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.

prof-meme

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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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!

The Journey Begins Before it Even Starts (wait, what?)

I learned awhile ago that the “journey” was a significant part of any voyage.  Maybe even the most significant part.

I know this is not a new idea.  I just Googled the thought and came up with a whole bunch of cutesy quote pictures to back me up (always a good sign…right?)

The clichés are with me.

Usually, my definition of the “journey” has to do with road trips, running for trains, and airplane (mis)adventures.  When I was 16, I decided to sleep on a bench during a twelve hour layover in France–and classy is as classy does, that is now the sum total of my Paris experience.  Total strangers on train rides have offered insights on communism, abusive relationships, grieving, and the Beach Boys (you know, typical polite conversation).  Confusing maps, broken down buses, tight connections and “Oh! Finally! Coffee!”  are all memories. They’re good memories. They’re funny.

The actual “traveling” is always at least half the fun.

Currently, though, I’m becoming acquainted with another side of “the journey.” This part is happening at home, in Ottawa. No wheels underneath me. No open road or visible sky. Instead, this part involves sitting on my couch with a mug of hot tea. (I should point out that it’s not really a couch. It’s a futon mattress propped up against a wall. Again, classy is as classy does.). Music is playing, a YouTube lyrics video of a catchy song on repeat for the 10th time. And browser tabs. So many browser tabs.

Train schedules. Tourist destinations. Hostels. Bus fares. Airline discounts.  Local blogs and forums. Festival lineups.

Oh-my-goodness, am I really doing this? Am I really taking a month off to travel across Canada? More importantly, how do I even start planning for this?

Props to my brother Mike for wood-burning my awesome Canada flag.
Props to my brother Mike for wood-burning my awesome Canada flag.

I have a plane ticket to Halifax. I have a 21-day train pass, scheduled to start as soon as I’m done with the Maritimes. My family and friends across the country have been warned.

I’m scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be. It’s a whole lot of fun. And it’s definitely part of the journey.

Meet the Neighbors: A Guide to Canada for Americans

Dear Americans,

While living in your country, I have had the pleasure of sharing a laugh with…well, some of you. Not all of you.  Seems that you don’t know enough about Canada to make a joke about me without worrying that you’re totally offbase. Truthfully, I don’t know enough about your country, either. And so we just sit here politely, giggling about the weather.

(…though I have been known to chant “U-S-A!” at awkward times. So, there’s that.)

But the weather just isn’t that funny. I’m sorry. Ottawa is cold.  Washington DC is not as cold. We have both run out of amusing ways to express this. The romance is gone from our adorable “Oh goodness, how does one convert Celsius to Fahrenheit?” conversations.

Now, it would be unfair of me to assume that you are unfunny people. I’m sure you would be fantastic at making fun of Canadians…if you knew anything about us. Maybe you just need some ammunition?  Because honestly, if I hear one more person describe Toronto as “so pretty and clean and lovely and friendly” without cracking a SINGLE “centre of the universe” joke…

It’s not your fault, America. I’ll explain.

On Toronto.

I won’t write in detail about any other city or province, but I will take a moment to write about Toronto. I will write about Toronto because I grew up just an hour outside of it. Because I love the Blue Jays (baseball), I hate the Leafs (hockey), and have anecdotal reasoning to back both of those up.

I will also write about Toronto because DUDE, OTTAWA IS THE CAPITAL OF CANADA NOT TORONTO(!!!!).

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you. You didn’t know.

Let us treat this as a learning moment.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada. It’s serious metropolis–17 percent of the nation’s total population lives in or around T.O.  (ie the “Greater Toronto Area” or “GTA”).

Toronto is actually an alright city, save for the fact that it’s, well, city-ish (shocker).   If you don’t like cities, you won’t like Toronto.  If you do like cities, it will probably work for you.  Credit where credit is due, Old Toronto and Toronto Island are beautiful.  The Hockey Hall of Fame and the Royal Ontario Museum are neat.  Toronto Rock Lacrosse games are the best.

You may also be familiar with the CN Tower, a free-standing building known for being really big. It’s a tourist attraction. You can go up there, if you want. We all have at some point (read: ten-freaking-times).  I can’t say it’s that exciting, unless you decide to do it like this:

EdgeWalk-City-Side
They call this the “Edge Walk.” Toronto goes hard.

Here’s where the “center of the universe” thing comes in.

People make fun of Toronto for being egotistical.  Loud.  Bossy.  Overzealous. I don’t know how true any of it is, but essentially–when you’re making fun of Toronto, you’re making fun of this guy:

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Oh, and this guy:

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For what it’s worth, most Torontonians I know have a few bones to pick with guys like this, too.

What makes a true Torontonian is hard to identify (so far, all can pinpoint is that they seem to yell “Say word!” when they are enthused). Immigrants make up almost half of the city’s population, so it’s a VERY diverse place.

But folded into that diversity are dudes like Rob Ford. And since some of you still don’t believe me when I say that Toronto is (really, really) not the capital of Canada…

We must continue making fun of them.

On Shopping and Eating in Canada.

Firstly, all packaging in Canadaland has text in both French and English. This means that while less than 20% of Canadians speak both official languages, most still possess some level of “cereal box bilingualism.”

Cereal box bilingualism, lesson one: "Crouncharifique"

(Cereal box bilingualism, lesson one: “Cruncharific” = “Crouncharifique.” I assume this can also be found in the dictionary.)

There are a few things on Canadian grocery store shelves that  ‘Murica lacks.  These are real foods, by the way. Would I lie to you about something as serious as ketchup chips?

Yeah, ketchup chips.

Canada gets awfully fancy with it’s potato chip flavours.  In equally fancy fashion, we also spell the word “flavours” with a “u”.

To be fair, those Fries n’ Gravy chips on the right are only available in Atlantic Canada.  The East Coast knows what’s up.

Yes, things are a little different in the Canadian snack aisle.

canada chips

Growing up in Canada, my Halloween stash also looked quite a bit different than its American counterpart.  Here are some examples, presented to you via slightly disturbing fan videos.  Thanks, YouTube.

Coffee Crisp:

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Aero Bar:

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Big Turk:

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(Chocolate) Smarties:

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Kinder Surprise (this is a commercial, but it is more disturbing than any fan video could possibly be):

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Canada also has a few restaurant chains you may not be familiar with. The Cara restaurant family and Tim Hortons can easily take responsibility for  at least 80% of the teenage employment in my hometown–including mine.  Growing up, I spent time working at both a Swiss Chalet (a Cara restaurant that basically only serves chicken) and a Timmy’s (the staple coffee-and-donut place which fuels the Canadian people).

Some states actually have these now, too, but it's still a Canadian thang.
Some states actually have these now, too, but it’s still a Canadian thang.

This brings me to a very important lesson–How to order coffee at Tim Hortons:

Regular: One cream, one sugar
Double Double: Two creams, two sugars.
Triple triple: Three creams, three sugars.
Timbits: Donut holes

Got it?

Alright, I suppose we should learn about drinking in Canada.  In Ontario, all our beer comes from a very creatively named place called “The Beer Store.” I previously though the government ran and regulated this place, but a reader informed me that it is “owned by a company that is comprised of 49% labatt, 49% molson, and 2% sleeman.”  (Thanks, Korbyn!)

beer-store-1
Yes, actually.

Meanwhile, the only store which can sell liquor (and other kinds of alcohol) in Ontario is the equally creatively named “Liquor Control Board of Ontario” or “LCBO.”

(Probably not the easiest store name to market, but it’s not like they have any competition.)

LCBO

Beer drinking is a big part of Canadian culture. So is hockey, coffee, and making fun of American beer.  Because Canadian beer is better. And if you question that…

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JUST KIDDING.

(…kind of.)

Ultimately, what you should know that 1) If you’re ever looking for a pint in Canadaland, I’d say Alexander Keith’s is a solid choice; and 2) A “two-four” isn’t a hardware term–it’s a 24 pack.

[Proof from the hyper-Canadian comedy of “Bob & Doug MacKenzie”]

If you’re looking for real “Canadian cuisine,” the only options I can think of off the top of my head are poutine (fries topped with cheese curds and gravy), peameal bacon (aka Canadian bacon), and anything drenched in maple syrup.  That said, it’s a really big country. Regional foods are definitely worth checking out.

Oh, also, I should warn you about this:

bagged

I have no further explanation for that, except that it’s legit.  As an Ontario kid, I grew up with it, so it seems totally normal to me. If you’re trying to figure out how the heck that works, a quick google image search will clear up the mystery for you.

Otherwise, here’s a hint:

snippetYou’re welcome.

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On Politix.

Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy.  That means the Queen is our “Head of State,” but that we have an elected, multi-party Parliament that really runs the show. We also have an appointed Senate designed to double check everything done by the elected representatives (ie “the house of sober second thought”).

“You mean, kinda like Britain?” Sure.
“You mean, kinda like ‘Murica?” I guess.
“You mean, kinda like Australia?” Maybe?

The Queen is on our money, and has a representative that does her symbolic business in Canada, but Parliament really does all the “work”

…or doesn’t, if you’re feeling cynical.

This is Jon Stewart-esque Canadian comedian Rick Mercer explaining it much better than I could:

 

Canada is a multi-party system. Right now we have Federal representatives from five different political parties: The Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party. Translation: We have one right-wing party, three left-wing parties…and one party that wants Quebec to separate from Canada.

After living with some very Republican roommates here in DC, it’s worth noting that by American standards, our right-wing party isn’t all that “Conservative”–though it’s arguably moving in that direction. Canada runs a bit differently than the US; We have socialized health care, no capital punishment, and legal gay marriage.  We also spend a lot of time translating stuff into French.

Oh, and that appointed Senate? Yeah. It’s pretty controversial.

I hope that clears up a few things about Canada for you. I tried to respond to the FAQ as much as I could, but let me know if there’s anything I missed/didn’t explain very clearly.

(Well, except bagged milk. You’re gonna need to look into that one on your own.)