Friday, June 18, 2010

Certified: Three

Technocrap and Other Adventures

A few days after my interview I got paperwork in the mail from the university: a congratulations letter, financial forms, and my student ID number. I could now begin the process of registering.

Easier said than done. It took me an entire day to get signed up onto the three different interfaces needed for this university and then to register. It was so cumbersome and difficult that I started to have doubts about going back to school.

I had to tell someone at the school how awful this process was. I mean, if they knew they would change it, right?

By the end of the day I was very discouraged, and I had a terrible headache.

The next day, when I felt better, I composed a letter to the assistant at my department. I hated to begin a relationship with a complaint. But I'd do it. I figured things couldn't change unless someone talked about what wasn't working.

Unfortunately when I complain about things or point out flaws in processes, the response is usually something like, "Really? You're the only one who has ever mentioned this. You must be really sensitive."

That was usually when I got the invisible badge of troublemaker, or worse, the invisible badge of the overly sensitive troublemaker.

I wrote the letter. I said I was sorry to start out complaining, but I wanted to know why they used three different interfaces for each student at one university. I told her registering was awful. I would need to use these interfaces daily, and it couldn't be torture every day; if it was, I wasn't willing to do it.

I did try to call first, by the way. The person I needed to talk with was out of the office, so I sent off the letter. Once something gets in my head, I need to get it out or else it gets caught in my brain like a hamster on a wheel. I needed to either have the conversation with someone about the problems or I needed to send the email. Only then would I stop thinking about it.

I felt for sure I was going to get the standard reply: "This is the way is it. Get over it."

Fortunately that's not the answer I got. The assistant acknowledged problem. It was something they were working on. She also acknowledged that the registration process was not ideal, and she gave me some hints to make it easier next time. She was amazed that I had accomplished so much without any help.

It wasn't a brush-off which was more than I expected. And never once did she say I was too sensitive.

That felt better.

I decided to keep going forward with this.

I got my financial award letter. They (the federal government) believed we could afford $5,000 a year for my education. This was exactly what Mario and I had figured. They offered to loan us the rest. Actually they offered to loan us about three times more than I needed. Mario and I talked, and we decided we would get a loan for half of the tuition.

I looked up how much interest we would have to pay on this loan and discovered that by the time we paid it off, we would have paid about thirty percent above and beyond the principal. That didn't sound like a low-interest student loan to me; it sounded like usury.

I also found out about what books I'd need for my classes. One of them was $175. That was over half my weekly pay.

I kept wondering how the average person managed to go to school nowadays.

I emailed my advisor some questions about the program, and she emailed me back that I needed to chill out. She didn't use those words, but that was the essence of the email. I needed to get through these first two classes before I made any plans for other semesters.

Live in the now, baby.

At first I was offended. How dare she advise me to stop my incessant planning and figuring. I wasn't some twenty-something person who didn't know what to do with the rest of her life, by god. I was a fifty-something person wondering what to do with the rest of her life. Much wiser than those twenty-somethings.

Yes, well, I quickly realized my advisor was supposed to advise me. That was her job. And she was right. Why look at which classes I'd take next year when I hadn't even started my classes this year? Maybe I'd hate them. Maybe I wouldn't be able to do the work. Maybe I'd quit before I even started.

Yes, I would stop obsessing about my classes in Seattle.

I began looking around for classes I could take closer to home.

Mission accomplished: Obsession diverted.

I looked around for classes about sustainable building.

Toxic building materials had made me sick. Was there something I could do to prevent this from happening to other people? Why didn't people use more sustainable and healthy building methods? It was certainly possible nowadays. Were they ignorant of the dangers, or did they just not care?

Even buildings that were supposedly "green" weren't always healthy. They might be energy efficient, but they didn't necessarily use no-VOC materials. (You know that smell that accompanies paint, carpeting, vinyl? That's outgassing. And what it is outgassing is "volatile organic compounds" or VOC. These compounds can cause all sorts of physical and mental problems and are especially hard on the little nervous systems of children. Some materials outgas for years.)

I should become a sustainability consultant and help people make those kinds of decisions. When the library remodeled, the librarian and the maintenance department didn't know where to go to find carpet, flooring, and paint that were no-VOC. Mario and I did the research for them (and we followed the advice of our friend Steve Rypka). That could be part of what I did in this new world of It's Easy Being Green avec Kim.

I found a certificate program in sustainable building at the community college in Portland. I loved this college. I went to one of the campuses nearly every Friday to help out my friend the anthropology professor with her class. (Not that she needed my help.) The class was usually in the technology building, this gorgeous space with an atrium and bamboo garden in the middle of it.

Every Friday, my friend taught a shamanism class. Spring semester she taught Celtic shamanism. Last year it was Faery Shamanism. Next fall, she would be teaching Norse Shamanism.

I got such a kick out of being a part of this class, sometimes sitting in the middle of the floor of the classroom drumming, sometimes going outside under the old Doug firs where we did ceremony honoring the land and the directions.

It made sense to me that they would have a sustainable building program. I should have thought of it earlier. I filled out an application.

A week or so later, I was accepted. Soon enough, I got my student ID and I logged onto their site. It took me about 30 seconds to get on, and everything was there: classes schedules, registration, financial info, email, bookstore, library. It had all the things I needed on one page after one login. It was such a joy after all my struggles with my university in Seattle. (I sent an email to the assistant in Seattle to urge them to check out this student interface.)

As part of this process, I had to get my transcripts. I hadn't really looked at what classes I'd taken for years. I was startled as I flipped through the transcripts. Most of the time I took five classes a term, but sometimes I took six or seven classes! I also worked twenty to thirty hours or more a week at a job. No wonder I'd been stressed out and burned out most of the time.

As I looked at these classes, I realized something was missing. I had not taken a single science class. I had signed up for an astronomy class, but I'd gotten bored when I realized we would never be outside staring up at the stars, so I dropped out. I took several psychology courses if you count that as science.

Other than that: nothing. Which was strange. I had started high school wanting to be a research biologist. Now I wondered why I hadn't taken any science classes. I was probably afraid. I was always working so much and so hard; I couldn't afford to take courses that were too tough or required lots of homework and risk the chance of flunking or getting a bad grade. Bad grades meant my average would drop and then I'd lose any of my (very small) scholarships.

I was also startled to see that I had taken two Math courses. I had no memory of taking two classes and only a vague memory of one. I had taken it at night and I remembered I had never been so bored in my life, except maybe when I took Logic.

I hated logic. Loathed it. Loathed philosophy too. I didn't understand what use logic would be in my life, yet I was supposed to take this course. With philosophy I felt like I had to read supposed wisdom written by a bunch of white men who sat around trying to figure out how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. What could be more useless? Why weren't they out working a job or cooking a meal or changing a diaper?

I was not impressed with them. I was a practical woman.

Interesting how I would marry a man who majored in Math and Philosophy. Of course when he talked to me about Math or philosophers, I was fascinated. He knows how to tell a story. We have probably had more intense and fascinating conversations about math and philosophy than anything else, except possibly literature.

In any case, I registered for a class in the architecture and design department at the community college. It wasn't science, but it was practical: introduction to building systems.

Later Mario and I went into the city to the campus bookstore to get books for my class. One of the books was $125. I groaned.

Mario said, "It's just the cost of doing business."

I gritted my teeth and bought them.

As I carried the books out of the store, I thought about what I was doing. I was apparently incapable of doing anything slowly. Or doing one thing at a time. In the course of just a few weeks I had decided to totally upend my life. I was not only going to school in Seattle; I was now going to school in Portland. This little country mouse was in for a ride.

I was more than just a little crazy.


gb said...

You know I have to defend my profession.

College textbooks have always been expensive, and scientific/engineering texts are amongst the most expensive. Partly because the actual cost of producing them is very high, and partly because today's faculty demand so much free stuff along with a text before they will adopt one. All the web sites, CDs, test banks, and desk copies (it is not unusual for a professor to demand four or five desk copies of a text) have to paid for, and the one that pays for them is the student.

Like I said texts have always been expensive. In 1965, my freshman year, my texts cost $48 for my first semester, which sounds very reasonable until you remember that at the time I took home about $36 a week from my full time job. (Minimum wage was $1.10 an hour.) Dad only made about $100 a week.

This last August and January when I was working the first week of school it seemed to me the average kid, well his or her parent really, was paying about $425 for their books. In Washington the minimum wage is $8.55, or about $342 a week.

There is, in fact, a slight increase in the cost of the books as a percentage of wages. In 1965 it took me 45 hours (figuring it at gross pay) to earn my books; and this year it took the average student 50 hours to earn their books. I think the five hour difference can be safely blamed on the internet/multimedia materials that must come with almost all books.

In 1983 there was an architecture text I dearly wanted. I dreamed of it. It was $125. Architecture is a very expensive course of study. On top of all those books there's all those pencils. Or at least there used to be.

Finally, I know the company I still sometimes work for is exploring lower cost alternatives. This fall they will be starting a rental program, and every semester more books are available online. Instead of paying $150 for a hard copy they will pay $30 to $50 for the password to the online version. So things are changing. Perhaps even for the better.

And last (see I saved my complaint for last) why is it always acceptable to denigrate, dismiss and ridicule men who happened to have Northern Europeans for ancestors. You would never think of saying something like "With philosophy I felt like I had to read supposed wisdom written by a bunch of African men who sat around trying to figure out how many animal spirits could fit on the head of a lance." I find it a bit offensive that my ideas can be dismissed as worthless simply because my parentage is Caucasian and I am male

And by the way did you hear what Michelle did with her student loan? We had the resources to pay for her to get her Accounting degree, but she took out a student loan anyway, being very careful to get one that could be paid off upon graduation with very little or no interest due. She then invested it for the two years. When she graduated she paid the loan off and was left with a nice little profit.

Take care, I know I'm argumentative tonight. I think she's been gone way too long for my sanity.

Kim Antieau said...

Hey Guy, if the professors had actually assigned us to read any African philosophers that were as boring as the ones I read, I would have felt the same way. But they didn't. I don't think my opinion is denigration. It's my opinion. And like I said, once I had a "teacher" who was interesting the old dead white guys weren't quite as uninteresting.

Kim Antieau said...

Besides, dear bro-in-law, you missed the spirit of the piece while you got bogged down in pet peeves perhaps? It was not a diatribe against textbooks or dead white philosophers. It's just part of a larger narrative of my experiences. My observations aren't particularly new: Textbooks are expensive for people who have little money. Philosophical studies can be deadly boring. The philosophy I was taught was irrelevant to me. (I didn't mention that it was patriarchal *stuff* that had no meaning in my life, which I could have done. But that's a different essay.) And yet when someone with heart and enthusiasm had a dialogue with me about philosophy--while agreeing that some of it was too esoteric and practically useless--I was quite fascinated.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.