Universities for artists: Know your purpose, know what you’re getting

A friend is in his 20s and wants to be a writer. He’s mucked around in college some without amassing enough credits to count towards anything, and he thinks he might want to start at a university again in order to become a better writer. I’ve been discouraging him, because of his age and his state goals. He started classes again this semester but seems disenchanted with them, and after talking for a while the other night, I wrote a long e-mail that summarized my views and why college is probably the wrong route for him:

If you said to me that you’re tired of working in coffee shops and want an office job in a corporation or government, a degree should be your number one priority. Not only is that not your goal, but your goal is to be a better writer. To accomplish that, school is at best a mixed bag.

At anything below the most elite schools, most students in intro-level writing courses are not particularly good writers or interested in becoming good writers (and even in elite schools, bad writers but good hoop-jumpers abound). Intro courses won’t necessarily be of much help to you. Most intro-level non-writing courses (like “Rocks for Jocks,” AKA geology) are likely to be even worse. My honors students say their classmates in classes like “Love and Romance in the Middle Ages” and “Intro to Art History” are barely literate; the honors students turn in bullshit they’ve slammed out the night before and get 100% because they are, most of them, functionally literate. They complain about not learning anything about writing in their other humanities classes. You will probably have to wade through at least a year or two of courses that provide almost no value to your stated goal—becoming a better writer—before you get a real shot at, say, English classes.

Once you are there, however, many professors aren’t especially interested in teaching, even in English classes, and the effect of many English classes on your writing skills might be small. Does reading Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels and the Romantic poets in a Brit Lit I survey make you a better writer of contemporary fiction, essays, and criticism, if your professor / TA spends no time covering the basics of writing? Will sitting through a lecture on Beckett’s role in the Modernism / Postmodernism divide help you understand better metaphors in your writing, or help you construct a plot that has any actual motion?

The questions suggest the answers. I’m not saying these English classes will hurt you. But I’ve sat through a lot of those classes, and few have anything to do with writing, which is one of my many beefs with English departments and classes; too little time is spent building concrete writing and reading skills, and too much time is spent discussing works of some historical value and very little contemporary value (I’m not convinced Sister Carrie, which is one massive violation of the cliche “Show, don’t tell” will make you a better novelist today, any more than studying the math of the 1850s in its original context will make you a better mathematician).

Some professors teach close reading and who will really work with you to develop your writing skills, especially if you follow the advice I offer. But those experiences are at best hit-and-miss, and more often than not misses. They depend on the professor, and you won’t know if a class might be useful until you’re already in it.

Plus, getting to those classes will probably take a long time and a lot of money and hoop jumping. The more direct route for you is through a writers’ workshop, which almost all communities of any size have.

That’s the learning part of the equation. From the job/status/credential part of the equation, and as I’ve said before, the effect of school on labor market outcomes is quite binary: you have a degree and make a lot more money in the aggregate, or you don’t and you make a lot less money. Starting a degree without finishing it is one of the worst things you can do, speaking financially and in terms of opportunity cost. That’s why it’s so vital for you to either start and finish or not start.

If you were 18 and didn’t know what the hell else to do, I would tell you to go to college because your peers are doing it and most 18-year-olds don’t know anything and waste most of their time anyway. You could noodle around in a lot of classes and maybe learn something and at least you’ll finish with a degree. Beyond that, a lot of college happens between the lines, through living in dorms and developing a peer network. But you’re not 18, you already know something (you do), and you have a (presumed) goal that you don’t necessarily have to go through school to accomplish. If your goal changes—i.e. you decide you don’t want to work in retail or coffee or unskilled labor and you want to get some other kind of job—then my advice will change.

A distressingly small amount of actual learning goes on in college classrooms. You can see this in Arun and Josipka’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. You can read a different take by searching for “The Case Against Education,” which is the title of Bryan Caplan’s book concerning signaling / credentialism in education. Or you can look at the people around you, who might be the most compelling argument. People who are really determined to get education do get it, but outside of the hard sciences, there’s a LOT of bullshit. The stuff that isn’t bullshit will be hard for you to find. Not impossible, but hard. And you don’t get the monetary benefits without finishing.

The college wage premium is still real, but it only applies to people who actually want to work at jobs that require college degrees. If you want to be an engineer, go to college. In “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America,” Scott Gerber points out that “A degree does not guarantee you or your children a good job anymore. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee you a job: last year, 1 out of 2 bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed.” I look around the University of Arizona, and it’s clear to me that a variety of majors—comm and sociology are the most obvious—provide almost no real intellectual challenges and hence no real skills, whatsoever. The business school at the U of A seems better, but it’s still hard for me to ascertain, from the outside, if what goes on there really matters.

To recap: I don’t think going to school is bad or will hurt you. But I’m also not convinced that going to school is an optimal use of time / money for you.

I still think that, if you really want to be a writer, the absolute number one thing you have to do is write a lot—and want to write a lot, because the writing itself comes from the desire. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the research on the “10,000-hour rule,” or the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill. I’m not totally convinced that 10,000 hours is the magic number, or that anyone can deliberately practice for 10,000 hours in a given field and master it, but the basic idea—that you have to spend a LOT of time practicing in order to achieve mastery—is sound. To the extent you want to be a writer and that you spend time in classes that are at best tangentially involved with being a writer, I think you are making a mistake in the way you’re allocating your limited time and resources. You might be better off, say, going to the library and reading every Paris Review interview, going back to the beginning, and writing down every quote that speaks to you.

All of us have 24 hours in a day. Any time you spend doing one thing can’t be spent doing another. If you want to become a writer, I think you should allocate most of your time to writing, not to classes, unless you want to be a writer in some officially sanctioned organ, like a newspaper.

Finally, if you want to be a better writer, write stuff (blog posts, novels, essays, whatever) and send them to me. I will give you more detailed feedback than 99% of your professors. With me, the price is also right.

Beyond that, I want to emphasize just how hit-and-miss my education was, especially now that I look back on it. This was clearest to me in high school: as a freshman and sophomore, I had three really good English teachers from whom I learned a lot: Thor Sigmar, Mindy Leffler, and Jack someone, who taught journalism but whose name now escapes me, though he was very good at what he did and had a very dry sense and hilarious of humor. He also drove a black Miata and was clearly in the closet, at least from the perspective of his students. Then I had two terrible teachers: one named Rich Glowacki, who, distressingly, appears to still be teaching (at least based on a cursory examination of Google, and another named Nancy Potter. The former did an excellent impression of a animatronic corpse and was fond of tests like “What color was the character’s shoe in Chapter 6?” Moreover, one time I came in to talk to him about the “literary terms” he wanted us to memorize for a test. He couldn’t define many of the terms himself; in other words, he was testing us on material that he himself didn’t know.

That moment of disillusionment has stayed with me for a very long.

The other, Nancy Potter, was so scattered that I don’t think anything was accomplished in her class. She also wrote a college letter of recommendation for me that was so screwed up, and so strewn with typos and non sequiturs, that my Dad and I had to rewrite it for her. When your 18-year-old student is a better and more competent writer than you, the teacher, something is seriously amiss.

In college, I went to Clark University, where pretty much all the professors in all the departments are selected for their interest and skill in teaching. I ran into few exceptions; one was a guy who appeared to be about a thousand years old and who taught astronomy. He has trouble speaking and didn’t appear to know what he wanted to speak about on any given day.

Now that I know more about universities, I can only assume he was on the verge of retirement, or was already emeritus, and had been given our class of non-majors because a) he couldn’t do much damage there and b) the department knew it was filled with students who were taking the class solely to fulfill the somewhat bogus science requirement. He didn’t do much damage, except for some infinitesimally small amount to Clark’s reputation, and I assume the other people in the department were happy to avoid babysitting duty.

He, however, was very much the exception at Clark.

Most public colleges and universities are quite different than Clark, and the teaching experience is closer to public high schools, with some good moments and some bad. If your goal is to be an artist, or to learn any kind of skill in depth, you could spend years paying tuition, taking prerequisites of dubious utility, and struggling to find the right teacher or teachers, all without actually accomplishing your goal: learning some kind of skill in-depth.

I don’t think this applies solely to writers, either. If you’re a programmer, there are hacker collectives, or user groups, or equivalents, in many places. Online communities are even more prevalent. I have no idea how good or useful such places and people are. But the price is right and the cost of entry is low. Determined people will find each other. If you’ve got the right attitude towards receiving and processing criticism, you should be ready to take advantage. Knowledgable people should be able to point you in the direction of good books, which are hard to find. You should signal that you’re ready to learn. If you do those things right, you can get most if not all of what you would normally get out of school. But you also have to be unusually driven, and you have to be able to function without the syllabus/exam/paper structure imposed by school. If you can’t function without the external imposition of those constraints, however, you’re probably not going to make it as an artist anyway. The first thing you need is want. The second thing you need is tenacity. The first is useless without the second.

Stories like “Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0″ should inspire you, especially because you need even less money to be a writer than you do to make a movie. Arguably you also need less money to be a musician than you do to make a movie, although I’m less knowledgable on that subject and won’t make absolute pronouncements on it.

Again, I am not anti-school, per se, but it is important to understand how much or most school is about signaling and credentialing, and how easy a lot of school is if you’re willing to stay quiet, keep your ducks in a line, and jump through the hoops presented. It’s also important to understand the people who benefit most from offering arts training: the instructors. They get a (relatively) light teaching load, the possibility of tenure, a cut of your tuition, and time and space to pursue their passion, while you pay for their advice. Getting a gig as a creative writing professor is pretty damn sweet, regardless of the outcomes for students. That doesn’t mean creative writing professors can’t be very good, or very helpful, or improve your work, or dedicated to teaching, but it does mean that you should be cognizant of what benefits are being derived in any particular economic transaction. When small amounts of money are involved, it’s easy to ignore the economic transaction part of school, but now that tuition is so high, it’s impossible for anyone but the stupendously rich to ignore financial reality, like who gains the most when you enroll in a creative writing seminar.

As a side note, I think we’re already starting to see a shift away from the college-for-everyone mentality (that’s what the posts by Gerber and others are doing). Ironically enough, the universities themselves are involved in a perverse loan-based system whose present incentives are eventually going to drive their customer base away through price hikes. Universities are still going to be good deals and useful for some people, but those people will probably turn out to be more intellectual and analytical—the kinds of people who will benefit from knowledge dissemination and who will ultimately feel the need to create new knowledge. I also suspect a lot of non-elite private schools are going to have even larger problems than public schools. This isn’t a novel argument, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or any less likely to happen.

Anyway, I’m broadening the view too far here. The important thing is that you understand yourself and understand the system that you’re entering and how it incentivizes its participants. If you understand that, I think you’ll increasingly understand my skepticism about the utility of college classes for someone in your situation.

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