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.

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Understanding the Response : A Guide to Macklemore’s GRAMMY Wins for Non-Rap Fans

This might seem weird to some people.

It might seem weird that the internet is expressing discomfort–nay, outrage–at Macklemore cleaning up ALL the rap categories at the Grammy’s last night.  For those of you who missed it, the independent Seattle rapper won Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song, and Rap/Sung Performance (he also got Best New Artist). It was a huge night for him, and a controversial night for hip hop.

But why?

After all, the National Post said that this year’s Grammys “marks a high note for hip-hop.” Rap artists made an appearance in some major categories, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist.  And Macklemore himself defended his controversial nomination by saying “I think that hip hop can be at times resistant to change…[but] hip hop has always been about expansion, about pushing the genre, about challenging the listener.”

So what’s the real story? Are Macklemore’s wins really that big of a deal? Are people just upset because the guy is white, or because his lyrics are “clean,” or because he’s too mainstream, or because (*gasp*) he isn’t Kendrick Lamar?

Short answer: Kind of, yeah.
Long answer: Kind of, yeah. BUT-BUT-BUT, there is a really solid historical reason why. This article does a great job of explaining it, but I know for non-rap fans it might be a little dense.

So I’m going to try to lay it out as best I can.

First, a quick early history of rap in ‘murica.

Rap and hip hop music  have existed for a pretty long time…long before getting their popular due, and WAY long before being recognized by the Grammys.  It’s a pretty typical story, actually:

  • West African musical traditions are full of rap (that is, people talking rhythmically over a beat).
  • West Africans came to ‘murica via the slave trade. They brought their musical influences with them.
  • Rap became a part of American folk music– African American folk music, in particular.
  • In the 20th century, the genre was embraced by low-income urban communities which had largely African American populations (and were thus influenced by their traditions).

This is important. It’s important because, for some reason, people seem to think that hip hop magically appeared out of nowhere in the 80s.  Not so much. For example, you can still buy this Folkways recording from 1959 of preteen boys busting rhymes on the streets of NYC:

streets


Yeah, 1959.  This was a cultural phenomenon before
 we started calling it one, and WAY before the Grammys started paying attention.

The difference is that, unlike other traditionally African American genres (blues, jazz, banjo folk music, early rock ‘n roll), it took a long while for rap to be considered “sellable,” or even “musical.” It was not packaged or patron-ed in the same way these other styles were. So while jazz musicians were given legitimacy by powerful white Harlem Renaissance patrons, while banjos became a quintessential American instrument, while the blues built its fan base…rap pretty much stayed on the streets.

And honestly? It was probably better off staying on the streets.  Historically, once those traditionally African American genres and musical influences were packaged and sold, they also tended to get pretty whitewashed. Why? Because the early 20th century. Because racism and capitalism are not a good mix.

Now, from a contemporary standpoint, there is nothing wrong with white people buying into, participating in, or being influenced by African American folk traditions. But there is something wrong with how it has been approached historically.

We’re still paying for it. We’re still talking about it. And we should be.

Essentially, there are two major ways the packaging and selling of traditionally African American music was first approached (spoiler: they both sucked).

1) The “dance monkey, dance” approach. In the early 20th century, music became increasingly seen as a product with mainstream selling power.  When this happened, a lot of traditionally African American entertainment was marketed to white people as roots-y, even primitive.  Patrons would create a “product” out of black artists and their oh-so-exotic background, but not actually invite them to participate in their own musical culture.

(Example: In the 1920s Harlem Renaissance era, white-only bars were decorated to have an “African” theme, and black people were invited to play music but could not come for any other reason. Traveling minstrel shows would entertain audiences with music and comedy designed to caricature black people–first with blackface performers, and later with actual black entertainers. And by black entertainers, I mean music legends like Ma Rainey and father of the blues W.C. Handy. The only way these musicians could be legitimized at all was by being good enough to impress the people who had come to laugh at them. And even when they were given a shot, they often became someone else’s product…and were rarely invited to the after party.)

2) The “we’ll take it from here” approach. Just watch from 8:15 on this below video, and you’ll get the idea on this one.


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What does all this mean?  It means that when rap finally was packaged and sold, this history was incredibly relevant. Artists were constantly weary of the influence and ownership of record labels and mainstream consumers. While rap was a great way to express what was happening in urban communities, to push mainstream boundaries (and hey, maybe to even bridge a few gaps a la Run DMC and Aerosmith) many people were and are tentative about the “dance monkey, dance,” and the “we’ll take it from here”-type histories.

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And the Grammy goes to…

Now let’s talk about the Grammys, shall we? 

To make matters more sensitive, rap does not have a very positive history with the Grammy awards.  Like the American music industry in general, the Grammys weren’t very good at embracing rap…until it started making a crazy amount of money, that is. And even then, not much was done to understand the socioeconomic/historical/cultural context of rap music.  The hip hop community is rightfully wary about how the Grammys treat their genre.

However, they are equally aware that Grammys are incredibly influential in the music scene, and even more influential in how the music scene appears to mainstream audiences. So it’s a tough spot, and one that needs considered critically.

Not because hip hop can’t be embraced by different individuals and cultures as a means of expression. Not because Macklemore isn’t musically awesome (I could probably recite every word of The Heist, let’s be honest).  But because having Macklemore as the popular sound and face of the rap genre–which is exactly where the Grammys have placed him with all these awards–is questionable to people who care about the past and the future of rap music.  And because we as a society have severely screwed up with approaching similar musical movements before, so red flags get raised pretty easily.

But why don’t we let the artists speak for themselves?

Now that we’ve gone over that background, I’m going to hand the mic over to some of rap music’s biggest players. It’s probably best to explain the last couple decades of Grammy-rap relations through their eyes.

Tupac Shakur:

After several years of serious commercial success, the Grammys finally start adding rap performance categories in 1989. But they were untelevised, barely mentioned, and their choice of winners was controversially soft and even confusing (Parents Just Don’t Understand? Really?).  In these 1991 lyrics, TuPac is in no way subtle in addressing how the Grammys were “cashing in” on rap without respecting it at all:

“The Grammy’s and American music shows
They pimp us like hoes; take our dough but they hate us though”

(…remember that “dance monkey, dance” history I talked about? Yeah. That’s this.)

Naughty by Nature:

In 1996, the Grammys FINALLY (finally, finally) established a Best Rap Album award.  Naughty by Nature won…and, as you can tell by this interview with the trio, they didn’t even know how to even comprehend it.  When asked why they didn’t just say “Thank you, but no thank you,” to the so-called honour, DJ Kay Gee joked “They didn’t air our part anyway, so we didn’t have a chance to.”

FYI, they still don’t air these rap categories on the televised award show.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard (of the Wu-Tang Clan):

The year is 1998. Wu-Tang Clan gets snubbed on the Best Rap Album award. And OH-MY, this happens:


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I think it’s relevant to note that this video has over 4,600 likes (only 100 dislikes) on YouTube.  This snub was just plain poorly timed–this is only the third ever Best Rap Album award, and rap artists still weren’t getting proper stage time in general.

Jay Z: 

Jay Z has boycotted the Grammys on several occassions. His tipping point was when DMX was denied a nomination in 1999, but he also boycotted in 2002, saying:

“Too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked. Rappers deserve more attention from the Grammy committee and from the whole world. If it’s got a gun, everybody knows about it; but if we go on a world tour, no one knows.”

Eminem:

Oh my millenials, who could forget these lyrics from The Real Slim Shady?

You think I give a damn about a Grammy?
Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me
“But Slim, what if you win, wouldn’t it be weird?”
Why? So you guys could just lie to get me here?
So you can, sit me here next to Britney Spears?

Ironically, Eminem did win the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance with the single so…there is that.  Interstingly, this article actually cites white privilege as the reason for Em’s Grammy success (relative to other artists).

50 Cent: 

Fast forward to 2004. Like Ol’ Dirty Bastard before him, 50 Cent takes a stand for what he considers a snub…this time in the “Best New Artist” category.

Okay, so his “stand” was a lot more subtle (actually, it was more of a cameo). But his statement afterwards was interesting:  “I think that the board is a lot older and they’re conservative, so some of the content in the music is offensive on some level.  There’s a lot of people that don’t accept that hip-hop culture is now pop culture.

Kanye West:

I know, I know. But you can’t talk hip hop versus the Grammys without talking Kanye.  Specifically, you can’t talk hip hop versus the Grammys without citing the New York Times interview where he said this :

I don’t know if this is statistically right, but I’m assuming I have the most Grammys of anyone my age, but I haven’t won one against a white person…I don’t care about the Grammys; I just would like for the statistics to be more accurate. I don’t want them to rewrite history right in front of us. At least, not on my clock. I really appreciate the moments that I was able to win rap album of the year or whatever. But after a while, it’s like: “Wait a second; this isn’t fair. This is a setup.”

Nas: 

The 2013 Grammys roll around, and Nas–with 18 nominations in his career and 4 that year–sits down with Dave Grohl to talk Grammys.  Nas (who has never been outspokenly critical nor supportive of the award shows) had this to say about how they STILL, still underrate the Hip Hop genre in 2013:


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Oh, and Macklemore himself:

Perhaps the person who is most aware (and most vocal) of how these things seem to go down these days is Macklemore. Yes, really. Let’s start with his 2005 song “White Privilege,” shall we?

I give everything I have when I write a rhyme
But that doesn’t change the fact that this culture’s not mine


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More recently, he addressed race relations and public perception of rap music in his song “A Wake,” saying:

These interviews are obnoxious
Saying that it’s poetry is so well spoken, stop it
I grew up during Reaganomics
When Ice T was out there on his killing cops shit
Or Rodney King was getting beat on
And they let off every single officer
And Los Angeles went and lost it

Oh, and he also instagramed this message he sent Kendrick Lamar after last night’s Grammys:

macklemore insta

The “speech” he was referring to was his acceptance of Best New Artist.

Why? Because he wasn’t even able to accept the controversial Best Rap Album award.

Why?  Because Best Rap Album is still not a part of the main Grammy award show. Despite the fact that half the nominees are popular enough to be performing. Despite the fact that for years now rap has been the ONLY genre which has seen an increase in record sales. Ay-yi-yi.

So, what does this all mean?

Musically, I think Macklemore deserves an award–if not the rap honours, then at least that Best New Artist he was handed. And I congratulate him on his wins, genuinely. I don’t think he is bad for hip hop–his ability to break out as an independent artist is actually a huge step away from the “dance monkey, dance” history, and he has spoken out several times against exclusivity and race issues.  I don’t think that just hating on Macklemore’s Grammy wins is an overly informed response.

BUT, I don’t think that just pushing criticisms aside as silly or ridiculous is informed, either.  And it’s certainly not informed to talk about Macklemore like he’s some sober messiah who has swooped in to save the hip hop culture from its sexist, homophobic, gang-banging, drug-pushing ways.

That’s not fair. It’s offensive to the diverse and culturally rich history of rap music.  I don’t know Macklemore, but it’s probably offensive to him, too. And the more people talk about him that way, the more rap fans are going to despise it when he gets these wins.

(Which is too bad. Because while being critical is good…I think we should really be more critical of the fact that Macklemore wasn’t even able to accept his awards because all those rap Grammys still aren’t on the main show.)

Either way, I hope this helped clear up some of the confusion people might have over all these very intense responses. If you have any thoughts on this, or if I missed something super important to this conversation, let me know in the comments!

30 Reasons it’s Smart to Hire a History Student

When my co-op advisor asked how my current job relates to my History degree, I didn’t know what to tell her. Not because the job doesn’t relate to my studies–it does. Almost everything does, if you ask me. On the transferable skill side, there is just so, so much.

As I sit at the tail end of my History and Communications double major, resume full of business-friendly internships and experiences, I can’t help but notice how underrated the History half of my education seems to be. It has helped me thrive in so many work worlds–from the public service, to high tech marketing, to education and tourism. It’s time we stopped overlooking the History degree.

Here are 30 reasons why.

  1. History students are experts at tracking trends. They know how people, strategies, and time-stamped statistics work (or don’t work).
  2.  …and, yes, they know how to communicate that information back.
  3. When presented with a whole bunch of information, History students are trained to be able to quickly judge what is relevant, and why it is relevant.
  4. History students need to pick up on the jargon, locations, and terms associated with different historical periods and disciplines.  If there’s unique lingo, acronyms, or language that your team/organization uses, they will be quick to understand and adopt it.
  5. These kids know how to write.
  6. Oh, and they know how to summarize. Throw them a hodgepodge of random information, and they’ll turn it into a concise, focused, and coherent package (hey, maybe they’ll even make you a list! Eh? Eh?)
  7. They can recognize long term effects.
  8. …which means they can help develop long term solutions.
  9. And they’re aware that the world changes constantly, so those solutions (and their attitudes) will likely stay flexible.
  10. They recognize the need for a plan B (and C…and D…)
  11. History scholars tend to be naturally interested people. Interested people are the best employees.
  12. They know how to back up their points, and are champions of logical argumentation.
  13. They understand how individuals affect situations and organizations.
  14. They understand how the environment affects situations and organizations.
  15. They understand how internal culture affects situations and organizations.
  16. …basically, History students understand stuff. Or they can figure it out pretty quickly, after years of studying how things play out and why.
  17. Chances are they have an awareness of international relations and the history/culture of different countries. With our increasingly global economy, this shouldn’t be underestimated.
  18. They do their research.
  19. And they do that research well.  They know how to confirm data, to critically evaluate sources, and to filter out irrelevant information.
  20. History majors know how to make connections. They can learn how a system works (or how it doesn’t work) incredibly quickly.
  21. They are open to abstract thinking and ideas.
  22. These are critically thinking storytellers. They can make almost anything look and feel interesting.
  23. History degrees involve seminars and discussions, so a History student will have refined oral communication skills.
  24. History scholars genuinely enjoy learning, and they’re quick to do it. Throw them information, and they’ll catch it.
  25. They know how to use media and technology as a research and a communication tool.
  26. They work freakin’ hard. (I know multiple very smart people who tried taking a first year history class as a “bird course” and either dropped it or called me crying “What why is this is so hard?!”)
  27. They know what kind of innovative, thoughtful ideas have influenced the world in the past. This means that their ideas are usually pretty innovative and thoughtful.
  28. Most History students understand economics—they get how money works, moves, and influences things.
  29. They are trained on how to observe human behavior. Like, say, a client or customer’s behavior.
  30. They can organize ideas into tables and timelines like you would not believe.

Basically, studying History helps you develop key skills like critical thinking, communication, research, and writing.  History students can pick up on patterns and systems quickly, think in big picture/abstract ways…and still rock that always important attention to detail.

I’m biased, I’m biased, I’m biased (so biased, I said it three times). But, hey, at least I recognize that bias, and mention it when presenting a listed-out argument, right?

(History degree, yo.)

Had to. Okay. I'm done geeking out now.
Had to. Okay. I’m done now.

Making Mountains Out of Moments

We’re really bad at auditing our own histories.

Okay, I can’t speak for you. You’re probably great.  But other people, over-sensitive, nostalgic people like me, struggle with making sense out of a personal past.  We get caught up considering moments. Moments distract from patterns.

And patterns are what matter.

images

Now, I’m all about good ol’ reflection.  When a long-term relationship falls apart, for example, doing a solid autopsy is just about the most positive response you can have. It’s constructive.  It’s necessary.

Good. Great.

But when things are fresh, when memories and emotions are running high, our autopsies tend to trace scars instead of patterns.  Sometimes, when we should be looking at recurring toxic (or not-so-toxic) behaviours, we dwell on moments.

And if you focus only on moments, friends? You are in for an emotional ride.

You’ll relive and relive and relive the really intense stuff.  Only the really intense stuff.  The major disappointments. The I-can’t-even-breathe-right-now romantic gestures. It becomes a mental scorecard–was the whole thing horrible, the worst, or was it unbelievably amazing? Was it that time I cried all night, or the time I laughed all night? I don’t know. I don’t know.

(Neither, guys. It’s probably neither.)

Instead of looking for patterns, we pit “good times” against “dark times” in our minds, acting like our history is defined by extreme stories and emotional confrontations. We forget the day-to-day behaviour. The reactions. How communication worked (or didn’t), and how do you feel about that?

Focusing only on tear-stained memories of “good times” and “dark times,” can paint a pretty dramatic and unfair picture of all these things.  Sure, mega-scars need healing, and the happy times are worth remembering…but in most cases, using only the most epic stories to illustrate how things went down might not be the best tactic.

Basically, it’s big picture time.

you-are-here

The relationship thing is just an example, of course. In general, we seem to have a habit of over-valuing stories drenched in perception and projection (and probably other dangerous things that end in -tion).  And that’s a pretty big problem when our little-picture memories are this malleable and unreliable.

Can big-deal moments be important? Of course, of course, of course. I’m not talking about overlooking major losses, abuses, and epiphanies.  Intense things can happen, and they can effect us.  Fallible as they may be, our memories make us who we are.

But, when we’re trying to learn from something long term, to make sense of ourselves and our pasts, we cannot just lean on landmarks.

When we are auditing our lives, little antecdotes shouldn’t override the whole story.

How I Learned the Ukelele in a Laundromat (and other East Coast stories)

An update on the “vagabond chic” look: My original “disheveled at the airport” collection is so last week. Make way for the super-sexy “laundromat after a rainstorm,” fashion fans…

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I try, really.
Features of the collection include a messy ponytail, rolled up jeans, and tired, wet feet. I’m also pretty sure there’s sand in my backpack–a souvenir from two beachy days in Prince Edward Island.

I modeled the collection in Moncton. The small, humid laundromat was stop #2 on a quest for clean clothes, and I greeted it by getting barefoot and playing the ukelele with a friend I met two days ago. Stop #1 had been a shop on the corner with a large sign reading “LAUNDROMAT.” That place, they told us, was actually not a laundromat. It was a cool-kid cafe/bar called “Laundromat.”

I’m not hip enough to understand these things.

Pictured here: Not actually a laundromat
Pictured here: Not actually a laundromat

When we finally found a place with quarter-devouring washing machines and dryers, we made ourselves nice and comfortable. Waiting for our clothes to wash, we braved the stormy (and very empty) streets to seek out cheap pizza, shitty wifi, and a compact, Disney-themed umbrella from the drug store.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to my new friend and jump on a train to Quebec. I actually jumped, you guys. It was a thirteen hour train ride and, oh-my, was I ever excited for it.

The train is the real heart of my trip. All these big adventures and bigger revelations are just spaces in between.

I made small talk with the cute guy in front of me at the station (“Oh, you’re from Ottawa? Me too!”) and, as he briefly disappeared from sight, I jumped on board with a wicked smile on my face. I bought a ham sandwich and little container of white wine on the train, and “je m’excuse, je m’excuse” passed by the friendly French man beside me. The man smelled like smoke and had a giant skull and crossbones inked onto his leg, but his voice was gentle and his smile was genuine and –yes! He kept speaking French to me even after hearing my troubled accent.

And so begins my life for the next month:

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The train reached Quebec at 6 am, and I dragged myself through the tourist-covered streets until hostel check-in time and–oh! Here I am! Sitting at a hostel bar in la belle province, reflecting on the last two days.

(That’s a lie. I’m actually sitting here feeling way-too conscious of my feet, way-too happy about this beer, and way-too guilty that I fell asleep during a bus tour today. For the sake of the segue, though, let’s just say I’m reflecting on the last two days.)

To be reflected upon.
To be reflected upon.

In the days since my last post, I finished up in Halifax and headed to Prince Edward Island. I arrived in Charlottetown at noon(ish) Wednesday, and left at 8:15 Friday morning.

Translation? I had 44 hours in PEI. Ready, set, go.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I scheduled my trip. I’m pretty sure I was bitter–I always hated labeling the damn province in grade school geography. Or maybe I looked at the province on a map and said “Psh, that’s small. I could walk across that in 44 hours.”

Either way, I didn’t give myself enough time on the Island. Not even close.

Thanks to the people I encountered, however, it was (limited) time well spent. I suppose that’s part of this whole traveling thing, right? “What was your name, again? Right. That. Let’s do something cool.” My people-luck went as follows: I crashed on the air mattress of a wonderful girl I knew in high school (thanks, Alex and Danny!). I adventured with another girl I met on couchsurfing, Amy, who was being toted around town by a local named Bob.

(Amy was crashing in Bob’s spare bedroom. Everyone, it turns out, crashes in Bob’s spare bedroom. If you’re ever in Charlottetown, you should too. More on that later.)

On Thursday morning, I walked past an old Protestant cemetery. An artist, Carl Philis (potter by trade), spotted my interest right away. Carl had a paint can in his hand, and was working on the cemetery’s restoration. “If you come by some time later when you’re free, I can give you a tour around.”

I knew there would be no later. “Well…I’m free now, I guess. Can you give me a tour now?”

And he freaking did. His boss stood by smiling as he spent at least an hour showing me the history of PEI, stone by stone. I wasn’t used to such unscheduled hospitality.

“In Ontario, everyone’s just in a hurry to be late,” he explained. “It’s not like that here.”

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He was right. When I arrived an hour later than expected to visit my Islander aunt, she was only happy I was there at all.

Bob was most flexible of all. From beginning to end, his main priority was for Amy and I to have a good PEI experience. I told him I was an Anne of Green Gables fan as a kid, and he happily drove us to Cavendish for the day. He showed us the tourist-y “Avonlea Village” and the trails around Green Gables in the after-hours, saving us from paying for the tourist traps. Bob was a Green Gables tour guide in a past life, and is an expert host in this life.

People-wise, I hit the jackpot in PEI. When my aunt told me she had sending me prayers for “travel mercies,” I practically fell all over her.

“It’s working! It’s working! Keep it up!”

Poking my presence into Bob's "map of guests"
Poking my presence into Bob’s “map of guests”
Yeah. This guy hosts hardcore.
Hardcore hosting.

To recap, a few pieces of advice if you ever visit Charlottetown:

  1. Stay with someone awesome and central.
  2. Look up Bob. Seriously. I will put you in touch personally, just drop me a line.
  3. Eat potatoes. And seafood. And donair. Dude, just eat.
  4. Go to the beach. This will be easy, since it seems that a good chunk of PEI is straight beach.
  5. Clap your hands and stomp your feet at a Ceilidh. If you don’t know what that is…look up what a Ceilidh is first. Then go to one.
  6. Talk to any and everyone. Chances are, they will talk to you right back (and then some).

And with that…

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Hammer Quebecer time.

People are Trees, Not Timelines

It was 2011.  I suppose that wasn’t so long ago, really, but it feels like forever now.

I was sitting in the basement of a local Unitarian Universalist Church, surrounded by regular attendees. I hadn’t been to any kind of worship in at least a decade, and felt like a fetus surrounded by middle aged church goers. I watched as the Minister passed around markers, telling us to “draw our spiritual journey.”

(I realize this may seem strange, but trust me–it’s business as usual at the UU.)

I drew and labeled tentatively across the page. When we finished, I partnered up with the woman across from me to go over the designs.  She showed off her intricate, curving  pathway–marriage, born again Christianity, yoga, Wicca, kids.  It was a beautiful timeline, and I smiled back at her story as she scanned my drawing curiously.

I hadn’t drawn a timeline.

I had drawn a tree.

I don't actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You're welcome.
I don’t actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You’re welcome.

A group show-and-tell circled around the room.  One by one, everyone began revealing their timeline. Curves, corners, arrows, paths, this-thus-that. Even the Minister illustrated his journey with thick, chronological lines.

And there I was, with my frizzy short hair and limited life experience, clutching an image of twisted branches while everyone poured out their major life events.

On some level, it probably had to do with my age.  When the Minister said “spiritual journey,” all my young mind could think of were moments and relationships, good meals and great ideas, quiet places and loud families. These were the things that made God seem just a liiiittle closer than usual.  So I drew roots. Branches to represent friendships, leaves to represent moments.  Some of the leaves were falling off of their perch; others were growing flowers. Text and little hearts explained (or refused to explain) what it all meant.

Basically, it was hyper-symbolic. It was not so simple –> as –> this.

And maybe it was a little strange, maybe it wasn’t quite what the Minister was looking for, but…I was proud of my tree. I liked the openness.   There were “big life” events on the tree, of course, markers of birth/death/love/war.  But there were other things, too.  The tree represented my life as a work-in-progress, with multiple facets. One big, bright leaf reflected a long, peaceful silence I shared with a close friend. Another represented the first time I got absolutely engrossed watching a play.

The tree let those things matter.

Looking back, my favourite thing about the tree is that it was strong, but not rigid.  It was alive. Parts could grow, or break and fall right off, and it would all be natural. As a young person, that was important. I think it might stay important as I get older.

(It’s also possible that I’m just kind of a hippie. Feel free to raise an eyebrow.)

By nature, timelines present our memory and our identity as rigid. They present our lives as one big story, instead of millions of imperfect experiences. I don’t know if that’s fair.  I don’t think we should restrict our identity to the things that “count” as milestones.  We aren’t necessarily tragic heroes with a beginning-middle-end. Nor are we self-aware folks on a direct journey through life.  “That was a really hard time in my life,” or “That was the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Too simple. That’s just too simple. We aren’t timelines. We can’t stop at chronology. I don’t want to compartmentalize your life, or my life, not like that.

Yes, yes, I realize all this might sound odd coming from a History student.

Let me be clear: Timelining is a great way to establish context.  It’s not a crime to treat events as “things that took place,” or even to consider people as empty, reactive vessels that “things happened to” at first.  I absolutely devour the nothing-but-chronological unfolding of the world through the lens of time.

But I also don’t, and can’t, stop there.

Even in History, reality often comes in trees. Family trees, for example. Essay outlines. Complex international relations maps.

Family tree with fingerprints from the extended fam. Can't get much more meaningful than that!
A family tree from our last reunion, with fingerprints from the extended fam. See? Trees are awesome.

We have to branch out. Timelines are great at telling base, simple stories…but they’re not so great at telling the whole truth.

And when it comes to our own identity, our own History, we deserve the Truth.  We deserve to represent ourselves as more than a timeline–more than what happens to us, and certainly more than a few life events that people have decided are “important.”

Maybe, just maybe, we could use the wisdom of trees to start looking at that.

(I know, I know. Hippie alert, part two. You can raise your other eyebrow.)

8 New Ways to Study (when the old ways stop working)

It’s midterm week. The week where I have all the major tests/stress happening. You know, the week before reading week.

I always find this funny, but it’s the same every year: Midterm week comes right before “reading week.” Maybe it’s just my luck, but year after year my professors seem to all think that we want to get exams “over with” before the week off, giving us a bit of a vacation–or, as some profs reason, to give us time to study for our other classes with post-reading week midterms.

I don’t have any classes with post-reading week midterms.

I’m not trying to bitch and moan. I actually like these weeks. I thrive on the pressure. I have two midterms and a paper due in one day (that would be tomorrow, folks), and while that is making me sweat a bit…I like sweating a bit. I like it for awhile, at least. But every now and then my eyes glaze over or my brain gets overwhelmed with information and I just can’t study like this anymore.

Fine. But I still need to study. So the question is, what’s a student to do when the nose-in-a-book method becomes ineffective?

Here are some go-to alternative study methods:

Watch it. There are documentaries out there about just about any and everything. As long as you watch your sources, you can take a break from studying and still let the information seep in by seeking out a film relevant to your courses. Two nights ago, I found a great biography on Ho Chi Minh via http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/, which I threw on to take a break from head-spinning Southeast Asian History readings. As a History student, my “break” videos usually come from history.com, the CBC archives, biography.com …and every now and then, Youtube and Netflix have something interesting to offer.

Listen to it. When I was living in France, I was also taking an American History course and trying to study for a paper on the Harlem Renaissance. This was such a specifically American subject that information, even secondary sources, were less-than-accessible from the libraries in this small French village. I’m an auditory learner, so my solution then was downloading lectures from iTunes U…and it has pretty much been my go-to ever since.

It’s easy: Type just about any subject into iTunes. Click “iTunes U” in the left hand “Filter by media type” menu. Chances are, you will find some academia about it available for free download. Then go for a run on the treadmill or take a nice walk while you listen to people talk about stuff that you really should know for that paper (just make sure to cite it if you use it!).

Another possibility for auditory learners, especially when facing  “defining terms” type assessments, is recording oneself defining terms that need memorizing, then playing it back while walking/treadmilling/playing tetris/baking a cake/etc. Either way, it’ll seep in.

Why do you keep mentioning the treadmill?  Sometimes, when what you have to learn is REALLY thick and dull, the only way to stay awake is if you’re moving.  I am convinced that I only passed 10th grade biology because I brought my science class material to fitness class with me. Reading during the low-intensity part of cardio was the only way I knew to stay awake while reading that stuff. When I’m confined to a desk, I also find that I’m more productive with a drink by my side, even just a glass of water. I guess that if I’m going to need the odd 5 seconds away from work regardless, a cup of coffee is a better call than a “quick” check to Facebook or Twitter.

Twitter-ize it.  One of my most successful study nights happened last spring, when I decided to work through the information by creating a temporary new Twitter account and using it to write definitions, biographies, important dates, documents, or ideas–in 140 characters or less.  It forced me to really, really know what I was talking about and what was important, and to categorize things properly. You don’t need to create a Twitter account to do this (quite frankly, it’s a bit of a pain), but squeezing your words into simple boxes takes consideration and comprehension, so it’s a great way to learn your stuff. Bonus: It’s also a great lesson in the English language. It’s also kinda fun.

Productivity-Off. I coined this term in second year, when a friend from home tweeted that he was working on some second language worksheets while I was painstakingly translating French documents into broken English. I messaged him back, suggesting that we race each other to finish of our respective assignments first.

This is now a thing. It’s called a productivity-off, and after introducing it to my roommate at the time, it got me through second year.

You know how pitting kids against their siblings will get them ready for bed in record time? Turns out a little bit of competition can bring out an incredible level of productivity in fully grown adults, too. Why? Because games make things work.

Play with it. Outside of productivity-offs, there are so many ways that games can make things work. Last month, my 8th grade brother insisted to me that he would “NEVER be good at this French grammar stuff.” I sent him to the French section of quia.com to find games that related to the concepts giving him trouble. Now, he has informed me that he rocks irregular verbs.  Why? Because he found a way to interact with them and to face a game-style challenge that got his competitive side up.

Keep this in mind: If you have a map quiz, there is probably a flash game that can help you play through learning the geography you need.   If you have a history test, trivia quizzes could be a fun “break” that tests your knowledge. If you have a friend around, you can play the Wikipedia Game and navigate between content from your respective courses–especially if those courses are worlds apart. You could learn something new to boot.

Reward yourself. If you don’t have someone else to be competitive with, and the internet doesn’t offer a way to get your game face on, you can still sometimes pull out that drive by setting goals and rewarding yourself when you get them done. This takes a little more self-discipline, and I know that a false sense of urgency is not always readily available…but if you know there’s a beer in the fridge just waiting for you to finish that article, usually that article will get finished.

Keep your study spot sacred. I spend a lot of time with my computer in my bed and on the couch. This might seem silly, seeing as I have that cute little cloffice sitting there just begging to be used.  Here’s the deal, though: I use my computer for my leisure time, for watching TV, talking to friends, monitoring memes…you know, the important things in life. I avoid doing those things at my desk, save for the odd conversation that pops up while studying.   Why? Because I have trained myself to get into work mode the minute I sit at that desk.

The cloffice is where I get serious–at least, as serious as a girl who studies with documentaries and flash games gets.  If I’m writing something substantial, if I’m doing readings, if I’m writing study notes, if I’m recording study notes, if I’m memorizing scripts–that’s cloffice time. I’m not perfect with it, but I guarantee you that I get a whole lot more done when I’m in a place that has been set aside for, well, getting a whole lot more done.

Speaking of which….think it’s time to go home for some cloffice time.  Maybe record some concise term definitions. And maybe, just maybe, earn that cold beer in my fridge.
Happy studying!