Breaking my own promises

I’m all for setting goals and making long-term plans for myself. But my academic career kicked off when I started to break the promises I’d made to myself.

-Promise number one: I will decide on a major before entering college and never change it.

After a lot of indecision and self-induced pressure to pick a major in high school, I settled for English education. I reached that decision because I knew that I liked editing and talking about books, and I figured it was a pretty good bet since an inordinate number of my relatives are teachers.

After taking two semesters of education classes, it was time to officially apply to the department. The application included a 12-page essay about why I wanted to be a teacher, how I would motivate students and a number of ethical topics. As I began to write I realized I was lying to myself. I didn’t have the patience, the energy or drive to do anything I was writing about.

Thus began my quarter-life crisis. I knew I couldn’t let go of my English degree but worried about its stigma as an impractical field. Salvation came in the form of a panel of English major alumni. As they talked about their careers, I realized that almost all of them had my dream jobs–some combination of reading, writing and editing–which I never knew had existed.  And almost all of them had tacked a mass communications degree on with their English major.

I dropped my education major and added mass communications a few days later.

-Promise number two: I will not join the mass communications department.

In the midst of those education classes freshman year, I also took an introduction to media course because all along I was vaguely interested in the idea of writing for media. The professor and I, to put it nicely, just did not get along. He quizzed over information that was not in the book or lectures, constantly rambled about unrelated topics and graded according to some mystery system which no one in the class could figure out. He was one of those professors.

I knew that I never wanted to risk having this professor again and had concluded from his dull lectures that the field was unworthy of my time. After an episode of particularly unfair grading of the final exams, I declared to all my friends that I would never under any circumstances join the mass communications department.

Breaking promise number one led me to breaking promise number two. I’ve since abandoned the field I pretended so adamantly to be passionate about and joined one I once claimed to hate. Now, I’m not only in the mass communications department, but taking on one of the biggest and most time-consuming leadership roles it offers.

Oops. Too bad I love it.

What the classes don’t teach

As a liberal arts student, I’ve had the opportunity (and have been required) to take courses on a wide array of topics, from Voice and Diction (tongue teasers galore!) to Digital Photography (more PhotoShop tips than you can shake a stick at), from Sun and Solar Systems (more math than I expected) to Spirituality in Literature (all the spiritualities!).

But for all the nuggets of knowledge I have I collected, the best have come from outside the classroom. While it was tough to move to the next state over to a place where I knew almost no one, I’m glad I did.

Living in a dorm is like a liberal arts experience of its own. Depending on the types of people you live with, new experiences build up. Doing normal things, such as washing dishes, trying to fall asleep and coordinating shower times, become learning opportunities simply because they involve working with new people.

Here are some nonacademic nuggets I’ve picked up over the last three years:

  1. It’s impossible to kid yourself into majoring in a field that’s not meant for you. Don’t lie to yourself.

  2. There’s no shame in looking to the simple things for fun. Think sidewalk chalk.

  3. With a good nickname, you’ll go far.

  4. Don’t put leftover cooking oil down the toilet. It may seem like a good idea, but it’s not.

  5. Dryer sheets are one of the most versatile inventions known to man. Besides their obvious use for laundry, they also repel bugs, get rid of static in hair, remove adhesive residue and double as an air freshener for any room or closet.

  6. You don’t really know someone until you live with them. Living together is the test.

  7. A good backpack will be your best friend, especially on a hilly campus.

  8. Baking soda removes coffee and tea stains from mugs. Good to remember after marathon study sessions, which almost always require caffeine.

  9. Sometimes the best alarm clock is your roommate and/or suitemate. Especially if they have a blow-horn app on their phone.

  10. Breakfast is your friend and cannot be replaced by caffeine.

  11. It’s okay to change, and it’s okay to move on.

Penmanship: a necessary art

Studies show that cursive instruction has been declining in U.S. classrooms since the 1970s, according to a recent report from the Washington Post. Common Core Standards, which 45 states have adopted since 2010, don’t require cursive instruction but let states and districts decide whether it should be included.

According to the article, while some districts require teachers to teach cursive, few actually devote the time to do so. They choose to spend more classroom time for technology and standardized test preparation.

While I rarely write in cursive anymore (and the cursive I do use leaves much to be desired), learning it did teach me the importance of having options and slowing down.

The English alphabet, both upper and lower cas...

The English alphabet, both upper and lower case letters, written in D’Nealian cursive. The grey arrows indicate the starting position for each letter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not entirely sure how old I was when I learned cursive. (Obviously cursive instruction had quite the impact on my life.) But I do remember that my classmates and I felt like we were under pressure trying to learn it. We had to learn one very specific way to write each letter, and for little, impatient hands, perfection is simply too much to ask. (And it’s not just me. Billy Madison thought so, too.)

We were told that we would be expected to use cursive for the rest of our lives because no one would take the time to read our printing. But once I entered the next grade the teachers asked us to never use it because they themselves had trouble reading it. So most of us dropped it and forgot most of our instruction, except for a small number of my peers who perfected the art and used it by their own choice.

Keyboarding, of course, is a different story. My parents forced me to take some kind of keyboarding or technology elective every year in middle school. At the time, keyboarding bored me to death and I hated the pressure of constantly pushing my speed. But as more of my teachers required only typewritten compositions, I thanked my parents for placing me in those computer classes.

Since I’ve learned print, cursive and keyboarding, I have options for note-taking, a huge advantage as a journalism student. When taking notes at a speech or interview, I can choose to type out quotes and notes or take notes by hand with the help of audio recordings. The methods I use depend on the person (or people) I’m interviewing and the type of story I’m writing.

But speed isn’t everything. Though cursive as a script may be dying away, the need for good penmanship (even in block print) never will.

When learning to write, teachers ought to encourage students to slow down and carefully consider each character. This will teach them from a young age to consider each word they write and, later, each idea they construct. That’s why I’m thankful for all the meticulous and varied writing instruction I’ve received. Going slow builds better writers, no matter the script they use.

In defense of Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton. It’s a pretty common opinion that she’s just too much–her clothes a little too gaudy, her hair a little too big, her voice a little too twangy and her physique a little too busty.

On the outside she may look like a ditzy, narcissistic starlet, but her past and present reveal that she is much more than that.

Hers is the quintessential American rags-to-riches story. One of 12 children, her family lived a small cabin in Tennessee, in a rural region of the Great Smokey Mountains which was and still is impoverished. Many of her family members and relatives were illiterate.

Dolly Parton at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Dolly Parton at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With an estimated $450 million net worth, Parton launched her Imagination Library in 1996. Children enrolled in the foundation receive one book per month from birth until they enter kindergarten to foster early literacy skills and a love of reading in pre-schoolers.

The program began in Parton’s home county and has since spread all over the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

Instead of simply throwing money at issues such as illiteracy, she took the challenges she faced in her own humble beginnings and created a solution to help others in that situation.

And unlike most other celebrities, her positive, down-to-earth attitude is actually worth imitating. She radiates joy wherever she goes and has impressive energy on stage even at the age of 67.

Her music is a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t write about sex, violence or anything super depressing (with the exception of a couple notable tearjerkers).

Her honest journey from her humble beginnings has motivated her to give back to her fans in her own perky, glitzy way.