Though it may be difficult to peg education as a ‘hot topic’ these days, none of us can ignore the category-ten shift that students, teachers, and career-makers are experiencing as we all continue to reel amid rampant economic collapse and a global pandemic.
Not a pretty outlook, no.
That’s why I was sincerely glad when my long-time friend and fellow academic Erika Lindsay agreed to sit down with me over an outdoor beverage to talk about education, learning, and – as she would surprise me by mentioning – career-building during (and after) a pandemic. Just what exactly is education now that everything’s changed? What challenges are today’s learners going to face that yesterday’s students will never have to experience? Can we rely on our present-day education systems any longer to give us the right tools to succeed?
Never one to shy away from offering up her perspective on life’s biggest questions, Erika is bright and eager as she takes the first few sips of her morning’s coffee. Against a backdrop of fall foliage, I am reminded of our own school days: our first friendly interactions as classmates under the brilliance of Dr. Sarah Copland (who kindly introduced us to the ways of Virginia Woolf), and later our continued correspondence as she put her anthropology degree to the test up north in Alaska.
Both of us watch the fog rolling in over the distant North Saskatchewan below, and I am reminded that Erika, like many of my academic peers, has gone away from Canada and come back again; that she’s one of the many of us who are slowly getting used to calling Edmonton home. And like many of my academic peers, too, I know now that she’d also faced the strange reality of going to school while life ‘on the outside’ interrupted again and again. Yet she, like all those others (maybe, like you), seems to bounce back from everything the world’s thrown at her—and has some serious know-how to show for it.
“So, what’s the story then? Where should we start on education?” I ask, the fog of my breath lost in the light of September’s early-morning sun.
“Hm, maybe with…where I went to school? It was my Mom who first got the writing idea in my head after high school. She suggested I go into the Professional Writing Program at MacEwan University – it was a college back then – and…well…you know the rest!” We both laugh for a moment.
“Yes, I do,” I say, “but give me the benefit of the doubt. We have different majors, after all!”
“Sure, sure. Okay so…”
In Search of Education: Pre-COVID Musings on Academic Advancement
Erika starts by telling me how she basically threw herself into a bunch of different disciplines along with professional writing, but that one of her professors there steered her towards the Bachelor of Arts program in English, specifically.
“I mean, of course I wanted to listen to professional!” she laughs, suddenly distracted, eyeing the view behind me.
“Oh my gosh, is that guy proposing?” she whispers, excited. I whip my head around to see a man kneeling on one knee. Both of us crowd behind the pinkish-red pillar of the Jeongja where we stand, staring at the man who (thankfully) does not notice us.
“Oh, No! I was wrong! He’s just stretching. Just stretching, totally stretching,” she says as we both fall into peals of laughter, fully comfortable now in our reunion. It’s been a while.
“Anyway, I’ll be honest. It wasn’t going well at first. I took all of these 100-level courses, any of them I could think of, like computer sciences or astronomy or history, but by doing that I ended up failing a few. I had a really bad GPA the first year and so they put me on—or, well, they just sat me down and said, ‘you’re not doing well and this might not be for you.’” We share a grimace.
“And I was shocked,” she continues, “but you know, stopping wasn’t really an option. Back then I had this mindset where, and I think it had a lot to do with the way I was raised, I just needed that piece of paper. And so, to get back in I had to do this psychology course that actually teaches you how to be a university student. It helps you learn how to schedule and manage your time, and how to study, and it was so beneficial I had to ask myself: why wasn’t this mandatory for everyone?”
Sipping my London fog (hot from Iconoclast just off 124th Street), my mind jumps to a long-held belief I’ve kept since my own time at MacEwan University: that going to class isn’t really about what you’re learning, but how you’re learning it. It’s the writing and studying and managing your time that’s going to translate best into the workforce after graduation. But then, as Erika often does, she switches gears on me so quickly I barely have time to react: [trigger warning, death, illness]
“So, like I said, it was my Mom’s suggestion about the writing program. But then, it was about a year and a half into this whole school thing that she was diagnosed with cancer.”
Another memory comes to the front of my mind: Erika on our last day of classes together, telling me all of this for the first time, almost casually, in passing as class is about to start. She mentions her mother, and her death. I swear I’m listening as present-day Erika tells me how she’d just thrown herself into her studies without looking back, but really I’m stuck in that memory, remembering Erika as I knew her first—how she must have struggled to hold it all together right next to me every day…and how I was none the wiser.
“I just became this adamant student. I didn’t want to deal with family stuff so instead I focused on school stuff, even after my mom passed. I just sort of buckled down. And it was good for me, because I had a good GPA, but then after I came out of school I had this degree that I thought I wanted, only to fluster around trying to find something in my field. Then of course I’d been putting off all this emotional turmoil, so there was even more reason for me to want to focus on: ‘okay, what do I do now’. The obvious answer was education.
I had the idea of maybe going back and getting my Master’s in Anthropology since, I’m not sure if I mentioned, I have a B.A. in Anthropology with only a minor in English. Then while I was working at a few not-for-profits in Edmonton, I started researching volunteer jobs and found a dig here hosted by GM. This would have been…2017, near Mill Creek, and I lived right down the road, so it was kismet: I had found something I could literally ride my bike to. I felt like I had worked so hard, and luckily at my one job I’d banked up all these hours…I was actually able to take a paid month off to volunteer for this dig!”
A Pause for Archaeological Excitements
Erika stops for just a moment, and I can’t help but pipe up at my excitement: “Um, excuse me? You did an archaeological dig here in Edmonton? That’s so wild!”
She lifts her eyebrows at my silly surprise—of course there are archaeological sites in and around Edmonton! I giggle nervously and I can see she won’t hold it against me–that we both know this place has heaps of history just waiting to be found. In fact, just after this interview during our subsequent walk along an alien neighbourhood trail, Erika would excitedly point to an exposed drainage pipe, listing off each kinds of system or building to which it could have belonged.
“I did! Honestly it was the thing that really cemented that this was something I wanted to do. We did all the archaeological things: we mapped out little test spots and dug one-metre by one-metre units. We did trowel work sifting and finding artifacts, cataloguing them, cleaning them and then cataloguing them again. It was this whole meticulous process and I loved every second of it because it brought me back to that thing—to being at school where I love learning and working with my hands, and really being able to form an opinion on something.
That’s the most significant part, right? I don’t think you need a post-secondary education to form an educated opinion. You can have a dialogue with someone that has a cemented opinion in something that is founded in some sort of real, substantial thing, and learn just as much.”
I hold onto that thought – the separation of learning from knowledge, perhaps of academia from education. I get the sense that she’ll return to it again later.
“Anyway, long story short, I made it up to Alaska by doing the same thing again: looking around for opportunities that would get me into school. It was almost an obsession, to have a plan. So I made this one where I would go up there and do digs in a state that’s been colonized twice in the last 120 years-”
I stop her again with my naiveté. “By who?!”
“Oh, Jess, there is such a dense history up there! Both Russia and America have colonized that land, and the amount of data up there…! But, for beginners, I have to say that another draw was because – going through our education system – as a white woman I know I don’t have any business talking about anything that’s not mine. So with Mill Creek we were looking for a meat-packing plant from 1907, which didn’t have any documentation due to its size. It was like trying to find a hidden gem.
Actually, we found the footings for it and we found the ground work, so it is there! But its part of a history of Edmonton from the last century or so, and I was really inspired to take part in something with connections to myself. I mean, I grew up in Edmonton and have family that would have been here at that time, and though they may not have worked in the plant, my Uncle for instance lived down the road and remembers it being a part of his life. So I felt like I could say something about it—that I was allowed to speak on it.”
We stop to appreciate the brilliant colours painted on the underside of the Jeongja’s roof before she continues.
“When I went to Alaska, too, I wanted to do industrial archaeology because with the wars and the transfer of land ownership, there is so much still held in place from when Russia owned it and then again from when the States laid their claim. Even though I’m a Canadian…as a Canadian I felt there was probably something there that I could sink my teeth into.”
“And sometimes, as the outside, unbiased perspective, maybe you can say something,” I say quickly before we switch tacts and return to our original subject again.
Gambling with Education: Weighing Risk vs. Reward
“Like I said, my main educational drive for Alaska was to go work there and get my Master’s. I did all this research again, with my plan, and I did end up finding this great program with the Smithsonian exhibit at the museum in Anchorage up there, but in the end life interrupted again and I ended up right back where I started, coming home to Edmonton, not going to University this time, but still thinking that was the only thing that would get me out of this trap, you know? School. And then just like with the dig, which stopped after six weeks, I was only getting my footing and what I wanted, and then it just ended. I started to feel like I was just stopping and starting.”
“Right. Right,” I interject, trying to remain casual with the questions. “I like this train of thought you seem to be hinting at too, with this idea that we go out with this plan of how we are going to get things educationally, how we’ll stop our whole lives and do a bunch of research for this one thing, and as we start going for it, somehow it just doesn’t happen. So now we have this whole educational background that I, for one, am still just starting to realize is even valuable at all…because I didn’t really look at it as learning, those parts where I stopped and started.”
“Exactly, there’s something about the experience of it, the knowledge that I gained just by researching that future, or the ability to be on a path where I can just go for something. And as much as there have been blockades and u-turns, and as much as I wouldn’t want to give up that experience, I’m also only now coming to this point where I realize I’ve gone down this road a lot, and even though I’ve gained a lot from it, it’s not really fulfilling something that I want it to fulfill anymore.
And then, when I do try something, I sometimes feel that I’m not able to grasp onto the same things I felt I was able to when I was in school. To me that’s such a disjarring thing. Already when I came back to Edmonton from Alaska I was ready for that same path: education.” Erika blows the steam off her coffee before taking another sip. “I guess when I came back I just wanted that feeling of..of feeling as if I were doing something day to day.”
A group of middle-aged women set up their camp chairs on the grass nearby and begin their Thursday chatter. Both of us listen in for a moment, enjoying the slight cool breeze on the air. In the distance the city is bright in all its reflective, pastel glass. I watch as one of the women moves her chair away from the others, adjusting the mask on her face.
“Then a global pandemic happens,” I say after a second.
“Then a global pandemic happens,” she agrees, “and once again I’m sitting there cut off. I didn’t even get to plan.”
We’re silent again, though the world around us isn’t. I have this moment where I begin to realize that maybe my education won’t even mean anything anymore, in this new present. It’s a thought that’s been with me often since the whole pandemic started, and each time it rises I try to shovel it down. This time when it rises, I worry I won’t have the strength, but Erika manages to instill a little bit of hope, even as I almost-fall:
“I don’t know. I guess it’s a good thing though. Somehow. I mean…I suppose the most significant and substantial thing you can carry with yourself isn’t what you have gone into education for, it’s how you exist in the world.”
Right. Because everything isn’t always education. Duh, Jessica.
“Actually,” I say finally, after another moment’s notice, “that’s kind of an interesting point. I guess in that sense our answer is to…to not assume the ends when we’re starting. Or, that old cliché: it’s the journey not the destination.”
“Yeah. We can do whatever it is that we think we need to do, but we also need to know at the end of it that it might not get you where you think you want to be going. That’s the risk. But I also think a lot of the time that can feel like failure—as if you haven’t learned anything. It’s a tough journey. I mean, for me I’ll think I’m an idiot or that I’m stupid on the ‘scale’ of educational accomplishment, when really it’s how I’ve gotten myself there, or how I’ve let myself become education-worthy.”
I stop and mull on the concept of being education worthy for a moment, considering its weight before responding.
“Right, so there’s that fight then, where we have to fight with ourselves because we feel like we’ve failed, or we’ve told ourselves that we’ve failed, or someone has told us we have, and we have to fight to turn that around.” I pause, thinking about the day prior, and some failure or another that had sent me off the rails. “For me, that process always looks something like: I get hurt. I take it really personally. I grieve for my so-called ‘failure’, and then I get real spiteful!” I jab my fist in the air and Erika does the same. “Fiesty!” she shouts.
The camp-chair ladies turn their heads and we both collapse into giggles before getting serious again. As she begins to speak, my mind wanders. I can’t help but think of the risks and rewards of education. How in a society that values that little piece of paper, it’s still possible to find a definition of success for those of us who don’t follow that prescribed ‘path’ the whole way through. How you can risk your money, and come out without a job, or risk your time and come out without a degree, but still find value in yourself and your work.
“And yeah, we’ve all heard it before,” she says, “‘you have to fail to succeed’, but I also think that the ability to feel failure as a success—that’s the fight. It’s something you have to train yourself to do. Like a muscle, it may be easier for some, and harder for others, but we can all build it.”
I nod. “Okay! So then that makes me think of the ideas we’ve been posing between…sort of hands-on training and educational learning. Or not those two things, but academic learning and non-academic learning maybe.”
“Totally. And you see how that’s structured into the education system—how you’re just a letter grade. You could be a C-plus, but is that really you? [Can we get this as a tagline, someone? A sub-heading?]. And I think another conversation that’s being had more often is that it’s not the issues within the system, it’s the system itself. Sometimes I even think that the education we had can no longer exist now.”
“You could be a C-plus, but is that really you?”: Value and Worth in a ‘Post’-Covid World
“I’m pretty here for every kind of breakdown,” I respond. The sudden talk of revolution gets the attention of the magpies who laugh at us from atop the Totem pole (Haida: gyáaʼaang) overlooking us from the southeast.
“If it means putting a stop to that need for that piece of paper, or certificate, or that habit where we keep negating everything we’ve done and learned along the way…” she stops, looking to the magpies who have again gotten our attention. “Gone are the days where you list your credentials,” she says finally, not looking at me.
“Do you think that’s true because of COVID, or just because?” I ask. She thinks on it a second, her eyes unfocused. I can’t tell if our train of thought gets lost in the distraction, but when we resume, it seems the conversation has shifted again, if only slightly.
“Before…I was getting the feeling of being so lucky that we lived in a world where if you didn’t want to work somewhere anymore, you could really make a plan to move into a new career through education. It seemed totally doable.”
“Even to feel like we could,” I say. “To tell people that that was something we wanted. I mean, in the past I told my fair share of bosses the reason I wanted to leave was to grow elsewhere, and they’ve always been receptive to that.” I stop speaking, but in my head I begin thinking of the too-many conversations I’ve had within my network of colleagues and friends recently—how they’re afraid or simply can’t leave their jobs right now, regardless of how bad things are. We live in a new reality. The questions are different. I decide to alter my tactics.
“Okay, maybe off the cuff with this then, but another loaded question, you know me. And I do find myself thinking about this a lot lately, so…bear with me but: do you think it’s worth it to go back to school right now?”
She doesn’t even skip a beat in answering:
“No. Oh no. If you’re paying the same tuition fees that you would be by sitting in a classroom and actually having that learning experience? No. And honestly I’m beginning to think there’s going to be things like…you know how on certain medical exams when you’re travelling, where you’ll fill out an exam that asks were you in such and such country at this time? And if you were, then they have a medical test for you? Well there’s going to be tests like that in the career world where they’ll be like, did you get your degree during COVID times? Okay, well we have extra work for you to do because we don’t believe the academics you received were substantial of the job you’re applying for.”
Erika stops to fiddle with the lid of her now-empty coffee cup. “I think being a student right now, there are going to be ebbs and flows, but you’re not going to be getting the same education that you would be getting outside of COVID, so you’re not really applying for the same jobs in the same structure.”
“Right, and the curriculum itself was bred and grown out of a non-COVID environment, and now it’s like, how can we measure those skills? How do they bridge over? So, say, you want to study archaeology but you can never go near anyone? The protocols are all completely different now!” I’m a little hysterical, but between us, the energy is business as usual. (I also have the inkling that our caffeine is kicking in).
“As much as that sounds terrifying though, I can’t help but love the idea that this is a kind of forced shift,” she says.
“Right, because it was already happening, and now we have to adapt or die. At least, I know that leaders have been thinking the onus should be on employers to train and educate as opposed to institutions for a while, instead of just trying to allow their degree to speak for them. There are already jobs – and they’re probably succeeding right now – who have these great training programs, who are willing to invest in professional development.”
“Mhmm. But not all. There are a lot of jobs and employers who are trying to figure out how to function right now, and I think the bigger dilemma here is how do you hire after COVID? What is my credential as a business owner even worth in an economy that’s already moved on, especially with these people suddenly being in a position to say, ‘well, I’m sorry, but you were educated during these and these years and that’s just not good enough’.” She pauses a second before continuing, stretching her arms, her shoulders, her back.
“And I mean, we as adults and employers for those kids…we are going to have to step up and build a foundation for them to go to afterwards. There was already a disparity in access to education and technology, and its true now more than ever. More people are going into public spaces or requesting the use of laptops or computers or iPads—anything to access their assignments. And that’s just to go to school, let alone get a job. Plus you’ll see a bigger gap in wage…
…but once you get beyond those structures and barriers and all the issues there, when you get to actual learning, that piece of paper…more people are going to have to ask what that really means. I don’t think it’s going to have the same weight anymore, and honestly, I think that’s a great thing.
Because as it is now, and kind of as it was, you are going to be able to have an education, but still have a crummy version of life, because the world you go out into with that education is not receptive to you, especially if you’re an introvert, or disabled, or poor, or a person of colour, or a woman…you have these hurdles already stepping into the ‘cult of education’, and still find that in the end it means nothing.”
“Hmm. Yes. That’s a tough pill to swallow,” I say. My last sip of tea gone, our conversation seems to be heading for the close. Knowing we will have our own wayward chats following this small interview, I don’t mind rounding things out with a final touchpoint:
“I do like the idea that education and learning and knowledge aren’t just some mechanism you can feed into and get a specific outcome. Right now it feels like we’re moving farther and farther away from that.”
“Right. And I don’t think we can have a solid image of what people who are going through education right now might be experiencing, but I do think that we all have more of an option now to say no to standard education.
And if someone is going through their education right now, then they should talk to and reach out to family and their community, and should make their voice heard so their screen-education works for them. They need to show up at online discussions and take hold of what their education can be. It’s okay to step away from that structure that is set up for us…you know, where we sign up and they administer and then we leave. And I think now more than ever we have the ability to create what that education paradigm is. Whatever your feelings toward it—if you’re upset or scared or excited—utilize it.”
“Nice. So, we need to help ourselves and help others widen the concept of what education really is—and how to measure knowledge…that sum it up?”
“I’d say…that’s about it!” she’s grinning ear to ear as I click the big red record button on my phone for the second time in an hour, summing up the parts of our conversation that would be remembered long after the meeting ends. And as we go off on another adventure, talking openly about our lives and kicking up newly fallen leaves, I can’t help but wonder what kinds of measures we will use in this near future to ‘grade’ education, learning, and knowledge, and the extent to which our openness to this change will be the backbone to our survival.
Wishing you all the best,
From the both of us.