Posts Tagged ‘education’

The most important thing school can teach you is…

In behavior, children, culture, education, life, parenting on August 27, 2015 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner

Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...

You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?


The allure of learning something difficult

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, travel on August 10, 2015 at 12:16 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.

It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.

This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)

But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.

Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.

Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.

We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.

But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.

He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)

It’s a very male place.

But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!

We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.

The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)

I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.

I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.

I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.

I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.

The Luas -- which means

The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.

But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.

But it’s gorgeous to listen to.

What new skills are you learning these days?

What made you choose them?

The love of learning

In behavior, blogging, education, life, work on April 28, 2015 at 3:00 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I attended two schools of higher education, as different from one another — as the British say — as chalk and cheese.

I did four years of undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, Canada’s toughest university. Our professors were world-class scholars, some of them terrifying in their capes and bow ties, quoting in Latin or German or Greek.

We didn’t dare speak to them outside of class, and rarely during class. They had little idea who most of us were — lost in a sea of 53,000 students across a downtown campus so large it took me 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other.

I later attended the New York School of Interior Design, where I also now teach occasionally, and found a totally different experience: warm, welcoming, demanding but supportive. I love its bright red door on the north side of East 70th., ducking into Neil’s Diner down the street for a coffee before or after class.

Our classes were small, our teachers consistently insisting on our excellence. I loved it all. OK, except for drafting.

I decided not to switch careers, but don’t regret a minute of the thousands of dollars I spent there. I loved my classes and have developed a strong and solid alternate skill set.

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

I’m happiest as an experiential learner — which is why journalism is such a good fit for me. Here, on assignment in Nicaragua, for WaterAid

Learning can be fun, exhilarating, inspiring.

And exhausting.

So, too, can teaching.

Not because simply transferring skills and knowledge is pedagogically complex. People learn at different speeds, with different levels and styles of intelligence, aptitude or interest.

Did you see this extraordinary recent story about an American professor who failed his entire class?

After 20 years in the classroom, he lost it.

malled cover HIGH

Last Saturday I attended and spoke at a writers’ one-day conference in Bethesda, Maryland; I was on the day’s final panel about how to turn a print career into a book.

I’ve been writing for a living for decades — why bother listening to all the others?

What’s left to learn?

Lots. If you’re open to it.

I sat beside legendary biographer Kitty Kelley at lunch and heard delicious out-takes from her book about Frank Sinatra as we ate our sandwiches.

I heard a law professor describe her solution to the exact problem I’d just faced in my own classroom and asked her if she’d advise me more in future.

I heard one biographer describe how much — after years of work — she decided she loathed her subject, Harold Ickes — and gave all her materials to another writer. What generosity!


This week I’ll teach my two college classes, as usual, on Thursday.

Then, all day Friday and Saturday, I’ll sit in stuffy hotel meeting rooms for the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual conference in New York City, and learn as much as I possibly can — about new markets, about how to do social media better, about how to improve my thinking and writing.

I’ll meet old friends from across the country, and make some new ones.

Learning is something we do, ideally, until the day we die.

How about you?

Do you love learning (or teaching)?

Four blogs worth a visit — my Pratt Institute students!

In behavior, blogging, culture, education, life, love, women on November 30, 2014 at 2:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

"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

It’s been a great semester with the four senior students who signed up for my blogging class at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a small art school with a justifiably excellent reputation.

It’s been fairly challenging to teach and engage so small a group, but we’ve had fun and we’ve had some fantastic guest speakers, three who came out to Brooklyn in person and two via Skype.

My husband, Jose Lopez, a photo editor at The New York Times, explained how to use photos legally and well; Troy Griggs, a Times graphic designer, shared his thoughts about how to design a blog that will really engage readers and Rani Nagpal, who works with a major Manhattan real estate firm, taught us about SEO.

Anne Theriault, a Toronto feminist blogger whose work on the Belle Jar has been featured many times by Freshly Pressed, Skyped in, as did Sree Sreenivasan, who is the chief digital officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both were funny, lively and super-helpful. Much to my surprise, Anne told us she breaks several blogging “rules” — she doesn’t revise every post to death before posting, she posts only once a week and she rarely answers comments from readers.

Here are two of my students, Grace Myers (left) from Bowie, Maryland, and her bestie Ellen Trubey, from California.


Grace’s blog is Rough Guide to Life, a lovely, thoughtful guide to meditation, breathing exercises and ways to slooooow down and enjoy life; the photo of her in a tree on her blog is very Grace! She graduates soon, so I hope her blog will continue, and continue to attract and inspire readers.

Darnell Roberts, our only male student, and an illustration major, writes this blog about video games. A passionate gamer, his drawing work is charming — one of his super-heroines is called GravityGirl. It’s been a sea of estrogen with four chatty women in the class, but he’s held up well.

Ellen’s blog, He Is Out There Somewhere, details the ups and downs of dating in 2014 and beyond, especially the travails of using sites like Tinder and OKCupid. Ellen is also an illustration major, and uses many of her own drawings to illustrate her posts. Like her, the blog is chatty, down-to-earth and practical.

Tiffany Park’s blog, Morning Calm, follows Asian artists exhibiting in New York City; her blog has won her three internships so far and she’s even been re-blogged by major artists like Takashi Murakami.

I also privately teach blogging webinars, and offer individual coaching at $150/hour (one-hour minimum), so if you feel it’s time to up your own blogging game, please email me at I work by phone or Skype, at whatever time suits you best.

I’ve helped bloggers from New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, NY improve their writing, photo selection, graphic design and theme, whether for a blogs that’s personal or one that’s professional, designed to attract new clients; some testimonials here.

Please visit my students’ terrific blogs — and please comment!

So proud of them all…


Should a teacher publicly praise or shame their students?

In behavior, business, children, culture, education, parenting, Technology, US on November 18, 2014 at 1:02 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

In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!

“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!

I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.

I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.

One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.

Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?

I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.

So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:

ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.

I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.

One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.

Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.

Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.

“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.

I could, and did.

Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.

If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.

In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.

An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.

It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!

No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”

There’s no app for compassion.

There’s no app for sensitivity.

Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?

Would you use it? Are you using it?


10 reasons that teaching is tough (but enjoyable)

In behavior, education, work on October 26, 2014 at 12:09 am

By Caitlin Kelly


I’m now halfway through my first semester teaching at Pratt Institute, a small private college in Brooklyn focused on art, writing and design. My two classes, writing and blogging, one with 12 freshmen and the latter with four seniors. are going well and I’m loving the experience.

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

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

But it’s a marathon.

When I stepped back into those two classrooms, I hadn’t taught in 20 years. I’d read everything I could about millennials, and arrived fearful of finding a room filled with entitlement and attention spans lasting mere seconds — a challenge with a two-hour class.

Here’s a sobering and powerful insight into how tough it is to be a student!

For any thoughtful teacher, it’s a cringe-making look from the students’ seats, and gave me a lot to think about.

From the Washington Post:

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way.


Here are ten ways I find this work challenging:

Teaching demands self-confidence

It takes guts to stand before a room filled with dubious/tired/hungover/distracted/nervous students, hoping to forge useful intellectual and emotional connections with each of them and to foster a collegial atmosphere among them. As someone who was badly bullied in high school, I find it stressful to be looked at and listened to, so the very decision to teach means facing and conquering that fear each week.

You also have to really know your stuff! When a student challenges you, hard, are you ready and willing to discuss the question with the full confidence everyone else is watching you as you do so?

Teaching demands stamina

It takes sustained energy — physical, mental and emotional — to teach a 15-week semester with consistent enthusiasm. You might feel ill or have personal issues distracting you. I have a 90-minute driving commute just to reach campus, then climb four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom, lugging books, papers and computer. I bring a large thermos filled with tea, and was heartened to see that another professor I know has an equally stuffed tote bag, including her large thermos of tea!

Teaching demands self-control

This is a big one. When a student hits one of my buttons — if I feel they’re being disrespectful, for example — it’s a challenge to remain calm and even-tempered. They’re young. Some are very immature. It’s my job to set the tone and keep things cool.

"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

Teaching demands self-awareness

Every week, interactions with students force me to reflect on my own emotions and sensitivities. I try to separate my feelings from my work, but it’s not always simple or easy. You have to strike a balance between being too friendly or too stiff. While I want to be warm and approachable, I don’t want to be someone they feel they can take advantage of.

Teaching demands exquisite attention to time management

This is a big one. I do set lesson plans, but also know that when things are going really well, it’s best to stay in the moment and enjoy it! I recently did a “rapid round” — asking each of my 12 students to share something surprising about themselves — and we did it four or five times. It took longer than I’d planned, but it was so much fun and we were learning a great deal.

Balancing the need to communicate enough timely specific material, while allowing enough room for students’ ideas and questions, is a challenge every single week.

Teaching means not taking anything personally

Another big one, at least for me. I grew up as an only child and have been working alone at home for the past eight years. I’m hardly feral, but I’m not someone who grew up with the rough-and-tumble of a large, close family, or has a collegial workplace where I can reality-check my experiences. Having other friends who are teaching to turn to for advice is extremely helpful!

Adjuncting — which leaves us wholly vulnerable to student evaluations for our ongoing employment, little contact with my dean and none with my fellow teachers — is lonely! I’ve leaned hard on others teaching writing as well, a friend in Tucson and another in Minneapolis, to help set me straight.

Teaching demands emotional openness and sensitivity

I don’t have children or nephews or nieces. and grew up in a family with little to no bandwidth for my own struggles, so facing students’ fears and worries is new for me. I’m glad when they feel comfortable enough to share those with me, but not always sure how (best) to respond. Parsing fear/bravado/anxiety in them is not easy.


Having written two books means I have some idea what I'm talking about!

Having written two books means I have some idea what I’m talking about!

Teaching demands a deep, broad knowledge of your material — and engaging students in it

I’ve been writing for a living since I was a college undergrad, and can both recall my initial nervousness about my career and my excitement as I realized I could make a living as a writer. I enjoy sharing my insight with those hungry for it.

But knowing how to make my knowledge comprehensible and immediately useful?

Teaching means trying to fully engage a room full of strangers

By definition, we each bring different forms of intelligence and learning styles to class. It’s daunting, indeed, to discover that some of my students also struggle with dyslexia, anxiety, depression. Some are bored. Some are lagging. Some are happy to speak out, while others sit there silently, no matter how many times I insist that class participation is essential to their grade. I also think students need to own their education, not sit back passively.

I have to work harder to find ways to not just drone on and get them excited and involved.

Teaching means being able to pivot — whether mid-class, mid-term or mid-conversation

I handed out mid-semester evaluation forms recently to get a sense for what’s working, and what’s not. It helped a great deal and I made changes to one syllabus as a result. But flying solo means having to figure it all out on the fly.

Fellow teachers — and professors — what do you find most challenging?

How do you address or resolve those challenges?

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.


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?


We’re just another species

In animals, beauty, behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, nature, urban life on August 13, 2014 at 12:14 am

By Caitlin Kelly


This is an amazing backlit mural at our local Tarrytown commuter train station, by Holly Sears. I love it!

This amazing backlit mural is at our local Tarrytown commuter train station, by artist Holly Sears. It is filled with all sorts of creatures in unlikely juxtapositions

I assume many of you have already seen this amazing video of a seal climbing onto a surfboard in England?

If not, spare 2:04 minutes of your life for a lovely, charming reminder of something we often forget — we’re just another species.

I’m writing this on our top-floor balcony, listening to the wind in the trees and the buzzing of passing bumblebees. Birds twitter. One recent evening, at 2:40 a.m. we bolted awake to the howling of a pack of coyotes.


Tired of feeling trapped by sexist, misogynist assholes!


But we live 25 miles north of New York City, able to see the city’s skyscrapers from our street, not some Montana ranch!

Our planters are bursting with flowers and our woods are filled with deer, raccoon, squirrels, chipmunks.

I fear for our planet when so many children and teens are suffering from nature deficit disorder, because you can’t fight for legislation and other protective behaviors if “nature” remains something you’ve only seen or heard mediated through a glass screen.

You have to feel it, taste it, touch it, know it. We all need intimate, consistent, ongoing connections to the natural world, not just simulacra or a packaged bit of it in plastic at the grocery store.

I’m grateful for having spent my childhood and teen summers in the wild of northern Ontario at summer camp and on multi-day canoe trips. I love a loon call, the peel of a birch tree, the striations of granite.

We are still, as homo sapiens, only one of millions of other species in our world, some furry, some feathered, some scaled, some noisy and some mostly (to our ears anyway) silent.


A few years ago, a red-tailed hawk landed on our 6th floor balcony railing, which is only 12 feet wide. He stared at me silently, and I felt like prey. Having written about raptors, I know they can see for many miles. I wondered what he saw when he gazed into my eyes.

We don’t have any pets, so any encounter with a (non-threatening!) animal or bird is a real joy for me — especially horses and dogs; I’m the person who always stops to say hello and pat other people’s dogs (with permission.)

My young friend Molly recently fell off an elephant into the Mekong River.

I don’t envy the fall, or her ruined camera and lens, but elephants are my favorite animals of all. I rode on one myself in Thailand, sitting on his neck, and dreamed of a second career as a mahout.

Here’s a review of a spectacular new book, of photographs of the earth.

Do you (and your kids and/or grandkids) spend much time in natural surroundings?


Thank you!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, work on November 28, 2013 at 12:16 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s sometimes easy to forget that attention is a gift. We’re all busy, tired, distracted.

So when readers come to Broadside — for one post, or several — I know it’s a choice.

It’s been amazing and inspiring for me to “meet” people from around the world here, even just from reading your gravatars when you sign up to follow. Several of you have become good friends, from London to L.A.

Newest followers include a dancer/choreographer and playwright from Tel Aviv, a retired history teacher in Florida, a country singer from Nashville, and a suburban mum in Britain.

You are one seriously diverse audience!

I appreciate your comments, and especially so when you finally decide to join the conversation — I know many of you lurk, silently. Please weigh in!


London (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

It’s been a new privilege to start teaching and coaching, and the response has been terrific, with students coming from Australia, New Zealand, California, Virginia and other spots. Working with Skype is great, as we can see one another and exchange ideas and laughter. The other day, I waved to three small children in Adelaide as their mum and I were about to start a session. So fun!

Selfishly, coming back to teaching and coaching has also offered me a needed and welcome break from the usual routine of pitch/sell/write/revise. As a full-time writer, I’m an intellectual production line of one — the old brain gets tired!

It’s been great to leave my apartment, meet new clients face to face and begin to expand my teaching to other places. It looks like I might be teaching at NYSID, my former school of interior design in Manhattan. I really love teaching, and I’ve missed it. It’s fun to share my skills and help you meet your goals.

Writing well isn’t easy!

For some odd reason, people now think it is or should be or want it to be.

Great writing is really the end product of clear, focused thinking: about topic, tone, voice, diction, rhythm, intent, mood. It has many moving parts, and until they spin together without friction, you’re more likely to hear the nasty grinding of gears than the smooth humming you’d prefer.

So, dear readers, and those of you placing in your trust in my skills to teach and coach you, you’re very much appreciated.

Thank 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 (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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