Well the strike of faculty in the Pennsylvania State System of higher education ended after 3 days of class.  Given that I had a couple of blog posts leading up to the post I thought it might be useful to sum up.  Before I get into the details of the agreement I thought I would start with some more personal observations.  I have never been on strike before and I found the experience interesting.

I think it was initially just odd because I think we all expected a last minute agreement.  It was also an odd feeling that I then became a truant, somebody who wasn’t fulfilling his contractual duty and for all intents and purposes didn’t have a job.  On the picket line we stand outside the university grounds and it was weird to get locked out of any access to campus systems as if we were just another person who didn’t work or attend the university.  I understand how it goes, but it feels a bit cold for a place that you’ve invested the last 14 years of your life in.

stike_millersvilleOn the picket line the feeling was definitely more positive.  There were so many students who supported us.  They honked their horns, came and stood with us on the picket line, and delivered snacks and water.  I really can’t express how much strength it gave all of us to see the student support.  We also had some support from grade school teachers who had recently gone through strikes of their own who lent support.  I really thought you would just be standing their on the picket line and then would have to walk to the closest fast food place in order to get lunch.  I’m pretty sure I gained weight on the picket line with all the food that was brought to us..

strike_calustudentsThere was also an intense camaraderie among faculty.  I saw many faculty I hadn’t seen in a long time as our separate “lives” in separate buildings often keeps us from interacting frequently.  I met faculty I had never met before and we had great conversations in getting to know each other better.  Despite the individual or department oriented battles we normally face every day, on the picket line there was a common sense of purpose that was a wonderful feeling.  And even though the strike is over, there is a part of me that misses that feeling.  I am sure I would feel differently if it was a cause I didn’t believe in, but when you mix in that feeling that you are fighting for something you think is important, with a group of people all feeling the same way, it’s powerful.  More powerful than I imagined it would be.  As a consequence there was also a darker side to this.  I am not sure what it all means yet but I found myself having an equally intense set of negative feelings to those who crossed the picket line.  There were a few.  While I know, intellectually that different people might have legitimate reasons, it was a sacrifice and a risk for all of us.  I even know someone who had very intense health problems and still went on strike.  I’m struggling with the empathy and already lost somebody who I considered a friend who crossed.  And I have another one that also crossed and am not sure how to deal with it right now.  Well so there’s that. “Group think” is a powerful force.  Although I’m happy to say that it still wasn’t cause enough for me to want to chant.  I’m not chanter.  🙂

strike_studentSo how did it all end?  Well I am happy to say we won.  Well sort of.  For those who believe that it was about the money for faculty I think we more than effectively proved them wrong.  After going an entire year without a new contract and losing the normal small increase in salary we usually get to keep pace with inflation, our final deal revealed very little salary increase and most of it was negated by health care cost increases.  We did reduce some of the deductibles slightly as the increased health care costs really impacted those faculty who themselves or their family have health problems.  I am happy to say that we did effectively eliminate all items from the table that reduced academic quality that I talked about in my previous post.  We also made sure adjuncts were treated fairly.  The biggest downside to it all is that the contract was short term.  It was only a 3 year contract, retroactive to when the last one expired.  So this contract will expire in May of 2018 and we’ll have to go through negotiations again.  Ultimately it’s disheartening how much the state wanted to degrade quality education for the purpose of money.  It seems apparent that they know the truth: that faculty really care about their students and educational quality and they can keep trying to degrade that and force us to take it on the chin in terms of salary.  Our increase in salary was half of what other state unions were able to get.  For most other unions it is just about salary and benefits, but our contract contains a lot of things that impact educational quality which can be used as leverage to keep salary increases low.  In a normal world, one might expect new contracts to contain things that enhance educational quality not weaken it.

With the way education is being attacked in this country I am thankful that I am in a union and that other educators have unions as well.  I naively thought it was kind of a silly thing when I started out.  It didn’t occur to me that such a large portion of society wouldn’t see it as important to always invest in and make better, as opposed to running it like a for profit business.   Currently the state schools in PA get appropriations that cover only about 25-30% of their costs.  To me this isn’t public higher education, this is a private school system with some state subsidies.  No wonder tuition costs continue to rise.  I suspect this strike is just one of many future battles we’ll be facing, and I’m ready to keep fighting.


Here is my theme for the strike as I was the PR person and was hounded by reporters at times and “could not be everywhere at once”.

Don’t Bring Me Down

There have been numerous articles now posted in local papers about the upcoming possibility of a state system of higher education strike in Pennsylvania.  And with that comes comments.  It has been unsettling to see the amount of ire towards educators.  I know there are a lot of conservative people in PA.  In a way PA is probably a good microcosm for the general breakdown of the country in Republican vs. Democrat.  There is a thread in attitude by the critics of the strike and I just wanted to briefly talk about it.  I don’t know what to do about it, but it does make me sad.

  1. There is of course general ignorance towards the problem.  Nobody really understands what educators go through on a daily basis, but apparently we can all easily be replaced with more qualified people at a lower cost.  For most people it’s all about the bottom line.   Dollars and cents.  Critics don’t think of whether or not changes to our contract might not cause the quality of education to suffer, we are simply greedy people who want more money and don’t care about our students.
  2. There is an overwhelming sense in these hard times that if other people are suffering we should suffer too.  One person commented “Let them not work for a year and see them struggle to pay their bills just like us.”  When did we become a country who simply wanted to tear each other down.  Shouldn’t we be trying to raise people up?  I want other people to have good health care…if mine became bad I wouldn’t be asking for others to have their health care reversed.  As we tear each other down, it seems like the only people going up are the very wealth in our society.  I saw a meme recently that was based on a Harvard Business study on perception vs reality.  Most people think CEOs make 30 times what the average American worker makes, when in fact it’s 350 times more.  Here is a video that illustration financial perception vs. reality.  It seems to me that the wealthy have done an excellent job at pitting us against each other.  In the south poor white people blame poor black people or poor Latinos for their problems.  Average workers are pitted against educators.  Teacher salaries are actually quite low compared to other countries and yet we are painted as people who are draining the system.  Poor people are pitting against law enforcement.  Yet law enforcement doesn’t pay very well, and pensions are being cut.  Law enforcement is an important job that requires intelligent and highly skilled people.  Somewhere in lost in the sea of finger pointing are wealthy people laughing at us all and distracting us from who is really
    taking away all of our money.
  3. Anti-union sentiments are strong.  I never really thought much about unions and their value.  I know unions can become corrupt.  Anything can become corrupt. Churches, government, business.  But overall I’ve noticed that when there are no unions, workers are taken advantage of more strongly.  This country has a history of workers not being treated fairly and humanely.  Unions have helped us rise out of that situation.  They have brought us child labor laws and helped workers make living wages.  And while there are plenty of examples where workers are treated well without a union, by and large this isn’t always the case.  Some companies have no need to form unions, others I think it is very important.  Our union is unique because our contract also contains important elements to educational quality.  Investing in education pays off, but when we treat it like a business and we don’t invest in that business, the quality suffers.

Education itself may need reform, but the answer isn’t to reduce quality.  Let’s look at what research demonstrates as effective pedagogy and make that happen in our schools.  Let’s make education truly affordable again.  Let’s not bring each other down, and focus on the true cause of our suffering.  People on welfare aren’t my enemy.  People who have lost their jobs, their benefits, who have had to take pay cuts aren’t my enemy.  I would support you every step of the way for you to improve your quality of life, and be treated fairly by your employer.  I’m not your enemy either.  I’m in the middle income tier in PA, as are many other professors.  Your teachers on average are in an even worse place financially.  The middle class continues to get thinner and it’s not good for our country.  There should be common ground between democrats and republicans to work together to build the middle class.  Weakening education and tearing middle class people down, doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Tuition Free

One of Bernie Sanders big talking points during his Primary campaign run is free college tuition and public colleges and institutions.  Something so grand is easy to get behind and while I in principle support equality in access to education I think it’s worth looking at a little more carefully in terms of costs and benefits.

A couple of years ago The Atlantic published an article that showed that the cost to giving free public higher education in the U.S. would cost $62.6 billion dollars.  Now this is tuition alone, it may not include some student fees, and does not include room and board which can also be a big expense for parents.  Nobody could argue though that life would get a lot easier for families or those students only having to pay living costs.  So where should this money come from.  We could, as a society, just decide to pay for it.  It would be roughly $630 a year for the average taxpayer (approx. 100 million taxpayers in the U.S.), which means the average person’s taxes would increase to a little over $50 a month.  While I could certainly afford something like that, I don’t think everyone could, nor would such a tax increase go over well.

Now Bernie Sanders has a plan to get that $75 billion through a Wall Street speculation tax.  There seems to be some disagreement as to whether this is a good or bad thing, but even if he was able to cut college tuition costs by half this might be a good thing.  Of course the tuition costs are only one of the things he wants to change.  He wants to stop the government from profiting off of student loans, and he also wants to allow students to be able to refinance their loans at lower interest rates.  Overall I would say that he wants to make some sensible changes.  Educating your people is an investment, one that pays off, and you don’t need to profit off their loans as well.

Thomas Jefferson believed that an educated public was one of the most important parts of having a successful democracy and he is quite right.  So there is some big support for making college accessible to everyone.  My biggest concern though is that free tuition doesn’t necessarily support this aim, and so much larger shift needs to happen.

  1. With free tuition my hope is that universities will shift away from the expectation of simply producing job ready individuals. My hope is that we can allow many more students who simply want to go through and learn more about philosophy, the humanities, ethics, and how science works. More of that liberal arts centered education which has shown to be very beneficial in the market place even if it doesn’t directly seem to qualify one for a particular job.  With public higher education not being run under a business model anymore, then perhaps we can shift away from students being seen as products that have to yield immediate results or a directly translatable degree to a job.  My university actually has a degree in Professional Golf Management.  Yes I still can’t believe this is a thing.  I’m not saying that such people don’t need to be educated, but the fact that you need to create a specific degree to do that job seems surprising.
  2. As a professor it is clear to me there are many students who don’t want to be there. I don’t see free tuition as the thing that sparks students into working hard to learn and become better people.  Now may be classes could become more fun when everything isn’t so outcome based as it must be in order to meet certain performance indicators for funding, but in order for college to be of the most use to us as society several other things need to happen.  The first is K-12 reform in also getting away from a business model through those compulsory years.  By promoting critical thinking better, students may be able to handle college better.  I feel a lot of problems I see with students today are a result of being raised in a school system that focuses on rote memorization of facts and testing, over critical thinking skills.  A system in which getting the grade is more important than how you get there.  We also need to promote the value of education in general.  Perhaps it’s a bit of a chicken and egg since running schools like a business tends to put people in the mindset that knowledge is only valuable when it is directly applicable to a job, but we all need to be better in promoting how a broader knowledge base has benefits beyond just our job, since being in a democracy and being part of a pluralistic society requires us to be multidimensional in the knowledge we are proficient in.

    We also need to stop promoting college education as the be all and end all of being valuable in society.  In many countries with free tuition students much choose a track at the age of 16 as to whether they want to go to college or take a vocational track and learn a trade.  And while I don’t want to shut students off so early to the possibility of going to college, trade skills are of such an important value to society that it makes me sad here that we still are under this paradigm that everybody should go to college to be valuable in a society.

  1. I do think free tuition a higher education institutions is not necessarily a right. I do think it is a privilege.  A privilege that I think our country can afford.  And I think free tuition allows university to maintain higher levels of academic rigor.  Currently universities don’t want you to fail people, pushes you to graduate students to keep numbers higher, to make it look like your program or universities has a high graduation rate, all because it brings in more students and brings in more funding.  So I think free or lower cost tuitions gives more institutions freedom to keep standards high and thus those that do graduate are of a higher quality.

Of course there are even more secondary positive impacts.  More informed voters should lead to more responsible politicians, and less government waste.  The last episode of Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was an excellent example how making the decision to eliminate lead from homes would actually be a benefit instead of a cost in the long run.  We need voters who not only understand issues but understand economics well enough to realize good investments from bad.  Then there is also the stimulation to the economy as many more graduates who would no longer be burdened by massive student loan debt would be able to spend more.

People complain about the idea of free tuition, often because they say they don’t want to pay for someone else’s education.  But you already pay a lot more for people’s ignorance.  You pay a lot more because our generation of college graduates are deeply in debt and can’t spend money.  You pay a lot when our best and brightest can’t go to college and only our richest can.  You pay a lot more when someone remains in poverty instead of being able to get out of it through a college degree.

Minimum wage vs. College Tuition costs

Whether you feel like tuition should be free or not, the problem remains.  Students are in massive debt.  College tuition prices have increased faster than wages, and we are no longer able to give an equal opportunity to students who want to get college degrees.  Something has to change.

Why wouldn’t we all be liberal?

An article I came across the other day is one related to a common trope out there about universities being bastions for liberal indoctrination of students because of how liberal all the professors are.  In this article Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters (A contributor to the O’Reilly Factor) went to the campus of Cornell to try and talk to students about how much they were indoctrinated after they found out that 96% of the faculty at Cornell have donated to the Democratic Party for this upcoming election.  Mr. Watters was then asked to leave campus by the public relations person on campus and of course this led to the obvious conclusion by Bill and Jesse that Cornell wants to hide their nefarious activities of brainwashing students into their liberal agenda.

One thing that has always bothered me is that by being educated about something this implies that I’m being indoctrinated or brainwashed into a certain set of beliefs, rather than using my own mind to reach conclusions based on those things that I’ve learned.  While it is true that if I am only taught a certain set of facts or incorrect facts then I may reach the wrong conclusion, but what I want to focus on is the real reason why a well-educated person is likely to support liberal principles.

So there is much of this story that is ridiculous so we are going to have to ignore a few things to try and take it seriously:

  • Ignore the fact that both Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly graduated from liberal arts colleges for their undergrad and that Bill O’Reilly graduated from Harvard. Places with a lot of liberal faculty.  And I know in the past there were more Republican faculty, but in the past the Republicans are not quite like the ones we have today.  But somehow Jesse and Bill escaped these liberal indoctrination factories themselves. Lord knows how.
  • Ignore the fact that many of those Democratic supporters likely teach subjects like math or chemistry which can hardly be considered political subjects.
  • Ignore the fact that most academic degrees really don’t have a political bend to them at all. If you are concerned about diversity of viewpoints then at best you want to have that in subjects like economics, or political science.  And this could very well be the case at Cornell.
  • Ignore the fact that most indoctrination is done when the child is young and is done by parents and four years of college is unlikely to change their mind if they have been indoctrinated well into a particular philosophy
  • Let’s ignore the fact that FOX news has no problems indoctrinating their viewership with only one particular viewpoint and merely calls that viewpoint fair and balanced, when it is in fact not.

So let’s first try to understand what liberal means.  The philosophy of liberalism as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:

A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically :  such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class)

With this philosophy, individual autonomy is valued and this is not unlike an important tenet that Republicans often talk about which is personal responsibility (which I recently wrote about).  Liberalism also holds that government is a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequity.  I would argue that many Republicans are not against equality, they simply believe that we already have it, and that the only reason certain minorities, classes, genders, etc, aren’t doing well is through their own lack of personal responsibility.  And is equality counter to capitalistic principles?  Not necessarily.  Provided equality refers to equal opportunity, then everyone has an equal opportunity to compete in the market place.  So we can perhaps argue about the specifics about where inequality lies or whether we have it or we don’t, but it would seem that equality its is a goal of most people regardless of party affiliation.

Although many evangelicals would disagree, believing in the essential goodness of the human race is something that at least many more moderate Republicans could get on board with.  Believing in the goodness of the human race is a matter of expectations.  I expect people to be generally good and by holding that expectation people generally are good, or at the very least my own well-being is enhanced by focusing on the good and life (and if more people had improved feelings of well-being it would certainly be a better place).  Ask anybody who wants to give you advice on how to reach your goals and they will say things like “Believe in yourself, believe you can do it, aim high” etc.  So we clearly agree that expectations make a big difference in our achievements.  Thus we should both see no harm in believing in goodness if we want the world to be a better place.  So with the exception of the government role in bringing about equality, what specifically about being liberal are Republicans actually objecting to?  Are any of these qualities specifically bad principles to live by?

Now Bill O’Reilly got his Ph.D. so he must at least know that the professors, like him, had to do a dissertation; a dissertation in which they had to have some sort of hypothesis, and present evidence to support that hypothesis.  But one also has to review prior research that does not support one’s assertion, present it, and critique why you feel such evidence might not be relevant to your specific study.   So why is it bad for professors to hold a philosophy that stresses the importance of researching answers to the questions you have, thinking critically about evidence that is contrary to one’s own beliefs or assertions, and exposing one’s self to ideas that are different from your own?

So how could such people not support the Democratic Party when most of the Republican platform is simply counter to reality through a detailed analysis of evidence.

  • Anthropogenic climate change is real
  • Banning abortions doesn’t reduce abortions
  • Tuitions costs are very high and many of our young people start out with massive debt
  • Money is corrupting the political process
  • There is racial and gender inequality still
  • Less people die by terrorism than by guns yet people fear the former more than the latter
  • The war on drugs is a failure
  • We have a higher percentage of our people incarcerated than any other nation
  • We have huge educational inequality
  • We live in a pluralistic society and one religion cannot dominate, and the first amendment prohibits it from entering government
  • We have growing income inequality and a shrinking middle class
  • Revenue from big business represents a much smaller portion of the total federal revenue than it did during our most prosperous times as a nation
  • We spend more on our military budget than the next 8 nations combined.

So I’m not sure what Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly expect out of highly educated people who are trained to do careful analysis of both sides of an issue.  I am much more surprised when I meet a professor who isn’t a Democrat today.  And if faculty used to be a much better mix of Republicans and Democrats in the past, then maybe it’s also worth asking the question, if the shift towards the democratic party by faculty isn’t the product of indoctrination, but rather a reaction to a party that has simply become grounded in beliefs and rhetoric over scientific and historical evidence.  If a large portion of very educated people seem to think a different way than I do, then to deride and quickly dismiss such a group would only be to my folly.  Maybe I should instead listen and at least carefully consider what they have to say and why they think as they do.

The Cost of Education

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has been talking a lot about the minimum wage and the cost of education in this country.  It’s been a subject of course of many democrats.  One of the memes that I think ties both together well is the one that shows how many hours in a day you would have to work to pay off yearly tuition at Yale at minimum wage in 19—compared to today.

But I don’t want to talk so much about minimum wage, but rather the cost of education.  Bernie Sanders would like to make it free at public institutions.  There are many memes mocking this idea, mostly in regards to this being a wild campaign promise that has no chance of coming true.  Or questioning where all the money is going to come from.  Bernie has a plan for that but I’d like to take the politics out for a second and question why anybody would be opposed to the idea of free tuition at public universities.

Can anybody argue that an educated public is not better than an uneducated one?  Regardless of the type of government a public that is educated simply has less chance of becoming oppressed at least long-term than one that is uneducated.  In fact we should be worried about a society in which education is become less and less valued, and less accessible to a good portion of the population.  The constantly rising price of tuition and the decreasing middle class certainly implies a general decrease in access of education for many families.  Sure student loans are an option, but that’s a heavy cost one has to pay going $40,000 or $50,000 in debt puts you behind the 8 ball for sure through most of your young life.   My generation (which would be about the age of many the students now) or the previous one never had to start out life that way, so why should it be that way for this generation?

A more educated one is also more civil and less divided.  We argue in this country over issues that are non-issues to most other industrial nations.  Issues that become politicized which have no need to belong to one party or the other because they are simply something we need to all agree on and do something about.  As the public becomes less and less literate on important issues such as climate change, GMO’s, vaccines, environmental conservation divides in viewpoints exist when they should not.  Even when viewpoints do differ and educated public will force the debate to be relevant, and compromise is more easily found.  A democracy is only successful when everybody participates.  But how can people effectively participate when they don’t understand the issues?  For many who participate their vote is based less on an understanding the issues over more surface based and emotional reasons.

Look at any country in which all people have equal access to education and you will find a country with less crime, a large middle class, and a productive economy.  So why would anybody oppose free university education without seriously looking at how it could be done.  It’s not like we don’t have the money but yes it would cause us to put less priority one thing to put the priority on education.  It’s simply unclear to me why equal access to education wouldn’t be a primary concern for any nation.  Education makes business better, but that does not mean education should be a business.  As soon as we turn education into a product we’ve ruined it.  This is because like any product, when the quality is high, the cost is also high and few can afford it.  People with less money who want that same product end up getting a cheaper version of the product that simply isn’t as good.   Most universities do want to keep their quality high, but it leaves them with a choice of raising tuition costs to do so, or lowering standards of enrollment to get more students.  After they’ve let more students in who they know will struggle in university they end up inflating grades or lowering expectations so they can appear ethical and that they haven’t just let a bunch of students in only to make money.  Anybody who is in academia sees this business model as a terrible way to run education and yet it seems to be the trend.  There is no doubt in my mind it will come back to bite us.

So let us not oppose the idea of free college education, let us work together to find a way that it can happen. Other nations are able to provide this to their citizens.  Why can we not do the same? It really is to everybody’s benefit.

Why are you here?

There are many things I don’t understand about my college students.  In my 13th year of teaching as a professor I think I can at least make some solid observations.  Much of what I observed leaves me with more questions than answers.

My undergraduate experience was perhaps not typical in any way.  My parents paid my tuition, which was heavily subsidized by the Canadian government.  It is still a decent $3.500 for the year, which was a decent sum of money was back in the early 90’s.  I lived at home though, the university was about a 50 minute transit ride.  I am sure the fact that my mom got me a part time job at the university signing student loans was important in realizing how fortunate I was to not have to go in debt to pay for tuition.  My parents instilled in me that education was important and that doing well was also important.  That being said, despite the work I put in, I still ended up with only a B+ average in my undergraduate.  It was a lot of math and physics, and it was hard.  I wasn’t the perfect student either.  I cut a number of classes, but I was always aware when things were due and when were really important days to be there.   I never missed a deadline or a test.  If poor attendance led me to a less than perfect grade, there really was no one to blame but myself.  Sometimes you did get a bad teacher that discouraged you from wanting to attend that class.  But sometimes there are bad teachers.  You can complain, but it’s probably not going to make them a whole lot better.  Everyone was in the same boat and you did your best.  I never drank alcohol as an undergraduate; neither did most of my friends actually.  Which is perhaps a bit odd considering the legal drinking age in my province is 18.  I still have lots of fond memories of those days, and think it was a rather fun period of my life.

I held that dedication throughout my time in graduate school and it was that view of university and college life that I held as I became a professor at a small university in Pennsylvania.   I have found that my views about what college is about vary vastly from most of the students that are here.   Look, there are a lot of societal problems at work here too.  Perhaps the fact that guidance counselors try to convince every kid they should go to college when in fact they would be much better off in a trade school, or just taking some time off and working a low paying job to really understand what it takes to be successful in life and manage your time and money better is part of the problem.  Perhaps the fact that student loans are given out with alarming ease, with little time taken to really explain to the 18 year old how it will affect their life is the problem.  Nevertheless I have just seen a lot of baffling behavior among students since I have been a professor and it just makes me want to ask the question:

 “Why are you here?”

I have seen students spend the whole class text messaging, reading a novel in class, doing makeup, showing up 20 minutes late to a 50 minute class, or show up to class drunk, high, coked up.  And then there are the ones who don’t


show up.  The class is too early, too late, they are too hung over, it’s too cold, too nice, raining, etc all serve as excuses not to make it to class.  I have seen students make it to only half the classes in the semester.  I have seen students who seemingly only realized they missed an exam 3 weeks after the exam was given.  I have had students complain that I made a test for the day after their birthday, the day after St. Patrick’s day, the day after homecoming weekend, or worse yet Fridays.  Apparently Thursday nights are just party nights in general so having an exam on a Friday, especially in the morning is seen as a cruel thing for a professor to do.  All this is considered part of the “college experience”. Yet none of the people who are hired to teach or work at staff are hired to support this experience at a college, because the institution is designed to help young people further their education for the purposes of a career. Once again:

“Why are you here?”

So many students enter university undecided.  Spend an extra semester or 4 getting a 4 year degree because they switched majors and dropped classes so many times or had GPA’s so low they had to repeat courses.    The cost of


tuition, even at this modestly priced public institution that I teach at, with housing, costs about $10,000 a year.  After 4 years you will start out $40,000 dollars in debt if you complete your degree in the standard time.  While it is sad that the government doesn’t emphasize education more and subsidize the cost more, from a practical point of view it is difficult to justify attending college without at least some clearer picture of what you want to do, and to simply do it as quickly as possible.  The student loan system in this country is terrible and sometimes it’s your only choice to getting an education and a career that you want.  That being said, it IS money you will have to pay back, and if you are going to be in that much debt it behooves you to also choose a career path that will allow you to pay back that money as efficiently as possible.  If you aren’t think of the financial reality before entering college then I have to ask:

“Why are you here?”

Please don’t get me wrong as I have met many mature students.  I would easily say that half of the students that I see, even ones that might not be doing particularly well in my classes will graduate and hit the ground running.  I hesitate to say too many numbers as my observations are only anecdotal, but I would say after teaching over 200 students a semester in 12 years that there are, conservatively, 20% who really don’t care and really would prefer to not be in college (or rather not be in college for the purposes of education).  Given how competitive it is to get a job, given how expensive it is to get an education, and given how salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation, why spend $50,000 on an education, to get a mediocre to poor GPA (especially when you’re field of choice has a low amount of jobs available)?  Isn’t there a better way to spend your time, money and resources?  For some people it is loan money, for some it is their parent’s money.  Interestingly I have never met a student who was paying for their own tuition who didn’t understand the importance of doing well and make the most of the money they were spending.

So ask yourself the question “Why are you here?”  And think about whether you might not be better off somewhere else.  Somewhere that was better suited to wear you are in life.  Somewhere better suited to what you want to do.  Somewhere that will give you a chance to figure out what it is you really want so that when you do enter college you are ready to get the most out of that environment.  College is an immense challenge in terms of your time and energy.  You will expand your mind and your heart.  You will meet great people from different walks of life. But, like it or not, university is about learning and education.  You can party anywhere like a rock star any where.  But think about the fact that your country needs you.  Young people are the ones with the energy, the ability to learn at a faster rate and think outside of the box.  Young people are the ones who are most needed in a democracy to be educated about issues.  Issues that they will face in the many years ahead of them.  There is a surprising amount of time to still have fun, but also start being a positive part of society and perhaps not getting wasted every night.  I love my job because of all the great young people I’ve met over the years, I just want to see young people also think critically about their decision to go to university.

Destiny’s Child


One facet of human nature that fascinates me is the idea of destiny.  Now when I say destiny here I don’t mean like some blockbuster movie in which I am destined to save the princess, fulfill the prophecy and become the most benevolent leader of mankind.  I am talking about something more fundamental than that.  What some people might refer to as “a calling”.  And maybe not even in the sense of a career only, but rather one’s passions, one’s nature.  It is not too surprising that I am reflecting on that, because as I watch my son, I wonder what he’s going to be like.  What will his interests be?  How will he want to live his life and how different will that be from me or his mother?

The nurturing influence of parents cannot be overlooked, but we’ve all known people who were vastly different from their parents in some very fundamental ways.  Two parents might be very messy and their child is neat.  Two parents might be teachers, and their child wants to run his own business.  Of course trying to determine why somebody ends up the way they do is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, because nurture is not just a function of parents, but of teachers, friends, relatives, society, etc.  It could be that one day a kid sees a fancy car that he just loves and says to himself, alright how do I get a job that allows me to drive around with that.  Perhaps not the most noble of callings, but he we like shiny things that enhance our status and so these kinds of things certainly happen.

For most of my life I thought I had a calling to be a meteorologist.  I’ve loved storms since I was a small child.  I would get up in the middle of the night to watch the lightning.  In grade 6 we learned about different clouds and how they could tell us about the weather that was coming our way.  I was fascinated by this and remember feeling hooked by it.  I wanted to learn more about clouds and forecasting.  In grade 8 our science class was a full year and broken up into 3 parts:


astronomy, meteorology, and geology.  I loved all 3 of those and at the time they had us thinking about careers, but I was already hooked on meteorology and I decided then that I was going to be a meteorologist.  During my undergraduate I decided that being a forecaster wasn’t for me and wanted to teach it so I went to grad school and I loved it and don’t regret a second of it.  At the end of my undergraduate I took a linguistics course and I loved it.  At that time I questioned my career decision a little, but it was my last year of undergrad and it seemed too late to do anything else, and what did it matter, I still loved the weather.  I do think that I would be just as happy if I had chosen linguistics as a career had I been introduced to it earlier in life.  Now my interests lie in cognitive science and neuroscience.  I could definitely see myself being a researcher, or even a clinical psychologist because I am deeply interested in understanding others and our nature, and feel I have some aptitude in understanding the motivations of others.

Despite these ponderings on alternative careers, I still don’t have any regrets.  I enjoy my job, and perhaps being a professor is the reason I have had time to pursue these other passions.  But it has led me to some questions about this idea that I was somehow “destined” to be in the atmospheric sciences.   Would I still have become what I became had I not lived in a climate that did not have thunderstorms?  What if our curriculum in grade 6 did not include learning about clouds?  What if the grade 8 science curriculum didn’t have meteorology which helped me appreciate the subject at a greater depth and attract me to it even more?  What if I had a mother who was afraid of storms and that made me afraid of storms?  Yet my choice to go into meteorology seems beyond these things.  We had lots of subjects in school and with some good teachers.  Why didn’t any of those subjects arouse a passion in me?  My parents were not scientists, teachers, historians, writers, etc. and it seems that they didn’t influence me in any particular academic field so I could have chosen anything.  In terms of time, we spent more time learning about many other subjects than meteorology.  There are rocks everywhere and I had been to the Rockies, so why didn’t I go into geology?  I loved watching nature shows so why didn’t I become a biologist?  Why did I feel I had a “calling” when I meet so many students who aren’t even sure what they want to do?  Is this a rare feeling? Or do other people feel it and just ignore it?


I don’t know that I have an answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I was very fortunate.  I’ve seen many students with a passion for meteorology but very weak quantitative skills, having weaknesses in math and physics that forced them to take a different career path even if their interest remains.  I do not have that problem. I am fortunate by circumstances having parents who worked hard for me to give me a chance to pursue my passions.  I wonder how many people feel this “calling” towards science, the arts, humanities, history, education, etc., but simply must take a job as soon as possible to support a family.  Maybe they can’t afford to go to school and don’t want to take out student loans.  Some people might argue that their “calling” is perhaps not that strong to drive them, but there are practical realities that must be adhered to and when basic needs must be met they simply must be taken care of first.  Somewhere there are people who could have been brilliant athletes with enough training and leisure time, but instead had to work in a factory to support their family.  How many geniuses have simply died of starvation?  How many talented artists have died of curable diseases simply because they couldn’t afford a doctor or the vaccine that would have save their life, or a doctor or vaccine simply wasn’t available?

In the end I don’t think I subscribe to this idea of destiny, because whatever natural passions we have, they must be cultivated, and even those passions may fade slightly as new ones take their place.   In the end I can only be thankful for the natural gifts I seem to possess and the family, friends, and society that has allowed me to develop them.