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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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.

Letting God Laugh at Us (is probably a good idea)

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”
– Woody Allen

I started teaching Sunday School this year. A group of 5 or 6 wonderful, wonderful wide-eyed girls (age 7 to 12) stare expectantly at me in our small church clubhouse, every week. Every. Week.

I don’t know why they’re all girls. It just worked out that way. Since my siblings are all capital-D Dudes, this is definitely new territory.

For better or for worse, I can be a wishy washy teacher. I know it, and so do the parents. I’m a goofy, guitar-strumming, United-Churchy-Half-Agnostic-Historian-Jesus-Feminist, so honesty and nuance rule the day: I can teach biblical literacy. I can teach general values. But, no, I don’t know what exactly really happened, or what exactly we’re supposed to get out of these stories. I have no indoctrination-esque end goal, not really. I just teach what I understand, whatever that means. And maybe the girls will be inspired and Jesus it up and light a candle. Or maybe, they will raise their hands and shout “Shauna, that’s craziness.”

As long as they’re using their minds and their hearts at all times, it works for me.

And so it goes: Insert life lesson here. Insert scripture here. We make thank you cards. We celebrate holidays (and normal days, too). We laugh and we read and we use way too much glitter. Money is raised for charity. Songs are written.

And sometimes the lesson doesn’t quite work. Sometimes there’s apathy, or chaos, or I am overshadowed by the air hockey table. (Why is there an air hockey table, you ask? I don’t even know. Because Canada.)

“Okay girls, I’m going to turn away from you for 10 seconds. When I turn back I want to see you all sitting calmly on the couches. 1…2…”

Last week, we were starting the Christmas story. Yeah. I was worried. The whole “Mary” narrative is a difficult subject for a United-Churchy-Half-Agnostic-Historian-Jesus-Feminist (who really doesn’t want to explain the word “virgin” to your 8 year old). My carefully-crafted plan was to talk about how our plans and goals are good, but God is great—basically, it was this article steeped in Bible-talk.

Yeah, my plan was to talk about how shaky plans are. I’m an irony whiz, clearly.

I pulled out the markers and paper, suggesting that the girls draw pictures of their lives 20 years from now. They took to the project immediately, drawing themselves as Olympians, doctors, zoologists, geologists, rebel graffiti artists… the works. Some of them were very careful, drafting their dreams in pencil first. One was hyper-detailed and ambitious, another was just plain goofy. By the time I was ready to explain the point of the exercise, they were too excited by their dreams to really care about my message. I wrapped it up quickly:

“You guys get what I’m saying, right? No? Yes? Good. Okay.”

My plan hadn’t really worked. Their plans were strewn around the classroom in bright, goofy marker.

And somehow, it was all perfect anyways.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”  I used to see these words as an invitation to avoid plans altogether.  But as I felt my classroom shake with the joy of best laid possibilities, I reconsidered.  

What’s wrong with making God laugh, exactly?  

God probably likes to laugh. Laughter is good. Silliness and vulnerability and hope are good.  

Plans are not bad in and of themselves. They’re actually kind of beautiful. Those dream-fueled drawings in my Sunday School classroom were beautiful.  Same with the laid-back, loving lesson plans. Same with your fallible to do list, daydreams, and drive for the future.

Plans happen when our gifts and dreams and brainwaves and feelings manifest into a motivational timeline. And when those plans don’t totally come to fruition, that doesn’t mean they were wrong. It just means something else became right.  It means that life is beautiful in a very different way than plans are beautiful. 

If you can be idealistic enough to plan something, but reasonable enough to not be debilitated by disappointment when that plan doesn’t work out, then do it. Do it. And then change it.  And then change it again.

For my part, I’m going to continue making and breaking lesson plans. The girls are probably going to keep dreaming and suggesting.  We’re all going to keep changing. And that’s okay. That’s okay.

We’re just making God laugh. I’m sure (S)He doesn’t mind.

 

Life, Learning, and “Windowless Cave Education”

I just typed a big, ugly rant into my Facebook status box.  It started with  “I know this is a first world problem and all…” and tumbled down from there. The rant was well deserved, if spoiled; it targeted my University’s summer course selection (which sucks). I think it sounded something like “afnv;fdkvldnklv;dfnvdf!!,” but now I’m paraphrasing.

I didn’t press Post. I deleted the rant.  I don’t know if that signals maturity or defeat.

My soul is pretty much owned by “learning” right now, something that clearly takes many forms–mostly interesting ones, but not always. Sometimes, it feels like  “learning” feeds my stress levels more than my brain.  My eyes glaze over, and all I can see are schedule frustrations, lost notes, dull readings, “shi-it, did I just fall asleep during that lecture?”.  This kind of “learning” is often done in temperature-controlled windowless caves;  As if not being able to see the world will somehow help us learn about it. Why is it that important places like study rooms, lecture halls, churches, government institutions and courts so often lack windows?  Are we really expecting people who can’t even see the sky or the ground to be responsible authorities on the world’s direction? 

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This is where you are supposed to learn about the world, while totally cut off from the world. Because THAT makes sense…

Let me be clear: I don’t think that University is a bad thing, and I certainly don’t believe that I’m “too smart” for all this traditional school stuff.  I appreciate my windowless cave education, I do. Absorbing important information hand-picked by a well-studied mentor (read: professor) seems like a worthy investment.  Of course I learn things.  It’s not a grossly unproductive system; we are tested, we write stuff, and some of it does stick.

Classrooms are good. I can dig that. But if classrooms are the only place that I’m learning? Then we have a problem.

Windowless cave education is best when it is supported by side projects that supplement the “learning”–extra-curriculars, excursions, experiences. Real-world stuff.  But there are only so many hours in a day, only so many dollars in the bank account.  During school terms, I am barely able to get those forgettable papers written, juggle my minimum wage gigs, and see my friends on the side.  I never read for fun. I rarely visit museums.  I can’t afford much time volunteering, or “getting involved”, even if that volunteering will bring me closer to my interests and career goals.

I miss a lot of “learning” while I’m in school. That seems strange, doesn’t it?

I can’t help but wonder if my windowless cave education is any better than the free education I am getting right now: taking an online class through coursera, attending Library of Congress lectures, visiting the Smithsonians, volunteering at the Holocaust Museum, interning in the music/heritage industry. Even blogging (to you! right now!) is quite the experience. So is playing guitar on the rooftop, watching someone’s experienced fingers pluck the strings to a new song. Or getting lost in the city.  Or braving a conversation with someone I know disagrees with me (and loving that person all the same).

You can’t tell me this is a less profound “learning” experience than the one I had last semester, theory-memorizing and paper-writing.  I don’t mean to make the latter sound useless. Theories and papers have served me well; they just haven’t served me wholly. Windowless cave knowledge is a starting point…but if we lack opportunities to apply that knowledge, aren’t we missing something? 

Even though I haven’t stepped foot in a classroom in several months, I’m no less in education mode here than I was in the windowless cave.  Being in a new place, working, writing, dialoguing, and attending stuff–hell, I might be learning more here than I do in school.  It’s a tough comparison.  But I do wish I could bring this flexibility and motivation to find/learn/discover with me when I go back to school in May.

I’m not going to I argue that everything I do is University-calibre learning. I hope it’s not. My brain would explode.  Something doesn’t have to involve “learning” to be a good way to spend time (I love sports and music and sitcoms way too much to make that argument). I’m not saying  that every activity needs to involve a life lesson. What I am saying is that life lessons need to involve more activity.

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…not this kind of activity.

As per my last post, I am aiming to be a woman whose life involves lots of “learning”, inspired by lots of activity.  I want to be a woman with “guitar-bred finger calluses, with laugh lines and dimples, with sun-kissed shoulders and tired, blistered feet.”  I want to be a woman “who is continually educated and insatiably curious. Who speaks a couple languages, who knows her geography, and who travels lots and lots. Who knows enough to be aware of the fact that she knows nothing.  Who has about 10 questions for every answer.”

I can totally achieve that. I can.  School is going to be a part of it, obviously…so is stress, responsibility, boredom, bureaucratic systems.  I’m not rejecting it ALL; ‘Course selection was difficult this semester, so Fuck The Man!’.  That is obviously not fair.

But school can’t be all of it.  It can’t be. When Mark Twain said “don’t let schooling get in the way of your education,” he had a point.

We’re just lucky that the best teachers know it.

My Creative Frenzy: Why Alternative Projects Are the Best

This year, I was given the opportunity in one of my classes to pursue and “alternative project” in lieu of writing a paper.

I am such a big fan of the alternative project. It gets me in the biggest creative frenzy.

I had participated in the University of Ottawa’s Community Service Learning program a few times, so I knew what it was like to do something a little different for a class project.  I knew I liked it, too. With CSL, professors can offer students the opportunity to do course-related volunteer field work instead of writing a paper. In first year, I made teaching aids. In second year, I delivered an Aboriginal history presentation for some grade four classes.   And in both cases, I learned a whole lot more from those experiences than from “here today, gone tomorrow” essays.

This year, I took a Colonial American History course that allowed students to design an alternative media/internet project. My mind went more than a little crazy. I’m a History student, yes, but I’m also pursuing a Communications major. I pretty much lived in the Communications Technology room in high school.  I’m a new media diehard.  I used to make short films and write folk songs in lieu of writing papers in high school.  And, obviously, I blog.  Interactive/Media history? I had to get on that. THIS IS EXCITING.

It didn’t take long for me to decide what I wanted to do.  American musical history is fascinating to me. Really, the profound relationship between sound and society is fascinating to me, which I guess explains why I’m so excited to be interning for Smithsonian Folkways this winter.  It’s also why I decided to create an online resource exploring Colonial American music for my alternative project.

Check it out: http://soundsofthecolonies.wordpress.com/

A few notes from the experience:

  • This ended up feeling almost like an interactive, online version of liner notes…you know, like the booklets inside CDs?  How cool would it be if CDs came with programs like this to explore what was behind the music, kinda like a DVD menu? I assume this is already a thing that happens, but is should happen more–when it comes to music with strong historical/cultural significance, technology could be really valuable in bringing the learning to the next level.
  • The best way to make an interactive map? Skip the “interactive map” websites, and upload a jpeg to Thinglink.  You can add links, notes, and markers to images. Made for a really cool music map of New England on my end. (Teaching tool alert, educator friends!)
  • The constant battle: The more information you have, the harder it is to cut it into bite-sized pieces–especially when that information is circumstantial and you’re like “But…but..but…complexity…and…”. I have this issue with essays, too, but for some reason breaking it down for the internet required even more messing around with conflicting ideas to get to the core of what was going on. Filler was just less of an option.
  • Music matters. A lot. Probably more than I even suspected before starting this project. It’s such a big indicator of so many cultural and human elements.
  • I HAVE SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN. It’s weird to do so much research, feel so flooded with questions, and then need to step up with some kind of concise thesis.  Bringing everything behind your questions together in order to project some sort of objective answer is tough. I have information, yes. But I can’t wait to gain more insight.
  • I’m excited for the future of history, ethnomusicology, and education in the new media environment.  Interactive maps and YouTube videos and downloadable liner notes and iTunes U?  So much fun to play with.

I don’t know how many other people chose to do an alternative project. Maybe the number wasn’t that big. But just the fact that we were given the opportunity to take our research to a different place was awesome (not to mention, it kept me from falling asleep on the job). It was awesome in high school when my Native Studies teacher let me write songs instead of make powerpoints. It was awesome when my grade 12 World History teacher made our seminar assignment so vague that I was able to do mine on an interview with my grandfather. Community Service Learning was, and is, awesome. And, of course, this alternative project was the coolest opportunity.  I even got to bounce this project off of the wonderful people and resources at Smithsonian Folkways.  How cool is that?

Very cool.

Non-boring, non-fiction. It happens.

Here’s some faulty middle school logic for you: I was a super dorky kid. Super dorky kids are supposed to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are supposed to read impressive books.  They are also supposed to care about politics, listen to interesting music, know stupid trivia, dig computer culture…and understand physics, I suppose, though I knowingly fell flat on that one.

I embraced this so-called intellectual thing pretty hard growing up. I could be the smart kid, right? Never mind that my report card was mediocre at best. Never mind that it took me until the end of high school to even hit the ever-elusive “honour roll.”  Never mind that, quantitatively speaking, I did not always live up to the intellectual side of my super dork image. I could still be the smart kid, right? I could compensate for these set backs by hiding failed math tests and regularly using words like “compensate” and “quantitatively.”  NO ONE NEEDED TO KNOW.

I played the part pretty well. For one thing, I often claimed to read books that my intellectual alter-ego would be totally into. I was an honest kid, don’t get me wrong, and my attraction to my dad’s heavy non-fiction wasn’t exactly untrue.  I was really interested in Pierre Berton’s collected works, and I did really read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” with enthusiasm. Well, I read the first part…of the first chapter. But eventually, these books were all sentenced to hang out and collect dust on my side table.

In my defense, I was fifteen, and bubbly, and dorky.  Drinking my weight in diet coke and playing Guitar Hero with my friends took precedent.  Looking back, “Vimy” was a cool book and I wish I had given it more of a shot, but otherwise I hardly regret how I spent my teenage years. Best laid plans, carpe diem, etc etc.

My ”good intention”-themed gr. 9 bedside table. At least it looks impressive. Like I said, NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW.

I have grown up a bit since then, of course. Developments include me limiting diet coke intake (see also: discovering coffee) and learning to play music on a real instrument, though I still maintain I was far better at caffeinated guitar hero (see also: the glory days). My bedside table of good intentions, which featured a few smart/neglected books, has been upgraded to a full-sized good intentions bookcase headboard. Sure, my record of following through with the reading is much higher, but so are the stakes—this is now a major part of my academic career.  I have surrendered to the power of the textbook.

Do I like reading these non-fiction books? Sometimes. Sometimes, they’re dry and awful. Other times, they are in my second language and it makes my head hurt.  Mostly, they’re just sorta things I have to read because school says so.  But every now and then, I will pick up an academic book on my own accord and ACTUALLY read it through (yes, really). Every now and then, I will find something interesting enough that I will seek to learn more via size 10 Times New Roman print.  In, you know, a book. From, you know, the library.

Yes, really.  It isn’t common.  Most of my reading time is consumed by school. But there are four particular books that I have read through in the last couple years that I can vouch for.  These books are genuinely interesting and page-turning despite being super non-fiction. I know for many of you, the distinction of “super non-fiction” isn’t exactly a bad thing. Still, I find that it can so often be boring. These books are anything but.

4) A woman’s place: seventy years in the lives of Canadian women, compiled by Sylvia Fraser

I actually first discovered “A Woman’s Place” in high school, back when I wrote my first paper on Chatelaine magazine.  Chatelaine, which you may know as “That magazine my mom gets ’cause it came with our cable plan for some reason,” has been around and appealing to Canadian women for almost 85 years.  By Canadian standards, this qualifies as a long-ass time.  I’m more than a little partial to anything about Chatelaine, having spent hours marveling over microfilm of the magazine at the archives. No, I’m not still gunning for “smart kid” position, I just like the friggin’ archives. I like seeing history in raw form.  But even if your idea of a good time differs from mine, I still recommend checking out Fraser’s timeline of oldschool Chatelaine articles. Reading how women saw themselves, their families, their country, and each other? Really interesting stuff.

This was totally a thing. Ask your grandma. Actually…don’t ask your grandma.

The bad news is that “A Woman’s Place” was compiled in 1997, so it’s currently lacking about 15 years of interesting Chatelaine history.  The good news is that for what it does cover, this book is amazing.  Fraser successfully compiled top images and articles in this book, creating a resource that does more than just tell you how Canadian women lived in the 20th Century– it shows you.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll get totally addicted to reading up on the 1940s housewife scene. Relationships, health, employment…not to mention the period when feminist Doris Anderson acted as editor.  This woman was so hardcore that she actually turned down  the opportunity to publish Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” article because, and I quote, “we had already written about all that stuff.”

Excerpts of Chatelaine are, in my opinion, the most easy-to-read and interesting first-hand account of Canadian women’s culture.  After all, this stuff was written with the purpose of entertaining the nation’s ladies.  I’m definitely still entertained.

Just like that. Exactly like that. (Sorry, had to.)

3) The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media by Ilana Gershon

I can actually confirm that reading this book has led to so many amazing conversations, ideas, and writings that I’m losing track. After one such conversation the other party, my friend Niki, headed straight to the library to check this book out. She agrees that it’s good. It’s really, really good.

The fact of the matter is that lots of young adults suffer breakups. Older people suffer breakups too, I know, but I can’t really speak to the volume or complexities there. What I can speak to is that in first and second year university, I was surrounded by the pieces of several teenage hearts literally scattered all over the floor. Then people started new relationships, or flings, or whatever worked in between.  Lots of falling and hormones hanging around. In short, early twenties relationships can be messy.  And the internet only makes it messier.  Ilana Gershon seeks to answer the question that so many of us are asking: how does your  efacetwittertumblrbook respond when the shit hits the fan in your relationship, exactly? How do relationships, nevermind breakups, even WORK in this new media environment?

I think we are unanimous in realizing that it’s not an easy hurdle. Inspired by Gershon’s investigation on the subject I’ve personally written at bit on the subject. The internet is an exciting tool, but it has a major impact on our interpersonal relationships, especially as they develop. I am increasingly seeing it as a rather big, huge, seemingly overlooked deal–a deal which I am so grateful that Gershon was able to shed some light on.  Her insights, based on a large sample of case studies and qualitative research, have definitely placed this book high up on my recommended reads list.

2) “Gods and Guitars: Seeking the Sacred in Post-1960s Popular Music” by Michael J. Gilmour

I was actually really excited when I found this book.  My favourite places are usually either music-y and spiritual-y, so when I saw that someone had ventured to write about how the two relate (and I know they do), I was all over it.  This book actually had me texting my friends all summer with things like “Dude. You have to read this. I have never considered Bat Out of Hell this way before.”

I am always down for new ways to consider Bat Out of Hell.

For me, the most impressive thing about this book is that Gilmour is strikes an impressive balance of intellectualism and humility in his analysis–basically, the guy is is honest. This sounds really simple, but I have read so many pretentious books in religious studies classes that are so over-the-top opinionated that they actually go full circle back to making no point at all. Gilmour, meanwhile, recognizes the broadness and possible controversy within his topic, the subjectivity of music and religion, and the many lenses through which one could analyze the relationship between the two. He also recognizes his strengths and limitations as a scholar and a music fan–and believe me, Gilmour definitely, definitely has strengths in this department.

Gods and Guitars is remarkably well-researched, with so many references to different songs and texts that my insight on post-1960s popular music pretty much tripled after reading it. By connecting the role music plays in peoples’ lives to spirituality, Gilmour is able to analyze how popular music has shaped our cultural understanding life/death/love/other things that religion has historically addressed.  In my case, these connections lead to a whole bunch of “WOAHH” moments during reading.  And, of course, those text messages that start with the word “Dude,” which are always a good sign.

1) “Me Funny” and “Me Sexy” by Drew Hayden Taylor.

I could claim to have always had an interest in Native studies, but the reality is that I have several incredible teachers to thank for teaching me to always, always consider Aboriginal perspective and background when looking at Canadian/American history and culture…not just academically, but as a day to day Canadian, period.

I do this pretty actively. I take the classes. I keep up on the news.  But after preparing a heart-wrenching high school presentation on Residential Schools, my post-secondary self decided it was time to do something (anything, really) other than chronicle genocide when faced with writing papers for Native studies/Canadian studies/post-colonial history courses.

So I turned my research to jokes and sex. Why not, right? It turns out that Aboriginal heritage in the Americas has lot to offer in both of these fields.  In first year, I began the long road of comparing Euro-Christian ideas about sexuality and humour to the cultural ideology held by Aboriginal groups.

Enter books “Me Funny” and “Me Sexy,” which feature essays compiled by Ojibwa humour writer (and generally talented guy) Drew Hayden Taylor. “Me Funny,”  is essentially a collection of intelligent, insightful people being funny ABOUT being funny…and you LEARN STUFF, too.  I learned a whole lot from this one. My grade 12 Native studies teacher constantly impressed upon us that a truly beautiful and intriguing sense of humour is embedded in indigenous culture, but “Me Funny” brought that realization to a whole new level.

Of course, after “Me Funny” I just had to read “Me Sexy.”  Also amazing.  “Me Sexy” presents brilliant first-hand essays that are poignant, interesting, controversial and incredibly telling of the many perspectives on the diverse subject of aboriginal sexuality. We’re talking about ideas and identity regarding the body/sexuality/gender which fall so far from the realm of my otherwise Euro-centric perspective that a 13 page paper I once wrote could barely scratch the surface. This book, even, can barely scratch the surface. But it’s one heck of a brilliant 101 course. Overall, these books are a way to gain cultural understanding/appreciation by reading about jokes and sex. Can’t go wrong.

Are you at the library yet?

I know I’m not the only one with a favourite non-fiction read (or four). Almost everyone knows of a page-turner that also qualifies as “learning material.”  Like I said, it doesn’t happen everyday–at least, not for me. But when it does, it’s awesome.

For me, the best part is that these are the kinds of books that fuel the most interesting conversations. Here, I’ll start one right now: Read any good books lately?