Oh, right, I’m not in college anymore

I started college in 2003 working on a bachelor’s in religious studies. In 2006, I met April and fell in love, and I knew that I was going to need a job and some money before we could get married, so I started pursuing a full-time job and I was hired at Missouri State University in January 2007. Subsequently, I dropped down to part-time as a college student.

And then, due to bad advice from my advisor, I didn’t get the “right kind” of credit hours and it ended up taking an extra two years to finish my BA.

I almost dropped out. Technically, I did drop out for nearly a year, but I went back, and throughout much of my undergrad career, I was desperate to finish. So when I would see an ad from Phoenix University or others, I’d think, “Maybe I could transfer and finish faster!” Whenever I’d see a billboard for Kaplan or another program, I’d wonder if it’d be cheaper and faster to go to them.

Of course, it wouldn’t be. It’d be way more expensive, only slightly faster, and my degree would have been less respected. But this wasn’t a rational thought, it was an emotional one. I wanted to be done so badly.

And now I am done. Not just with my bachelors, I’m done with a master’s degree. But this emotional response, triggered by seeing these ads, is still strong. I see a billboard and think, “Hmm, maybe I should check that out so I could finish faster.”

And then I remember that I’m done. I’m done, and I smile. It’s hard to let go of that response because it’s so ingrained, but remembering that I have gotten all the formal education I need to is pretty great.

Recently read: Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market

This is a fascinating article that I recommend if you’re involved in any way with higher education, STEM, or immigration discussions. In short, we’ve been told for years that there is more demand for good STEM graduates than the United States can meet, and that our students are, on average, poor when compared with other countries. This report from the Economic Policy Institute indicates that:

  1. There are more than enough highly qualified domestic STEM graduates, but
  2. For whatever reason, they cannot find jobs in IT or STEM, potentially because
    1. Wages aren’t high enough and they can find a better paying job outside of STEM, or
    2. They simply weren’t hired, and meanwhile
  3. The number of guestwork visas to import STEM workers from other countries continues to increase, despite #1

Within IT, what it really comes down to is that while we have plenty of people who can do the work in the USA, we don’t have people who are willing to work for the same amount of money that these jobs paid in 1990, and a lot of the jobs have dropped back to 1990-level wages… while the price of goods and services has increased (due to inflation).

I love seeing actual research and evidence on these sorts of topics. For me personally, I’ve felt that the reason companies have had trouble getting the staff they want/need is because they’ve been clamoring for STEM graduates, but then the STEM graduates apply for jobs and their communication skills are lacking…. That what the CEOs and the companies actually want are people with a strong liberal arts background who can handle the STEM work. If you look at the education of a lot of CEOs, it’s actually in the liberal arts, and so they find the STEM graduates inadequate because those graduates aren’t similar enough to themselves (the CEOs and managers).

My off-the-cuff hypothesis is undermined by this report, though, which indicates that the problem isn’t that companies aren’t hiring domestic IT graduates due to their poor communication skills, but rather that most IT graduates discover they can make more money outside of their anticipated field. (The article states that about ~50% of IT graduates choose a job outside their anticipated field while ~33% couldn’t find a job within IT at all.)

While sitting in a too-small seat, not paying attention to a class I’m almost failing

In my defense, I’m only almost failing because I missed an assignment while out of town to attend a wedding. Most weeks, we do nothing, but that particular week we had to put on a play with a group. I wasn’t here, couldn’t do the play, and subsequently missed the points.

It wasn’t as big a deal before, but I just checked grades online and the professor magically doubled how much that assignment was worth, which has dropped me by 10%. Hooray.

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The Real Purpose of Education

A comment on Reddit brought this to my attention and I was compelled to share:

Never forget the real purpose of public education.

I give you, Seven Lesson School Teacher., a subversive award acceptance speech given by a disgruntled veteran of 25 years of New York public education.

The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context…

The second lesson I teach is your class position. I teach that you must stay in class where you belong. I don’t know who decides that my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class.

The third lesson I teach kids is indifference. I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor.

The fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach you to surrender your will to the predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority, without appeal because rights do not exist inside a school, not even the right of free speech, the Supreme Court has so ruled, unless school authorities say they do.

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce.

The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem. If you’ve ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parents have convinced him to believe they’ll love him in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform. Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion.

The seventh lesson I teach is that you can’t hide. I teach children they are always watched by keeping each student under constant surveillance as do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents.

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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.

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.

Criticisms of Class

Our first essay in my religion class this semester is to write some sort of response to the reading so far. We’ve gone through almost 200 pages about theories of religion and our class format is for the teacher/presenter (students are actually teaching each class, one chapter a day from a different student each day) to walk through an outline of the chapter, summarizing its key points.

The paper, however, is not supposed to be a summary. Recognizing I’ve missed 2.5+ weeks of class, I asked somewhat timidly what the professor was looking for in this paper. It’s not supposed to be a summary, but summarize is all we seem to do.

The professor screwed up his face, seeming flabbergasted that I would ask such a question. As my peers responded in kind (looking as if I’d asked what only an ignoramus would), he asked in a somewhat condescending tone, “Didn’t I put the assignment on Blackboard? Isn’t it all out there already?”

I didn’t know it was, and apologized and said I’d take a look. Opening Blackboard, I went to the assignment and read it.

In this essay, discuss the 19th century theories of Müller, Tylor, Smith, Frazer and Marx. Begin by spending about three pages summarizing the theories of each thinker concerning religion. The challenge here is to identify the essential ideas and concepts of each theory and express them accurately and concisely. Conclude your essay with a critical analysis of each theory. What do you consider to be the major strengths and weaknesses of each? Be sure that you make clear why a strength is a strength and a weakness a weakness.

Be aware that each chapter concludes with an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of a theory.

So… how is this not summarizing?

I hate being made to feel stupid without valid justification.

This 500-level religion class, though infinitely better, is frustratingly similar to the 100-level history class I’m dealing with this semester. In that class, the Asian instructor essentially covers nothing but names and dates. These names are occasionally given the barest context, but that context is sadly lacking. The purpose of studying history, to me, is to analyze the events, the inspirations, the motives, the whys and the hows. We’re not even getting a good timeline because he jumps around the globe and back and forth across centuries so we can’t even do a comparative analysis.

I don’t know how many thousands of dollars I’ve given this university for what essentially amounts to book recommendations. If not for reading the books, I’d have gotten no real education at all.