The Young and Disenchanted

Archive for the ‘Academics/College’ Category

I have another blog that I’m a collaborator on – a group of Columbia University students started up a magazine that focuses on African issues from a global perspective. We cover everything from politics and economics to music and literature. Check it out here: http://idayamagazine.blogspot.com/ – I’ll have a new post on here over the weekend 🙂

P.S. Just cos…

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I have made my season of migration back to the heart of darkness. NYC is as cold as I left it – a sharp arse contrast to the balmy Harmattan heat of Lagos and Dakar. It hasn’t all been gloom and doom though – I’ve hung out with friends, touched Mos Def (yes I saw him – and it was amazing) and had that deliciously decadent molten chocolate brownie with ice cream from the diner across the street from me. However, it’s my last semester as a college student aka Knuckle Down Time. I have a thesis to write, a job to find and classes to ace so I can graduate with a decent GPA. This means that I will be spending the majority of my days locked down in the library – kind of depressing, but as I love pretty much everything I’m reading and writing, I’m actually very content about the whole life situation.

Except for this job business. Part of the issue is that I enjoy making life complicated for myself. When I first got to college, I thought I could be an econ major, enjoy the perks of investment banking upon graduation (aka wild money) and retire filthy rich at the age of 32 to pursue a life as a nomad photographer. Alas, I discovered that my brain was suited better to analysing literature than manipulating formulae, so I traded my calculator for a stack of novels (at last count, close to 200 of them) and chose to study English and Political Science. This made the past 2 years in particular incredibly fulfilling, but now the honeymoon period has worn off and reality has hit. I have to find a job – a good job – and generally try to figure out what the hell I want to do with my life. For a while now I’ve been fantasising about becoming an English professor… I could absolutely dedicate my life to the study of post-colonial African literature, get tenure someplace fabulous and school the yung’uns on Achebe and Senghor. Yes, it will take a long time to get there (and I will be pitifully destitute while getting there), but deep down I know that an intellectual/academic/creative path is for me. I need to be surrounded by mountains of books and papers, to have arguments over the smallest nuances of a sentence and most importantly, to continue to learn. This all sounds so incredibly perfect, and yet I am full of doubts.

You see, this little break for freedom I want to make hasn’t exactly come with precedent as far as my upbringing goes. My parents are both professionals, as are my older two sisters (although one is also trying to be a professor). While growing up I was given free rein to indulge my intellectual curiosity (something my father probably deeply regrets now), but it seems that as far as Nigerians go, I’m an exception in terms of the things that interest me. Most of us are taught to focus on what will provide the money to take care of your family: be a lawyer, be an engineer, work for an oil company. The glory days of Soyinka and Azikiwe are long gone – the leading Nigerian intellectuals are predominantly elderly men and in a country where civil society and intellectual debate have been decimated and restricted for so many years, it doesn’t surprise me. Being a professor at a Nigerian university doesn’t pay (literally) – working for a bank does. Why then, would anyone want to study African literature over Accounting? Ah – because they were unlucky enough to stumble across a comparative literature class their sophomore year, read A Season of Migration to the North and were unable to resist the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago. I’m trying to make a life out of what most Nigerians would call a hobby. This means that if I really do want to go down this path, I may have to do so outside my home country.

However, this isn’t so simple. Although I love learning about other cultures, the problems that haunt Nigeria are tugging at me, forcing me to look closer at this place I call home and decipher just how much I know about it… which is actually pathetically little. I need to learn more about the complexities of Muslim-Christian relationships in the Middle Belt, where horrifically violent riots have been taking place, about the variations in rural and urban life in the North and South, about which societal structures survived colonialism and which ones are a product of it. But Nigeria hasn’t become a sexy topic for academia yet – as far as African countries go, Sudan is probably what’s hottest in the corridors of intellect, or countries like Senegal that have a rich legacy of scholarship. I’m not saying that there aren’t brilliant Nigerian scholars, but it saddens me that the vibrant academic communities that thrived at Nsukka and Ibadan (my parents’ alma maters) 40 years ago have falling victim to the systematic rot that plagues everything else in Nigeria.

But somewhere in the hot mess that is Nigeria, I sense opportunity. I see potential teachers and students on every street corner in Surulere. It’s not that we don’t have the resources to do better – to expand our horizons not only in terms of development, but also to rebuild our public forums, improve education and encourage political debate at the grassroots. It’s just that we don’t have leaders who have the inclination, bravery and balls to step up and actually improve the country. And that must change. We’re sometimes called the “sleeping giant” – maybe it’s time for us to wake the fuck up. And maybe, just maybe, with other people who feel the same, I could be the alarm clock… as long as I can get some decent moolah out of it (just keeping it 100). I think that would make for a pretty awesome life.

Now back to Mamdani and this chocolate muffin.

P.S. Not that it has a lot to do with this post, but I love this Erykah Badu jawn.

Fact: I was one of those dorky kids who genuinely liked going to school.

Seriously. I liked writing essays, I enjoyed my classes and I especially loved my teachers. This may have been partially because I could bully them into giving me better grades (no joke, I once told a teacher who had previously given me a B that I expected an A in his class, and he actually gave me one at the end of term), but also because the teachers at my last school were genuinely inspirational. They knew their subject matter well and liked young people enough to share their knowledge without being patronising or confusing. So when I set off to college, I was convinced that I would find nothing but incredibly gifted Nobel Prize-winning professors who couldn’t wait to teach me.

Yeah, whatever. This is what happened instead:

First semester: For a compulsory science class I had to take, I had an Indian professor whose droning voice combined with her refusal to put on the lights in our windowless classroom for the first half of the semester and wrap-and-cheesecake-brownie-induced-itis resulted in me falling asleep in every class. And her hating me. And me hating her. And me not learning anything and getting a C+.  

Second semester: A professor of mine who sounded bizarrely like a male Mrs Brovlawski (Kyle’s mum from South Park, one of the greatest shows of all time for those of y’all who don’t know) succeeded in making me hate macroeconomics more than I love Idris Elba (which, by the way, is a fucking lot). How, you ask? By a) not actually teaching any of the subject matter but instead throwing in all kinds of complicated equations not necessary for the class and b) telling us for half of the lesson time that none of us would end up with jobs after graduating because “it’s about to be a recession, bitches.” To give props where due, he was fucking on point with that prediction so somewhere deep down, I guess he actually did know his shit.

Summer session: Calculus One. An overly eager Eastern-European TA-looking professor. An hour and a half, four times a week, for six weeks. Need I say more?

I hated it. By the end of my second year of college, I’d only taken a handful of classes that made me feel like, “Damn, I learned some real shit from that dude/chick.” Most of my professors were grouchy, uninterested and totally inaccessible. I found myself missing the days where I got chocolate bars and tea breaks in the middle of class, just because. (Jesus, did I go to high school or freaking kindergarten???)

This year, things have gotten a little better. Maybe it’s because I’ve settled into my major more, and I’m comfortable enough with the protocols of the classes to actually feel like I’m learning something. Maybe it’s the enthusiasm that my most recent professors embody – the fact that they actually seem to love what they’re teaching has made me also love Yeats’ poetry and 16th century treatises on Catholicism. Or maybe I’ve unconsciously adapted to the difference between college and high school teaching styles.

I went to high school in England, and the last two years which I spent doing my A Levels did a lot to make me academically independent. But at the same time, if shit was ever really bad, I could go have a banter with my teacher and get an extension for an essay/help with a tricky problem set/brandy to help drink my problems away soothe a sore throat. In part because I attended a boarding school, they felt like kinda like my family at my home-away-from-home.

But at college, there isn’t enough time for you to get to know a professor that well. I knew most of my high school teachers for seven years. In a big lecture class, I’ll be lucky if I even see my professor past the big-ass head of the kid in front of me, let alone get to speak to them during the 14-week semester that they teach me for. More than that, they always seem so aloof and all-important, with their PhD-holding-flying-to-Switzerland-for-a-scholars’-conference selves. I got pride – I don’t need to be made to feel stupid by someone who really is a lot cleverer than I am. Then again, the way my GPA is looking, I might need to just say “fuck it,” get off my ass and go suck up like my life depends on it. Shit, a bitch needs job references.

Rational Chaos and I were conversing about this topic a while ago, and he tells me that the problem is worse in the engineering school. Most of the professors are more interested in their research than in their students, and this reflects in the robotic way they deliver their classes. The engineers end up just learning to get shit done, rather than actually enjoying the subject matter. For the few of them who don’t actually want to go into finance, this is kind of a damn shame and explains why most of them want to get the fuck up out of here for grad school.

Maybe I need to stop being so idealistic about the professor-student relationship. After all, this isn’t Oxford in the 1930s. Most people come to college to get a degree that will enable them to get a high-paying job when they graduate, not to embark on a scholarly journey full of tweed caps and 19th century Romantic poetry. At the same time, I wonder why there can’t be a combination of the two – after all, money isn’t absolutely everything, is it? There is some joy in learning for the sake of learning, right?

 Speak on it.

 P.S. Title is from a Fela Kuti song. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s one of the greatest African musicians of all time and the baddest motherfucker ever. Check it. And this, just because it’s my favourite Fela song.

      

The article I was talking about in the previous post is right here: http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2009/02/05/two-cities-one-home

Before I came to college, I had a game plan for the next 12 years of my life: I would move to New York, major in Economics, become the hottest and wealthiest stockbroker/investment banker/scam artist under the age of 30, retire with a billi in the bank to do pretty much whatever the fuck I wanted. It was all perfect until I stumbled across the fly in the ointment: I can’t add. And I hate maths with an unbridled passion. And all my bloody Econ professors wanted to do was make me work through abstract-ass formulae and bitch about how because they failed as investment bankers, all of their students would too, and inevitably wind up being equally disgruntled teaching bored undergrads with no tenure in sight (yes, I’m talking to you Professor Arluck). Long story short, I discovered that what I preferred doing was talking about literature (one of my friends told me while we were studying for a exam that she’d never seen anyone get so excited about Crime and Punishment, a pretty depressing ass book), and I preferred to read rather than struggle through problem sets. So now, I’m a hippy happy English major, and I love it.

 What I don’t love so much is the fact that my friends who are either engineers or Econ majors (i.e. all except two) make fun of me for deciding to study literature. Gems I’ve heard from them include:

 “I can do everything you can do better, but you can’t do anything I can – like calibrate the effectiveness of a motorised input/output widget prototype to within 0.0003 degrees of accuracy from a spaceship orbiting Neptune.”

(I usually reply to that, “I’m pretty certain nothing you said was in English anyway, so you just disproved your own point by opening your mouth”)

 “What kind of a job do you expect to get with that exactly? I’m guessing nothing that actually pays.”

(I’ve given up trying to dignify that with a response)

 “Um, look down at your hand. What colour is your skin again?”

(I usually respond to that with a backhand slap with said hand)

 What really pains me about these fucking retards my dear friends expressing such sentiments about what I have chosen to study is that I’m not derisive of the fact they are engineers, no matter how earth-shatteringly boring I know everything that they study is.

 Also, this may seem outdated and idealistic, but I believe that you should study what you love at college. You know, the kind of shit that makes you actually want to go to class at 9am in your pyjamas (although, to be fair, the only thing that makes me want to do this is the guarantee of free food). Unless you have your mind set on a particular career path that requires highly specific skills, it really doesn’t matter what you study. In the field I want to go into – publishing – experience, enthusiasm and contacts are far more useful to employers than the ability to programme a T-81 calculator.

 No, I can’t do the calibrating-whatchamacallit, but I know that I can write a more insightful paper than you can without even trying, in less time, and actually care about it. I may be the only person that means something to, but I don’t give a shit. Ain’t nobody care about what you do in the basement of the engineering building at 10pm anyway except for your webcam friend. Yes, I know about that Tina from Texas. Don’t deny it.

 And yes, English majors can find well-paying jobs. Not all of us want to go into finance – broadcasters, actors, journalists and professors all make good money while doing what they love. I’d take a tenth of the money a hedge fund manager makes for twenty times the peace of mind and a significantly smaller risk of getting caught running a $50 billion scam.

Side note: why the fuck do engineers go to engineering school and torture themselves with painfully dull classes if they want to be bankers to begin with? Being able to build a robot does not give you any kind of advantage on Wall Street, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise.

 Furthermore, engineers aren’t the only ones who contribute something worthwhile to society. I’ve had this fight with a couple of friends who laughingly tell me that what I want to do with my life won’t change anything in people’s lives. If that is so, why are authors like Tolstoy, Woolf and Shakespeare still admired today? Yes, writers don’t build computers or highways, but they create works that make people think in new ways, that build bridges between different cultures so that a 21st century African girl like me can empathise with the pain of a 19th century Russian noblewoman torn between duty to family and her desire for happiness (Anna Karenina, one of my favourite novels of all time). And in a world filled with hatred and a distinct lack of understanding of what makes us similar and what we share as human beings, I can’t think of anything more beautiful. *cue “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson*

 I’m not saying that all English or liberal arts majors are noble people destined to be writers or teachers who “change the world.” Nor am I saying that engineers are all money-grubbing egotistical robotic beings. I actually only have one friend that is a fellow English major – most of the others I’ve met are obnoxious pseudo-intellectuals who dress in an affected British professorial manner that gets on my tits. I am saying this though: both engineers and liberal arts majors contribute in different but equal ways to the betterment of society, and I’m going to need all of my engineers out there to accept that and move on. No pomposity in the ’09, it’s not what’s hot on the streets.

 Speak on it.

 P.S. Title’s courtesy of Jilly from Philly – although I don’t love her 3rd album as much as the first two, “Hate on Me” is a hot track.