Saturday, December 1, 2012

Confessions of a Non-Trad

In the weeks leading up to my return to Academia, I was not a very enthusiastic guy.  In fact, the very concepts of “enthusiasm”, “excitement” and “pride” were completely lost on me.

See, as soon as I clicked that Finish button on UW-Waukesha’s enrollment website, the self-deprecating suburbanite in me jumped out and began to jab at me with the business end of a baseball bat labeled “shame”.  It didn't matter that the economy was in the tanker, or that the job market was bleak, or even that the rate of adults going back to school was at its highest ever.  The only thought going through my head was the warped ideology that I was twenty-eight, and I should be on my way by now, not starting over.  For a while, the word “failure” was a recurring character in the ongoing sitcom of my psyche.

Then it came.  September 4th.  Tuesday.  D-Day.  Turning onto University Drive and going up a hill littered with potholes, I watched the flocks of what looked to be twelve year-olds making their way up the sidewalk.  Every single one of them seemed to be fighting the weight of their over-stuffed backpack, without the advantage of post-pubescent muscle mass.  I swear to you, if it weren't for the smokers, this place would've looked like a junior high school.  Facial hair was more of a myth than a certainty to this bunch.  I expected a game of tag to break out at any moment.  I kept searching for the game of four square or hopscotch.   With my windows open, I knew, at any moment, I would hear “Cooties!!”  Have I made my point yet?  These fuckers looked young.

Another thing that caught me off guard was the diversity of these young cats.  It wasn't just skin or hair color, it was everything – all styles were represented.  It was like the training facility for people that walk down the Venice Beach Boardwalk was right here in Southeastern Wisconsin.  To be fair though, my previous college experience was not quite as diverse.  Once upon a time, I was locking down a degree in Criminal Justice.  Anyone who’s done the same wouldn't be surprised when I say the most diversity I witnessed was the day two guys walked in looking slightly different, and I learned there was more than one kind of hunting camouflage.  Back on University Drive, one of the examples of this melting pot I was about to join had both a positive and negative effect on me.  As I was looking for a parking spot, I noticed a hippie on a moped and it made me wonder what kind of awful experience I was going to have.  Though seconds later, that same hippie ran his little scooter into a curb and flew headfirst into a bush.  At that moment, every bit of dread I had turned into vague optimism and I thought to myself, "Maybe it won’t be so bad here after all."

A hippie falling is funny to anyone.

Cut to a few weeks later.  By now, the syllabus has been memorized, and textbooks are showing wear, but everyone still groans whenever someone mentions the hoakey “ice-breaker exercises” that I personally thought were limited to kindergarten classes, Lamaze circles and AA meetings.  Fortunately, the idea of being a guy in his late twenties that’s also in college is no longer a burden on my mind.  In fact, I've come to enjoy the experience.  Like an extremely watered-down version of a Primatologist living in the jungle, studying spider monkeys, I constantly observe the teenagers around me, learning odd things that I never knew before.  Though, there was a moment when I noticed a common theme that seemed to run through their entire generation.

Allow me to elaborate.  I was in one of my classes and during a small group discussion I couldn't help but hear some of the other conversations taking place in the room.  One exchange in particular caught my attention.  It was two guys talking, and one of them said a word that I, nor the kid he was talking to, could recognize.  Luckily my comrade in confusion was looking for answers.

“What the hell does that mean?” he asked.
“Oh that’s my new word for something that’s weird and cool at the same time.”
“Sweet, when did you make it up?”
“Over the summer.”

"Wait... what?"

The number of confused people in the room dropped to one, and that person was still me.  His friend, on the other hand, accepted the explanation and they continued like it never happened.  Don’t you think that’s weird in some kind of way?  Creating yet another word for something that’s beyond common and simply introducing it to someone else as if Merriam & Webster added it to the database the night before… I had never seen that before.  But I have seen other things like it since I sat down in my first class weeks before.  Right then, I figured out the Unified Theory of their generation.

They seemed to be much more concerned with being a pioneer than a professional.

 “It all makes sense now!” I thought to myself.  With all of them being so experienced at accessing instantaneous information, they’re constantly bombarded with new info that gets re-accessed over & over, and pretty soon it becomes stagnant.  Not to mention all of the well-known works of art, writing, music, etc. that are at the top of every search result.  Their constant exposure to these kids makes them lose their intellectual and creative merit after a while, they lose their luster and become commonplace.  Stare at the Mona Lisa long enough and it’ll look like a doodle.

It’s because of that, these younger generations are no longer looking for the best, they’re looking for the new... and in a way to them, the newest is the best.  That’s why a fresh internet meme pops up every hour and no matter how dumb it is (The Socially Awkward Penguin), it floods the meme market within a matter of days.  With this paradigm of lightning quick creation and subsequent saturation, no one has the time to actually get good at whatever they’re doing.  Everyone thinks they need to forget about striking while the iron is hot and just use it as is - no matter how raw & unformed it may be.  They know no one will care enough to watch that iron take form on the anvil because more is already being pulled out of the forge.

So now, we have an entire generation of young and bright people who would rather be original than official.  They would rather be raw than refined.  Being good at something isn't important anymore, it seems.  Why have an efficient Swiss clock when you can have the chaos of a sundial being rolled down a flight of stairs?

Google didn't have the picture I wanted, so here's a surprised mouse.

Immense observations and grand realizations are not a constant thing though.  It’s their smaller counterparts that litter my weeks with fascinations that pull me even further into the campus community.  In one of my afternoon classes, my professor and I get along more than we do with the other students, because we have much more in common.  A few times, I've proven my Anthropology professor wrong, solely because of my life experience.  Other students come to me for advice, rather than their advisors or parents.  I’m also getting hit on… a LOT.  Unresolved daddy issues, I guess.  This is my hell – I’m the cool guy on campus, and there’s nothing I can do with it.

That is, until I was forced to figure out something that needed to change.  In my English class, I was given the task of finding something wrong with the college community and formulating a solution.  For a few days I brainstormed, but the lightning refused to strike.  Then I got an email from a friend who runs an advice website I contribute to, informing me that the site was getting some really good press and pretty soon the administrators would reevaluate the school policies toward it, possibly legitimizing the whole thing.  This was great news because he was forced to distance himself from it in order to keep his job, but the reason he started it was very close to his heart.  That email was something that made me think every student body could use some kind of entity to give advice on life issues.  Wait a second. . .


“MY college doesn't have that!! …but that’s a solution.  What’s the problem?” I eventually worked backward and thought about my first weeks there.  The few older students I met were very apathetic about the whole college experience.  Like myself, they already knew what the drill was, and they were only there to get the grades, get out and get on with their lives.  I realized that we were an untapped resource of information for teenagers that needed no-bullshit advice.  Later that week, I sat down with a woman whose job was to specifically deal with the older students, or “non-traditional/non-trad” students as she defined them.  I interviewed her about it, and she was very excited about the idea.  But she was also eerily calm throughout the whole interview, it kind of creeped me out.  Toward the end of the Q&A, she mentioned there was actually a club specifically for non-trad students, and it was currently lacking leadership.  The alpha male in me became interested, and began to entertain the idea of trying the leadership role out.

So here I am, playing a much different role than I was just three months ago.  3.8 GPA, active classroom participant, program facilitator and possible extracurricular club leader.  Being called a Non-Trad is about as accurate as my feeling about everything can get.  Next thing you know, I’ll be considering an offer to edit classmates' term papers in my spare time.

Well, now that you mention it…

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