Thursday, September 27, 2007

College, research, and investment in learning.

At work we're in the middle of a big project developing a new website for a major client. This project has been going on for a couple of years now, which is great because it means that I came in at the most opportune time possible. All the research has been done--expert panels, focus groups, scientific studies and results analysis. Even the wireframes have been put together, and there is a huge, gorgeous spreadsheet that contains links to all the resources that are going to be used to develop the content of each section. Now is when we're going to actually build out the website by developing the content for each section.

I spent the morning printing out tons and tons of documents to be used as resources for the first section. Now they are sitting next to me in a fresh, still slightly warm pile, all neatly organized and paper-clipped together, with a brand new, virgin highlighter next to them. I get to spend the rest of the day reading all of this information and highlighting the information that is most crucial to the website itself. Then I can categorize the information and come up with an outline for the section that I'm currently working on. And then I can actually start doing the writing.

I hated doing research in college--seriously, could not stand it. I was never one of those people who spent hours in the library or had huge stacks of old, musty books on her desk. I did research when I had to and I was good at embedding quotes, etc. But I always found it dull. This is part of why blog writing is so appealing to me--I get to just write whatever I want, and if I want to support it with links or citations I can, but I don't have to. There is no real accountability here, except that people won't read my blog if I fill it with a bunch of incorrect, silly assertions about crap. Most of the stuff I write is personal anyway, and doesn't really require any sort of citations or foundation literature. Which is another thing that appeals to me about blog writing.

But this time, for some reason, I'm actually excited about doing the research. The more involved I've gotten with this project, the more interested in the subject matter I've become, and the more I really want to learn more. It was this thirst for knowledge that eluded me during college. Actually, my complete lack of a desire to learn more about other people's research made me think that it really makes sense to take some time off between high school and college, do some fun and/or challenging real-world stuff, and then go back. Smith has a scholarship program for non-traditional age students, and whenever I had a class with an Ada, as those students were affectionately called, I found that they were the most engaged, the most eager to learn, the most able to successfully synthesize the academic reading we were doing with practical application. They were the ones who had stayed up late doing the reading not because they wanted a good grade on the midterm but because they were so engrossed in the book that they didn't even notice what time it was. Even the ones with young children. They really wanted to be in school, and their enthusiasm was noticeable.

By contrast, all of us who were just your standard good students in high school and went to college because it was the next thing in line for us to do rather than out of a particular desire to be there... well, we were the ones who hadn't done the reading, who didn't always go to class, who wrote half-assed papers hours before they were due. College wasn't exactly easy for me, but I relied on my natural writing skills, quick reading ability, and general understanding of what the professor wanted out of assignments to get good grades. I graduated with honours, but I definitely did not get the most out of my college classes.

I do believe that I got the most out of my college experience overall--I learned so much, and I met so many new people, and my perspective on and understanding of the world changed so drastically, and I'm a much better, richer, more empathetic person for the years I spent in college. But I always said that the worst thing about college for me was the classes, and that was really true. The best things about college for me were the community, the people, the random conversations, the late nights with friends and a bottle of wine, the time I spent on the debate team, the community service organization I was involved with. And those were all incredibly worthy things.

And there were even some classes that I was totally involved with, and got a lot out of. Most of the classes in my major--sociology--were interesting, and I was absorbed in them and learned a lot from them. But even then, I didn't do most of the reading and I didn't always attend class. I was almost too smart about what a professor expected--I understood when it was and wasn't necessary to read or attend, and I only did those things when it was necessary. I always went to my photography classes, which I loved, and I always went to my writing classes, because I loved those too. And I went to small classes, and interesting classes, and senior seminars. But other classes, like French and history and psychology and government... I was interested in the subjects, but I was more interested in getting as much sleep as possible. So that's what I did.

I don't regret the way I spent my time in college at all. I got good grades. I got a great job out of college that has segued into an even better one only a year and a half later. I am a much better person for the years I spent in college, and more knowledgeable, relaxed, and understanding for my time there. I have amazing friends who will last long after we've forgotten all about college. But now that I've been out of college for over a year, and am working in a field that truly interests me, genuinely engages me, I understand on a more personal level why those Ada scholars were always the most interested and the most invested. This feeling of actually looking forward to the work research I'm about to do is so novel to me. I truly cannot remember the last time I felt this way about a huge pile of reading and a highlighter. In a lot of ways, it's really too bad that our society tracks young people directly from one level of education to the next without allowing for time in between to try out other things.

And since we're talking about college and some of the things I learned there, I leave you with a couple photos from my advanced photography class, taken my senior year of college. You can see the full set here.


  1. Love the photos. Can't tell what they are, but, love 'em.

  2. Jess, the photos are great!

    I loved most of my classes, but I still didn't but the effort into them I really wanted to. Weird. My art classes were different; that I just loved and never thought about the insane amount of work they required.

    I agree; the experience is what mattered most. I came from a small town in Wyoming and college absolutely opened the world to me. And my best friends -- who are truly family -- I met in college.

    Good luck with the web site. That is exactly the kind of project that makes me cringe!

  3. I always hated the 'non-trads' as they were called at my school. I hate them because they knew what they were talking about, did well, and messed up the curve. Really, what I should have hated was my penchant for cheap beer and skipping class.

    Also, people drink wine in college? Champagne of beers was the best I could do.

  4. the photos? they are amazing. i always wanted to take a photography class. hmmm. might have to look into that.

  5. I agree about the year off between college and high school. I wish I had done it. If any of my kids want to, I will encourage them. My reasoning is a little different, though, though I do agree with your reasons as well. I think it will give them a better idea of what they would like to do with their lives, and what area they would like to major in in college. I would expect them to use the year as an exploration year. Go try working a couple months in whatever areas they are interested. Find out what they like. Had I done this, I would have studied less computer science and more biological science, though there was a time in my computer science college career that I was able to combine the two in a truly fascinating research project in nuclear medicine. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

  6. Penny--They are, in order: the fold of a curtain, piano pegs, and a vacuum cleaner cord.

    Artemisia--Isn't it amazing how art class doesn't feel like work? I spent hours and hours in the photo lab and didn't even notice. I did it on Saturday nights sometimes. I loved it. It made me think I should have majored in art.

    Flibberty--Don't worry, it was cheap wine. Like the kind where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle (twice the normal size) for under $5. We weren't exactly classy.

    Blogging Barbie--Photography classes are the best things ever. I bet you can find one at a community center or something. I would totally recommend taking one.

    JMC--I was also sort of undirected when I started college--I picked my major because it seemed interesting and not because it necessarily related to what I wanted to do after college.

  7. My husband didn't start his undergrad degree until he was in his 20s. It was definitely the right decision for him. He always says he would have been a major fuck-up right out of HS.