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Columbia student turns her campus rape into performance art

In behavior, Crime, education, men, US, women, life on October 1, 2014 at 3:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

Artist, and Columbia undergrad, Emma Sulcowicz has been dragging a 50-pound mattress around the campus of Columbia University for the past few months – to protest a fellow student rapist she says has not yet been disciplined or expelled.

From The New York Times:

Ms. Sulkowicz spoke of her interest in the kind of art that elicits a powerful response, whether negative or positive. Freshly painted on the walls around us loomed big black letters spelling out the “rules of engagement,” the guidelines to her performance: One states that she will continue the piece until the man she accuses of attacking her is no longer on campus, whether he leaves or is expelled or graduates, as she also will next spring. (If need be, she plans to attend commencement carrying the mattress.) She said the performance is giving her new muscles and an inner strength she didn’t know she had, and is attracting many different kinds of attention, some of it hard to take.

“Carry That Weight” is both singular and representative of a time of strongly held opinions and objections and righteous anger on all sides, a time when, not surprisingly, political protest and performance art are intersecting in increasingly adamant ways.

Her decision to make the alleged attack public, ongoing and physically demanding — of her and her bystanders — forces others to engage with her, intellectually, emotionally and physically. Many rape survivors choose to remain silent and hidden, fearing insensitive response from friends, family and authorities.

Her protest, having made the front page of the NYT arts section (a spot many established artists would kill for!) also won her the cover of New York magazine:

A few years ago, an Ivy League student going public about her rape, telling the world her real name—let alone trying to attract attention by lugging around a mattress—would have been a rare bird. In America, after all, we still assume rape survivors want, and need, their identities protected by the press. But shattering silence, in 2014, means not just coming out with an atrocity tale about your assault but offering what Danielle Dirks, a sociologist at Occidental, calls “an atrocity tale about how poorly you were treated by the people you pay $62,500 a year to protect you.” By owning those accusations, and pointing a finger not only at assailants but also the American university, the ivory tower of privilege, these survivors have built the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s. Rape activists now don’t talk much about women’s self-care and protection like they did in the ’90s with Take Back the Night marches, self-defense classes, and cans of Mace. Today, the militant cry is aimed at the university: Kick the bastards out.

According to this HuffPo story, 10 Columbia undergrads were accused of sexual assault  in 2013-14 — and none have been disciplined:

Columbia released the data following months of pressure from student leaders and activists. Meanwhile, a federal complaint accusing the school of mishandling rape cases has grown to include 28 current or former students.

The Ivy League university announced in January that it would release the aggregate data, starting with the 2013-14 school year.

“Over the past year, the issue of sexual assault has gained a new level of attention and engagement on campuses around the country,” Columbia Provost John Coatsworth said in an email to students. “We are committed to providing a national model of the best policies and practices to help ensure that members of our University community feel safe and respected. As one part of that commitment, we are publishing Columbia’s first annual Report on Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention and Response.”

Few universities disclose such information. Some Ivy League schools, including Yale University, Brown University and Dartmouth College, release data on sexual assault punishments in some form.

College offers students a wealth of exciting opportunities — to learn new subjects in depth, try new sports and activities, take on leadership roles, gain intellectual confidence and emotional maturity.

For some, it becomes an overwhelming maelstrom of sexual assault, often in concert with consciousness, memory and physical condition altered by drugs and/or alcohol.

This Slate piece, from 2013, raises some powerful questions and received 60,000 Facebook shares:

A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, as this survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame….

The 2009 campus sexual assault study, co-authored by Krebs, found campus alcohol education programs “seldom emphasize the important link” between women’s voluntary alcohol and drug use “and becoming a victim of sexual assault.” It goes on to say students must get the explicit message that limiting alcohol intake and avoiding drugs “are important sexual assault sex protection strategies.” I think it would be beneficial for younger students to hear accounts of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault from female juniors and seniors who’ve lived through it.

Of course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent. To establish if a driver is too drunk to be behind the wheel, all it takes is a quick test to see if his or her blood alcohol exceeds the legal limit. There isn’t such clarity when it comes to alcohol and sex.

This group, End Rape on Campus, offers nine additional resources; these women are fighting several prestigious schools — UNC Chapel Hill, Columbia, Berkeley — for sexual assaults against them while they were students.

Columbia Journalism School

Columbia Journalism School

Gratefully, I never suffered any such assaults while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and, yes, I did attend some parties at male fraternity houses. But there was not, then, (and I suspect still), a culture of female binge drinking.

For a variety of reasons – maybe coming of age during second-wave feminism? — drinking myself into vomiting, staggering oblivion, let alone while surrounded in a large house by young men whose morals, ethics or sexual notions of decent behavior were unknown to me just never appealed to me in any way. So I just didn’t do it.

For me, and my friends, sex was fun, plentiful — and best enjoyed while sober. And, as someone who lived all four years off-campus living solo in an apartment, I was also acutely aware that whatever (lousy) choices I made were mine alone, as were the consequences of same.

I had no RAs, nearby friends or room-mates or campus security to turn to for advice or possible protection. Cellphones — and an emergency text or IM — did not yet exist.

California has just passed a bill, “yes means yes”, to make drunken campus rapes (one hopes!) a thing of the past.

I often wonder how much of young women’s “need” to drink themselves into virtual unconsciousness is a quick, easy and socially-sanctioned way to dodge the many complicated feelings and negotiations around safe, enjoyable, consensual sex.

Is this an issue that has touched you or someone you love?

The life of an adjunct professor

In behavior, education, life, parenting, US, work on September 25, 2014 at 12:09 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a while since I’ve taught college, which I’ve done at Concordia University in Montreal, Pace University in New York and elsewhere. This fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I’m teaching a two-hour writing class to freshmen and a two-hour blogging class to seniors.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I work as an adjunct, i.e. someone hired to work only part-time, with no benefits or security or chance of attaining a full-time position. I’m paid a set fee, negotiated in advance with the dean, paid every few weeks.

In return, I offer my skills, experience, wisdom and advice. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a locker. (I do have a mailbox.) I can make photocopies for my classes free.

I don’t live on, or anywhere near, campus, which means a two-hour commute each way and my physical unavailability to students between classes, held once a week.

If I want to meet with students — which, technically, I’m not paid to do — it’s on my own time and in the cafeteria. If they want additional advice, or just a chance to chat, it needs to be then, (when I also need to rest and recharge between classes!), or by email or phone.

I risk looking aloof and uncaring, yet my re-hiring, as it does for many adjuncts today, relies on student evaluations. So does my income.

Dilemma!

Should I hand out high grades like candy bars on Hallowe’en to placate them?

Grade harshly, if fairly, to prepare them for the reality of life as a working writer?

Minimize my time and energy out of the classroom to save both for other revenue streams, and for my own life?

Give them the most possible to prove my commitment to them; (see: student evaluations)?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don't they?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don’t they?

The irony?

Most undergraduate students have no idea what an adjunct is, or why we’re there — (cheap! lots of daily practical experience to share! plentiful labor supply!) — or why we might view them and their school somewhat differently than those with tenure or working towards it.

To them, we’re just another professor, someone they can shred, or praise, on Rate My Professors, even adding a chile pepper, (yes, really), to show  how “hot” they think we are.

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And, here in the U.S. where a year of tuition alone can cost $40,000 or more, we’re also fighting a consumerist mindset; I’m acutely aware that every hour I spend with my students represents a parental investment of  X-hundred dollars.

Am I worth it? Am I providing sufficient value? (Am I fun/likeable/relatable/helpful?)

And what are the objective metrics for those?

Unlike most aggrieved adjuncts, I don’t have a Phd nor multiple advanced degrees. I haven’t invested thousands of dollars and hours in acquiring academic credentials, in the hope or — worse — expectation that all this time and energy will produce a steady, well-paid income.

So, as much as working solely as an adjunct makes for a nasty, low-paid and tiring existence, as this Salon piece makes clear, it’s working for me.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

I was also fairly appalled to read this piece about how colleges are racing to blow millions on sexy, cool facilities like a “lazy river.”

I blog frequently about income inequality and the difficulty many Americans, even those well-educated, now have of finding well-paid work. It’s an odd and disturbing issue if professors who have invested their lives preparing to work in academia are, as the Salon piece says, on food stamps to survive.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

But my industry of 30 years — journalism, specifically print journalism — has also fallen to pieces and I now expect very little any more from the formal “job market.”

After losing my staff job at the New York Daily News in 2006, I had few choices:

1) return for re-training into a wholly new career (costly, no guarantee of work upon graduation); 2) keep trying to find a full-time job, with many fewer available; 3) learn a wholly new-to-me skill set (coding, HTML, etc) and compete with 25-year-olds; 4) remain freelance, but supplement/broaden my income with as many other revenue streams beyond print journalism as possible.

No. 4 is the course I took.

Have you had to re-tool or re-invent your career?

How’s it working out?

Are you an adjunct? Do you enjoy it?

Students….how do you feel about this?

 

The writer’s week: Skyping Holland, grading papers, waiting for news of….

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, life, work on September 21, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

For those of you new to Broadside, every six weeks or so I describe my working life as a full-time writer living in New York. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, anyone whose pay is sufficient, whose work is challenging and can use my skills; details and samples here.

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com if you’ve got some!

Monday

Juggling three assigned stories, two for the financial website Investopedia and one for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing freelance for many years. Having a terrible time sourcing the Times piece though and have shaken every tree I can think of: my LinkedIn contacts, LinkedIn groups, Facebook friends and Twitter. I need to find couples living, or soon to live outside the U.S. and reach out to my many friends worldwide, from Austria to Germany to Bhutan to Britain.

Finally! I find a couple who fits the bill and schedule a Skype interview with them from Holland for next week.

An editor I’ve been working with for years, but have yet to meet face to face, offers me a rush job for a very nice fee. Luckily, I have a spare few days in which to take it on. Another story with elusive sources finally comes together as I find enough people and pitch the editor; we haggle over money and I now await the assignment.

It’s a constant balance of how much time to invest in putting together a pitch (i.e. an idea for a story, not the finished thing) and when to hit “send” to an assigning editor.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955

“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Tuesday

I teach two classes this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 3pm Tuesday is the deadline for my writing students. It’s interesting to see who sends their work in soonest and who waits til the very last minute. I’m really enjoying their writing, but it’s also strange to be so vulnerable to their subjective opinions of me and my teaching — their evaluations  will determine my fate.

Pitching more stories to Cosmopolitan, USA Today, More magazine. Reached out to editors I was last in touch with a few months ago to see if they have anything for me to work on.

Check in with a Toronto writer whose agent is supposed to pitch a collection of essays, mine among them. The book proposal still hasn’t gone out yet; it’s nice to be enough of a “name” that my inclusion might help sell it.

And yet…I share a name with a younger writer at The New Yorker. A Manhattan headhunter emails me to tell me about a job opportunity. Sweet! Several emails later, it’s clear the headhunter has no idea who I am and thinks (!) she has been emailing the other one. For fucks’ sake.

Our rings

Our rings

Wednesday

I hear about a terrific editing position — in Toronto. I live in New York. I apply for it and my husband says, of course; a great job is a rare thing in my industry these days. Most journalism jobs don’t pay enough to justify a commuter marriage, but you never know.

Awaiting the results of a fellowship I’ve applied for in Chicago. The topic I’ve proposed — to study gun violence there — interests me, as it was the subject of my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

I go for my usual Wednesday morning walk with a friend, who thinks there’s money in writing books. Sadly, there really isn’t for most writers.

Today is my third wedding anniversary, so Jose and I meet for drinks and dinner in Manhattan at The Lion, whose back room is gorgeous and welcoming. The room is buzzing, filled with 20-somethings.

In a table near the front sits actress Susan Sarandon — almost as pleasant a surprise as finding a free/unpaid parking spot directly in front of the restaurant, saving me $30 or so for a garage.

The New York subway is more....interesting...but driving is quicker

The New York subway is more….interesting…but driving is quicker

Thursday

It’s a good two hour drive from our home to Pratt’s campus. We live north of Manhattan, and I drive down the FDR, the highway on the East Side of Manhattan, intrigued by the city’s mix of poverty and wealth. Under one of the bridges, homeless people still sleep in their blankets and sleeping bags while helicopters arrive at the helipad, gleaming Escalades waiting to ferry the 1% crowd to wherever they’re headed. Police boats and barges and working vessels pass on my left on the East River.

I climb the four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Lunch in the college cafeteria, meeting with a student, then 2.5 hours’ downtime before I teach blogging there at 4:30 to 6:20. Tonight is a faculty reception at the president’s home, which is spectacular, the original mansion built for the founder of Pratt, a 19th century industrialist. I chat briefly with two other professors then head off into the night — and get lost. I swing around Prospect Park twice in frustrated, exhausted horror. I can’t read my map, (the print is too small), and just keep driving until — finally — I find my way to the highway I need.

Friday

Into Manhattan for a meeting of the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to a non-fiction writer in financial crisis. We were getting many requests in the past few years but, luckily, many fewer these days.

Long discussion, with no clear resolution, as to what now constitutes a “freelance writer” — when so many people write for so little payment or even none at all.

I hop a city bus downtown to the East Village and discover that my Metrocard has expired; the driver kindly lets me ride anyway.

It’s a gorgeous sunny fall day and I wander East 9th Street, only to discover that one of my favorite shops has closed.

Gone!

Gone!

I drop into another, a fantastic vintage store where I scored big last winter, and decide against a chocolate suede hat for $88. In a sidewalk cafe, I watch European tourists and models and just….sit still for a change, enjoying calm, carrot cake and mint tea.

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Finally meeting a source — an American woman living and working in Bahrain — for dinner. I interviewed her by email a few years ago, and we’ve been following one another on Twitter. We’re meeting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, once a legendary hangout for writers but now a more-polished upscale version of itself. I’ve been coming here for decades and have seen it through three (so far) renovations.

The evening is a bit of a blind date for both of us but we’re laughing like mad within minutes of meeting one another as we discover a raft of unlikely common interests. Like me, she’s a quirky, feisty mix of ideas and entrepreneurship.

It’s rare to become friends with a story source, but it’s nice when it happens.

 

Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US on September 16, 2014 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I love to visit them --- this one is in Florida -- but not sure I want to live there again

I love to visit them — this one, Appalachicola, is in Florida — but not sure I want to live there again

As a scarred survivor of 18 miserable months in a small New Hampshire town, this recent New York Times essay resonated with me:

In November 2012, I flew out to start work…We bought a house for maybe one-fifth of what we would have paid in San Francisco, less than what my parents paid for my childhood home in rural Pennsylvania.

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

Predictably enough, they end up abandoning what initially looked like a great choice.

I know another writer, fed up with the cost and craziness of New York City life, who fled north to the Catskills for silence, low rent and creative freedom. She lasted two years.

Another writer friend recently quit her job and traded a major American city for….the Catskills:

It’s remote. The other day I had to drive 45 minutes (one way) and pay $2.00 in tolls to get to my bank. So much is done online these days, it might not be that much of an issue, but it’s definitely an adjustment. I’m thinking I’ll have to coordinate trips into the larger towns to coincide with other errands.

It’s clean. I haven’t seen one piece of litter or trash — which is not to say I haven’t seen junk in people’s yards, but that’s different.

It smells good. The air is pure and fresh. On rainy, chilly days like today the air was filled with the scent of burning firewood and wet grass. The other day I walked by someone’s house and smelled the sweet buttery scent of an apple pie baking. I actually paused in front of the window and when the lady inside looked at me, I waved. “Smells delicious!”

It’s really dark at night. The other night I drove home after dark and needed my high beams the whole time. I try not to think of slasher movies when walking at night. Actually, I try not to walk at night.

It’s friendly. Some people are quicker to talk to me than others, but those who have were extremely friendly. People have given me their phone numbers, invited me to events and introduced me to other folks within minutes of meeting.

It’s intellectual and creative. I’ve received more bookstore and library recommendations in the past five days than I have in 19 years living in Los Angeles, and heard there are many other writers and artists up here.

It’s cheap. Not only are the prices of necessities and services lower, but there are fewer opportunities to spend money. I’m not eating out, going to the movies, walking by stores or cafes. I literally haven’t reached for my wallet to buy anything in three days.

I had that fantasy too.

In January 1988, I followed an American man I met in Montreal, where he was finishing medical school and I was a newspaper reporter, and moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, a small town two hours north of Boston best known for Dartmouth College, one of the most elite and costly universities in the nation. I worked there for three months on a visa, then moved permanently, expecting to stay there for the next three years while he finished his medical residency.

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

I barely lasted another year.

Summer was heaven: sailing, hiking, canoeing, soaking up the beauty and silence of the Upper Valley. Fall, with the leaves turning color and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, was glorious.

By January, though, I was ready to shoot myself: completely bored, lonely, broke and isolated. Unlike virtually everyone around us, I didn’t have a job and wasn’t married, pregnant or already a mother. I didn’t jog nor have the slightest desire to do so.

We had a great apartment, the main floor of a big old house in Lebanon, NH. I loved our large kitchen with its deep wooden flour bin and 1950s stove. It was a beautiful part of the country, and I loved exploring its backroads and rivers. Every Friday I took a folding chair at a local auction house and got a great education in antiques.

But my boyfriend, (later husband), was gone most of the time working and when home was exhausted and withdrawn. We struggled to live decently on his $22,000/year salary and my meager savings. Oddly, for being in the country surrounded by open land, there was nowhere to go for a walk, because all that land was privately owned.

I hate to admit it, but I also had no idea how to connect with anyone there; my primary identity, then as now, was my work. Not there.

And rural economies, I quickly learned — having only lived in large cities like London, Paris, Toronto and Montreal — were two-tier: you were lucky enough to find a decent, solid job (teacher, nurse, government) or toiled for pennies in a low-wage position.

In utter desperation, I once called a maple syrup farm that had advertised for workers, but was dismissed out of hand for having no prior experience.

(Here’s a sobering piece about rural homelessness in Missouri.)

Our phone rang all the time, each time a wrong number, and each time with the same request: “I need a new windshield”; ours was the former number for Upper Valley Glass. No matter how many times I entertained his co-workers, almost no one ever reciprocated. Without a job or friends, life was grim and lonely. There was no internet then, no Skype.

We moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, to a Hudson river town, and I’m — very happily! — still here. I know the people who run our coffee shop and gourmet store and hardware store. I’m at our YMCA a few days every week so have friends there as well. Even though it’s officially a village, it never feels claustrophobic.

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

I’m not sure I’d ever live in a rural small town again. I can see Manhattan’s mid-town towers from my street and be walking among them within an hour. I know how badly I need that balance.

How about you?

Do you live in — and love — a small town?

Have you tried it and abandoned it?

What exactly is college good for, again?

In behavior, culture, education, life, travel, urban life, US on September 12, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Have you followed the “debate” begun (again) about the putative value of an Ivy League education?

Here’s former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in Salon:

In his new book, “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz expands his argument into a full-on manifesto about the failures of the meritocracy. His timing is good. Ambitious families continue to arm their children with APs, SAT prep courses and expensive admissions advisors. At the same time, despite big financial aid packages, the student bodies at elite schools remain staggeringly affluent.

So do the schools. Yale has an endowment of some $20 billion; the University of Connecticut, 90 minutes down the road and with a student body three times as large, has an endowment one-sixtieth that size. As public institutions suffer round after round of cuts, Ivy League endowments keep swelling. When we speak of inequality, it’s not just in individual income where the disparities have grown starker.

And here’s a powerful op-ed  about the value of college from The New York Times’ Frank Bruni:

I’M beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.

What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?

As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”

Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents.

But Bruni goes on to make some interesting (to me) arguments in favor of mixing things up on campus, as one of the increasingly few places left (in an economically and racially divided United States) where people can — and should, he argues — meet “the other”.

That might, for the first time, mean meeting someone covered with tattoos and piercings, or someone wearing head-to-toe designer labels.

It might mean working in class on a project with someone transgendered and/or someone happily married, even with a few children. Or someone deeply devoted to their religious life  — or someone fervently atheist.

I remember a preppy blond guy named Chris who was even then active in the Conservative party — my first (and useful) exposure to someone with strong, opposing political views.

Bruni writes:

We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.

As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.

And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn.

I also found this Times story – about how much effort selective American colleges are actually making to attract and retain lower-income students:

I think college-as-sorting-mechanism, as it often ends up being — at least in the U.S. — is a sad misuse of its potential for personal and intellectual growth.

I’m not embarrassed to admit how much I learned by attending the University of Toronto, a huge (53,000) and highly traditional university.

Not only about my subjects of study, but about Marxism, soul music, what it’s like to be married young. I learned it over coffee or at frat parties or while working on the student newspaper, from the people I met, the men I dated, the friends I made and my classmates.

I met the first gay people my age, male and female. (My high school may well have had some, but none were out.) Toronto is an enormous, diverse and cosmopolitan city, but even then I knew who I knew….and not much more than that. As it was meant to, college opened my eyes to other realities and ways of thinking and behaving.

My classmates arrived from homes wealthy and poor, from elegant estates and shared, battered downtown housing.

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In my mid-30s, after moving from Canada to New York, I attended another school, The New York School of Interior Design. That experience was wholly different and I loved it. Teachers were demanding and wise, but also nurturing. Classes were small, making my experience pleasant and intimate in comparison to overwhelming and impersonal undergrad.

Now I’m teaching two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, rated one of the 20 best schools in the Northeast U.S. I’m intrigued by the mix of students I see there, all of whom have chosen to attend a school focused on specific crafts and skills, from industrial design to fashion to writing to architecture. There’s a lot of green and purple and blue hair. Many of the women smoke.

One of the issues that I find really shocking is the skyrocketing cost of an American education; Pratt’s tuition is more than $41,000 a year while my alma mater, U of T, is now only $6,040 for my former course of study.

(I paid $660 a year. Yes, really.)

Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways

Colleges look so serious and authoritative…don’t they?

If you are a student, what do you want or expect college to “do” for you?

If you’re a professor, how do you feel about the expectation that a college degree is meant as a ticket to a job?

 

Time for a digital detox?

In behavior, children, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, Media, Technology on September 7, 2014 at 11:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Great piece, from Outside magazine on one man’s year of digital detox:

At the time, I was a journalist covering climate-change politics for a nonprofit Seattle news site called Grist. I’d been with Grist almost ten years, and as my job had transitioned into full-time writing, I’d lived through—indeed, built a career on—the rise of blogging, social media, and hyperspeed news cycles. By the end of 2012 I was, God help me, a kind of boutique brand, with a reasonably well-known blog, a few cable-TV appearances under my belt, and more than 36,000 Twitter followers.

I tweeted to them around 30 times a day, sometimes less but, believe it or not, gentle reader, sometimes much more. I belong to that exclusive Twitter club, not users who have been “verified” (curse their privileged names) but users who have hit the daily tweet limit, the social-media equivalent of getting cut off by the bartender. The few, the proud, the badly in need of help.

It wasn’t just my job, though. My hobbies, my entertainment, my social life, my idle time—they had all moved online. I sought out a screen the moment I woke up. 
I ate lunch at my desk. Around 6 p.m., I took a few hours for dinner, putting the kids to bed, and watching a little TV with the wife. Then, around 10 p.m., it was back to the Internet until 2 or 3 a.m. I was peering at one screen or another for something like 12 hours a day.

Does this sound familiar to you?

We now spend — North Americans anyway — seven hours a day staring at a screen of one sort of another: laptop, phone, Ipad, desktop or television.

We now live in an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, a world in which we’re all one click away from the next cool thing, awaiting the next text or sending one while (yes) driving or sitting at the dinner table or (yes, even) shooting a selfie at a funeral.

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist, has studied our use of technology for decades:

She is particularly concerned about the effect on children. “I am a single mum. I raised my daughter, and she was very listened to.” Today our phones are always on, and always on us. Parents are too busy texting to watch their kids, she cautions. There’s been a spike in playground accidents. “These kids are extremely lonely. We are giving everybody the impression that we aren’t really there for them. It’s toxic.” This is what she means by “alone together” – that our ability to be in the world is compromised by “all that other stuff” we want to do with technology.

BETTER BLOGGING

I have a horror of the fully-mediated life, one solely conducted through a glass screen, one in which full, physical attention from another human being is a rare commodity. (Now that I’m teaching college, I am acutely aware how rare it is for a room filled with young people to focus for two hours without sneaking a peek at their phone. I insist on it, but am also grateful for their attention.)

Because I now spend so much time on-line — like many others — I’m finding my ability to focus on one issue for long periods of time degraded, so I’m being more conscious about reading books, on paper, to rest my eyes and do one thing for an hour at a time.

I also make a point of meeting people face to face over a meal or a coffee, to read their facial expressions and be able to share a hug.

How about you?

Does the digital life satisfy you?

Where’s your community?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, immigration, life, love, travel, urban life, US on September 3, 2014 at 12:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

With the New York Times trivia team --- the year we won!

With the New York Times trivia team — the year we won!

So I’m a member of an on-line women/writers’ group, now my go-to site, a place I waste spend wayyyyyy too much time.

It’s a place where women across the U.S. and Canada, from the UAE to India, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, with varying views on sexual preference, ranging in age from 20s to 50s (very few of us!) rant, rave, laugh, weep, share, support and are forging some powerful emotional bonds.

There are women with multiple tattoos (I have none); women in graduate school and women teaching college; women working on some of the biggest television shows out there (!), those happily pregnant and those who never want to have children, and women frustratedly un or under-employed.

In American culture, at least, it’s rare to find a group of women who both raucously and respectfully disagree, let alone share stories and support that are not exclusively focused on one issue.

We talk about everything: work, men, women, family, drunken misadventures, marriage/divorce/dating, how to navigate new situations…Interestingly, we rarely talk about the mechanics of work. We have plenty of other places to do that.

Some of us finally met face to face last week. What a joy!

It was such a pleasure to just sit for hours and get to better know an eclectic, smart, funny, passionate group of women.

A view of my town, Tarrytown, NY

A view of my town, Tarrytown, NY

The one thing I’ve always craved, sought and struggled with is a sense of community.

Most people think of a geographic location when they use that word, but today, thanks to social media, we’re often much more connected — emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally — to people we have yet to meet IRL (in real life), yet who passionately share our convictions, values and/or interests.

As I’ve written here before, I live in a place — the wealthy suburbs north of New York City — where I typically fail to connect meaningfully with many people. Women my age are corporate warriors with high six-figure salaries and husbands to match or stay-at-home mothers in enormous mansions grooming perfect children.

I don’t have children and we are not wealthy.

Not my crowd, for sure!

I began attending a local church in 1998 that Jose and I still visit every few weeks or so. But it, too, is too safe, white, wealthy and non-political for my tastes.

I also have been working alone at home, with kids or pets, since 2006. That solitude and isolation can start to feel claustrophobic without the company of others.

So community matters deeply to me.

I also left behind my country, culture and friends when I moved to New York in 1989. As a professional writer, I belong to several groups, on and off-line, that revolve around our work. But they are often simply transactional — Who’s the editor? What do they pay? — not social.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I recently began teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and have already attended a four-hour orientation session, where I met a fellow instructor, a lively, friendly young woman. The school’s president invites us all to his home in mid-September for a reception, and I attended a celebration of their new MFA program, a two-hour affair (after four hours of class that day!)

It feels good to be welcomed, even as an adjunct, into a new, thriving and creative community.

Where, when and how do you find or build a sense of community?

 

The horror, the horror

In behavior, Crime, journalism, life, news, photography, war on August 31, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you know Joseph Conrad’s work,“Heart of Darkness”, published in 1902?

These are the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in the book, whom the narrator finds deep in the heart of Africa; the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando as U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz echoes the book in its themes, setting and use of names.

The book and the film are dark, despairing, exhausting — and powerfully unforgettable.

But these two words are resonating in my head much of the time now, thanks to what often seems a global parade of incompetence, greed, conflict, misery and despair.

These include:

— The shelling/retaliation between Israel and Gaza

— The epidemic of Ebola spreading through West Africaphoto(48)

— The shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown (only the latest)

– The beheading of fellow freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS

— The New York Times reports that beheadings are now “routine” in Syria

– The nightly newscasts with images of yet another out-of-control wildfire consuming thousands of acres of Western U.S. forests and many people’s homes and businesses

Yet another American multi-national moving into another country in order to save on corporate taxes

There are risks to those who cover these stories, beyond the need to wear Kevlar body armor in Iraq or head-to-toe coverings when working around Ebola. There is also PTSD and secondary trauma for journalists and their editors and compassion fatigue for viewers and listeners.

I am also well aware — and would love some new re-definition of “news” to make misery less compelling somehow — that the mass media are utterly complicit here. By the time you, readers and and viewers, see and hear our/their versions of the world, they have been massaged, edited and sometimes bitterly debated.

Or not.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, in Burnt Norton, in 1935: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

magnolia

The world is, obviously, filled with beauty and grace and joy, with people who get up every morning and give their best to those around them.

But, really, my dears, this wears me down.

Then what?

Tune out? Become more politically active? Stop caring? Care more? Write a letter to the editor? Blog it? Blog it again…and again…and again…?

Write a check to a charity?
Rant to others on social media?

Or just…not care?

How about you? How do you respond — if at all — to the world’s madness and brutality?

 

Meta post: my webinars, classes, blogging schedule — welcome new followers!

In behavior, blogging, books, journalism on August 25, 2014 at 11:41 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment this year in rural Nicaragua

Just a few housekeeping notes, for followers both longtime and new (thanks!)…

For the past five years, I’ve been posting faithfully three times a week, sometimes more.

Pooped! (Hint: please spend some time poking around the archives, where you’ll find plenty of material, often on books, writing, publishing and freelancing, often titled The Writer’s Week.)

For the nex few months I’ll likely be posting once every four or five days — not every two days — as I’m now teaching three college classes and will be spending a lot of my time preparing for them, teaching and grading students’ work.

So please don’t feel neglected and/or abandoned!

I also offer six webinars on various aspects of writing, blogging and freelancing, details here. They cost $125 for 90 minutes via Skype or phone and satisfied students have come from, literally, across the world — New Zealand to Germany.

I can schedule these any time that suits you, including days, evenings and weekends.

I also coach other writers individually, answering pretty much any question you’d like to throw at me about journalism, writing, publishing non-fiction commercially, memoir. Happy to read your pitches or work-in-progress, be a “first reader”…

I charge $150/hour (with a one-hour minimum), and will be raising that rate to $200/hour in January 2015.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

I’m teaching writing this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the New York School of Interior Design; I have also taught writing at Pace University, New York University, Concordia University and Marymount College. As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, for places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, I know what it takes to succeed in this highly-competitive business.

What can I do to help you? Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Cleaning house can be fun?

In antiques, beauty, behavior, domestic life, family, life on August 22, 2014 at 5:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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OK, I admit it….

I don’t carry the burdens/pleasures of: 1) a huge house; 2) children; 3) pets; 4) slobby, gross room-mates.

I do have: 1) a small apartment; 2) a very tidy husband; 3) a work-at-home job.

So cleaning our home is much simpler and easier for me than those of you with dogs and cats that shed fur and/or with multiple children dropping/breaking/smushing things into your walls, furniture and flooring.

When you’re home the majority of the time (instead of fleeing to a tidy, clean office or other place of work), you tend to notice every dust bunny and mirror smudge. All of which is great for procrastination! Ooooh, time to polish the silver…

But I actually enjoy housework and usually do 15-30 minutes of it every day so I don’t end up feeling overwhelmed on weekends. My husband (who enjoys it!) does all the laundry and I do (which I enjoy) all the ironing.

Because my husband loses two hours every day commuting to his job, I’m OK doing most of the housework.

And, after we invested some very hard-earned money into two recent renovations, (our only bathroom and our galley kitchen), I also feel a much deeper pride of ownership and enjoyment than when we had a nasty old chipped Formica counter and a yucky and unreliable wall oven from the 1960s.

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Why, you wonder, could I possibly enjoy housework?

— It’s our home. I like it to be clean, tidy, polished, welcoming. By nurturing our environment, I nurture myself and my husband

— If you own a few good things (and it’s great when you can afford to invest in one or two), take care of them! That means dusting, polishing, waxing

— It is a way to break up my day, get off the damn computer and get a bit of physical exercise

— It helps me take inventory of what is soon to break and needs repair or replacement

— I really notice what’s working well and what is not (i.e. use of closets and storage space) and move things around so they do

— I appreciate my objects and items more when they look their best and I know I am not damaging them through carelessness or neglect (yes, coasters!)

— It helps me see what a lovely home all our hard work and creativity have given us. Your home is not just a place to gobble some food in front of the computer or television, to crash and burn. It’s where we recharge mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally.

Here, from my favorite design blog, Apartment Therapy, some tips on how to clean your home better/more easily.

Do you enjoy it?

Or is it overwhelming and endless drudgery?

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