I had every intention of completing my honours thesis when we all flipped the pages of our calendars to display January 1, 2015. I was going to put to paper all of the thoughts and emotion that had accumulated in my brain throughout my undergraduate degree. Having spent years invested in Higher Education, in dreams of academia and in the negotiation of the the emotional, financial, and social stresses of it all, I felt that I was well placed to write a thesis critiquing higher education institutions and reflecting on the experiences of those who interact with it. Or even if as a student I wasn’t able to offer any spectacular insight on the matter, I felt that it would be a worthwhile endeavour to at least document what it was actually like to be processed by the Edu-Factory. To tell our (student) side of the story and to counter the discourse produced by universities themselves about ‘the student experience’.
It felt important to get those thoughts out – “I will craft the most glorious and insightful honours thesis and it will create waves and make changes!”, I thought. I was driven. I felt purpose! What I had to say had weight and would make higher education reconsider its trajectory! I’d thought that by committing all of my frustrations to paper and thinking critically about them, I would be transforming my experiences as a student into something more valuable than the experience itself.
Yes. This was it. This was that thing they kept telling me would give me a ‘competitive edge in a global economy’, and would ensure that I remained employable when the jobs of those around me were rendered obsolete. This, my friends, was Higher Education’s Mecca – and I had arrived: CRITICAL THINKING.
It was at about 8pm on a Wednesday night in October 2015 that I decided to venture out and acquire a Rubik’s cube (thank you, 24/7 consumer culture). I returned home, excited by the prospect of learning and engaging with something for which the motivation was not a passing grade, or a pay slip. Eagerly, I sat in front of my laptop and turned to YouTube to once again step into the role of a student. Three evenings later I was finally able to R’D’RD that last corner piece into place and, oh. What a feeling! I took this photo and posted it to Facebook to evidence my accomplishment and express my delight:
After the satisfaction of completing the cube had sunk and settled, I scrambled it, and again began the process of solving the puzzle. Reciting the algorithms, piece by piece, layer by layer…
Piece by piece. Layer by layer.
It later dawned on me that never again will I get to experience that same wonder and thrill of solving the Rubik’s cube for the first time. What was once intriguing and perplexing dissipated in my hands. I was left holding only a series of algorithms in my head, accompanied by the acute twinges of RSI in my wrists.
By this point in the year I had already cycled through all of the stages of grief that come with dropping-out of uni, and was very very well acquainted with words like failure, frustration and defeat.
The five stages:
- Denial – I will be fine. Because: ‘Graduate Qualities’.
- Anger – Its The System that’s broken!
- Bargaining – If only I was smarter, wasn’t from a low SES background, the economy wasn’t doomed… At least I have my BA?
- Depression – I have a BA.
- Acceptance – I have a BA.
Reflecting on my admittedly very defeatist attitude towards solving the Rubik’s cube, I could not help but recognise the likeness between algorithms and acronyms. On my once very emboldened quest to understand how universities ended up hurtling towards a neoliberal agenda, I came to know a multitude of acronyms that stand for words that mean very little to those who care about learning for the sake of learning (KPIs, EFTSLs), and that essentially represent parts of this competitive profit game we call Higher Education.
By learning about the bureaucratic processes, the acronyms and the figures that have come to represent – or rather, obscure – the actual human agents that constitute the university, I solved the puzzle of my student experience, layer by layer and piece by piece.
And so my frustrations became clearer. Yes. Feeling faceless in a competitive environment was NOT the experience they told me I would have at university. Being churned out on the factory line only to be released into an overly-saturated degree market was NOT the selling point I agreed to when I enrolled.
It was gradual, but over time the thesis I was going to write based on those observations and experiences had transformed from a would-be, bound and bundled bunch of paper, into the very ugly and confronting embodiment of the very thing I was critiquing. Why, feeling this way about my education, would I continue to spend hours ruminating and feeling very real sadness about my place in the system – only then to have to sit with the overwhelming resentment, to weave it into eloquent paragraphs, in the hope that this stepping stone towards a PhD and towards a career in this broken institution would lay in wait for me at the end of very long and bitter journey?
I have since made peace with my decision to abandon the thesis. Although that decision is still wedged-up somewhere between acceptance and a burning sense of indignation. Never again can I return to studying and experience the same excitement that Universities drum up and out of you during Open days and Orientation events. My relationship with the university and whatever future path was carved out by my time there will never look as bright…
I will continue to enjoy learning, for the sake of learning. There is still a great deal of satisfaction to be had in learning the algorithms and the acronyms. Perhaps the thing to figure out, then, is what to do with that knowledge once I’ve learnt it?
It certainly won’t end up written down as an honours thesis.
On to the next puzzle.