The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

What exactly is college good for, again?

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruni writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways
Colleges look so serious and authoritative…don’t they?

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

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

 

Three Manhattan streets, three different worlds

By Caitlin Kelly

Manhattan, an island 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles at its widest, contains — as American poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1855 in another context — multitudes.

English: Grand Central terminal in New York, N...
English: Grand Central terminal in New York, NY Français : Vue extérieure nocturne de la gare Grand Central Terminal sur l’ile de Manhattan, à New-York (États Unis d’Amérique). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I visited three of them this week.

Midtown/49th Street:

Anchored by several iconic buildings — the New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building — this is a neighborhood devoted to sober-suited commerce. GCT, opened Feb. 2 1913, is the commuters’ cathedral, thronged daily by thousands of workers streaming in on Metr0-North Railroad from the northern and eastern suburbs of Westchester, (including my husband, Jose), and Connecticut.

The station — which every tourist must see! — is a magnificent bit of Beaux Arts design, with enormous gleaming metal chandeliers, marble stairs and the famous central information booth topped with a clock.

Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan)
Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan) (Photo credit: Nouhailler)

The ceiling is a stunning peacock turquoise, studded with tiny lights and painted with gold constellations.

English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Term...
English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Terminal in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This time of year, it also contains an indoor holiday market, whose vendors are carefully vetted and chosen. I look forward to it every year, and have gotten (and received) terrific, budget-friendly gifts from them.

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudete...
New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudeteil, vom östlichen Teil der 42. Straße aus gesehen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walk up Madison Avenue and it still feels like the 1940s, as you pass every possible iteration of elegant male garb: Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, J. Press, Mens Wearhouse, Pink shirts, Alden shoes.

I love Brooks Brothers, and have been shopping there since my early 20s when I’d fly in from Toronto and stock up on their cotton shirts. It has  the prettiest ladies’ room I’ve ever seen. Paul Stuart clothing is mostly for the wealthy/creative crowd — network television producers or the heads of ad agencies, but it is spectacular, with shoes like these men’s bitter chocolate suede loafers ($625) or these wool socks, in 10 terrific colors, for $44.50.

A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers
A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those few blocks have changed dramatically, not in outward appearance, but in their inhabitants — I once worked for the magazine in what was then the Newsweek building, a venerable magazine now dead. The headquarters of Conde Nast publishing were at 350 Madison when I first met editors there; now in their own building at 4 Times Square, they will move downtown to the newly-finished Freedom Tower, (built to replace the Twin Towers destroyed on 9/11.)

This is a part of town where the powerful meet one another in their private clubs, these few blocks a tightly-knit world of wealth, power and restricted access.  Those open only to graduates of Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell all lie within steps of each other.  The Harvard club spans an entire city block, north to south. Step inside its doors (if you dare!) and you’ll viscerally understand the meaning of entitlement.

But walk along West 44th. Street to marvel at the windows of the New York Yacht Club, which resemble the rear windows of a galleon.

Two landmarks face one another at 49th and Fifth Avenue — St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks’ shoe department even has its own zip code, and offers a dizzying array of high-priced footwear. One pair of gem-encrusted, six-inch stilettos by Louboutin were offered at $3,200. The people-watching is great, from Russian oligarchs picking up multiple bags-full to the bare-legged beauty in her leopard coat and Gucci heels.

Uptown/70th. Street

The Upper East Side is a sphere of unapologetic wealth, law firm partners who use “summer” as a verb, (on Nantucket, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or Rhode Island,) of gleaming black Escalades ferrying hedge funders south to Wall Street and their quiet blond children to private school and their size 2 mothers to yoga or a hair appointment.

The streets are quiet, clean, manicured, filled with elegant townhouses, including that of soon to be ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, at 17 E. 79th.

My former school, The New York School of Interior Design, is on 70th. street, and Neil’s Coffee Shop, 50 years old, sits at the corner of 70th and Lex, a great place for a burger or a cup of coffee in a classic china cup.

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I loved NYSID. Classes were small, mostly female and the rigor of studying interior design seriously was sobering indeed. We had to memorize every floor, wall and furniture style from ancient Egypt to 1900 for a class called Historical Styles. (We, of course, nicknamed it Hysterical Styles, as we struggled to remember the difference between a cassone and a bergere.)

I whiled away a sunny afternoon among the one-per-centers — the woman calling Fed Ex to price the cost of overnight shipping her workout gear from San Francisco, the bright blond in a black mink shawl with a too-tightly-stretched face, the father and son carrying lacrosse sticks into their $114,000 Mercedes SUV, the weary sigh of a woman waiting a second too long for the valet to bring around her car.

I stopped into Creel & Gow, which sells quite extraordinary objects — like this diorama of a walrus.

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Love this description of the UES, from the blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

One of the things I like about the Upper East Side is that it remains so much itself. It’s not trying to be another neighborhood and it’s not trying to be cool. It’s filled with all kinds of tacky, expensive shops, and none of them are ironic. The rich people there, walking around in full-length furs, look like New Yorkers, and not like Europeans or Midwesterners trying to look like Europeans in New York.

There are also lots and lots of ancient white ladies toddling around, complaining about life, with their hands heavy with diamonds and their eyelids painted pink. They have great faces, and you can watch them go by from the window at Neil’s.

Essex Street

This is where it all began, where wave after wave of European immigrants landed in the narrow streets and crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.

Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC
Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the LES is hipsterville, dotted with places like Babycakes, which sells vegan, gluten-free cupcakes, cookies and madeleines (made beneath the original pressed-tin ceiling) or candle-lit restaurant Dudley’s, where I perched at a curved marble-topped bar and enjoyed a tart cocktail made by a handsome red-haired bar-tender from small-town Ohio. There is even a small hotel here, The Blue Moon.

But come here for one of the city’s most moving recreations of urban life, the Tenement Museum, which powerfully explains the daily experience of the immigrants who lived here at the turn of the 19th. century.

Now that the temperature here has plummeted, the connective tissue between these disparate worlds — the status-agnostic subways and buses — is filling up with the homeless, of which New York has a shocking 50,000. They sit with their cardboard signs, pleading silently or asking out loud, apologizing or not.

In the eight years that billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg — who often weekended in the Caribbean — was in power, the number of homeless New Yorkers rose by 65 percent; 21,000 children slept in shelters in January 2013, a new and sorry record.

It has become, increasingly, a city divided.

Making A Beautiful Home

The famous flea market at the Kitano-tenmangu
Treasures lie within every flea market -- for the digging! Image via Wikipedia

I admit it. It’s my obsession.

My home, a one-bedroom apartment in a nondescript 1960s red-brick building in a northern New York City suburb, is the beneficiary of most of my time, energy and creativity. It’s always been like that, wherever I live.

I love to putter, paint, make things, design and build bookshelves and windowboxes, find antique frames to hold my drawings and photos.

For me, home is truly where the heart is. When it’s calm, clean and pretty, my world is complete.

I planned to leave journalism in the mid-1990s and become an interior designer, and studied at The New York School of Interior Design. I loved it and did well. Then my marriage suddenly blew up, so starting a whole new career was no longer practical.

Here are some of my inspirations and ideas:

Always include a few lovely old things. Unless you’re dedicated Modernist, it’s soothing and grounding to include some older pieces in the mix, whether textiles, glass, china or furniture, whose weathered surfaces and patina, curves and inlay and engraving add lovely details and shapes. I bought four rush-seated painted ladder-back chairs, two black, two light green — now about 150 years old — at a country auction in Nova Scotia in 1985 and shipped them home to Toronto by train. I still love them. You can find many great things at thrift and consignment shops for pennies. Once you learn the difference between blown and molded glass, silver plate and sterling, reproduction and the real thing, you’ll score some seriously affordable loot.

Re-purpose! Antique textiles can be re-used as pillow covers, bed and table linens, a folding screen. I use battered old wooden tool-boxes to hold my bedside needs, the TV remote and use a square wooden seaman’s chest to hold all the ugly cables, plugs and extension cords that keep our house functioning. A lovely hand-blown or cut crystal decanter can hold dish soap, juice, vinaigrette.

Invest in polish, rags, tools, Goo-gone, steel wool, paint. Many of the nicest things in my home sure didn’t arrive pristine, but needed sanding, painting or cleaning. (Goo-gone, a liquid available at hardware stores, will get rid of the leftover adhesive from an old sale sticker, for example.) I recently spray-painted some basic red clay pots a gorgeous glossy navy blue to match my ceramic pots of the same color.

Develop some reliable, affordable sources. I have a fantastic fabric store that does all my pillows and curtains, in Rhode Island, for much less than I’d pay locally, and she does great work. (I discovered her on a vacation there.) Quinny, my auto-body guy, sand-blasts and cleans all my old metal (paint-encrusted radiator covers, a Moroccan lantern.)

Read books for inspiration. I have a terrific collection of auction catalogs, and hardcover books on design, antiques, art and decorative arts, from Asia, Mexico and Europe. I dip into them occasionally for sheer visual pleasure — and fresh ideas. I love The Well-Worn Interior, with some exquisite photos of homes in Ireland, France, England and even New York City.

Watch the pro’s and talented amateurs. One of my favorite websites is Apartment Therapy, which every day features the home of a real person with amazing style. Not rich people, just those with a great eye willing to share. Its founder and creator, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, also wrote this terrific and helpful book. Here are 10 fab tips for fixing up your kitchen from the recent AT contest.

Go abroad, even just visually. Even if your budget hasn’t room for a trip to Bangkok or Paris, there are so many great websites and books and magazines full of ideas. My favorite design magazine is The World of Interiors, a British publication, followed by the various editions of Cote Sud, which focus on on regions of France. The French and English are masters of elegant but laid-back beauty, full of ideas you won’t find in an American magazine. I also like Canadian House & Home. I love this British website for amazing textiles and wallpaper.

Small items can have a huge impact. A perfect, tiny frame; some fresh flowers in a vase; a fragment of lace on a pillow cover; a silver or glass or brass candlestick. Splurge on super chic or costly designer fabric for one or two small throw pillows. Give your eye somewhere lovely to land. Check out antiques fairs, art supply stores, flea markets, garden supply centers, Etsy. I recently scored a perfect, round, gold metal Victorian picture frame about 5 inches in diameter for $20 at an outdoor antiques show. A creamy white frame, on sale from Pottery Barn, now holds a sepia photo of my great grandfather, with sepia cursive writing wrapping paper as the mat on which it lies.

Perfection is boring! My hand-woven white summer rug, (found in a Quebec antique store), needs some repair. It’s old and that’s OK. While you want your home clean, sweet-smelling and tidy, matchy-matchy perfection is a surefire style killer. Think quirky, charming, curvy. If everything in your room is a pale neutral, add a pop of scarlet or yellow or black. Especially black. If every shape in a space is a square or rectangle, consciously add a few softening pieces — a mirror, a demilune table, a throw rug — that are circular, oval or curved.

Use your scissors, camera, printer. Photos can look strikingly different — better! — in black and white or sepia. Look for old magazines, ads, postcards, signage. Anything can work as art if you use it, frame it, and hang or display it well.

Color! A hit of terrific color (scarlet, lime green, turquoise, white, black) in a throw pillow or accessory can punch up a sofa, chair or bookshelf.

Flea markets and antique shows are your new best friend. Take cash in small denominations and a check book and an open mind. I need nothing, but am always up for adventure. My last flea market tour, (the Sunday market at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall), netted me a gorgeous pink glass compote I gave away ($10), a tiny silver-plate engraved cup ($10, now on my desk holding pencils and pens) and a huge swath of mustard-colored charmeuse silk ($10.) Score! The silk now perfectly covers my folding screen (the one I made).

Multiples and scale matter. Items in threes are more interesting than a pair. If you’re going to have one…of anything…make it huge or tiny. Put related items together. Mix it up while using similar color, tone, pattern. Our bedroom wall has two sepia-tone female nude photos, each framed in gold, hung together.

Here’s a link to {frolic}, one of my favorite lifestyle blogs, with five fab books on home decoration — two of which are on my bookshelf.

And here’s an apartment that embodies much of these ideas, from Apartment Therapy’s great website.

What have you done to make your home lovely?

Where do you get inspiration?

Is College (As We Now Know It) Dead?

Victoria College in the University Toronto tak...
Victoria College at the University of Toronto; my alma mater, Image via Wikipedia

What’s the future of post-secondary education?

I think about this, although many decades out of university, perhaps because college classes in the U.S., where I live, are so expensive for many students, with no — of course! — jobs guaranteed at the end of it all. I never continued on to any form of graduate study for a variety of reasons:

I loathe debt and could not imagine how I would pay for it

I saw no need for it in journalism

I attended a school with 53,000 students and, while I am very happy with its high standards, did not enjoy feeling largely ignored and anonymous. That put me right off any more formal education

I attended the University of Toronto, for years deemed Canada’s most competitive and demanding school. I loved having super-smart, terrifyingly erudite world-class experts in their fields as my professors. I still remember their names and their tremendous passion for Victorian poetry or Chaucer or history and the excitement they were able to convey to us about it all.

I enjoyed having super-smart fellow students, knowing some of them — as they have — would go on to lead some of my country’s financial, intellectual and cultural institutions.

In the 1990s, determined to leave journalism (and then having an MD husband’s income, certain this was possible), I studied interior design at The New York School of Interior Design. Loved it!

What a totally different educational experience:

Small classes. Nurturing teachers fully engaged in making sure we were succeeding. The inspiration of talented classmates but no cut-throat sharks.

It also showed me something really important about my learning style. I need it to be hands-on: drawing, painting, drafting….all were challenging but also engaged my brain in wholly new ways. I liked learning!

Like many people, I’m more of a visual and tactile learner and sitting in a lecture hall for hours  — what most college classes still consist of — was deadening.(Which is also why journalism has always felt like such a terrific fit. It’s life-as-classroom.)

I have very mixed feelings about learning away from a school and classroom and campus. Yes, online learning is democratic.

But I think we also need to learn how to defend your ideas in public, that little knot of fear in your belly before you speak out in front of a room full of smart fellow students. You need to work face to face. You need to see how ideas play out in person.

And I loved the campus and its beauty and history and the clubs and activities I took part in at U of T, and my equally demanding and passionate profs at NYSID at their charming Upper East Side building. I was terrified there when, as we all had to in our Color class, I presented my designs to a room full of fellow students (just as we would have to with clients in the real world.)

But I managed to score an “A” (yay!) from the very tough professor. It still remains one of my proudest moments.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran this piece arguing in favor of getting a college degree, although I completely disagree — with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back me — that cashiers and clerks with a college degree earn more. In my time at The North Face, (the subject of my new memoir of working retail, “Malled“), I didn’t see this among our college-educated staff, nor have the many emails I’ve received since then from fellow associates, current and former, suggested higher earnings elsewhere.

Here’s an interesting essay from an Australian university.

Theoretically, tertiary study could become an opportunity to choose your own adventure. Innovative universities might form select international consortiums that would allow students to tailor degrees; with on-campus stints in Sydney, London and Beijing, for example, and a huge array of subjects offered on-campus or online from the entire list of combined course resources.

Yet universities jealously guard their individual reputations and their place on the competitive, global-rankings ladder. Everyone knows all degrees are not equal; their value depends on the reputation, history and standing of the university that confers them.

For individual institutions, with their campuses physically anchored in one place and their budgets built around the face-to-face delivery of core programs, its likely to be a very complex way forward.

At the same time, the internet is facilitating the entry of private players into the local and international education market, some of which will compete with universities for paying students.

Postgraduates, in particular, want access to experts from the professions and industries they aspire to join.

So when a group of globally renowned, private-sector achievers offers user-pay courses online, for example, which way will future students go?

Did you enjoy college?

What did you study and why?

Would you do it differently today?