May 25th, 2007

Summerish variety pack

Summer is coming on in Toronto, which means many places are refrigerated inside. This morning, I left the house bare-armed and bare-legged for the first time this year, and momentarily reveled in the air on my limbs. Then I got on the bus and started to shiver. My war with air-conditioning is decidedly lopsided, since I am out of step with most of the rest of the population, temperature-wise. I had dinner on a patio last night, and with the aid of tights and a cardigan, was able to last until well past dark, but indoor deep-freezes are harder to counter.

Enough with the kvetching; I had *dinner* on a *patio* last night. I’m going to a *BBQ* on Saturday! It is summer and life is sweet. Oh, and my birthday on Wednesday was lovely as well, thanks to all well-wishers. I ran and read and wrote and dined: these are a few of my favourite things.

Oh, and this starts out as a complaint, but then improves: I have more or less mastered the 15-pound dumbbells at the gym, but can scarcely twitch at the 20s, and was fuming of the lack of 17-pound dumbbells, at Hart House or possibly in the world. My solution was to do one set of pathetic half-raises with the 20s and then switch to 15s, and hope somehow (by osmosis?) I eventually get strong enough to do the 20s, preferably before one of the big boys of the weight room notices me and comments, “Um, you know you’re not actually lifting those, right?” The good bit? I just feel so *jocky,* having a problem with free weights, when all my other problems concern words.

With regard to that, this is going to be a CanLit summer, because another word problem is that I haven’t read near enough of the nearby literature. There will be exceptions, natch–already, I can foresee that I *must* read Then We Came to the End very soon or go mad with wanting to. But, yes, the bulk of my reading time with go towards my countrymen and -women. Onward, at this very moment, actually, to Clark Blaise, who has been precise and potent and deeply disturbing so far. I’ve been missing a great deal, clearly, and I intend to rectify that.

Get gotten

May 2nd, 2007

Smarter every day

If you recall last week and the On Breadth posting (hmmm, how d’ya link back to old posts? I guess you can scroll down til I figure it out, right?), this is the followup that I promised. There was tonnes of interest, both here and on Facebook (I returned from Scarborough to find 30+ posts there.) In the end, there weren’t too many who were for undergrad super-specialization, but the idea of forced intro lectures (Rocks for Jocks, anyone?) appealed to nigh on none.

There was also a strong contingent for taking high-level courses in what you truly love and have aptitude for, and learning about less-consuming interests on your own, because who says you need an academic credit to care about and understand art, say, or horticulture, or whatever floats your boat. True that–autodidacts are as smart as anyone else, and save a lot on tuition.

It was all way better phrased by others, but that’s my summation. And now more about me:

I’m an auditory learner! Thrilled to know that, aren’t you? What that means is that my learning style works best when information is offered verbally, with a chance to absorb, query and confirm in interaction with the teacher. In other words, I am a classroom learner! According to a corporate seminar that I took, only about 3% of the population is actually predisposed to learn in this way (the irony of telling us in a classroom that most of us couldn’t learn well in a classroom was lost on nearly everyone involved) (please take statistics I offer from vague memories of corporate seminars three years ago with a grain of salt). I’m sure anyone can guess that people who learn best through visuals, text, experience, etc. make up most of the rest of the population.

Lucky me? Absolutely. I got a lot out of those breadth requirements, stats, Art of Listening (why else would I know the dirty secrets of Bolero?), all of it. I do try to recognize, though, that despite the amazing coincidence between my way of learning and the main way offered in society, it is not necessarily the best way. I can be a little unquestioning if something comes to me via a “source of authority.” In fact, a lot gets by me if you just say it with confidence. Nothing I hate more than listening raptly to a whole explanation of new medical technology or why an author is a hack, then finding out that the speaker only saw half a documentary, or read the review and not the book. It’s really hard to deprogram myself once I’ve already accepted the info as fact.

This voice of authority thing, though, is I think what keeps people beating their heads on the walls of the academe when their strengths lie elsewhere. Much as I love it here, it’s really not the best way, or the only way. I’ve seen people waste a lot of energy, talent and self-esteem trying to write academic papers on topics they’d be far more brilliant at approaching in some other way. Some people I know who can write brilliant poetry can’t analyze poetry, and just because you can fix a machine doesn’t mean you have memorized the component parts of all machines.

Wow, it’d be great if I had a point to boil it all down to right around now, wouldn’t it? Something about how I think “universities as the universal and exclusive path to intelligence, joy and success” is really limiting, I think. Also something about complaining about how much you hate the ivory tower from within the ivory tower is silly, too. Maybe I’m feeling sad because I’m graduating, but I sort of think I was lucky to have the opportunity to do something that suited me so well the last two years. Problems with the system, lord yes, but, heck, no one forced me to do it. And it was really a good time, there, for a while.

My life has not changed noticeably since last week, when I was still technically a student, but it feels different…less learning-y. I took a bunch of books out of the library, and pledged to write in companionable silence with Em tomorrow, so I plan on feeling better shortly.

Everybody knows / these are rock-hard times

April 26th, 2007

On breadth

Wow, thanks for the fascinating reading responses yesterday. Despite one teensy freak-out over having possibly alienated Kerry (no!) with my over-glibness (a problem that I have), I enjoyed the discussion. I do feel compelled to clarify, though, that I actually really did *like* The Lovely Bones. I guess the thing I am judgey about is message/moral focussed reading–like, “I spent $30 on this book, I’d better emerge a better person.” I feel that I read for specific, intimate stories of real (even if imaginary) lives, and that to “use” the lessons of a book in my own life would require a level of generality I dislike. However Kulsum is right, who am I to judge? If you are reading Anna Karenina for ideas on how to execute your extra-marital affair with panache, ok, maybe I get to judge (maybe not), but otherwise, a reader is a reader.

Anyway, I think I somehow veered away in my post from my original question, which was about the good of breadth requirements in undergrad. Below is a more concise and focussed query, if you are interested in pursuing it. I put it up on Facebook, too, as there’s a slightly different audience over there. Any non-lit majors wanna weigh in? I know you’re out there! If people respond, I’ll put together another post; if there’s silence, I’ll let this topic die a peaceful death.

A genius marketing plan

On breadth

I have been wondering what people think about breadth requirements in undergraduate education. I’m not even sure all universities have them–it means that whatever discipline you are in, you must take at least one humanties, one social science, one math/science and one language class. I actually loved the classes I took to fulfill that requirement, but I was wondering if that wasn’t just luck, if being forced to take a class in something you dislike doesn’t actually push you further from it. Thoughts? Memories of years and classes past?

April 25th, 2007

Educationally speaking

I did it, I graded 81 final examinations on CanLit! That 60ish hours of careful consideration of undergraduate views on many major Canadian authors has made me question the value of the general liberal arts education. I don’t (think I) mean that facetiously. When I first started marking, when students would started spouting made-up information on books they clearly hadn’t read, I would think to myself, slashing angrily with my orange pen, “Why take the course if you refuse to learn anything? University is, if nothing else, expensive! Take credits you care about.”

Then, about 10 papers in, I got it–they don’t have a choice. I don’t think this class per se is a requirement, but I believe some sort of low level arts class is, and this one foots the bill. I actually witnessed an attractive, reasonably organized-looking couple at the exam high-five each other while exclaiming, “Last English class ever!”

Indeed. Much as I loved my liberal arts education, and much as it has benefited me in my chosen career path as a marginally employed daydreamer, I question the value of making future engineers and media designers and office managers read short stories and poems. It only makes them angry, or worse, horribly formulaic in their reading. These are the people who grow up to read The Lovely Bones because it teaches so much about the grieving process. End-result focused reading (what’s the value-add? what’s the lesson learned?) is scary to me as a writer, because I’m not sure my work *has* a educational component, except in that airy, literary, experiental sort of way. That’s the sort of thing I like best to read…no, wait, what I *really* like to read is entertainment, for the joy of it. If it looks boring, I don’t wanna read it.

That being said, in high school, undergrad and even now, I read some things that I don’t exactly “enjoy” but that broaden my context, expose me to new ideas or challenge me to think in new ways. I like that part of it, even if I don’t like the book itself. That is what keeps me taking recommendations from all sorts of people with tastes completely unlike mine–I want to get smarter, better at this reading thing.

But that’s kinda my job, you know? As a writery person (someday I’ll make it a noun…) Besides, if anybody tries to *insist* on me reading something, I’ll balk. My spare time is too limited, and my poor brain, too. Are these balky undergrads really learning anything other than how to regurgitate reading guides and, more depressingly, how to hate literature and all its “lessons”? I worry. If requirements are punitive and boring, will they make students elect to never read again? Lots of smart people don’t read. Even fewer people read fiction–lots of super-intelligent academics don’t read outside their own fields, and they aren’t boring, stultified or trivial. I enjoy talking to these non-readers at parties; often, you’d never even *know* (we should make them wear funny hats!)

Why should books be some sort cod-liver oil of the mind? Believe me, if you were reading these exams, you’d know that enforced reading isn’t joyful. But on the other hand… I took a bunch of elective maths when I was an undergrad, which nearly killed me, and I studied music for fourteen years despite showing zero aptitude for it. Why? Because I liked the way those things made me think, what they did for my brain. And then I stopped, because I’m not young enough to just absorb new things at random, or to have the free time to do it in. I’m sure even my best theorem proofs and sonatas seemed like rote drudgery to anyone who had a gift for those disciplines, but it wasn’t the end product that was important to me; it was the way my thoughts spun on after that ending. I can’t remember for the life of me how to calculate the area under a curve, but I think I’m smarter still for having learnt it once.

So what is the answer? To read or not to read? Have there been studies done, what percentage of the population over 22 reads for pleasure, and if there is an intelligence quotient correspondence? And what about those of us who took one little course in chaos theory? Did that add brain cells or stress them to death?

Just curious.

From the 100 years war to the Crimea

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