and Ds get degrees!), and once passionate learners are now serious cynics.

I can only imagine how much that sucks for professors.

Unfortunately, some of them don’t care either.

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There’s a story I sometimes tell about first year University, one that always makes people smile. During a 5:30 pm intermediate-advanced French grammar class, some fellow students and I started bringing long island iced teas in coffee tumblers to class. It was a perfect solution–our professor spoke terrible French, and the booze made us giggle at the many “etre” and “avoir” mixups on his powerpoint slides. When he didn’t show up, we would have a drink together and chat. He was late to nearly every class and missed a couple with no warning, so this was an important bonus.

I tell that story in a way that makes people laugh, but the reality is that it wasn’t funny. We each spent almost $800 on that course. Many of us had moved to this city and attended this school specifically to improve our French. It was my first semester at University, and this experience set the tone for how seriously I was going to take my education moving forward. We discussed making a formal complaint, but a couple senior students in the class were worried about losing the credit. All we could do was give him a bad review on our student evaluation forms. Following this experience, I dropped the French class I had signed up for the following semester.

Another particularly memorable communications prof often searched random theories from the textbook on YouTube, selecting the first relevant-seeming video that came up and treating the auditorium of students to what was definitely a high school student project lazily thrown together on Windows Movie Maker. A few other classes featured slides directly plagiarized from a textbook. Many students saw this as a “good thing” since they could skip the class. Personally, I wish I could have skipped paying the tuition and just bought the book.

To be fair, these were outliers. What was perhaps more common and unfortunate were the professors who were good researchers and terrible teachers–who had written great books and had stunning resumes, but had no interest in teaching and certainly no talent for it. Whether it was a heavily credentialed professor from afar who barely spoke English or a disinterested book smart scholar, we met a host of characters at the front of the classroom who were not overly interested in our education.

I should stipulate here that most of my professors were wonderful, though I’m sure a few struggled with the system themselves. A system which often keeps profs perpetually part-time, regardless of their teaching talents. A system which sees teaching as a side project. A system which churns out apathetic students who thwart any effort to be innovative. A system which often overlooks its obligation to undergrad students, focusing instead on graduate programs and research grants.

In so many ways, we are ripping both kids and their teachers off and fumbling a valuable piece of continuing education.

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The graduation face.

Now we come to the part about ROI (return on investment). I know corporate buzzwords suck, but I think this is the way we need to frame the conversation for it to make sense.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is a simple one: Does education need to be correlated with employability to be valuable?

My answer is no, education is valuable in and of itself.

Whew. I can already hear every dad at every University Open House loudly crossing their arms at me.

“If we’re going to be sinking 30k into this institution, my kid sure as hell better come out more employable than they went in.”

Guess what, worried parent #52? You’re right. Of course you’re right. We’ve already established that students are often apathetic, that solid course content and professors’ attention is a gamble, and now you’re telling me that the kid is going to graduate with shitty job prospects. How is that worth an average debtload of 26k?!

It isn’t. Unless you’re super dedicated to your field of study, it just isn’t.

And here’s where ROI comes into play: Education is worth an investment of time and money. But it just isn’t worth that much, not when students don’t even have that much to give and they need to create a life afterwards. Not when online and experiential learning offer plentiful alternatives to the University stream. Not when so many of the students aren’t even interested in a job in their field.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Once, during a Q & A, I asked a class of second year History majors how many of them wanted to pursue a career in a History-related field.

Only two people in that classroom raised their hands.

Now, I think it’s awesome that people want to learn about History even if they don’t want to make it a career. I think that’s great news for democracy and society. It promises us more knowledgeable lawyers, politicians, and citizens in general.

But the price those kids are being forced to pay for their curiousity is way, way too high.

…Oh, right, this is an essay. I guess this is the conclusion. In University, I would have copy and pasted my intro to the bottom, reworded it, and made it punchy. But honestly, I don’t want to drive these points home. I don’t want to “reaffirm my thesis.”

I just want this shit to change.

I’ve written about why undergraduate education is broken, because it’s a subject I know well. But what I wish I could write is why, and how, we should fix it.

As someone who wholeheartedly adores education in all its forms, I just want this to get better. Ideas welcome.

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Why We Should Care About Paris. Yes, Especially With Everything Else Going On In the World.

I want to write about Paris.

I want to write in particular about the discomfort some feel with the attention this tragedy is getting, at least compared to other larger-scale violence in the world. Aren’t people dying violently every day? Isn’t there a refugee crisis on our hands? Where’s the outrage there?

I hear you. And while I don’t agree with all the discourse, here is what I hope we can all agree on.

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First: A human life is a human life is a human life. Country of origin does not make your life more or less valuable.

Second: Death is, excuse the word, total shit. As someone who has dealt with her fair share of it in the last month, I know the heartbreaking ripple of pain any death leaves. And deaths which are particularly senseless, or violent, or bred out of hatred? They’re the worst. They’re so bad, we have laws and systems in place to stop people from causing those deaths.

Third: In some places, you can count on those don’t-kill-each-other laws to make things a little safer. In other places, not so much. The system in place to protect citizens from brutal, unnecessary violence is a little more dependable in some countries than others. That’s one of the reasons we have a refugee crisis right now; people would prefer to live in a country where they have chance to survive, thankyouverymuch.

The fact of the matter is, the whole “law” thing isn’t really working in every country. In many places, there are broken governments, really bad neighbours, powerful extremist groups, and all sorts of corruption standing in the way of peoples’ safety.

Now, I can’t speak for how individuals feel when they hear about people dying in these less-than-safe countries, but here are two things we probably don’t feel: We don’t feel overly surprised. And most of us don’t feel like there is a whole lot we can do.

It’s a little different when people die violently and senselessly in countries that are supposed to be safe. A shock pulses through the world because it is, well, shocking. There is confusion and horror and, oh yes, headlines and hashtags. If that country is democratic and has a decent economy, there is an increased urgency from the general population; a feeling that we can do something, that we should do something, that we have both the responsibility and the resources to keep this country safe.

And if we don’t? Well, then, the fear is that there is no such thing as safety, or law and order. If this brutality can penetrate Paris, where does it stop?

These might seem like hyperbolic questions. I get that. But this is where the outpouring of coverage and discourse is coming from. Everyone feels a little less safe in a place where they are supposed to feel safe. A place sought by refugees because it was perceived to be free of the violence they tried to escape.

After all, if the whole world becomes unsafe, where would these refugees go?

NOW, let’s get back to those things we agree on.

1) Every life is valuable;
2) Death is shit;
3) Some places are, sadly, safer than others. 

With that in mind, it is appalling to me that anyone would use this as an opportunity to keep innocent people out of safer places.

There are serious questions facing our governments right now: How do we separate the victims from the perpetrators when they knock on our doors? When we take people from a place suffering from chaos and hatred, how do we keep them from bringing some of that chaos and hatred with them? Safe countries, after all, have an obligation to keep their current citizens safe. And so I understand temporary measures put in place to find answers to these questions before accepting more refugees.

I understand them, but I do not accept them as a long-term “solution.” Letting countless innocent people die by permanently locking down borders is not the answer. That only adds to the already devastating number of victims.

Let us mourn the deaths of the Paris attack.

Let us work together to keep our countries safe and secure.

But let us not allow our fear to unnecessarily raise the headcount.

On Being Uncertain.

So, this is where a few years of obsessive blogging brings you.

I’m back in the marketing world, this time as an office-dwelling big kid. This means that my nine-to-five is consumed by high-fiving puns and dropkicking typos–emails, blog posts, tweets, ads, and back again.

It’s a pretty sweet gig for someone who wrote 141 posts (that added up, didn’t it?) on this not-so-little-anymore blog during University. But writing for work, it turns out, is not the same thing as writing for fun. Not even close.

I missed you, blog community. I missed the idea-sharing, the 2 am brainwaves, the way words can temporarily smooth out the messes (and there are so many messes). I even missed the trial and error; that awkward feeling when no one seemed to read my latest blog, or the joy when the comments rolled in.

I miss not worrying about keywords and metadata and messaging. Mostly, though, I just miss having something to write about. 

The uncertainty that comes with graduation is a bit paralyzing. Turns out, I only know how to write about things that I’m somewhat sure of–and right now, I’m sure of almost nothing. As of the end of September, I will have moved twice and worked three different jobs since I ended school in May. How can you write about your life when it looks like that? I can barely keep up.

But I miss this enough that I’m going to try. I’m going to try to write about the uncertainty a little. We will see how it goes.

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At my grad, trying out my new trademark “uh, what now?” expression.

When my plus-one and I went out for sushi a couple days ago, I was struck by how many young faces were in the usually empty-ish restaurant. “University’s back, eh?” he hypothesized. My stomach sunk a little bit in response. I looked around the room, then leaned over and whispered:

“I…feel like I should still be one of them.”

(To answer your question, yeah, I felt I needed to whisper that information. It was top-secret, apparently.)

“Two years.” He said, leaning back. He sounded so freaking sure. It caught me off-guard.  Also, I had no idea what he meant. Two years what now?

He continued.  “Two years until you get used to not being a student anymore.”

I usually wince when my boyfriend alludes to our three year age difference (I’m an adult, dammit!), but this advice was helpful. I don’t know where he was getting his stats from, but it felt good to have an answer, even if it was kind of a bullshit one. Usually I am all about discourse, debate, questions. Not that day.

That day, I just took his answer as fact because why the hell not? I wanted a fact. I wanted one so badly.

It’s not hard to see why. The exciting-slash-scary thing about adulthood, about diving from an academic background into the subjective land of marketing, is this: Right and wrong answers are almost totally gone.

Not completely gone, mind you. Grammar is still a thing. I could still put a typo in a tweet, forget my keys, press “reply all” instead of “reply.” Sure. But life is loaded with creative decisions–what campaign to run at work, which neighborhood we should move to after farming season, how much money to put away for retirement (cuz hey, that’s a thing now).

And there’s no guidebook. Nope. Doesn’t exist.

This isn’t a brand new thing, of course. I’ve had to make creative, impactful decisions before. We all have. I had to pick whether to go to University after High School, then which University to go to. There was no right or wrong for that, either. I pored over guidebooks, spent hours on forums, tracked down potential professors to ask hard questions.

I made a choice–one I considered the “best” choice.

Maybe it was just a “good” choice. There’s no way of knowing, really. All I know is that I had a helluva time and learned a helluva lot in Ottawa. That’s all that matters, really.

In hindsight, I was probably a little caught up with the idea that there was a right answer, there was a formula that would magically turn into success and forever and ever and ever happiness and that I needed to find it NOW.  But there wasn’t. There still isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of joy in the uncertainty. It’s rewarding to work for things. It feels good to pick yourself up after a failure, or to see things work out in a way you didn’t expect. At the same time as I’m desperately Googling for answers, I’m reveling in so many incredible learning experiences every day. It’s fabulous. It’s exciting.

But as much as I miss blogging, the truth is that it’s really, really hard to write about. 

And you know what? I think that might be okay.

Can We Rebrand the Humanities? (Spoiler: Yes. We need to.)

As someone who studied both marketing and history (and who finds her history degree a super valuable part of that mix) the question often crosses my mind: “How can I sell my history degree?”

It shouldn’t be that hard, really. As a history undergraduate student, I just came out of a program with intensive research and written/oral communication training. I can mine through data about almost any topic, large or small. I can draw conclusions. I can organize the information. The list goes on and on.

When I see the words “B.A. in History,” I see all that.

I just don’t think employers always do. That’s a problem.

Employers often have no understanding of the transferable skills embedded in a liberal arts education. It’s like they see my degree and the only thing that comes to mind is their boring high school history teacher from 1971 droning on about the pyramids.

(…I mean, I do also know a whole bunch about the pyramids, but that is beside the point.)

So, here I am. Here we are. Looking at a job market which increasingly demands innovative, engaged, realistic, and skilled employees who can work with people and technology. Wanting to raise our hands and yell “THAT’S ME!” because really, it is. Our degrees should communicate all these competencies to employers. We just spent years building an understanding of processes, politics, humanity itself.

So how do we fix this perception?

It won’t happen right away. But I think there are a few subtle changes that institutions, professors, students, and graduates can make to help us rebrand some of these so-called useless degrees.

Here’s a start:

  • People who studied the humanities and are using skills from those degrees in their jobs should make the value of their education known in the workplace. When someone compliments your writing style, your note taking ability, or your problem-solving skills at work, do not shy away from giving honourable mention to the fact that you honed those skills through a liberal arts education. All the humanities grads making things happen in the world should be walking examples of the value of these degrees.
  • We need to create more portfolio-oriented curriculum. Many of the educational paths which are considered more “valuable” in workland get that reputation because their graduates have something tangible to show employers. Encourage students to research and/or present their research in a way that is accessible to those outside of the discipline. Give them something to show at a job interview.
  • Change the concept of specialization to include methodology and skillsets. Very few employers care that I “specialized” in 20th century North American cultural history…but a lot of employers care that I specialized in using digital tools and blogging to share information, or that I understand how communications and business have evolved over the past century. Did you become an expert in writing, in using a particular primary source, in different types of research or analysis? Consider recognizing these things as your area of “expertise” when speaking with employers.
  • Academic institutions need to realize that not every student wants to continue in academia and that’s okay. Professors automatically assume that their brightest scholars are immediately destined for academic greatness. But what if they are more interested in business, entrepreneurship, or the public sector? If every professor said to themselves “My students are going to come out of this class with one tangible thing to add to their resume” (it could just be introducing students to one new technology or method or communication skill) they would be preparing their students for success wherever they choose to go. Which is very good news, because if we lock all good humanities scholars up in Universities, they will have less of an impact on the world. Who wants that?
  • Speaking of entrepreneurship…we also need to encourage students to create their own projects and jobs. A liberal arts education helps us understand the culture, economics, and needs in our communities. These are certainly the kinds of people who are equipped to see the direction people are going in (and to make money on that direction). Let’s make sure are given the resources to make that happen!
  • We need to encourage interdisciplinary models in our academic institutions. One of my professors recently suggested putting spaces/resources frequented by engineering students (such as 3D printing labs) in liberal arts buildings on campus to encourage interaction. I think he is onto something. I would love to work with software engineering students to develop an educational app, or a design student to create a better website to showcase research. Fostering mutual respect and collaboration between fields should be a priority.
  • We need to connect students with the community. There are so many organizations who could use the skills humanities scholars have, or who could offer unique resources and projects to students. Working with organizations outside of their school helps students establish networks, explore their own career paths, and build their portfolios/resumes (see point #2). It also allows the community recognize the value that these students have, which can translate into a change in perspective for potential employers.

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We have the resources and technology to rebrand the humanities. Through the internet, we have the ability to connect with each other like never before. We can talk about the value of our humanities degrees online. We can teach students to recognize exactly why their degree is valuable, and prepare them to sell it to an employer (or to create their own business). We can develop interdisciplinary courses and programs which will encourage collaboration and help a humanities student’s degree appeal to a wider audience after they are done.

We can rebrand the humanities. We need to. Because it’s not just our students who are missing out on jobs…it’s our employers who are missing out on awesome workers who can take businesses (and society) to the next level.

Moving.

I’ve been here before, but it still feels new. Slowly packing my boxes as I prepare to leave the place I call “home.” It’s the end of an era, I guess. Finishing college and making this move is a game changer.

I’ve been here before, of course I have. My mind immediately jumps to five years ago, when I took off for University. It’s a familiar story: By the end of high school, I had messily carved a suburban teenage “self” out of high school essays, basement parties, and bad attempts at French cuisine. The time had come to challenge that identity. So I moved to the City (mine was Ottawa; my friends scattered all over). I remember leaving my parents’ house in 2010, taking pictures off the walls as my younger brother prepared to take over the space. The process of packing up your old life, even if you’re truly ready for it, is necessarily emotional. It was emotional then, and it is emotional now.

It’s good emotional, for the most part: I’m excited, I’m ready. My family and career and soul will all be better for this.  I sat down with a friend from first year yesterday and just vomited out all the cool stuff I want to do with my life: “I want to make this website! I want to make that app! I want to run this Twitter account! I want to make education better! I want a dog and a house and a panini press!”

Sidenote: The panini press has been secured. Thanks, Celine!
Sidenote: The panini press has been secured. Thanks, Celine!

It’s time to challenge the identity again. That’s how I see these big moves. I’m attracted to the idea of putting myself in a new environment and seeing how my outlook and personality change…and how they stay the same.  “Finding myself in college” wasn’t about “doing new stuff” (though that was cool, too). It was about figuring out what parts of my identity were who I was, and which parts were just a product of where I was. Would I still like History when I left the guidance of my high school teachers? (Yes, it turned out, I fell even more desperately in love). Would I still adore my high school friends after a few years in a new place? (We had a wicked party last month, actually). Would I hold on to my lack of religious beliefs, my relationship, my bad habits? (No, no, and I’m sure I’ve traded them in for some more).

The move helped me. It didn’t save me, it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all “solution.” It just helped, for the same reason travelling or “trying something new” helps. It’s powerful to see that there is more out there. And it’s powerful to see how you respond to that. Embracing new space can show you what sticks when you shift the environmental factors—the social pressure, the family dynamics, all that. Whether you love the new place or hate it, the whole experience can give you a much more solid grasp on who you are and what you want.

And what I want now is to move forward with my life, which means leaving Ottawa. It means reclaiming a Southern Ontario “self” (this time as a job-seeking big kid) and shedding some of the capital city student life. Just some of it. I’ll still be me, of course. But with this move, I’m hoping I will get a better idea of what that means.

Work and Play Aren’t That Different. Really.

I wonder when life stopped being a game.

I wonder when I stopped playing.

I wonder if I could start again, somehow.

I was sitting at a friend’s orchestra performance. After a few rounds of clapping, I had become acutely aware of the red spots on my raw hands. “Why does that-freaking-conductor keep leaving the room and coming back in?” I wondered, irritated. Because seriously. My hands, guys. They don’t need to take this abuse.

As the applause died down for the fifth (sixth?) time, I clasped my hands and remembered the games I used to play as a kid.  My teeny-tiny hands perceived a round of applause as a call to competition. I would concentrate on being the loudest clap or, more frequently, the last clap–quietly tapping my hands together after everyone else had finished showing their appreciation, feeling a proud, silent victory when I was responsible for the last small sound from the audience.

That was the game.

Everything was a game back then.

I don’t want to be unreasonably nostalgic, but I think it’s a fair reflection. The line between fantasy and reality, which now feels so concrete, was blurred when we were kids. I don’t know whether it was from lack of experience, or dreamy imagination, or unrefined perception, or something else. But the line was blurred. We were self-centered, obnoxious, pushy…but we were also a lot of fun. The way we looked at the world was fun.

When I was small, I didn’t know much about life (hell, I still don’t), but I was pretty sure it was supposed to be fun.

“Play” is often considered frivolous recreation, the opposite of “Work.” But perhaps this isn’t totally true. Perhaps work and play are not mutually exclusive. A worldview that favours joy and laughter and a heavy dose of “don’t sweat the small stuff” sounds like a healthy move. A little less stress and a little more giggling and running around (endorphins, anyone?) has to be a good thing for your happiness and relationships. Challenging yourself in a joy-filled way sounds like a pretty good habit. And it’s certainly easier to see the world humbly and honestly when you aren’t busy taking yourself too seriously.

My favourite definition of play is this one:

Play – the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving.

Translation? Play is basically how every cool innovation ever has ever happened. Toying with ideas. Playing around in the workshop, playing instruments, wordplay.

It’s pretty simple, really. Play is experimental, constructive, innovative, competitive. It can exercise your imagination, (pretend that there’s a monster after us!), your problem-solving skills (how do we hide from the monster?), and your ability to collaborate (let’s build a fort!). Games make you push yourself, and trick you into actually enjoying it.

And they make hands red from overclapping into a fun challenge, apparently.

I could learn from that. Maybe we all could.

In kid-land, we played house. We played school. We played dress-up. Now we just “do” those things, somehow forgetting that they used to be games. And forgetting that in many ways, they still are.

The stakes are higher, our awareness is (ever so slightly) stronger, but life is still full of games, just waiting for us to uncover them. We’re still allowed to play.

In fact, if we aren’t playing, maybe we’re doing it wrong.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 9:9)

Overwhelmed.

It’s nearly October, and I’m tired.

I’ve been writing a lot of “advice-y” posts lately…where I try to sound wise or knowledgeable, where I share so-called insight. I know what I’m doing! I organized it into a list! Read me! Read me!

That seems strange to me this week.

I haven’t written since August 11th. I’m not apologizing; I’ve never liked the idea of churning out meaningless article on a weekly basis (I did try it once, but it felt disingenuous). I’m not apologizing, but maybe I should explain.

The readers of this blog have followed me through so many periods. You’ve joined me for ridiculous commutes, new jobs, viral rants, self-doubt. You’ve followed me through awkward holidays, musical train rides, and SO much “AHHH ADULTHOOD WHAT IS THIS?!?!” (seriously, like every other post).

Through all of it, all of it, I have been busy. Disgustingly busy. Here’s a confession, friends: Between internships and capital-J jobs, I have worked for twelve different organizations in the last three years. Twelve. Not one at a time, either. Jobs have been stacked like pancakes–four, five, six at a time. And that’s not including writing gigs, community service projects, tutoring, babysitting (counting those, my commitments are nearing the twenties). It isn’t counting this blog, either.

Oh, and it’s not counting school…which I attended full time.

This isn’t a braggy point. It used to be. The full schedule–being needed, being professional, knowing how to organize my time–it used to lend me a lot of confidence. I used to be really proud of my superhuman job-juggling skills, but now I’m not so sure.

Now I’m tired. Just tired. And I’m wondering exactly how long I’ve been tired; how long I’ve been ignoring the more unhealthy aspects of my commitment-a-holic ways because doing anything different is frightening.

So healthy, I know.

Don’t get me wrong, the opportunities have been phenomenal. It was exciting to grow in my faith enough to become a church youth leader. It was exciting to have writing deadlines to meet. It was really-freaking-cool to turn from a goofy history geek to a historical tour guide (aka professional know-it-all). And being paid to go on Twitter? Kind of the best.

But there was a problem. There was a big problem. I didn’t just like my full inbox and ringing phone–I defined myself by it. I measured my value in reference letters, scheduling conflicts, social media stats. I cared about klout at age 20 (Why. Why.). I said things like “I’ll pencil you in” and “Can we push this deadline out?” and “Hold on, let me grab my blazer.”

It was nice to be needed. It was affirming to watch my hobbies turn into volunteer commitments, for those to turn into paid jobs. But the lifestyle that came along with it was less-than-ideal. I developed fears, ridiculous ones: An empty schedule is frightening. Not being needed is frightening. Not moving forward actively, obsessively…well, that must mean I’m moving backwards, right?

Faulty logic. I’m learning that now.

Perhaps we spend too much time and energy building an “identity” and not enough time just building ourselves. Yes, sure, I was really good at being a blogger, a workaholic, a stressball. But I got too busy being those things. I didn’t smile at people in the elevator. I ran for the door after class ended, instead of staying a moment to socialize. I ate fast food, drank too much coffee, snapped at tech support.  I got really good at being “Shauna Vert, Communications Professional.” But that got in the way of being “shauna.”

Sometimes being “shauna” will mean writing, or working, or juggling. But sometimes that will mean going on long walks or cooking a lasagna or watching football and holding hands. Hell, sometimes it will just mean sleeping. It’s not just my title. It’s not just my job.

Of course, it will always involve doing-stuff-for-people. It has to. But that’s because I love people and I love doing stuff…not because what I’m doing defines me. We should honour our commitments, but we shouldn’t morph into them.

So, yes. It’s nearly October, and I’m tired. But I had a day off yesterday. I have a vacation in two weeks. I love my jobs–all four of them–and I like my classes. It’s getting better. I’m getting better.

I didn’t take a break from this blog because I was “too busy” (though, sure, that was a factor). I took a break because a) I didn’t really have anything important to write about, and b) I didn’t want to write anything, really. I didn’t want to, and now I do, and that’s fine.

That’s fine.

5 Truths That Will Change the Way You Think About Arguments

My best friend and I had a fight a couple weeks ago. The curse of neither-of-us-are-backing-down reared it’s ugly head, and we were yelling. We were yelling. We weren’t listening to each other, we weren’t giving benefit of the doubt, we weren’t keeping things in perspective–hell, we weren’t even arguing about the same thing in the end.

The unnecessarily intense interaction made me think about how to do conflict better…a little more grace, more love, more not-being-a-dick. It took a lot of reflection, but here are five important things I learned:

1) Start by assuming good intentions.

If you go into a disagreement feeling like a victim, you’re going to argue like a victim. And while victims are great at accusing and ranting, they’re pretty bad at actually coming to a solution. Don’t get me wrong– if someone has betrayed you in a major way, victim it up. But if you’re actually trying to solve something? Going in with a defensive attitude is totally unproductive.

Very rarely will someone intentionally do something just to make your life harder (and if they do, you should probably cut them loose). So why confront someone as if they are purposely trying to hurt you? Instead, talk to people as if you know they care, you know they’re on your team…even if there are some issues to address. It’s much easier to bring things up (and to be receptive when issues are presented to you) when you can always count on a side order of “benefit of the doubt.”

2) The most important question of all: “Wait, what are we really fighting about?”

So often, petty arguments aren’t really about what they seem on the surface. They are symbols of deeper issues. And that makes for a whole lotta miscommunication.

Example: The argument “You never do the dishes” could be about doing the dishes. But it could also be about “I don’t feel like you respect my space” or “I feel like I’m doing more of the work around the house” or “I don’t feel your support right now” or “WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME?!”. And none of those things are about the dishes, really.

BUT, if the argument focuses on those stupid dishes, then none of those actual root issues are addressed. Or worse, when they are addressed, it comes ten minutes into the conversation with a burst of hot tears and accusatory language and geeeeez, that escalated quickly. That’s how shit gets confusing and angry, folks. Simmer. Make sure you are both arguing about the same thing (so often, people are not). And when an argument goes in a weird direction, stop and ask: “Wait, what are we really fighting about?”

3) Avoid blowups by recognizing when you’re “collecting evidence.”

In an attempt to be right and not look like we’re overreacting, we have a tendency to “build a case” and legitimize how we feel before attempting a confrontation. When we do that, we skip the calm, loving “Hey, this is how my world looks right now,” conversation, and silently build up to a cold, grudge-filled trial.

“You did these 7 things in the last week that pissed me off. I have been writing them down, and they are now alphabetized in this list. What do you have to say about THAT, hm?”

Naturally, when we put someone on trial, they defend themselves against our evidence because that’s how trials work. We end up arguing over individual instances (“I’m working overtime! And I did the dishes three days ago!”) instead of the actual issue at hand (“Oh, you feel overwhelmed? How should we work this out moving forward?”).

By approaching conversations with “Hey, I just caught myself collecting evidence on you, can we talk?” you are taking responsibility for your expectations and feelings, rather than waiting for enough ammunition to put all the blame on someone. You make it about being real, instead of being “right.” Obviously, that’s a much better strategy.

4) People yell because they want to be heard

Ah, the good ol’ screaming match. When we start arguing with people, especially if we refuse to see their points or perspective, it’s only a matter of time before they raise their voices a little. Or we raise our voices a little. Although it seems like an emotional response, maybe even irrational, yelling actually makes a lot of freakin’ sense.

It’s pretty simple, really: We learn from a very young age to speak up when someone can’t hear us. Talking louder is a very natural response to not feeling heard. Mix that with a little bit of frustration and you have a high-volume warzone (where, ironically, no one is listening to anyone).

While your body assumes that TALKING LIKE THIS will help you make your point, experience tells us that it really won’t. The best way to be heard is actually by being clear, honest, calm, and timely…not by bringing the roof down. So take those deep breaths (they really work, guys) and remember that when someone raises the volume in your general direction, sometimes THEY JUST REALLY WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD AND IT IS THE ONLY WAY YOU WILL HEAR THEM, OBVIOUSLY. They may be wrong, but this isn’t your cue to talk over them or defend yourself—it’s your cue to listen better.

5) When it gets competitive, no one wins

There is a point in every big argument where a simple disagreement turns into a capital-F Fight. And who wins capital-F Fights? Um, no one.

Learn to recognize when things are getting into a competitive space, and cut it off then—because in relationships, “winning” an argument by brute force is rarely a true victory. Here are a few signs your disagreement has turned into a showdown:

  • Your body temperature rises, your body language becomes aggressive, and your focus narrows
  • You lose sight of all your initial goals (to be understood, to be legitimized, to find a solution to an issue) and take on short-term goals (to have to other person give in, to be “right”).
  • Displays of emotion (tears, yelling, etc) from the other party seem like a victory, rather then a sign that you’ve crossed a line
  • Oh, and you cross lines. Because YOU’RE RIGHT, dammit.

Any game that is won by someone you love bursting into tears is not worth playing. Period. So when it goes there—and it can, of course it can—give it a break. Disagreements can be productive. Capital-F Fights rarely go anywhere positive.

Not the best role models.
Not the best role models.

So, as always, let’s be good to each other.

(I know I say that almost every post, but man, it’s so worth repeating.)

5 Things I Learned About Canada After Traveling From Sea to Sea

It’s Canada Day(!!)

As usual, my love for this country is on overdrive.

Despite the dark parts of our history (there are many, no doubt), I do hold a lot of hope and pride in my heart for good ol’ Canada. It’s nuanced and critical, but it’s there.

This is my first Canada Day since I did my cross-country train tour last August. I suppose that should make me feel like I have some level of insight on this country. Not so much. The more I have learned and seen of this country the less I want to make general claims about it. Even writing this seems a bit strange.

BUT BUT BUT, there are five things that I observed that felt pretty solid. So here goes. Just for you, just for Canada Day. Let’s listicle this bad boy.

1. Canadian humour? I think it’s a thing.

I met a lot of funny people on my trip. Good storytellers, great attitudes. At the Just For Laughs festival, I tried (with little success) to crack the code of Canadian comedy. While that experiment fell flat, the people I met as I traveled across this country gave me more of a clue.

The humour in Canada seemed to be a really unique mix of joy and sarcasm. I know satire is often characterized as a dry, cold humour, but the sarcasm I felt throughout Canadian seemed almost warm. I met so many people across this country who looked at everything with a wink of “Eh, this is life! And it’s ridiculous!”

Which it is. Living in Canada is kind of ridiculous. The weather, the empty space, the strange array of cultural indicators (a leaf and poutine and hockey and whatnow?).  Canada also has the unique position of having a lot of rural spaces, small towns, and harsh winters…while also having a literacy rate of 99% and high scores on international education rankings. I’m sure the doesn’t hurt the development of a unique kind of outdoorsy wit.


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2. Community is everywhere.

Everywhere I went in Canada, the communities I visited seemed to offer community in relatively the similar ways–survival, sports, music, food, drink, repeat. Obviously events varied based on size and geography, but generally it was pretty status quo–downtown parades and fireworks on special occasions, community theater in the warmer months, concerts in the park, sports bars with hockey specials. In Halifax, the experience made me seriously question why I didn’t just do more of these things at home.

That said, I found that community often wasn’t a super important value for folks in Canadian cities.  I’m guessing that’s because “survival,” which is historically at the heart of most Canadian communities, has become less and less an issue (thanks, indoor heating and modern medicine). We all are relatively free and mobile and proudly different, so sometimes it feels like we don’t seek each other out as much.

But we do still need each other. And the lucky thing is that community is available, and it is worth pursuing. I found it literally everywhere I went, and it was awesome.
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3. Oh, and French is also everywhere.

My whole life, I was fed this ugly lie that there are only French Canadians in Quebec. No where else.

Turns out, that is so very wrong.


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Seriously, if I ever have kids, I’m raising those buggers to be bilingual. I underestimated the Frenchness of this country so much. It’s everywhere. When I went to the French quarter of Winnipeg, no one was speaking a lick of English. Not to mention New Brunswick, or Northern Ontario. I even met a tour group of French first language kids from British Columbia recently.

Yes, Quebec has a lot of French people. But it also has more people, period. I loved Quebec culture and deeply enjoyed my time there, but I was wrong to assume that different versions of French Canadian language and culture didn’t stretch from sea to sea.

 

4. So. Much. Patriotism.

Oh, you thought Americans were proud?

Hah.

omg we're so great look guys here's an infographic
omg we’re so great look guys here’s an infographic

Yes, the United States is known for having overzealous residents who are patriotic to a tacky degree. But when I worked and lived in the States, it turned out that I was the one who patted myself on the back for my citizenship on a daily basis. Gay rights? Medicare? Cool looking federal police officers on horseback? Canadians think they are the coolest.

It can be annoying, I’m sure. I was basically like that pretentious friend everyone has who proudly collects records and forces obscure music on everyone…except instead of indie tunes, I was dealing out ketchup chips and maple syrup.
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5. We don’t really go to church.

Empty pews are certainly a major theme throughout the country. I don’t totally know how I feel about that–the United Church of Canada is a big part of my life, and I think the church can be a wonderful and remarkable space for people (see point #2). But I’m not necessarily disappointed in our emerging “churchlessness.” I’m mostly just curious about it.

I’ve heard a whole host of reasons for people moving away from the church, most of which are not only confined to Canada: Corruption, postmodernism, the perceived conflict between science and religion (or between social justice LGBT/women’s rights and religion), individual spirituality over community practice. I get all those things, I do.

But Canada is an interesting study simply because recent generations have been so privileged, so lucky, so educated and connected, so blessed….and so secular. I often wonder if there is a connection. Either way, it will be interesting how churches and people transform in this environment.

– – –

Basically, I learned that Canada is the True North strong and free…and funny…and diverse…and proud…and changing all the time. All the time. Like, right now.

So, I guess we should probably go out and look at it pretty seriously and take good freakin’ care of it. Because whatever this country becomes…we’re a part of it.

Happy Canada Day, everyone!

We Get Second Chances (and it’s awesome)

I’ve reached the point in my life where most of the “firsts” have come and gone. My emotional life is currently a mishmash of seconds, of thirds.

Last week, my best friend and I sat on my second bed, in my third apartment. We were laughing over our middle school journals, pages of smeared gel pen filled with trite “firsts.” We empathized and rolled our eyes at the little girls we used to be, before we even knew each other. Back when we were doing everything for the first time. Back when it seemed like the first time was all there was.

The world is bigger now, I guess.

Nothing is a first anymore, not even our friendship. We’re happy, we’re close, and it’s awesome. But it’s certainly no first. I met her in adulthood, after all. My trial-and-error timeline was already well on its way by the time we joined hands.

Firsts are important, sure, but I think we sometimes downplay our seconds, thirds, fourths. Maybe it’s because they’re less of a learning experience and more of an experience, period; they can rock your world, but they don’t rock your worldview. They just happen, they just are. I’ve put together a bed before, signed a lease, called a girlfriend in hysterics. Caring and craving and crying are officially somewhat-familiar territory. Circumstances will change, but I am at least aware of my basic emotional range. When big things happen again (and we all know they will) I will have an emotional compass established, a moderate understanding of how I respond to these things.

Perhaps that makes them seem like less profound follow-ups. But that can’t be true, it can’t. The fact that we even get second chances is incredible. We can hurt, and love, and be passionately interested with our whole selves. It can feel massive and real. But when things end, if they end, we get second chances. We can give ourselves permission to continue the story. We can move forward, we can try again. And again. And again. We can tire ourselves out so fully, yet still have more to give the next day.

That’s amazing. We get to fail, and life still goes on.

I think that’s worth recognizing, don’t you?

So here’s to the seconds, thirds, and fourths. The feelings we’re kinda-sorta familiar with. The stuff that happens after we learn from our mistakes. The ones we meet a little further down the timeline.

Because anything that reminds us of our personal capacity for resurrection? That’s pretty awesome in my books.