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.
Learning can be fun, exhilarating, inspiring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?
Or felt as confident of my choice?
From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.
Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.
Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.
My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.
I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.
In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.
I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.
But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z., had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.
In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.
Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.
A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.
My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.
He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.
But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.
I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”
Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.
Which teacher most affected you and your later life?
How and why?
As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?
I will end with a bunch of random, yet helpful, tips garnered from a variety of sources. Make sure your son or daughter knows how to sew on a button or a repair a hem, change a light bulb (yes, honestly some have never done that at home), tie a tie, defrost a refrigerator (some dorm fridges aren’t self-defrosting) and judge how long different foods can stay in a refrigerator before going bad.
And here are a few more: How to tip properly, use a microwave safely, strip and make a bed, pack a suitcase and safeguard valuables.
Rant alert, dearest readers. I was out on my own, living in a minuscule studio apartment on a not-very-good street of downtown Toronto when I was 19, the fall semester of my sophomore year. Was I ready? Not really. But my family had sold the house and were headed off to live on a boat in Europe. Jump!
My rent was $165. I was on the ground floor (wrong!) facing an alley (wrong!) in a vaguely seedy/affordable neighborhood. I would not have qualified for student aid or loans and didn’t want dorm life after a childhood and adolescence spent at boarding school and summer camp sharing space with four to six strangers. I wanted privacy.
I still remember the price of a can of tuna then — 65 cents — as I ate a fair bit of it. I was not a very chic dresser as my budget was so tight; it took me months to save the $30 I then needed for tights, a leotard and slippers to take free ballet classes on campus. I bought and cooked my own food, did my own laundry, played “Hejira” on my stereo, entertained members of the opposite sex whenever I felt like it.
I lived there until June when, one terrifying night, a man leaned in my bathroom window and tried to pull me out of the bathtub. It’s true — you can be too scared to scream.
I moved into a sorority house the next week, safely on the top floor surrounded by other young women. That fall I moved into another tiny studio apartment, this one — like where I live now — overlooking nothing but trees, safely completely inaccessible in height and design on the sixth floor in a better area.
I learned a lot by living on my own so young: how to budget, how to deal with adults and professors and landlords without any help or intervention or advice from family; my parents were both very far away, both traveling and often unreachable. Whatever the problem, as an only child and already writing and selling photos to national publications to pay for school, it was mine to solve.
My best advice to freshmen:
Learn how to get along with your professors. Don’t text them or expect hand-holding. They’re not Mummy. They are professionals paid to help you learn. Period.
Understand and respect the complex interplay between being drunk and stoned and the increased chances of a sexual encounter — or several — you did not anticipate, plan or want. Learn to say no, mean it and leave in sufficient sobriety you remain in control of your safety.
Practice using condoms. Use them.
Practice saying no. Mean it.
Enjoy the extraordinary array of facilities your campus offers you — socially, intellectually, physically. Even getting into a gym or pool as nice as yours right now will cost you a fortune post-grad.
Grades matter, but not as much as you think or fear (short of those applying to grad or professional programs.) That stellar GPA often means very little to most employers — who really crave ethical, hardworking and highly disciplined employees. Yes, a GPA is meant as proxy for all those qualities, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The “skills” you acquire by sitting in a college classroom and (only) striving for top grades may not translate tidily to a job in the real world.
You do not need to keep up with the materialistic cravings of your fellow students, whose parents may out-earn yours by many multiples. College is the first set of steps to adulthood, not four (or five or six) years of shrugged-off do-overs.
Work your ass off. Just do it. If you get into grad school, you’ll need to be in the habit. If you get a job, you’ll need it. If you have to work for yourself, self-discipline will prove far more valuable than your diploma.
A deadline — i.e. the paper is due Friday morning — is not a suggestion. It is not negotiable. Not Friday afternoon six months from now.
Just because your BFFs are: bulimic or anorexic or tattooed or multiply pierced or high most of the time doesn’t meant this is a great trend to follow. College is a great place to locate and stiffen your spine.
Have fun! Get to know the sort of people you never even acknowledged in high school, The real world is going to put you face to face with all sorts of people from now on, so start discovering and enjoying them.
If someone comes on to you — whatever your sexuality or theirs — be flattered and polite, especially if sexual behavior is new to you, but go slowly. Sex is fun, but not worth getting an STD or pregnant. Don’t confuse attention with affection.
Don’t focus all your energy on how much better everyone else is doing — socially, sexually, intellectually, athletically. If you’ve gotten into a good school, you’re now surrounded by some kick-ass talent. Watch it, learn from it, but don’t let it intimidate you.
Professors are not God. If you have a solidly researched and thoughtful opinion that differs from theirs, share it, politely. But your feelings are not facts. Learn the difference.
Take on leadership roles. You never know until you try if people will follow your lead. If they do, you know you’ve got the goods. They don’t teach that in the classroom, but the confidence it will give you will play out for years to come.
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.
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?
Much is made of mentors — finding one, keeping one, making sure you have the right one.
Many younger and/or less experienced writers look to me for help. I just got an email from another of the many Caitlin Kellys out there, this one a college sophomore who hopes to become a writer or editor and asked my advice.
I, too, look to my peers and colleagues for their wisdom. I turn in the final manuscript (yay!) of my second book today, and it’s much stronger for the generosity and skill of my four “first readers”, fellow professional writers who made the time to read it and offer their comments and insights.
The secret of mentoring is that we’re all doing it, all the time.
My two most helpful mentors, recently, are women both 10 to 15 years younger than I. In this economy, even the most seasoned of us have to change gears mid-career — ready or not!
Where to find wise and generous help? Maybe not from the equally dislocated people our age, but from those successfully navigating different fields or industries a few steps down the ladder.
It’s counter-intuitive to look down instead of up, but these two women have taught me a lot. One comes from the world of business and corporate life — where people use words like “value-added” and “deliverables” — helping me prepare for a speech this week to some of the nation’s largest retailers.
My other friend is a successful blogger who began her career on-line. When True/Slant, my paid blogging gig for a year, was sold and 95 percent of the contributors who had built its value to 1.5 million uniques a month were tossed away, she consoled me. Print is brutal, but editors have loyalties. Not so in the online world, she explained.
This week, my partner spent an hour on the phone with a young photographer who turned to him for his wisdom — while he, too, is being mentored by several veterans of the new niche he is moving into.
And that’s why we have started Nickels for Change.
We go to a science and engineering school, chock full of boys who perpetuate rape culture. Rape jokes and euphemisms abound. And no one seems to find a problem with it.
Except for us.
Going to college has been a real eye-opening experience. Maybe it’s because our high school was mostly liberal or small and secluded or didn’t include a lot of diversity (actually, yeah, that’s all probably exactly why), but our high school was a nicer place. Rape jokes just didn’t happen.
Not so in college. And we’re tired of being brought down by all the negative crap in this rape-defending, victim-blaming patriarchy.
Nickels for Change is about using these negative situations and attitudes and making something positive come out of them.
Every time we hear something sexist, rape-defending, victim-blaming, or flat-out misogynistic (an also just plain prejudice – whether it be sizeist, classist, racist, disableist, or anything else), a nickel goes into Our Jars. We plan on doing this for a year. At the end of the year, the money will go to a charity that works towards ending violence.
If their college — ugh — is anything like my alma mater, the University of Toronto, the engineers have…challenged…social skills. One year (hahahahahahahaha) they painted the roof of the observatory (shaped, convex and round, like, you know) as a breast. Hahahahahahahaahahahaaha. These are the men who build our computers and bridges? (Oh, and design oil rigs!)
I remember (how could one forget) the frat house a block south of my apartment where they’d sit in the huge bay window and hold up enormous signs rating every woman who walked past, like some demented Olympic judge. Then, (as now) hopelessly opinionated and pissed-off by their on-campus sexist BS, I wrote a letter of protest published in our campus weekly newspaper.
“Of course she’s mad!” their reply crowed in the next week’s edition: “She got a low score!”
This shit never changes. So you might as well gird your lovely loins for battle young, before they’re too damn weary and you’re scared to lose your internship/fellowship/advisor/grant/first job/second job/raise/promotion and stop speaking out.
These young women are going to need a very large jar for those nickels.
The new vertical, HuffPost College, will rely on that sexy, growing and emerging new class of journo’s — “citizens” (aka free labor) — to contribute/donate their time, skills and talent for exposure. Exposure won’t pay Visa or Mastercard or put gas in your car or groceries in your fridge. It’s BS, plain and simple, and it’s sucking in entire legions of the desperate in the race to fill the web with free or low-paid content.
I have been writing for a living, earning four-figure checks for my ideas and skills, since my sophomore year of college, (no, not J-school). It meant, from an early, unconfident, less-experienced position — which is where many of us start out from –learning how to negotiate with editors many decades my senior. Not fun, not easy, not always successfully.
I once overheard an editor pleading with a fellow columnist, whose work filled the same weekly Toronto newspaper section I was writing for as well, to stay — “You’ll lose $200 a week!” she said. I was making $125. Hm. I went into her boss that day and asked for a raise. I was 19. (Didn’t get it, but learned how totally random “value” appears to those who buy your copy.)
Whatever your age, writing is a job, not a hobby!
The endless ugly secret of who gets to write for “free” and wh0 doesn’t boils down to who can afford to do it. Very few students can afford to give away their time — and those who can continue to form a media elite of the middle-class and up whose parents pick up the costs for them while media mavens pocket profits.
I have written without pay, in 30 years, maybe 10 times, as a pro bono choice to support a cause I believe in or to promote my books. Riley Waggaman, a full-time student at Wheaton College, is a T/S contributor, is getting paid to write here, as are we all.