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Posts Tagged ‘University of Toronto’

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.

20131114105242

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?

 

Back to school!

In blogging, culture, education, life, urban life, US on August 28, 2014 at 2:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

Guess what Robert Redford and I have in common?

The Brooklyn-based school where this week I start teaching freshman writing and a small mixed-year class on blogging, Pratt Institute.

The college, ranked in the top 20 in the Northeast U.S., occupies its own campus, a long rectangle in Clinton Hill, whose collection of handsome buildings made it, in 2011, named by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s most attractive campuses.

When I went there for my interview, I was running through thick snow. I’d never been on campus and wasn’t sure which building it was, so I asked a passing student.

“It’s the one with the goats in front.”

And it is…a row of goat statues stands in front of the building, itself, designed in 1955 by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White.

20131114105242

If I get the enrolment we hope for, I’ll also be teaching students at the New York School of Interior Design, in Manhattan on East 70th. Street. I’m excited and honored to return to the school, where I was a student myself in the 1990s, hoping to leave journalism for a new career; my marriage ended abruptly and I decided to stop my studies.

I did very well there, learned a lot I’ve used ever since in my own home and helping others design theirs. I loved the school and its small, rigorous classes and passionate instructors. I had only happy memories of my time there.

One of their foundation classes, Historical Styles, required memorizing every element of interior design from ancient Egypt to the year 1900. What did a 16th century Italian bedroom look like? What fabric would you find on an 18th century Swedish chair? Would an English floor in the 14th century be tile? Earth? Wood?

Nor would I ever again confuse Louis IV, V or VI again! (We called it Hysterical Styles. It was tough!)

I still remember the passion of my English professors from my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, especially our Chaucer prof, who has us all reading Middle English aloud. Practical? No. Amazing and fun and a great lesson in the power of language? Yes.

It’s been an interesting challenge to find and choose readings for my syllabi, and I’ve got everyone from David Finkel (on war) to Rose George (on the shipping industry.)

I enjoy teaching and know that a terrific teacher can forever inspire a student and alter their course, just as a rude, dismissive one can crush young idea(l)s very easily. It’s a challenge to balance cracking the whip for excellence with scaring the shit out of everyone; one friend, who teaches journalism in Arizona, has been called “tough” and “difficult” in her student evaluations.

Both of which are really code for “demanding.”

If you aren’t required to produce excellence in college, it won’t magically occur to you when you’re competing to keep and get a good job. College is about much more than graduating and “getting a job”, certainly, but understanding what it means to meet high standards — to me — is as much a part of the experience as any specific subject matter.

My English degree from U of T never won me a job. No one asked for my GPA nor about Chaucer nor my understanding of 16th. century drama or Romantic poetry. But the ferocity and passion of my profs in those four years made very clear to me, from my very first freshman class, what excellence looked like, and what it takes to achieve.

That has proven valuable.

My college experience wasn’t one of partying and drunken escapades. I was far too busy freelancing every spare minute, for national newspapers and magazines after my sophomore year, to earn the money to pay my bills, living alone in a small studio apartment. So I have only a small handful of college friends, never had a college room-mate and, when my alma mater calls me for donations — as it did recently — I decline.

College was helpful to me, but it was also often a lonely time with a lot of financial stress; U of T is huge (50,000+ students) and, then, paid little to no attention to undergraduates as individuals. So I don’t have the sort of gauzy nostalgia, or deep gratitude for a lucrative later career, that would prompt me to open my checkbook.

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

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

Are you headed back into the classroom?

If a student, what year and what are you studying?

If a teacher or professor, how about you?

 

Why bother with college?

In behavior, business, culture, education, life, US, work on November 8, 2013 at 3:17 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Academic

Academic (Photo credit: tim ellis)

Why stay in college?

Why go to night school?

Gonna be different this time…

— Life During Wartime, Talking Heads

It’s been an interesting exchange here this week. Said one commenter:

The questions to ask aren’t why are you applying for a job with me when you didn’t go to/finish college, ( under the assumption ( as you put it ) that they never had any desire ) but why didn’t you, and why do
you you believe you can do this job without the degree?

It’s all perception based. Your perception ( likely based on experience ) is that one without a degree can’t process high volume data or intake complex scenarios and send them back out in some semblance of order. But it’s a flawed one, just as the pay grade issue is. But it is what you’ve come to expect. Just as people without degrees have come to expect to take low paying jobs.

It’s the system as it stands.

So…let’s discuss.

If you — as many Broadside readers are — are a current college student, graduate or undergraduate, or someone teaching them — what’s up with that? Why did you  choose to attend college? Not this or that one.

Govt. Rizvia Islamia Degree College, Haroonabad

Govt. Rizvia Islamia Degree College, Haroonabad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any one at all.

I attended the University of Toronto, Canada’s most competitive and highest-ranked. I needed good grades to get in and I had to produce at a high level to keep my grades high enough to stay. It was not a place to dick around, skip class, show up hungover or say stupid things in front of smart, ambitious peers.

I liked that. I wanted to be honed and sharpened. It never occurred to me (lack of imagination?) not to attend a competitive and demanding university.

Maybe because no one in my family had a college degree.

Not my mother, who worked as a national magazine journalist and television talk-show host and film-maker. Not my father, an award-winning film-maker, nor my stepmother who made a very good living writing for television. Several — long loud laugh! — have vastly out-earned me, with my fancy schmancy B.A in English.

Do I regret my four years on campus? No.

Did they prepare me for a career in journalism? Not really.

I’ve written about young, smart people who leave college — the Thiel fellows. I’m fully aware that the U.S. has an atrociously low rate of graduation from college, with one-third of students dropping out without graduating.

I’ve hired a number of assistants over the years and their education matters, but not as much as their work ethic and ability to pick up and use complicated information quickly.

Here’s a 24-page policy paper by Anya Kamenetz, of the policy group Third Way, with her proposal for a $10,000/year college degree.

Clearly, there are many professions that will simply never credential anyone without a college degree, let alone specialized study: engineers, accountants, physicians, dentists, nurses, architects and lawyers among them.

English: Taken from a scan of a degree awarded...

English: Taken from a scan of a degree awarded by the college. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But all those young ‘uns finding themselves — at an annual cost of $15,00 to $50,000 a year for an American college degree? Would their time be better spent elsewhere?

Doing what?

For how long?

For some, a vocation — carpentry, HVAC, hairdressing, animal care — is the better choice, for a variety of reasons.

I don’t care what someone does to prepare for employment as long as they can clearly and persusasively explain their choice.

If you have hiring authority, and an applicant has no college education at all — and no desire to acquire one — would you interview them?

Would their decision affect how you view them as a potential employee?

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Want to start producing creatively? Lose the safety net

In art, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on November 6, 2013 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach (h/t Small Dog Syndrome)

English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Te...

English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Teri Noel Towe seems to demonstrate that the portrait is probably not of Bach http://www.npj.com/thefaceofbach/09w624.html. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How badly do you really want to be a writer/composer/dancer/artist?

How much are you willing to give up attain that goal?

Sometimes having the choice to not create — i.e. a regular, reliable, steady income — means endlessly postponing the frightening leap into the void, of actually producing work you try to bring to market, to finding an audience, discovering that people are eager for your work – or not.

I started writing for a living when I was at the end of my sophomore year in college, as a full-time undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My parents were off traveling the world, long before the Internet, cellphones or Skype made regular contact easy and affordable. Neither gave me a penny.

I was on my own, living in a small studio apartment in a not-great neighborhood, all I could afford on my monthly income of $350, money inherited from a grandmother.

That was all the money I had available. My rent was $160/month. Then there was food, phone, answering service, clothes…and oh, yeah, tuition and books; $4,200 a year isn’t much money to live on in a major city, even a few decades ago.

So I freelanced, a lot. I missed classes, (and my grades certainly showed it), to chase down paying assignments, both as a photographer and writer. I had a photograph published in Time at the age of 19.  I wrote for the country’s biggest magazines and, surprisingly perhaps, am still in touch with my very first editor who assigned me work when she was editor of Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

I had a weekly shopping column in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, in my junior year, paying me $125 a week, a fortune at the time.

But all this blazing ambition, fueled by real financial need, also carried costs, losses I will never be able to recoup.

I barely remember the people I attended college with as I spent much of my time in phone booths (remember those?) contacting editors to line up work or fight for (more) payment. I didn’t drink or party or pledge to a sorority or disappear on spring break to exotic locations. I was too busy working my ass off.

And so I went to the chair of the English department to suggest that, since I was already selling my writing to national publications, I receive class credit for it — given the choice between writing another paper on 16th century drama or paying my bills for another month or two, there was little choice for me.

The reaction was scathing and dismissive, one reason I’ve yet to darken the door of another university.

A highly effective way to make sure you’re actually producing — and not just talking about it all the time — is to actually rely on the income from your work.

I do realize this is impossible for many people — with children to support, and/or a partner; who, as Americans, simply cannot afford market-rate health insurance or have crushing amounts of student debt as well.

But if you never have to test the market, what will finally impel you?

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Here’s how to sell your writing (and stay sane in the process)

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, US, work on April 4, 2013 at 1:45 am

Here’s an interesting post, recently featured on Freshly Pressed, about the importance of luck to a writer’s success:

I don’t mean to sound defeatist or to say it’s all about chance. This isn’t sour grapes (I don’t have a bestseller because I never got lucky, etc.). No, talent and marketing and skill and savvy all help put the writer in a position where the odds are better. But it really does seem to me that, at least in some cases, luck is as much a factor as talent.

And in some cases, more.

No one seems to talk about it, though. Maybe because it’s something that can’t be taught–or sold–on a website.

I’ve been writing for a living — my sole income — since my second year of university. I was an undergrad studying English literature at the University of Toronto and all I wanted to do was become a journalist. I decided not to study journalism because I knew I needed a broader education and wanted that instead. (I’ve never formally studied journalism or writing.)

Victoria University at University of Toronto

Victoria University at University of Toronto (Photo credit: MKImagery (Toronto))

Here are some of the ways, since 1978, that I have found editors and agents to whom I’ve sold my work, and/or gotten staff writing jobs:

— While at college I worked at the weekly college newspaper. I wrote long, complex features so I would have clips (samples) to show to paying editors of what I could produce. Moral: What’s your goal? Start accumulating the skills you need and the visible proof you have them.

— I cold-called editors at every major magazine and asked for meetings. I got them. Moral: Be bold! No one is going to hand you your success.

– When I had the meeting, I went in with a multi-page list of story ideas and would not leave the office until I had sold one of them and had a firm, paid assignment. Moral: Be prepared. Be way over-prepared.

— After I had amassed a larger pile of clips, I began aiming higher, for more prestigious or better-paying markets. Moral: Never stop moving. What’s your next step and what will get you there?

— I talked myself into a meeting with the editor of a local weekly section of our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I got a column to write about shopping, for anything, that paid me, then, $125 a week, $600 a month. (My annual tuition was $660. No, that’s not missing a zero.) Moral: Try for a regular gig.

Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France,...

Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, 1900 (Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum)

— I won a journalism fellowship, at 25, for eight months in Europe, based in Paris, traveling on four 10-day reporting trips alone. It changed me, and my work, forever. Moral: Aim high. Start applying for rocket-boosting opportunities once you have the skills and resume to compete for them.

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait for news of the D-Day invasion. Toronto, Canada. It looked a little different by the time I worked there! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I got my job at the Globe and Mail six months after returning from the fellowship. Moral: strike while the iron is hot and you have a significant point of difference from your many competitors.

— I got my job there after hearing that the sports editor was soon to become the managing editor; i.e. he was the one to impress, now. I knew nothing about sports! He sent me to cover several huge, high-profile sports stories, knowing that. I rocked it. Moral: Follow your targets closely to know when an opportunity exists. Then impress the hell out of the person with the budget and authority to hire you.

— I got my job at the Montreal Gazette when a Globe colleague who once worked there tipped them off I might be looking for a new opportunity. Moral: Find and make allies.

— I fell in love with an American who was moving to (!) a small, remote town in New Hampshire for the next four years. Because I had been stringing for Time for a few years already, while working in full-time jobs, I asked my Time editor if he knew of any jobs there. I got a well-paid contract job there — which is insanely improbable — through one of his former New York magazine colleagues. Moral: If you don’t ask for help, you never know what might happen.

— I found every agent I’ve had through personal contacts. The first came to me through one of my NYU journalism students, who knew someone at William Morris who knew three new agents hungry for clients. Moral: Put the word out and take the chance.

— I started writing for The New York Times in 1990 after I called someone from my Paris fellowship (eight years earlier), living in New Orleans. I called an editor at the Times Book Review who began giving me 300-word reviews to produce on topics that were really difficult and often boring. I did them, gratefully. It gave me a Times byline. Moral: Start wherever you have to. But be strategic.

The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I won a National Magazine Award in Canada, for humor, for an essay about surviving my divorce. It’s a topic many would avoid writing about: painful, private, cliched. Instead, I turned it into something (darkly) funny. I tried to sell it to an American women’s magazine who quickly rejected it. I sold it to a Canadian women’s magazine, who submitted it for the award. Moral: Rejection is normal. Get over it! Move on. Find another market. Or ten.

— Once you find an editor who likes your work, hang on tight! Repeat business will save you a ton of wasted time and energy. Moral: Remember the 80/20 rule of business; 80 percent of your business likely comes from 20 percent of your clients.

– But, think like Caesar and keep on conquering. Never rest on your laurels, as editors can lose a job with scary speed and you can very quickly lose a nice little sinecure. Moral: ABC, Always Be Closing (i.e. making sales.)

– Last week I got an email from someone I have never met, a man who lives in Beirut, who is married to an NPR correspondent. He and I were both bloggers for True/Slant, in 2009. He asked me for a valuable editorial contact — while offering me one of his. Win-win! Moral: If you’re going to ask for help, offer something of value upfront in return. No one likes a taker.

– Remember that publishing remains a team sport. If you’re selling to print publications, think about the art or photos to go with your story. If you’re working on books, be polite and kind to everyone as no one is likely getting rich and most of them love this work as much as you do. Moral: If you plan to stay in this game, keep your nose clean.

Selling your writing is hard!

It’s tiring.

It can take a much longer time to “succeed” than you thought possible.

You may have to re-define what “success” looks like: Tons of money? Huge readership? A TV show or movie based on your work? Or…some appreciative readers and some people who will pay for your skills?

Sell, Sell, Sell

Sell, Sell, Sell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would you skip college for $40,000? How about $50,000?

In behavior, business, culture, education, life, Money, news, parenting, US, work on December 28, 2012 at 3:12 am
English: An image of natural gas drillers with...

English: An image of natural gas drillers with a drill near Kokomo Indiana, c. 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interesting piece in The New York Times about young men, especially, skipping college to head to the oil and gas boom in Montana:

Here in oil country, some teenagers are choosing the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education for jobs with salaries that can start at $50,000 a year.

It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”

One of the greatest beliefs in the United States is that everyone must go to college. This, despite the fact many students drop out, are graduating saddled with enormous debt and many can’t find paid work.

So, why not take $40,000 and sock away as much of it as possible? It could fund college later (or not), or travel, or a home you choose to own (or rent out for income.)

I have a lot of difficulty with this persistent insistence that college is the only viable place for people who have graduated high school to grow up, learn about the world, acquire skills, mix with people their age of very different backgrounds and work to high standards independently.

Is it?

For some, it’s joining the military. Or going overseas on a student visa, to work as a nanny or au pair or volunteer. Or staying home and working a variety of less-prestigious jobs until you actually know what truly interests you, and what you are good at and who is hiring and what they pay, entry-level or beyond. Then, if you choose higher education, you know exactly what you’re getting into!

For all its benefits and pleasures, college very rarely teaches the skills you really need in the “real world”, whether running your own business, freelancing or working most effectively within a team or office. (Invoicing 101? Sucking Up 302? Backstabbing 205?)

I wrote a piece for The New York Times recently about a group of smart young people under 20 who are being paid $50,000 a year for two years to skip school. (It was the paper’s third most emailed story that day.)

Here’s a thoughtful blog post on this issue by a professor of political science at Georgetown, a respected American 223-year-old university:

A student at any college will often sense a conflict between prestige and truth, the prestige of the teacher, the school, or the culture. He will soon learn that everything contains some truth worth knowing about, and that the best way to deal with error is to see the truth in which it is embedded.

Or, again to change the metaphor, college life is a minefield, studded with all different kinds of devices, waiting to be crossed. Wise young people will read independently in reliable books, to locate and identify hidden explosives rather than step on them. But the venturesome student will in fact want to know what such mines really are, and how they came to be constructed and buried. They will follow the example of Aquinas, who insisted that the accurate understanding of error is quite a necessary and legitimate side of our learning and living. Thus, we want to know how they function, how the mines are hidden. Yes, we want to know how to avoid stepping on them and indeed how to eliminate them, the first step of which effort is to know what they are and why they were made.

I graduated from the University of Toronto, Canada’s top school, then as now. People I studied with now run think tanks and museums and private schools and have accomplished some great things. I liked having tough professors and smart people around me.

As an English major, my courses were very narrowly restricted, even as an undergrad, to 75 percent English literature. The only other things I studied were political science and philosophy (freshman year), French (three years) and Spanish (four years). I knew I wanted to become a foreign correspondent, so I needed to be able to work in other languages, write well and quickly and have the intellectual confidence to make my arguments persuasively.

Those are the skills I’ve used ever since. My ability to read Chaucer in Middle English or parse Volpone or Victorian poetry? Nope. Never.

If you’re in college, or heading there, why? What do you expect to get out of it?

If you’ve long since graduated, do you regret your choice of school or major?

Giving thanks for…

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, Health, immigration, journalism, life, love, world on November 22, 2012 at 12:48 am
English: 1 North Grove Street, Tarrytown, NY, ...

English: 1 North Grove Street, Tarrytown, NY, USA, a contributing property to the North Grove Street Historic District (Photo credit: Wikipedia). This is one of my favorite places in Tarrytown!

Today is American Thanksgiving, a day for eating too much, family squabbles and friends’ doors lovingly opened to “orphans” and “strays”, those of us whose families are too far away or dead or don’t like us very much.t

It’s my favorite American holiday, and it took me a few years living here to figure out why. It’s the one day no one argues over, the one day that everyone — Muslim, Jew, Christian, atheist, Hindu — celebrates with relief that we all made it, relatively unscathed, through another crazy year.

I love how it begins the holiday season, at least for those of us who celebrate Christmas; Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October, which always felt a little early to me.

Every year, newspaper and magazine editors offer a gazillion ways to prepare side dishes. Brine the turkey or roast it? Host, guest or skip the whole shebang? The decisions are all comfortingly familiar.

Jose and I are heading next door to a lovely hotel, in a castle, for our 4:00 meal. No shopping, cooking or cleaning!

Here are some things I’m thankful for this year:

You! Broadside is growing every day, with an array of readers that astonishes me, men and women of all ages and ethnicities, from Australia (hi Charlene and Nigel!) to Vancouver, my birthplace (hi, Rian!) to India, Indonesia, Spain (hola, JPP!) and dozens of other places. I know your time and attention is a rare resource and I’m honored.

My husband, Jose. We’re heading into our 13th. year together. We met online, when I was researching a magazine story about on-line dating and he saw my ad and profile, with the headline “Catch Me If You Can.” We’re very different people in many ways, but we laugh our bums off and work like dogs and I’m lucky to have gotten a good husband on my second try.

The view from our top-floor apartment. We overlook the Hudson River, facing northwest, with a clear blue sky full of jet contrails and military helicopters thudding home to West Point and soaring red-tailed hawks. We see snow and rainstorms sliding across the water and, if we’re up early enough, glittering pink and gold jewels on the opposite riverbank as the rising sun reflects in the windows there. Huge barges glide past every day. On July 4, we can watch six towns’ fireworks at once.

Our town. Tarrytown, NY, named one of the nation’s ten prettiest recently by a major magazine. I love the 127-year-old Tarrytown Music Hall, its oft-filmed Main Street and Goldberg Hardware, still owned and run by the grand-son of its founder. I’ve lived here since 1989, and now run into friends and neighbors everywhere, from my former physical therapist at the grocery store to my dentist at the gourmet shop to my dance teacher at the cafe.

– My work. Journalism has been my world since I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto, so eager to get started, in my first year there, that I showed up at the weekly campus newspaper before classes even began. Through my work, I’ve had the most extraordinary adventures: I spent eight days in a truck with a French-speaking driver going from Perpignan to Istanbul, met Queen Elizabeth, climbed the rigging of a Tall Ship 100 feet to work on a footrope, visited an Arctic village and a remote Quebec commune, and have interviewed everyone from a female admiral to convicted felons, Olympic athletes and the female cop who kept New York’s mayor alive on 9/11. I have been privileged with others’ trust in order to share powerful, compelling stories.

– Supportive editors and agents. I may finally have found my next agent, and this week will finish up my fourth major feature for The New York Times Sunday business section. I need talented people who believe in my skill, willing to tether their own reputation and limited attention to me, to keep moving forward in this competitive and rapidly-changing industry.

– Good health. My mother, at 76, lives in a distant nursing home in extremely poor health. My father just arrived in Hong Kong, after a 16 hour flight, at 83, ready for his latest adventure. I’m fortunate to live in a safe, clean place with easy access to lovely spots in which to walk, hike, bike, golf, kayak, sail, canoe. I have strength and flexibility and my full faculties. I take none of this for granted.

– A new left hip. On Feb. 6, 2012, I had a new artificial hip implanted, a procedure that still awes and amazes me, and which gave me back my life and mobility after 2.5 years of extreme pain. Thanks to Jose’s job we have excellent health insurance and I found a young surgeon I like and trust.

– Friends. Funny, smart, wise, their love and intelligence sustain me.

What are you thankful for this day?

College? Who needs college?

In behavior, education, life on September 16, 2012 at 3:01 am
English: Cropped image of Soldiers' Tower of H...

English: Cropped image of Soldiers’ Tower of Hart House (University of Toronto). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s becoming a serious question, at least here in the United States where student debt is totally out of control, with graduates carrying $30,000 or $60,000 or even $100,000 in debt they’ll be re-paying (or not) for decades.

And that’s not even the bill for medical, law, dental, vet or MBA degrees, or computer science or engineering, each of which can probably net you $100,000 a year or much more, which is at least a decent ROI.

But digging into $85K worth of debt, as this young woman has for an English degree?

Nope.

I was very lucky. My entire year’s tuition — no, that’s not missing a zero — was $660 in 1975. Today it’s not much more than $5,000 for most undergrad classes at my alma mater, University of Toronto, consistently ranked as one of Canada’s top three. I studied English and read Chaucer aloud in Middle English, learned about 16th century drama and 19th century poetry. Did it help me be(c0me) a better journalist?

Not really.

But — perhaps most essentially — I had to work really hard, independently and consistently, for four years on new-to-me and challenging material. None of my profs knew or would have cared that I’d been attacked in my crummy little apartment or that umpteen boyfriends had dumped me or that my growing freelance career was making attending class almost impossible some weeks.

I had to figure all of this out for myself, plus living alone.

All of which, while sometimes horribly stressful, was excellent training for journalism, and for life.

So why go to college?

Can you learn what you need elsewhere — through an apprenticeship, internships, community college or vocational training?

Here’s my latest New York Times business story, about a select group of very bright, insanely ambitious men and women — all younger than 20 when they started — who’ve skipped school, given $50,000 a year to work on their own projects instead, thanks to the Thiel fellowship.

I interviewed seven fellows, (three female, two from Canada, one of them a U of T dropout!), three parents, two administrators and two observers. The gorgeous photos were taken by Peter DaSilva, who is based in San Francisco, and who also shot the images for my Times Google story. The photo editor on this piece was my husband.

Unlike Americans, who often choose to attend college far from home, most Canadians attend their local university. U of T is Canada’s Harvard, tough to get into and tough to get through. It’s also enormous — 50,000+ students — so it’s not a great fit for someone who needs or wants a lot of hand-holding. Its downtown campus, is right in the heart of Toronto, blocks from the provincial Parliament buildings and gleaming office towers.

In some ways, U of T was perfect for me. My fellow students were really smart and, being a competitive person, I liked that. The professors were passionate world-class scholars who took their work seriously. I loved the downtown campus, so gorgeous it’s been featured in many films and commercials.

I started my journalism career there, writing as often as possible for the weekly Varsity. By the end of sophomore year I had enough clips from there to start writing professionally, my dream, for national magazines and newspapers.

My first serious boyfriend was — natch! — the paper’s editor. University gave me everything I so craved in high school: lots of cute boys who liked me, tremendous intellectual stimulation and growth, terrific athletic facilities, new friends.

But in other ways, it was a really rough ride.

My parents were both far away and out of touch, traveling the world, so navigating it all meant living alone in small apartments on very little money while freelancing and attending class. I got a D in French. When I cried with frustration and bewilderment, the prof merely sniffed; “It’s clear you arrived here very poorly prepared.”

A life-changing experience was participating in the Tarheel Exchange, which carried a busload of U of T’ers south to UNC Chapel Hill, in North Carolina in November and returned the Tarheels north to us for a week in January.

In Chapel Hill, we encountered many novelties: attending church service at a black Baptist church and a pig-picking (barbecue) and we heard an administrator struggle to retain his composure discussing race relations. The Tarheels, on their visit, had never seen snow!

I fell hard for a tall handsome redhead named Seth.  I went back the next year as an organizer of the group and met Rip and Beau, men whose monosyllabic names stretched to three syllables with their charming southern drawl.

Canada offered nothing so exotic!

College, for me as it is/was for many of us, was a place to grow up quickly, to learn to meet high standards, to deal with demanding strangers, to make new friends, to think deeply and write thoughtfully.  Ironically, I was the first in my family to graduate university — my Dad, a film-maker, had dropped out of UBC, my step-mom never attended and neither did my mother. Everyone did just fine without a degree.

Did you enjoy — or are you now enjoying — college?

Do you feel the investment of time and money is worth it?

Today’s journalism — plagiarism, scandal and other forms of editorial mayhem

In aging, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Technology, work on August 1, 2012 at 12:44 am
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently spent a few hours with a rising senior at a top American university who thinks he might want to become a journalist. I agreed, because he’s been interning for a good friend of mine.

He will graduate with $68,000 in debt.

But what, really, can I tell him?

I wonder if my field is still worth entering or committing to: financially terribly insecure, often poorly paid and sadly formulaic in its thinking.

The web’s ruthless drive to get news first destroys, at worst, the larger goal of being accurate. Of telling us why a story matters, not simply that it exists.

And, please God, not just telling us what another sad sack “celebrity” wore to buy a latte.

Here’s a heartening little tale, that of 31-year-old Jonah Lehrer, whose enviable trajectory of best-selling books and, (most coveted of all), a staff job at the New Yorker, recently ended with his admission of making shit up.

Dude, seriously?

If there is anything more annoying than the latest tyro being glorified, it’s finding out, (which keeps happening), they’re a lying plagiarist. Typical of these sorts of debacles is the statement from New Yorker editor David Remnick that this discovery is “terrifically sad.”

No, it’s not. When I Facebooked my feelings about this, several of my veteran journalism colleagues chimed in, agreeing with my disgust.

What it is is someone who’s gotten the sort of opportunities most of will never even get near treating them carelessly. Sort of like the Yale grad who was fired this summer from her reporting job at The Wall Street Journal.

It’s like being given the keys to a shiny new Escalade and dinging the doors because…you can.

For those of you living outside the U.S., perhaps less familiar with the narrow and slippery rungs of privilege here — getting into an Ivy League school, (Lehrer attended one as well, Columbia), is extremely difficult. Every year there costs about $40,000+. Then gilded doors swing open to you, at places like the New Yorker, many of whose staffers also attended prep schools and Ivies.

An article in the June Vanity Fair was a name-drop-fest of elite privilege and Ivy log-rolling:

Ben Bradlee, the managing editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991…hired me fresh out of college as a night police reporter the year he took the paper’s helm—we had been members of the same undergraduate club at Harvard…Harvard has been a big feeder of The New Yorker over the years, particularly the Lampoon, where I was the jester, dancing on the table in a multicolored jingling outfit at Thursday-night black-tie dinners, from 1965 to 1968.

Charm and connections offer these folks rare and much-coveted opportunities to publish in the most respected and influential of outlets, while, almost daily, dozens more journalists are being fired, their odds of getting back in at their previous level of skill or wages, slim to none; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008.

Many of us, and many over 45, are now working at home for a fraction of our former incomes.

Freelance pay rates today are often as low as they were 30 years ago, (while the cost of living has risen tremendously), typically paying $1/word.

If you’re writing 3,500 to 5,000 words, you’re cool. But very few publications still assign at that length; more typically 500 to 1,200 words. You do the math on the volume we now need to pump out to simply get the bills paid. Pre-recession, the big mags were paying $3/word; now you’re lucky to get $2/word.

Yet the way journalists think and behave editorially hasn’t changed much, or enough.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece by their media columnist David Carr, writing on the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals:

Now would seem to be journalism’s big moment to turn that light on itself, with deeply reported investigative articles about how things went so wrong: the failures of leadership, the skewed values and the willingness of an industry to treat the public with such contempt. The Guardian correctly suggested that the arrests were unprecedented in the history of newspapers.

But because it is the news business and the company in the sights is News Corporation, the offenders are seen as outliers. The hacking scandal has mostly been treated as a malady confined to an island, rather than a signature event in a rugged stretch for journalism worldwide. Collectively, the press in the United States put more time and effort into pulling back the blankets on the indiscretions of Herman Cain.

But journalism’s ills don’t live exclusively on Fleet Street or stop at British shores. While American newspapers don’t publish in the hypercompetitive landscape that played a role in the tabloid excesses in Britain, the growing ecosystem of Web and cable news shares many of the same characteristics and, all too often, its failings. Economic pressures have increased the urgency to make news and drive traffic, even as budgets have been cut and experienced news professionals tossed overboard.

Here’s an excerpt from a new autobiography by a top American editor, describing how print fell prey to digital media.

Do you write for a living — or hope to?

What do you think of media these days?

Is a college degree worth it? Define “worth”

In business, education, news, parenting, work on May 17, 2012 at 12:40 am
Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toron...

Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest issues in American public discourse right now is the ballooning cost of attending university — or “college” as it’s generally referred to here. The price is rising more than 5 percent annually and students are graduating with enormous debt into a marketplace with very few jobs open to an eager 22-year-old with, usually, almost no work experience.

The New York Times addressed this in a recent front-page story:

“I’ll be paying this forever,” said Chelsea Grove, 24, who dropped out of Bowling Green State University and owes $70,000 in student loans. She is working three jobs to pay her $510 monthly obligation and has no intention of going back.

“For me to finish it would mean borrowing more money,” she said. “It makes me puke to think about borrowing more money.”

‘Nothing Is Free’

Christina Hagan is an Ohio lawmaker who says students need to understand that attending college is not an entitlement. Last year, she was appointed to fill a seat once occupied by her father in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Ms. Hagan, 23, is also a college student.

She will graduate shortly from Malone University, an evangelical college in Canton, Ohio, with more than $65,000 in student debt (among her loans is one from a farm lender; she had to plant a garden to become eligible). Though she makes $60,000 a year as a state representative, she plans to begin waiting tables in the next few weeks at Don Pancho’s, a Mexican restaurant in Alliance, Ohio, to help pay down her student loans and credit cards. She pays about $1,000 a month.

“I placed a priority on a Christian education and I didn’t think about the debt,” said Ms. Hagan, who says she takes responsibility for her debt and others should do the same. “I need my generation to understand that nothing is free.”

For those of you who live beyond the U.S., this must seem an odd situation. In some nations, higher education is free or much more heavily subsidized by the government. Or only the intellectually elite get to attend university at all while others — wisely — move into study for work they’d enjoy and for jobs that actually need filling.

In the mid-1970s I paid — yes, seriously — $660 a year for my education at the best school in Canada, then and now, at Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto. I had a tiny stipend from my family ($250 to 350 a month) and paid the rest of my bills by freelancing as a writer and photographer, beginning the summer of my sophomore year.It’s now about $5,000 a year to attend the equal of a Harvard in Canadian terms; Harvard and its ilk are about $50,000 a year.

That’s a brand-new luxury car every year for four years.

To afford my life and schooling, I lived alone in a very small apartment in a bad neighborhood, then moved to a small apartment in a better one. (My parents had wandered off to live on a boat in Europe for a few years.)

By the time I graduated, I had no debt and many national magazine and newspaper editors who had already been working with me. I didn’t even look for a staff job until I was 26.

So what was the value of my college degree?

Hard to say. I loved the beauty of our campus, the many clubs and sports and activities, the diversity and intelligence of my classmates and the brilliance of my professors, who were scary as hell and expected a great deal from us. I did get some very good grades in my first year and was told that writing should be my career by one professor, whose praise meant a great deal to me.

I started writing for the weekly college newspaper before I even attended my very first class. Yes, I was that driven. I knew I wanted to become a journalist — let’s get started! I didn’t ever attend a journalism school but preferred a super-demanding English lit. program that taught me to think critically, write long, argue hard for my ideas and work independently.

All of which are exactly the skills I needed and still use today, 30+ years after graduation.

No employer has ever asked my opinion of Chaucer or 16th. century theater or Victorian poetry, that’s for sure. But the underlying skills and strengths that got me in and through are what mattered.

So that’s part of the challenge. You can get high marks and love your professors but come out clueless and awaiting direction rather than being a resourceful self-starter. The people who thrive in times of economic chaos.

Like now!

I don’t envy any student trying to choose a form of higher education they hope will lead to paid employment, sooner rather than later. Some Americans have chosen to study in Scotland at St. Andrews or in my native Canada, where they get a great education at a much lower price than even some state schools in the U.S. — plus the invaluable experience of living and working in another country and its culture.

If I were the parent of an independent teen heading for college, I’d ship them off to Canada or Europe in a heartbeat; they’ll be working and competing in a global economy anyway, so they might as well start to really understand how the rest of the world thinks and behaves!

Do you think college is worth it anymore?

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