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.

Moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we are all terrified (but in a good way)

I have been witness to a lot of happy dances this week. I’ve “liked” an obscene number of Facebook statuses. I’ve high fived and comforted and clinked glasses with many excited-slash-nervous students–my friends for the last four years. Everyone’s too tired from the essays and exams to really process that they’re graduating, that this is it. We all talk about it like we know what it means, but we all have no idea. We’re excited, definitely, but we have no idea.

I sit in the student bar, splitting a pitcher, smiling, counting the days, complaining about the weather. I’m not graduating. I have a semester left in my program, thanks to co-op. I graduate next winter, maybe even next spring. I’m just a cheerleader in the middle of this mass exodus. And that’s a big difference, no doubt. A girl I met in residence, who grew so close we even road tripped to my parents’ house, is moving to New Brunswick with her boyfriend soon. Another good friend, an old University roommate, just celebrated her acceptance to grad school. She’s moving. She’s going to be a teacher.

A lot of people are going to be teachers. Or lawyers, or people-with-Masters-degrees. Or they’re just going to find a job, travel some, hope that they’re enough for whatever system they’re thrown into. People are moving to Toronto, to Montreal, to wherever they got accepted. Some are just going “home.”

I wonder how, after 4 years of University, anyone really knows where “home” is.

The people with plans and grad school acceptance letters seem very comfortable with the whole thing. They have a next step in the foreseeable future, and that’s great. I’m happy for them, and I’m jealous of them, and–deep down, really deep down–I’m quite okay with not being them.

Plans and I don’t have the best history. It’s always been about more about possibilities than plans.

Everyone is tired. I see the congratulatory hugs, the crying fits from rejection letters, cheerful bursts of “YOU GUYS, I just finished the last class of my University career EVER.” It’s exciting, it’s anti-climactic, and it must be exhausting. No one knows how to express what they’re feeling. They don’t know who they can relate to. They don’t know if they’re doing it right, if they did it right, if they’re going to do it right. They just know they’re done. They’re staring down the barrel of “So, sweetie, what are your plans after you graduate?”

I feel like I’m cheating the system somehow, by not graduating at the same time as everyone else, by not having a concrete plan for when I do. But I know it’s always been more about possibilities than plans. I like that. Possibilities have more room to move than plans. They’re more fun to chase, easier to move on from. I’m surrounded by them. We all are, and that makes us damn lucky.

And maybe that’s what people are having trouble expressing. The fact that University was one massive possibility, and we picked it, and we’re going to finish it. The fact that there were a million different possibilities within that University–programs, courses, people, dates, clubs, crams, apartments, attitudes. We tried them out. Stuff happened. We learned which possibilities work for us…and which ones really don’t.

And now–at least in a way, at least for some of us–it’s over. Those possibilities are gone. They’re replaced with a million more possibilities, this time in the real world, and that’s awesome slash scary. It’s scary for the people navigating falliable “plans,” and it’s scary for the people grasping at “now what”s. It’s scary for the ones leaving and the ones left behind.

Of course it is.

Possibilities are overwhelming. Watching a possibility become reality can feel surreal.  The thought that the possibility you’ve been dreaming about and working towards might not happen is horrifying. And, of course, there are a million more possibilities where that one came from.

But knowing these people who are graduating, knowing what they’re capable of, knowing how much they care…I can only imagine what kind of badassery will come out of the right person meeting the right possibility. I’m excited. I’m scared.

But I think we’re terrified in a good way.

 

Taking “Canada Class” (or, how my sense of humour runs my schedule)

I am thoroughly convinced of two things: Life is a joke. And life is sacred.

Because of this, I love-love-love my education. But also because of this, I have a habit of taking courses because they sound funny.

Just funny. Not relevant to my interests (though, usually, they also fall into that category).  Certainly not relevant to my degree.  While sifting through possible electives, I eagerly dropkick away any chance at learning “something important” in favour of being able to chuckle inside my head.

Life is sacred; Life is a joke.

Last year, I took a class called “Jesus of Nazareth.” I could have taken something in my program. Or, if I felt so inclined, checked out comparative religion, the history of Christianity as a whole, or really anything with a more convenient time slot.

Nah.

Instead, I chose instead to sit in a windowless lecture hall from 4-7 pm every Wednesday, tracking the historical Jesus and wishing I could read Coptic.

Why? Because I wanted to be able to yell “I’m going to Jesus class!” to my roommate as I sprinted out the door at 3:30.

She laughed. I laughed.

Tuition well spent.

This summer, I decided to take a class called “Canadian Society” for this same reason. It’s not as funny-sounding as Jesus class, I know, but between “Canada class” and “Cold War class,” I am getting a few of the raised eyebrows and “*snort* what?!” that I so crave.

Of course, my incessant need to bring out the sacred/funny in everything isn’t the only motivator. Canada Class is also supposed to prepare me for my trip across the country in August. Not because I expect travel advice from a jeans-‘n-teeshirt wielding sociology prof, but because it relates to the whole point of my trip:  to crack the code of the “Canadian experience.”  I want to understand what it means wear my Maple Leaf with so much pride. I want to come home with a nuanced, complicated, amusing, and (hopefully) optimistic view of the country. Somewhere in there, I hope my jokes about Canadian-isms will improve.

A little bit of funny. A little bit of sacred. A whole lot of time on the train.

I pulled out the term Canadian identity while discussing my plans with Michelle last week.  “Our Grade 12 English teachers would be so proud,” she grinned, tossing me a friendly eyeroll.

This is the price I pay for hanging out with people I knew as a teenager. Michelle can pinpoint the exact childhood influence which planted the words in my mouth.  In this case, my summer plans are the victim of too much Rick Mercer, a Grade 12 English unit, and hundreds of hours spent standing for the national anthem in public school.

I’m sure studying Canadian history for several years helped, too.

So did living in the United States, answering questions on behalf of “Canada” and “Canadians.”  I leapt eagerly to represent my country, but I often fell flat. I filled my friends in on Ontario 101, disguising it as Canada 101. Sure, I had studied other areas using geography textbooks and google searches, but who am I kidding? I haven’t seen this country. I love it, it’s a part of me, I talk about it all-the-freakin-time, but…I haven’t seen it. My insights are incomplete.

I want to get it right next time.

So here I am. Taking Canada class. Taking a train across the country. Sociology is new to me, and I find it frustrating at times–I like patterns, but my brain tends to reject most large-scale generalizations.  I’m much better at finding the exception to the rule.  So I sit in fifth row, silently Wikipedia-ing counter-arguments to what the professor says (I don’t bring them up, not in a 100 person classroom, but I like to know that they exist). I wince every time someone makes a massive blanket statement or misconstrues a historical event.

But I’m learning about Canada.  I think I am, anyways.  At the very least, I’m learning how to think about Canada.  I’m learning that approaching the collective identity of a MASSIVE nation won’t be easy. Especially not in a single month.

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This will be interesting.

This is all to say that, yes, there is a reason behind my crazy plan to take a month off and backpack across the country.  Yes, I am doing the prep work to make it happen–and that prep work includes “Canada class.”  I guess we will see how that goes.

The prep work also includes booking train rides. This I have been able to (finally, finally) figure out.

Currently, my August looks like this:

Halifax –> PEI –> Moncton –> Quebec –> Montreal –> Toronto –> Winnepeg –> Saskatoon –> Edmonton –> Vancouver/Victoria –> Calgary

…And home in time for dinner.

Whew. Ready, set, go.

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.

How My Hard Drive Crash Restored My Faith in Humanity

For the sake of optimism, I will call this borrowed-from-the-library laptop “vintage.” Vintage, as in it took a whole timed minute to open up Microsoft Word. Vintage, as in it had a full-out meltdown when Facebook dared notify me of something. And yes, vintage, as in NOT the ideal machine to be working with. Not when there are four major projects coming up in my calendar…or at least there would be, if I had access to my calendar.

Guess whose hard drive crashed a week ago?

It crashed in the middle of class. Frozen on the boot-up screen; No response from my F2 key, no life in the mouse, and (thanks, lack of forethought) no back up. Crashed and burned. I should point out to you that this is a two month old laptop which really shouldn’t be acting out. I should also point out to you, since EVERYONE on the tech support side asked: Yes, captain obvious, I DID try to reboot my machine. If only it were so easy.

They came by and replaced the motherboard. This did nothing. So, they came by and replaced the hard drive. This worked for a single day. Then, while working on some important correspondence (okay, checking my email) in the library yesterday, my cursor froze. I called Dell again.

“Well, did you restart your computer? How about the Fn key + F3?” Only about five times. Thanks, though.

I feel sorry for the people on the other end of those phone calls. Malfunctioning technology seems to bring out the worst in me. That loving, caring person that sent you a Christmas card last year? She peaces out when the laptop breaks down.

I may need to write a card to Dell’s tech support central: “Sorry I’m such an entitled-sounding 20-something, but also, I don’t want to fail out of University. ”

(Did that still make me sound like an entitled 20-something? Yikes. In my defense: Come on…a two month old machine? Really?)

I present to you my current studying/researching method. Kickin’ it old school. Last night’s hot date was with Religious Studies:

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Not too shabby, right? The reason I write this isn’t to grumble at you about my first world problems. Hard drives fail. Shit happens. Outsourced tech support from a 1-800 number can only be so helpful, and after three strikes Dell has agreed to send me a new laptop (sup, extended warranty?)

What I DO want to say is that when my technology started sucking, I started becoming more and more amazed at how great people can be. I mean, my laptop bust wasn’t anyone else’s fault. And sometimes, it wasn’t even their problem. As for the people whose job it was to fix it, they certainly didn’t have to be so freakin’ nice about it. But they were. They were so, so nice.

My profs have been legendarily helpful. The tech support ladies and gents (yes, the ones at that damned 1-800 number) were lovely, even when I pulled out my entitled 20-something “With all due respect…” lines. There was that sweet hardware-fixing guy, Rick, the one who showed up EXACTLY when he said he would. And we can’t forget my parents, who were expert in helping me stay chill…even though that is no longer their job. Because, you know, I am an adult. Hear me roar.

…Right, mommy?

Specifically, I’m an adult who gets more than a little overwhelmed muddling through a laptop mess. But as with most messes, this one has shown me that people care. Even when it’s something small and technical and it was me who messed up by not making a backup—even when it really, really is not their problem—people care.

Thank you, people. I’ll continue liking you more than technology.

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!