Y is for Youth
Illustration by Amanda Woodward
I keep my office door largely bare but for a postcard of Canadian artist Joyce Weiland's "Reason over Passion," Trudeau's slogan stitched in bright colours on a quilt. The card is there partly for the amusement of colleagues, who know that my own passion sometimes wins over. It's there partly for me, as a reminder of the same thing. But it's there mostly for students who come to see me or are passing by. I want them to consider for a moment what they are doing at university, what parts about themselves they are trying to change and what parts they are trying to take further. I certainly don't think they should get serious about everything, but they should get serious about something, and doing so early gives them longer to succeed and a head start over many of their peers. But I don't kid myself. Neither did Weiland, whose "Reason over Passion" is a bedspread, after all.
Sometimes before giving a lecture I look around the classroom and wonder how many of the students have a part-time job or two. How many were drinking last night or already today. How many are in love or lust with the student in front of them or beside them. And how many will turn to Facebook or solitaire as soon as the class starts. It can be disconcerting, because long before the course started I visualized its entire arc, determining what students need to learn first, then next, then next, and I inevitably failed to take the students' actual lives into consideration. Instead, before meeting a single one of them, I'd imagined being carried off on their shoulders in April. It shouldn't be a surprise, but always is, when in the first class a student says she's taking the course because she has to, when at mid-term another says with exasperation that he has four other classes, you know, and when a few years later another says, "Didn't I have you for the Holocaust?" No, you didn't have me for the Holocaust.
The reason none of this should be a surprise is that faculty take for granted that students do not understand us. We know that most students don't have a good grasp of what our research entails or how it fits into our jobs, let alone anything about our administrative responsibilities. When a student visits my office, sees me seemingly at ease and somewhat slovenly, and says, "I wanna be a professor like you," I admit to being a little offended. The mistake that both professors and students make is assuming that we understand one another just by virtue of our daily proximity.
And yet when I look at my shelf of books about the state of higher education today, I see that many if not most of the authors - such as Derek Bok, Tom Pocklington, Allan Tupper, Elaine Showalter, Donald Kennedy, James Duderstadt and James Axtell - are from a small demographic of the campus community: late-career faculty, some of them emeritus. These professors believe that their long experience in academe makes them well-suited to discuss it - and of course they are right. But other viewpoints would also be welcome.
That's why I was interested to read Jeff Rybak's What's Wrong with University: And How to Make it Work for You Anyway. Mr. Rybak graduated from University of Toronto Scarborough in 2006, and so refreshingly promises a student version of the state of Canadian universities. I wanted to hear a young person describe what is and isn't working, how students adapt to the system, and what can be done to make things better. And to a degree, he delivers. For example, he offers a passionate attack of the student loan system, noting that in most other circumstances Canadian law does not allow a minor to sign a binding agreement: "You can't get a credit card, sign a cellular phone contract, or anything else, but you can sign yourself into thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt if it's for education." Mr. Rybak gives good advice on why not to take a bird course (its ease or your lack of commitment will make it difficult to get a grade higher than the students around you), why to use your university e-mail when contacting your prof (email@example.com will make you look like an idiot), and how to complain about marks (focus on the process rather than the outcome).
But overall, the book is weak. It is not really about what its title suggests, but rather why to care enough about university to get something out of it. As a result, it comes across as an apologia for some of the inanities and insanities of campus life. And instead of using much research or even his own academic experiences, the author relies on flabby, generic self-help writing: "Try something new. If that doesn't work, try something else. The important thing is to continue trying. As long as you are taking enough interest in your education that you're really working at it, things can't go far wrong. Just whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of resolving to 'try harder' as though that decision alone is the answer to everything."
Still, the mere existence of Jeff Rybak's book is encouraging. If those who run universities today aren't listening to students, we won't understand their issues or needs. And education, like youth, will be wasted on the young.
Alan MacEachern is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario.