Justifying my higher ed choices (again)

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Image: Tobias Photography

New forevers are circling me in a way that is both enlightening and threatening. Enlightening because I feel lucky to be where I am and to have the options to move forward that I do. Threatening because, well, I have to make choices, which inevitably will exclude some forevers from my life – at least for the present.

Question: how do you impart upon someone the benefits of your education without sounding like an absolute arse?

Because it’s happened again; somebody with no university experience questioned the validity of my own. And so, I’m back with what’s sort of turned out to be a yearly justification of my education and the choices I’m making about it.

I’m not talking about preaching the university path; it would be wrong to do so, it’s not for everybody and I understand there are alternate pathways into most professions. I’m not talking about waltzing into a room and having an innate need to announce that I’m educated, and proud of it. I’m talking about when a person who has zero experience at a university (by this I mean they, their family, and most of their friends have never enrolled in a university course) has the nerve to call a degree pointless – particularly if it’s rooted in an arts discipline – or criticise the abilities of graduates (both in finding employment, and actually performing work) in industries they’re unfamiliar with.

It’s a preformatted response that covertly values quantitative data over qualitative stories – because efficient is a cheaper word than human – and the same line of code that configured the lightbulb moment in the tuxedoed brain of the white male who decided a mass standardised test was a more effective means of determining intelligence and readiness for higher education than conversations with those young adults who are tagged with serial numbers like cattle.

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You don’t graduate from a course knowing everything there is to know about a field of study – that’s not the appeal nor objective of any course I can think of – and you shouldn’t be criticised for a lack of experience upon being employed in an entry-level role. University classes aren’t a series of ‘how-to’ tutorials from people who tell you exactly what to do and how to do it; we’ve got YouTube for that, and the world changes too damn fast (especially in media practice) to spend three years in a degree having the same darn procedure drilled into your mind. The boundaries are pushed much further and we learn to think beyond ‘the way things are done now’. In so many ways the content we learn is implicitly vital to our workplace performance, although it may not necessarily be visible to those who watch – and judge – us while we work.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, earlier this year I found myself unexpectedly promoted to an editing role at my workplace I felt very unqualified for. I dismissed journalism in its entirety two years ago, after completing only one subject in the discipline, which I found incredibly dull and uncreative. I never saw myself moving into editing, but one fortune guest lecturer, some freelance writing, a social media internship that taught me I actually loved editorial work and a few sneaky promotions over the years, and here I am. Life is complex, and sometimes the opportunities we dismiss loop back around to meet us. I’ve been lucky like that.I’m in a position I wasn’t always sure I wanted but is now becoming sort of comfortable after a few weeks, in the same way the ocean’s temperature becomes more bearable the longer you stand in it. I’m in a perpetual state of rush; no sooner has one thing been done that another appears out of the blue – there’s stress about falling short of my quota, and then more stress when I’m reaching my maximum quota and have to think about turning back content. But I love it.

My university studies are fairly relevant to this job. However, at university I never learned how to edit another person’s work for publication and send them feedback purely on their writing. I haven’t learned specifically how to push a person’s boundaries, to encourage them to dig deeper in their analysis to provide something really new to the media landscape. I  never learned how to respectfully turn someone down via email. I never learned SEO at university; that’s something I’ve taught myself. Social media marketing I’ve barely touched on (actually hold that thought, I’m enrolled in digital marketing this sem), so I’m teaching myself. But I never needed to learn those things at university; they’re lessons I’ve learned on the job. We don’t need learn the black and white ‘how-to’s’ at university; rather we learn the concrete structures that constitute them.

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All of these skills I’ve mentioned are things I’ve learned – things I’m actually still learning – from being on the job. Before becoming editor, I learned many of these skills from working under the previous managing editor. Now, I’m working very closely with the company’s deputy editor, who’s new to her responsibility too. We have a deeply collaborative relationship and are genuinely learning as we go, together.

What I have learned from my university experience that has helped me to find my feet in this role is reflexivity. A core understanding of my own values and the ability to recognise and appreciate the values of others. Effective communication across countless different borders; metaphoric and geographic. Creative processes that make our little corner of the internet a little different and a little edgier than some of our larger competitors. How to brand a company in a way that is reflected in its content and contributors. My code of ethics is evolving as I’m faced with new challenges each week: what is okay to publish today, and what are the best words we can use to represent a controversial idea with respect? Each day I’m making decisions and in doing so I am actively deciding who I want to be as an adult.

I’m moving into my final (let’s not stress about the honours decision just now) semester of a double degree, with four years of tertiary education under my belt. All of a sudden I feel older. I’ve been picturing my life as a choose-your-own-adventure novel; where I’m making active, thought-out decisions very consciously, using the values I’m hoping will define me in the future.

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I don’t like telling people what I study, because trying to justify the years I’ve spent studying – and the HECS debt I’ve accrued to pay for it – to someone who can’t fathom the benefits of being educated in an area that doesn’t offer a cast iron career path is difficult. When someone questions your higher education choices and you retaliate, you risk moving from the ‘arts student who will never gain employment opportunities from their degree’ starter-pack to the ‘obnoxious university student’ one. Because to outsiders who don’t understand what we’re working towards, stereotypes are the easiest lens from which to view us.

I have no idea what kind of job I’ll be working in five years from now and I honestly don’t care, because I see myself being happy experimenting with a variety of different careers. I’m going to design my own path.

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