Technological Creativity and Interaction Design

Thoughts on Graduating from University

Posted on 2018-05-13

Some fourteen years later, at almost forty, I finally completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree! All aspects of my life—academic, professional, and personal—went through many metamorphoses during those years. While I may not have been conscious of the value of those experiences as I went through each of them, they all helped me grow.

There are many ways to obtain knowledge today, and there are a lot of misconceptions about the path one should take, and why going through university is essential/worthless. I'd like to address some of these issues by sharing my experience and thoughts. I hope to help students and professionals, young and old, to reconsider preconceptions they might have about the path that "should" be taken.

Off the Beaten Path

As I navigated through multiple worlds, I have noticed contradicting expectations from a lot of people. In the professional world, many recruiters value candidates' application only if they went through academic institutions at "normal" times—read high school, college, university, in that order and without pause. In the tech world, many declare that going through higher education is worthless altogether, as whatever is taught is already out of date. Even the art world has its own idiosyncrasies that feel as if they are meant to keep people out.

Sir Kenneth Robinson—a British author, speaker, and international advisor on education—theorizes that since the current education system was designed during the Industrial Age to respond to the needs of the Age of Enlightenment, our Western education system is not ready to help students for the challenges of the future.

With that in mind, why should you let old habits or beliefs dictate what is the appropriate path for you to take? There is nothing wrong in not starting/finishing a degree. There is nothing wrong in taking a hiatus. There is nothing wrong in finishing/starting a degree late in life. Paraphrasing the ideas of Daniel Pennac's Comme un roman—a book in which he declares readers should take similar freedoms—allows me to remind you that you can go your own path and that it is as valid as any other.

A University Degree Is Worth the Effort

Prominent actors from the tech world and from the business world love to boast about how useless a university degree is. They complain about how university graduates do not have any experience, about how what is taught in classes is outdated and irrelevant to the industry.

What many forget, is that a university is not meant to churn out employees with technical skills. That would be the mission of technical colleges, and the responsibility of corporations to train their own employees.

A university is a place to learn how to research subjects properly, in depth, and usually without a bias to generate results that please a corporate stakeholder. University is the place to be critical of processes and systems, it is where new systems should be dreamed and built.

It is also the place where you should allow yourself to fail, take a step back, and try again, without the threat of losing your income or your job. An important part of a university experience is that the processes of researching and attempting new things still teach a lot. Those who discredit the university experience because it is more conceptual than hands-on fail to understand that it is exactly what is valuable about university. Concepts span more than a single technique, they usually apply to many things. A graduate that learned how to research many concepts is likely to be, in the long run, more efficient at resolving many different types of issues.

What many of the people who discredit the value of a university degree also disregard is their privilege. How many of those who do not value a university degree inherited a fortune, or a business? A degree is a great opportunity to climb a social ladder. I should know, my grandparents were factory workers and farmers. My parents raised their own social status by eventually obtaining their respective degrees.

A degree is also essential if you wish to emigrate out of your country. There are ways to obtain work visas tied to an employer—that is how I managed to work in the Netherlands for some two years—but that means you must remain with this employer, or add that condition every time you look for new work in a foreign country. When applying for a resident visa—not tied to any specific employer—most countries disqualify applicants right away if they do not have a degree.

It is important to understand that the higher education academic path is indeed not for everyone. I am not saying that you need a university degree to be a developer, a businessperson, or an artist. That would be a fallacy. However, if you wish to push the boundaries of fields that interest you rather than simply produce the dreams of others, do consider the span of opportunities that a university degree offers.

Consider also that in the current and future job market, it is not possible anymore to keep the same job during a full lifetime. Jobs will die, new ones will be born. There will be a need at one point in your life to choose to learn another trade, and learning from an institution—online, technical, or university-level—offers an organized way to obtain new skills.

A University and Its Students Should Be Critical About Tech

University students are well known for their participation in societal critiques and protests. Events of May 1968 in France and Europe, part the civil rights movement actions during the 1960s in the US, the 2012 Quebec student protests, as well as recent fights on gender identities and equality are only a few examples of changes which students either instigated, or in which they actively participated.

Although somewhat less active today, that trend continues today in the discussions held between students and professors. Particularly strong within the fine arts and art history departments—in which I studied—critical thought seems to go full stop when discussing the tools that seemingly enable organizations to plan their communication and actions.

Google Docs is the de facto tool used to create shared documents. Facebook is seen as the only platform through which it is possible to create events and communicate. And while Twitter seems to have played an important role in the Arab Spring, it is all but dead to contemporary students.

When I attempted to critique the use of these tools because the risk they actually pose to privacy—and sometimes even to freedom of speech—students would shrug these arguments off as if they meant nothing. The effort of looking for alternative options—open-sourced, more respectful of privacy, etc.—was enough of a deterrent for any of them to try. However, I do have to praise Estelle Wathieu for a presentation she gave in which she discussed envisioning alternative social media.

I believe it should be the responsibility of the university to present alternatives that respect privacy. To draw a parallel with online security, Concordia University had posters and public service announcements about how to properly secure and encrypt private data. However, in a context where the engineering and business departments are praising working for corporations like Google or Facebook, it is hard to imagine this changing any time soon.

Over-Intellectualization of Fine Arts

I would like to address what I believe is an issue for contemporary art. Interestingly, it somewhat contradicts some of the points I argued earlier in this text. In a nutshell, I believe that academia as well as art institutions tend to over-intellectualize art and its practice.

Professors and curators ask deep research and understanding of art history from artists, and sometimes deem invalid an artwork if the artist is unable to name-drop influences or important movements. Asking studio and fine art students to concentrate on research and concepts before they start working on actual artworks takes a lot of time from studio practice, which artists really need. While it is indeed important for young artists to know what has been done before and why, this is a missed opportunity for young artists to work with art history students. While universities often boast to work across disciplines, it is not effectively the case. Both disciplines would benefit from working and learning together.

Giving priority to conceptualization unfortunately also leads to a devaluation of technical work and craftsmanship. Some professors and artists openly judge spending time honing skills as a waste of time. This attitude and the artworks resulting from such a way of thinking is exactly why so many people deride modern and contemporary art. Although it is worth defending conceptual artwork, we as artists must also take the time to understand who is our audience: only our peers, or people at large. While I myself believe there is no onus on artist to create aesthetically pleasing artworks, there is nothing wrong in considering that it is still the best way to appeal to a general audience.

Reducing the value of craftsmanship in an academic context is ridiculous, as it teaches students to disregard the awesome technical facilities and studios to which they will rarely have access later on in their career.

Making Money with Art Is Almost Evil

Finally, while much pressure is put on students to conceptually define their work, not very much information is provided on how to survive as an artist. This may fall under the category of not-the-university's-problem, but given how other departments—e.g. engineering, business—actually provide such guidance, it's a bit of a letdown on the part of the arts department.

James Paterson—a friend of mine in Montréal—found this post which ironically lists the steps to become a successful gallery artist. Somehow, it's not so far from the truth. Even worse if you dared work on commercial projects.

On more than one occasion, during classes or conferences, there were discussions in which artists selling artworks or artproducts were qualified as sold out to capitalism. This kind of talk is completely toxic, elitist, and actually misses its argument against capitalism.

When artisans and artists sell works for money, they are actually engaging in commerce. Commerce could be defined by the exchange of goods or products for money. Said money can then be used to sustain oneself or one's family.

Capitalism is not tied to actual physical goods. Capitalism could be defined by the infinite growth of capital, if at all possible only by speculation, and not restricted by the value of physical goods or products. Money earned in this system is just meant to be put back in the system to speculate some more, and make it grow again.

Arguing that artists making a living from their skills or products are participating in a shameful economic system of gambling is disrespectful. It says that only artists with pure aspirations—read: not financial—can create valid art. It reproduces a system of castes which many artists decried over the years.

Probably because most academic artist create thanks to the grants system system, professors direct young artists to constantly ask for grants. Far from me to say that grants should not be given to artists! Sometimes, forcing governments or corporations to share their wealth with artists—via percent for art programs for example—is the only way artists can get patrons. But between asking artists to live by defending their rights to grants and aiming for millionaire-led studio work, there is a spectrum of possibilities that should be discussed and explored.

Still Worth It

I would like to end with this analogy:

Qui aime bien châtie bien.

This is a French proverb that means that you can only punish someone/something properly if you like that someone/something properly. All the criticism in this text is not to say that my experience was worthless, but that there are improvements that could still be made.

I understand I am lucky that I have strong ideological foundations against which I could pit some of the academic concepts and ideas as I faced them. I recognize that not everyone will have that chance or capacity. By sharing these sometimes contradicting thoughts, I hope it can help others put things in perspective when considering going through an academic path.

One response to “Thoughts on Graduating from University”

  1. E M says:

    Great read, and I’m not only saying that because of the fact that I share many of your perspectives and critiques. The section on the devaluation of technical skills reminded me of a thread on the Cycling ’74 forum I saw a while back with a bunch of people praising their favourite artists for delegating all actual labour to their assistants. I also think the section on the vocal distaste in academia for commercial art work as somehow tainted by capitalism is spot on. The real irony of that, I think, is that a lot of big-name successful artists who get lots of praise in academia actually run their practices like businesses, employing relatively-under-compensated and usually uncredited assistants to do the productive labour and then selling their work on the speculative market. Yeesh!

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