Some advice for college and university students

[This piece was originally posted as a note on Facebook on Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 15:24 and republished on the Talent Egg Career Incubator on September 15, 2009]

The three or four years you will spend at college or university should be some of the best years of your life. You have a rare privilege: a few years to devote most of your time to learning about yourself, your culture, your society and your areas of interest. Understand that your real purpose here is not only knowledge but also to develop a life guided by wisdom and reason.

You have moved out of your parents’ home. You are meeting new people and starting to make your own decisions, your own life. You are now pretty much your own boss. But you are also on your own and that can be unnerving, lonely and a little scary.

This is your opportunity to struggle with your new environment, to understand your challenges through reflection, insight and the help of others. Use the support systems at the university. You are never alone, and the very act of seeking help or advice, of opening up to others, may become a vital part of your education – of your experience of learning about yourself through others.

Speaking of dialogue, I recently met a woman at an alumni dinner, a graduate of my department. She had graduated with high B average and now works in a public affairs agency. I’ll call her Simone.

It was a beautiful night – a fancy dinner, elegant surroundings and quiet, meaningful conversations among alumni and professors who shared the bond of having been members of the McMaster community. I was seated beside Simone and we chatted for much of the evening, mostly sharing memories: people we knew in common from her grad year, observations that she and classmates had made about faculty quirks of dress or mannerism, little things. We laughed a lot and reminisced. At the end of the evening, as we got up to say goodnight, she looked at me fixedly and said:

“Alex, I want you to tell your students something from me. Do you know what I really gained from my years at Mac?”

I shook my head, surprised by her suddenly intense expression.

“I gained understanding. Understanding that the world is complicated and profound, even when it is trying to be simple and ridiculous. Understanding about how to learn and how to know. Above all, I understood that although the world is sometimes sad, it is never boring and that I should love it, and try to improve it, even though it sometimes seems to betray me.”

I was surprised by her comments. She had obviously thought about this very deeply.

“Alex, I didn’t understand until maybe the middle of third year. I finally understood that education is about storytelling – the stories of art and science, society and engineering, health and commerce and how they all weave together into the grand story of our lives together.”

Heed Simone’s advice. It is wise. Learn to catch the storyline of the courses and conversations and relationships and solitary epiphanies you will experience at college or university. It isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work. It requires a personal sense of purpose. It requires an open heart and a seeking mind. But the payoff is amazing: a life that is transformed from mere existence to living. From shades of gray to millions of colours.

A life in which every experience becomes a possibility for adventure, growth and love.

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Ontario must invest in higher education.

When I began teaching at McMaster University on July 1, 2001, I had a pretty unique experience as a new professor.

I was the first person hired into the Communication Studies Program at McMaster University. The program was so new that it didn’t even exist. In fact, the program only officially took existence with our first enrolled program students who all had to have taken the two first year courses in 2001 to be able to enroll in 2002! I taught the Introduction to Communication, and we were joined by Dr. Laurence Mussio, a successful communications consultant in Toronto, who taught the other first year course in the History of Communication.That was it. We were the program.

The newness of our program made my experience as a newly-minted tenure-track faculty member completely atypical. Graham Knight and I built the program from the ground up. I have had the opportunity to sit on every hiring committee since the program’s inception. I remember the lean days, when we truly offering the program on a shoe string. It was exciting. We had hundreds of students, starting in our first year. Our first graduating class was in 2004. It was composed of 17 students – all of whom had already begun in other programs and transferred into communication studies. The next year we graduated over 60. Now we graduate a steady state of about 125 students in our honours and combined honours BA programs. We have about 5 tenured and tenure-track faculty in communication studies. This year, we began our Master of Arts in Communication and New Media. We’ve been growing constantly.

The ride up to now has been exciting. It’s been a story of constant change and growth. But our situation is stabilising. We are now beginning to face the challenges of a mature department.

What this has meant for me personally is that I am now getting a sense of what faculty and students in other mature departments have been feeling all along during the last 10 years. We aren’t atypical anymore.

Faculty and students feel frustration at the fact that classes are so big. This is not a case of fat cat professors complaining because they have to mark a few more papers. Rather, this frustration is born of the fact that professors see the future of Canada through a lens that many Canadians don’t get to peer through.

Professors see that students – especially those who don’t come from families where parents are not university-educated – need the mentorship of committed, permanent faculty to help them make sense of the university system, the job market and the confusing world of media, politics and money that they are stepping into. Large classes put up huge barriers to building these mentorship relationships.

Let me take a moment to talk about the larger institutional context.

The Faculty of Humanities at McMaster has been very intelligently managed. Starting in the late 90s, the faculty has completely revisioned and redefined itself. It has become very lean, fiscally. All faculty teach their share of classes. Research productivity is higher than it has ever been. Almost every department has reflected deeply on its mandate and mission. Many have completely re-defined themselves: the French department (to which I am proudly jointly appointed) adopted “Francophonie and Diversity” as its theme, English added “Cultural Studies and Critical Theory” to its program offerings, music and linguistics have redefined themselves along cognitive science lines, and, of course, a new department – Communication Studies and Multimedia – was formed. At the same time, all the fat was cut.

I sat on the McMaster University Planning and Budget Committees for three years (2006-08) and I can say that, from what I saw and read, there is nothing non-essential to cut in Humanities. There is no fat. There are no frills. There are simply basic needs that are being met: base operating costs, the cost of maintaining a basically safe physical plant and the basic cost of supporting faculty research costs. No more food at meetings. No free lunches.

Any budgetary issues in Humanities now are – quite simply – problems of basic income. That income, however, is not market-based. We don’t charge students the full cost of their education. We rely on government.

Since the Harrris government, there has been a chronic underfunding of higher education. No subsequent government has restored funding to higher education. And the underfunding is reaching crisis proportions. Ontario is 10th among Canadian provinces in its per student investment in higher education. Roger Martin reports in, “Who killed Canada’s Education Advantage?”, in the November edition of The Walrus, that faculty-student ratios have risen from 18.8 students per permanent faculty member in 1993 to 24.4 students per faculty member in 2005.

The greatest education is when students spend some quality time discussing ideas with faculty that were touched upon in class. When they feel comfortable enough with ideas to chat about them over coffee with one another in spaces that are conducive to such conversations. The problem is that unless you come from a family background in which such conversations about ideas, culture, science and future plans are common and normal – chances are excellent that you don’t know how to have them. They are outside of your ken. Learning how to converse about your life in a considered way is one of the greatest pleasures and benefits of post-secondary education.

The problem is that this requires time and opportunity. The opportunity to make the personal contact. The time to have the conversation. Both time and opportunity are becoming scarce commodities in the current higher education system.

In our Faculty of Humanities, the one I know best, any cuts now will mean dropping successful programs with high enrollments. Cuts will mean even bigger classes. Cuts will mean fewer meaningful conversations between faculty and students. There are no more “savings” to be had.

At risk is our future as a Canadian civil society that encourages social mobility through education.

In fact, we may be graduating young people who are not as well-equipped as previous generations to understand the complicated world they will step into and eventually be in charge of. This is a terrifying and disheartening prospect that will affect our productivity, our international competitiveness and – most importantly – the health of our democracy and the strength of our social cohesion.

A society that doesn’t allow its citizens the time or opportunity to reflect upon itself will crumble under the weight of individual self-interest and short-term thinking.

Governments must invest in higher education. Ontario parents and students should demand it. Our future depends on it.