Sunday, August 7, 2011

My first paid article: A story on Duke's new campus farm

(Photo Credit: Megan Morr / Duke Magazine)

A few months ago, I wrote an article about Duke's new campus farm. It just printed in Duke Magazine. You can read it here.

This occasion makes me want to discuss two things: my paid writing "career" and campus farms.

1. Paid writing

I've been writing semi-professionally since 2004. It all started when I became a writer, and later, an editor, for the Arts & Life section of my undergraduate school's student newspaper. In the years before I started this blog, I wrote a couple freelance articles for Buffalo's alternative weekly newspaper (Artvoice) as well as a guest op-ed column for The Buffalo News. (I'm exceedingly embarrassed about most of my work back then, so I won't be going out of my way to share any of those articles.) Anyway... during the past seven years, I estimate that I've made a mere $1,800 for my words.

This article marks this first time I've been fairly paid by a publication. And goddamn, it feels good. Between this article and another that will print in their next issue, I received a check for $1,200. I guess it's my goal--and my main purpose of being up here writing in Alaska--to make a living with my words. While this goal seems as impossible as ever and this check is by no means enough to permit me to live in anything more than a van (or as a freeloader up in Northern AK), I guess it's a step in the right direction.

2. Campus farms

I absolutely love the idea of a campus farm. The great thing about Duke's new farm is that it's not only run by students, but all the food produced on it is sold to the food company that runs various dining halls at Duke. In other words, students produce the food, then eat the food.

More and more, I think colleges should encourage, if not enforce, their students to receive a practical education to complement their classroom-based liberal arts educations. Don't get me wrong: I do not think college should be a place where you go only to obtain "career skills." That's not what I'm talking about at all... Rather, I think college should be a place where we go to become the most well-rounded, cultured, and complete persons we can be. It should help us become full-fledged human beings.

College does not do this... By the time we graduate, we've spent much of the last 16 years of our lives sitting in front of desks, sitting in front a computers, or sitting at boring on-campus jobs. Not only do we have almost no practical skills, but we've focused our studies on some minute subject; "Biomedical engineering" or "Parks, recreation, and leisure studies," for instance. We become specialists: great at one thing, and useless at everything else.

So what's a graduate to do who can neither land a job, nor has any useful skills to help her take care of herself? I don't know the solution, but here's a wild idea: colleges include a requirement to take x number of "Self-Sustainability" courses during the course of a student's undergraduate education. It would be a hands-on, dirt-under-your-fingernails education. Some examples of such courses:

"Tending an orchard"-- In a semester, you'll learn about planting an orchard, maintaining the trees, canning, preserving, etc.

"Farming"--You'll learn how to till the soil, plant, irrigate, etc.

"Construction"--framing walls, the basics of masonry, roofing, etc.

There could be semester-long courses on carpentry, cattle farming, electronics, plumbing, car maintenance. But only the basics of surviving on your own; nothing too narrow or esoteric (i.e. basket weaving). No one will leave such a course an expert, but the student will no doubt feel at least somewhat comfortable with a skill she'd be reasonably familiar with.

I think 2-4 such courses over the course of one's education would help produce graduates that are on their way to becoming free-thinking, self-sufficient citizens. Crazy? Insane? Any thoughts?

Anyway, campus farms are a step in the right direction. It provides such an arena for students to receive practical educations.


Unknown said...

I have another suggestion: Personal Finance courses for undergrads. Considering all the student loans and debt that kids graduate with, sometimes because of tuition, and sometimes because they got a little carried away with the credit card they're now able to have, learning how to balance a checkbook, learning about how to improve your credit score, and just good spending and money managing habits would be really helpful for a lot of kids. Not everyone's parents teach them this stuff anymore, so someone should.

Anonymous said...

Check out Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. Warren Wilson is a liberal arts school that requires every student to put in 15 hours of work each week.

Ken said...

Constant--Good call, though I really think they should receive that education in high school. After all, before they receive their high school diploma, they've already had to make some huge financial decisions. To give them such an education in college, I feel, would be giving it to them too late; like telling them about HIV and contraceptives well after they started doing it. (Though more couldn't hurt.)

Anon--I reference Warren Wilson in my article. It sounds cool, but I've heard a quote about their program that goes something like "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay." Have no idea if that's true or not. Still, I love the idea of such a drastically different way of experiencing college. There are so many colleges, yet they're all so similar.... Why not mess around, try new things out, and play with the idea on how to teach? I'd love to see more radical ideas being tested, even if many of them fail.

David said...

And not just personal finance, but economics in general and macroeconomics in particular. I have a friend who I've encouraged, without result, to learn more about personal finance. I gave him a book. He didn't read it. He's in his 30s, has a Ph.D., and earns a great salary. But he has a lot of debt and has managed money poorly. But lately I've noticed that he is becoming very savvy about macroeconomics as he struggles to understand what's going on in the world today -- bubbles, bonds, defaults, GDP, taxation, austerity vs. expansion, "supply side" vs. "demand side," etc. I am seeing that what he has learned about macroeconomics is translating down to personal finance.

If the American people actually knew some economics, not only would they be much smarter consumers, they'd also know when political players are trying to sell them economic snake oil.

But it will never happen, because the right wing in this country does not want an educated population, which is one of the reasons they're always trying to cut education. They want a propagandized population that is politically and economically exploitable.

Anonymous said...

and require all professors to take a course on how to teach - many of them are there for the research only and suck at teaching!

Glen Green said...

Congrats on the paid articles. I live the campus farm ideas and the practical skills training you suggest. It's hard to find these kinds of hands on opportunitiess in an educational setting. Stay warm!

Kevin M said...

Congrats Ken. Your writing is top notch, it doesn't surprise me you are making money with it.

I second the idea of the "practical education". Perhaps even push it down to the high school level and required "x" credit in home-ec or shop class - do they even exist anymore?

John W. Abert said...

I have to agree that educations should be more "well-rounded" including financial education while still in high school. There's nothing wrong with specialization and an extra amount of training in one thing, as long as it doesn't exclude normal everyday life skills. We need more "street smarts" to balance all the "book smarts".

Anonymous said...

Love your writing Ken!! Thanks so much for sharing your life with us.

To answer Kevin's question: Shop classes are alive and well here in our school district. I have been teaching Metals and Robotics for 20years. I have had many students go on to many forms of continued training to help them support themselves.

A typical wage for my students after two years of community college is $15-$35 per hour.

But want to hear something funny? My son wants to be a writer. I am worried he will never be able to make a living? Someone tell me I am wrong!!