GREAT POWER

 

Academia shouldn’t be an exclusive club.

By Ariel Bissett

 

I have spent the last six years learning. My undergrad took four years, over eighty essays, and a lot of late night book researching. My master’s was one hellish, brutal year of literary insanity.

Still, I’m proud of my degrees, beyond grateful for the opportunity to have attended university and to have been able to take the time to get a postgraduate degree. The practice I got writing and doing presentations, the ability to critically read texts, and the knowledge to think more broadly about cultural, historical, and theoretical contexts, has been invaluable. But I know that my degrees have only been half of the puzzle, half of my education. My YouTube channel, where I have been sharing book reviews and literary discussions for the past eight years, has been the other half. On YouTube I’ve been able to foster a community of tens of thousands of people who tune in to discuss and think about bookish ideas with me. It has brought me daily pride to be a part of an ecosystem that celebrates free and accessible educational content.

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

 
Those fascinating conversations we were having were going to stay within the confined walls of that English department.

It felt like a waste.
 

The great frustration of my time in school was in figuring out how to spread the information I was learning inside of these institutions to the audiences outside of them. I did not feel it was sufficient to keep my education personal, instead I felt a need to make what I was learning accessible to others. For me, YouTube was the answer. Sharing videos online allowed a solution to a two-pronged problem I grappled with for these past six years: dissemination of the knowledge I was learning and a practical application of that information.

I was honoured to get into my Masters program. I remember freaking out when I got my acceptance and racing to snap a photo to share with my audience! Only about 8 percent of Canadians have master’s degrees. I’m in a special club! The problem is that I really don’t think I should be.

I was thrilled by the small classroom sizes. My entire cohort was twelve people. I got to know them closely, and the intimacy allowed for better conversations and discussions. I felt truly supported by my peers when I did those gruelling hour-long presentations about books nobody reads anymore, and I enthusiastically supported my peers during their turns up at bat. I remember having a sinking feeling a few weeks in, however, when I realized that those fascinating conversations we were having were going to stay within the confined walls of that English department.

It felt like a waste. Here were twelve really clever people, getting together a few times a week to tackle interesting ideas and to share new perspectives on old ideas, and it wasn’t going to be heard by anyone else. I developed a sort of chronic, numb panic. I felt an urgency to shake everyone around me, to say “We are so dumb lucky to be here! We are so privileged to get to sit around with smart professors and pontificate about literature! We need to go out and share these ideas with people who can’t be here!”

 
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And that was the crux of it. I was there because I had a good resume, because they saw value in my sample writing, but also because of a dozen other factors that have nothing to do with hard work. Family support, peer support, and low living costs were all integral to why I was in that classroom. There were equally smart (or smarter!) people out there who should have been in that room with me but could not be. Not because of a lack of discipline, or of imagination, but because they were too busy working full time jobs to support themselves or families, or because of any other number of complicated and intractable factors beyond their control.

But I was there, and the thought of not sharing what I was learning freaked me out because I knew that I needed to do the best I could with the privilege I had been given. Now obviously, nobody owes anybody anything. Just because you have an amazing opportunity to do a master’s degree does not mean that you are now obliged to spread that information and thinking, which for me is the trickiest part of this problem. I could not blame any of my peers for not spending their time making a podcast, starting a YouTube channel, or submitting articles to non-academic journals.

Remember when I said I wanted to start shaking people? Well, I sort of did. I started bringing this up in class. In our discussions I would probe. I would do videos instead of essays. I made a documentary instead of a final thesis essay. And what I found was hesitation. Administrative resistance came mainly from fear of the unknown. There was a sense of confusion, a feeling of “we don’t even know how we would go about that.”

From my peers I felt fear. There was so much worry about sharing content online. And honestly, I get it. Sharing stuff online sucks a lot of the time. People yell at you. They shout at you about your ideas, about how you share your ideas, and about what you wore while you said those ideas. My peers feared criticism, they feared posting something online that they might later disagree with. And again, I couldn’t just say to them, “Well, get over it!” because I struggle with those things too.

To quote a common sentiment, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yes, I’m quoting Uncle Ben! He knew what he was talking about! Remember how impacted we all felt when we were ten years old and we watched Uncle Ben tell Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man exactly what he needed to hear? Sure, it’s tough. Sure, it’s stressful. Sure, I’d like people online to stop shouting at me. But it is far more important that I get yelled at while simultaneously helping share everything I’ve learned. Spider-Man could have kept using his powers for financial and personal gain, but he didn’t. And that’s why we love him. Because he realized that what he’d been given was a gift with which to help others. The power and privilege I've been given is to have spent time with other academics, having fascinating discussions about important books and the different ways we can think about those books. How our literature, and the writers who created it, can teach us about our world and how nuanced the people within it are. My responsibility, then, is to share what I’ve learned with anyone who doesn’t have access to those kinds of spaces.

The thought of not sharing what I was learning freaked me out because I knew that I needed to do the best I could with the privilege I had been given.
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To solve this problem, to find a way to share what you’re learning outside of the university, is tricky but not impossible. The struggle to find a practical application for what you’re learning is something so many students can relate to. I must have muttered “but what are all these essays for?” a hundred times while being a student. Yes, practice is good. Vital, even. But if you aren’t doing anything with those essays, or with the ideas that you are learning in class, what is the point? Your point doesn’t have to be the same as mine—you don’t have to set up a YouTube channel—but what are those essays for, beyond rehearsal?

When you write a piece for a specific professor you are training a very specific muscle, using one specific tool. It’s good to master it, but when you know that what you have written will never be read again, will remain forever buried in the graveyard of your University>Semester Two>Canadian Literature hard drive, you can only get so much out of the exercise. Compare that to the process of sharing an idea with a public audience: Your ideas have to be robust enough, you have to believe in them enough, to be okay with strangers disagreeing with them. You have to package and deliver those ideas in a way that is understandable and digestible to a general audience, an audience that didn’t just sit in class with you.

The essay, as a literary form, is truly beautiful. There’s a reason that it is the steadfast model and default for English Literature departments. It allows for a clear and deep deconstruction and examination of ideas and delivery of argument. There is nothing more satisfying than reading (let alone writing) a well-executed essay, where the writer has laid out their ideas in such a way that the landscape is clear, the ecosystem is understood, and they can maneuver through, making their arguments and hammering home their thesis. However, (you felt the “but” coming!), I think it is vital to teach students how to write for a audiences outside of school too.

 
 
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Students, especially those in more traditional subjects like English, are rarely taught how to write for general audiences. I remember hearing some genuinely fascinating ideas and brilliant arguments in class that will never see the light of day because they were written solely for a classroom. Videos, podcast episodes, or other alternative forms of distribution weren’t even part of the discussion. People ingest ideas in a vast multitude of ways, few of which are academic essays, which is why it is actually an exciting time to be putting content out into the world: there are so many ways to format it.

Thankfully, all hope is not lost: I’ve met plenty of teachers who feel this tension themselves and are pushing to have students try alternative forms of writing in their classrooms. I’ve also met students asking to do things other than essays for projects. Academia is constantly put down for not modernizing, for failing to adapt, and it’s an idea that deserves attention because it is absolutely solvable. It is disappointing as a student who is pursuing English Literature, for example, to try communicating ideas in the ways that are increasingly prevalent and part of our every day, and feel discouraged to do so. It is integral that we equip students with the ability to share their ideas, to communicate themselves, in many different environments.

I love books. I love them to sort of a shocking degree. That’s why I kept going to school to learn about them, have researched and written about them for years, and hope to keep doing so. I want to spread that love, and I want to spread the interesting things I’ve learned about books to everyone. By making videos and other content online, I’m trying to use those gifts I was given to spread that love outside of myself.

We preach about the glories of the internet. About how it’s totally changed accessibility to education. But that’s only true if we put that content out there. You can’t expect someone else to do it. I am beyond grateful to the people who have posted videos teaching me how to crochet, how to fix the latch on my car hood, how to think more deeply about The Catcher in the Rye, or how to apply intersectionality into my analysis of my reading. Those people—knitters, mechanics, readers, scholars—all took the time to share their speciality to the rest of the world, have chosen to spread it beyond themselves, and by doing so have helped create a more educated public. Spider-Man (and Uncle Ben) would be proud.

 
My responsibility is to share what I’ve learned with anyone who doesn’t have access to those kinds of spaces.
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