The Writer’s Circle

Last Friday, April and I attended a reading at Borders here in Springfield. She had been invited to read a couple of poems out of the Moon City Review, a publication by Missouri State University in which she was featured last year, so we went and joined the sizable crowd as the MSU Concert Chorale sang some renaissance period songs and the readers were queued up. After the singing was complete, the first poet began his reading.

I had a class with this young man several years ago, and as he read about a road trip, I recognized some of the names and assumed they were our fellow class mates with whom he had become friends. We were all in the same poetry classes, two semesters in a row, and if I had continued down that road we may very well have become friends. A culture and a clique was formed there, but I was diverted and went elsewhere.

With a touch of a melancholy I thought about What Might Have Been. Until recently, I was a double major in Religious Studies and Creative Writing, but I dropped the latter down to a minor to graduate sooner. I don’t know that I even have a 3.0 GPA in RS–last I checked, it was a high 2, but it has been a while so it might have risen. I have a 4.0 in CW, though, and while the English department is well known for grade inflation, I feel like I have earned that grade. I honestly have enjoyed almost all of my English classes, and Creative Writing is probably where I should have spent my time.

In light of my recent academic travails, though, I thought through that path to its logical conclusion. Would I have been happy if I had pursued that degree more fully, focused on that instead of getting a job, and been in the same place academically as this young man (preparing to finish my masters degree)?

As I shared with April later, a large part of what I sought there was the community, and I am relatively confident I would have found it lacking. Not that they aren’t nice people–I like every one of the advanced Creative Writing/English students I’ve met–but there’s that pesky religion thing. It is difficult to connect deeply with a group of atheists/agnostics, and it seems that the upper echelons of academia are often inundated with such.

As Jennie observed about the graduate program in art at Wichita State, where she studied for two semesters, Christianity and work inspired by Christ wasn’t exactly welcome. She was often at odds with her peers and professors, and I would have found the same at Missouri State. It wouldn’t have led to negative relationships, just shallow ones, and that is unacceptable to me.

Perhaps I am mistaken in this perception, but it seems that the majority of the people with whom I communicate solely via the Internet are likewise non-religious, and I suspect when they view my site they consider me completely looney. I’m currently becoming even more overt about my beliefs, and I fear people’s judgment to some extent. If I were in an advanced writing program, and wrote and communicated vulnerably and honestly, I wonder what the reaction would be.

Would I have been happy pursuing that education more fully? Yes, probably, because it would have kept me writing and helped me become a better writer. As I listened to the final short story being read, a wonderful piece with descriptive language I doubt I will ever be able to match, I recognized that there were heights I would likely never reach. There was a path somewhere back there I choose to not take, and there is no going back in this life.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t cut cross country now and begin struggling for my own sake. What I need more than anything is practice. And if the degree program is inaccessible to me now (as it most assuredly is for a variety of reasons), that will not prevent me from writing. If a community of writers is part of my future goals and desires, a piece of paper will not prevent me from beginning to form one.

It will not be the same as it might have been, but what will be will be. We won’t have a future if we don’t make it, if we sit around watching TV and pining for what might have been. Instead, we must cut down the trees, stoke the fires, and begin building the future we so desire.

Do we all need a college degree?

I spent last Thursday and Friday helping run the MOKA BUG conference at our university, and it was in this context that my struggle with academia resurfaced. The subject of job qualifications, pay rates, and years needed to complete a degree all came up, and I mentioned that I was sorely tempted to just not bother anymore. One of my student workers was incredulous.

“Do you not have any ambition?” she asked. “Is this really all you want to do with your life? You don’t want to do anything more?”

The questions were painful, despite their being asked out of ignorance. I’d rather just brush them off–she doesn’t know anything about me or my life, so her critiques aren’t particularly weighty–but they resonate with questions I ask myself. The problem is, my education is no longer a vehicle to get me where I want to go.

Yes, of course I want to be doing other, better, higher things. I think my current job is important, and though I’m not overly fond of where I’m at professionally, I find fulfillment in the work I am doing. It is good work that benefits people, and my efforts are yielding positive results.

Her assumption, however, frustrated me as it does when voice by anyone. This idea that a college degree is greater, more important, and better than any alternative is overly constricting to me. And it’s not just that I know people who are working jobs that don’t require degrees and are happy (such as friends who are construction workers), but it’s that I know people who are very intelligent and who do mentally challenging work, and who enjoy their lives, where their work is not dependent upon a degree.

I feel like our society has hyper-inflated the value of a degree, and we have done this largely through marketing. University was once a place to go and learn to think, to be exposed to a wider range of ideas, and to critically study subjects with resources (such as professors) that were unavailable elsewhere. Too often now, University is viewed as a trade school. It is an investment to assist one in reaching a higher income bracket. It is no longer a place one goes to learn, but a place one goes to get the job one wants.

“I want to do X, so I need degree Y. Therefore, I will get degree Y.” This is in comparison to, “I want to learn about X, so I shall go to University to learn X.”

This last weekend I found myself really wanting to study apocryphal books from Judeo-Christian history. If I were to pursue this, I would need to finish up my bachelors in Religious Studies, learn Ethiopian, Greek, German, probably French and Spanish, and brush up on my Hebrew. I would also need to move out of state to study elsewhere, incur probably $60,000+ in debt, and not have any way to pay that back. I couldn’t pay it back because I’m not doing this to get job X. I want to learn it just to learn. On a certain level, I understand that universities have bills and salaries to pay so we need to pay tuition, but at the same time I feel like we’re paying a certain amount so we can get a higher paying job. If a job isn’t your goal–say, if you won’t be studying something to leads to a high paying job, but just because you want to learn–then you’ll sink under a pile of debt.

I can study this on my own, to some extent, but I am limited by my day job as well as the mostly meaningless classes (in which I am not interested) to get my own piece of paper.

Yes, I do want to do more. And as I sat reading and thinking at the end of last week, I thought, “Just as soon as I finish my degree, I can start doing some things…”

No.

I’m going to start doing them now.

I do have ambitions, things I want to do, and things I want to learn. A degree will not give me those things. Taking more classes will not give me those things. What does a degree do? It opens doors, helps us get better jobs. But what if what I want to do doesn’t involve submitting a resume, attending an interview, and being awarded a job? What if what I want to do is to actually do something?

Those things aren’t going to magically happen as I attend class and get a piece of paper. They’re not going to magically begin happening after I graduate. They will only happen if I start acting, start doing, and the only thing holding me back is me. Not having my degree doesn’t keep me from doing what I want. Making excuses and procrastinating on my dreams is holding me back.

I’m not going to start studying apocryphal texts hardcore, though I’m going to keep reading and discussing and learning. I am finding a cause I want to promote, and I’m going to start promoting it. I’m going to start doing things. We don’t need a degree to have ambitions, to live productive lives, or to change the world. What we need is a will and a drive to act.

Dropping Out – Part 2

I’ve had a night to talk with April and sleep.

I.

When April and I were first getting together (longer ago than I thought… 4 years now? 4.5?), I was questioning the value of a college degree. I had decided to pursue a career with Computer Services at Missouri State University, and the IT industry doesn’t seem to care a whole lot for degrees. Experience and knowledge were important, and demonstrable expertise were far more valuable than a degree or even a certification. Therefore, I was considering laying off the diploma-track and pursuing certs to make myself more attractive to Computer Services.

April was adamantly against that pursuit. As she put it last night, until very recently she has had the college diploma on a pedestal. People ought to pursue and achieve it, and those that didn’t were worse for it. I pressed her on this years ago, pointing out people who were perfectly happy and content to work jobs where a degree was not required, and I asked why, in their cases, should they get a degree? She didn’t have an answer, but maintained it was important.

It has always been assumed that I would go to college and get a degree. My family, my friends, everyone around me… it’s just What You Did. For the last several years, I haven’t really had any friends who weren’t in college, and I greatly respect them and the education I have received. I was very proud of going to college myself–neither of my parents had, and only my sister had (and it took her longer than it is taking me). I was going to Do It Right. I went right after high school, didn’t get anyone pregnant, was getting a degree…

II.

The thought of not finishing my degree program does not make me happy. I was pretty upset when faced with the prospect last night.

But the thought of finishing my degree program makes me equally unhappy. What’s more, looking down the road, I don’t foresee its completion as bringing happiness. I feel like I am trapped between unhappiness and unhappiness in this.

So when was the last time I was happy and fulfilled? I have certainly been happy in circumstances, whether spending time with friends or laughing with April, but I haven’t felt happy and fulfilled in life since just before I broke my collarbone.

And what was unique about that time? The semester had just ended and I had more time to write. I was writing for an hour or two daily and six hours on Saturday, and what’s more, I had the prospect of more time for writing in less than a month. ((April and I were traveling a lot for different events at the time, and I was going to have lots of time to write after that travel concluded. Unfortunately, the final weekend of travel, I broke my collarbone and could no longer write.)) I felt like I was finally doing something, and being productive. My life was worthwhile.

III.

As April realized that a diploma is not everything in the world, she said, “Finishing your degree will not make you a better person.”

I wrote last night that I didn’t want to be defined by my degree, but I wasn’t able to articulate that well until after she and I talked more late last night. The thing is, for the last several years my college education has been a waste of time. Except for my Buddhism class a year ago, I haven’t learned anything. For the last several years, I have been showing up, putting in my time, and waiting to get my degree.

Therefore, the degree has come to represent a waste to me. I have wasted years waiting to get this stupid piece of paper, and for what? When I think of everything I could have been doing for the last several years, ((I took most of my major classes early in my college career because I enjoyed them most, so the last few years have been almost 100% General Education.)) it makes me sick. On one hand, if I’m not getting the degree, that spent time was a waste. On the other, it was a waste anyways, and going for another two years isn’t going to change that. It will just extend the wastefulness.

I don’t want to be defined by something that is so worthless and wasteful. I want to be defined by something I enjoy and in which I find fulfillment.

IV.

If I meet with my advisor and she goes to the head of the department and he says, “Sure, no problem. You’ve taken the classes, we’ll let you graduate regardless,” then I will complete this semester, and I will complete next semester, and I will graduate.

It’s a matter of convenience, nothing else. Being seven months away, just the rest of this semester and then next semester, is something I can stomach. I can discipline myself and put my life (my very life!) on hold for another seven months.

If that doesn’t happen (and I can’t imagine them waiving what appears to be an important part of the Bachelor’s degree requirements), I will fill out my paperwork today. I will meet with my current professor and explain the situation. I will drop out.

And then I will begin a book of poetry that tells the story of my college career. I will write and seek happiness.

V.

We don’t have much time here. What our are lives worth?

I have one more quote to pull from the Reddit thread I read the other day.

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

–Mark Twain

I  haven’t had a degree for ever, and my life has been just fine. Will getting one change that?

Oh, and perhaps one more.

Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

–Dr. Seuss

VI.

I know the value of an education.

I am no longer getting one, whether I’m in class or not. At best, most of my courses since my sophomore or early junior year have been book recommendations. At worst, I have floated through them (while getting decent grades) just to pass the time and reach the goal of a diploma.

Taking another five classes for the sole reason that they are 300-level or above, and that have no bearing on my degree of study, will not be educating me in the things I want, nor in the things I need to pursue my goals. There is no return for that investment.

Perhaps getting a degree would help me get a better job. And perhaps I will be laid off someday, and will curse not having my diploma.

I will have to cross and subsequently burn those bridges when I get to them. Nothing says I couldn’t go back in the future, and if nothing else, I have learned time management and how to Do College. I’m pretty confident I could pull off 21 or 24 hours of college classes without a problem at this point, ((This is assuming I’ve been laid off and therefore don’t have a job–what would be the point of finishing my degree, otherwise?)) and I marvel that more people don’t.

VII.

April has been learning to live and be happy in the moment. I think I’d like to give that a try.

What would a life fulfilled be like? I think I want to learn.