The last professional event I went to through school was a law firm meet-and-greet. The event was coordinated by my school’s Law Careers Office, and was supposed to provide an opportunity for us to inform ourselves about potential career options once we as-yet-unformed lawyers moved out into the wider world.
In order to attend this event, I needed to own at least one set of professional clothes. Picking those clothes, of course, involves all sorts of unspoken rules: how they ought to fit, what fabrics look too cheap for the occasion, how to match colours and prints, what shoes go with which belt. As a woman, I got to deal with the added questions of whether or not to wear make-up – and if yes, how much? Should I wear jewelry? Would wearing a pant suit with my short hair lead to assumptions about me, my abilities, and my interests?
Then there are the secrets of behaviour. What is the ideal level of firmness for a handshake – and does that expectation change by gender? It’s a wine and cheese event – should I eat, or drink? How dangerous is it to do both at the same time? Is it pretentious if I have my own business cards? What questions should I ask? How much should I know about the approximately 25 firms that are here?
Trying to fathom the answers to these questions sometimes feels like trying to reason my way into understanding a language I don’t yet speak. I say that knowing that I’m lucky – I had the advantage of growing up with professional parents, who modeled business-appropriate behaviour to me and who will walk me through stressed-out phone conversations when I call in a panic, worried that I’ll never be able to get a legal job because I refuse to wear high heels. This kind of school-sponsored event is something I have experience with, and yet I still get anxious trying to navigate it. My law school tries to give students the tools to find their way through this professional maze, but sometimes in my frustration I have to wonder why they bother. What benefit does this kind of deliberate inauthenticity have for either students or potential employers?
It’s events like this that conspire to make the post-secondary educational experience so alienating for so many. Even for those of us who grew up in situations of relative privilege, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate the unspoken rules of education. How formal should emails to professors be? How do you dress for a faculty-sponsored social event? What is “networking” and how the hell do you do it?
Education should, ideally, provide us with tools to help us better understand the world, but sometimes the world we’re meant to examine in class has little to no bearing on the world we experience ourselves. That disconnect is difficult to cope with, especially on those oh-so-special occasions when a professor or fellow classmate tries to explain how our day-to-day life is insufficiently real, representative, or relevant for that particular class discussion.
Trying to resolve that tension is why Caitlin and I decided to put this blog together. We know we’re not the only people out there struggling to reconcile our education with the wider world. We also know that sometimes the best – or only – way to cope is by creating a community of our own where we can work through these struggles together.
And so, we created this blog. We’ve got brilliant friends around the world working these issues out, and we figured their brilliance should be shared. We also want to be a space for brilliant thoughts regarding education from people we haven’t met yet – and what better place to meet strangers than the internet?
For now, this is a grand experiment; we’re not quite sure how it’s going to turn out. We hope that, regardless, you’ll come along for the ride. No doubt we’ll learn some good stuff on the way.