DIY U: A Conversation with Anya Kamenetz

8 May

At the end of my freshman year (the point at which I began to reflect on and question the idea of traditional education), my dad told me about a new book called DIY U. The title appealed to me, and I think that in general our generation is very attracted to the idea of “Do-It-Yourself,” from alternative living and eco-consciousness, to artistic production and distribution, and now education. The author, Anya Kamenetz, was on her book tour and my mother and I attended two of her talks in the Bay Area. A year later I was meeting up with Anya at an independent bookstore café in SoHo to talk further about her findings and her ideas for the future.

A daughter of two college professors, Anya says her parents encouraged their children to be independent learners and there were always lots and lots of  books in the house. She remembers formative experiences that included interning at a local newspaper in New Orleans and attending a public arts high school for a year to study creative writing. She majored in Literature at Yale University, and became very involved in extracurriculars which she describes as being very influential. From writing and eventually being the editor of the university newspaper, to interning in New York at various workplaces (including the well-regarded Village Voice), she received a lot of pre-professional leadership skills. She highly recommends that students seek out-of-school learning activities: “Anything you take a leadership role in has a potential to really build you.”

Two years after graduating from Yale, she began working on her first book, Generation Debt, after noticing the increasing amount of people who had bought into the promise of higher education and were dissatisfied customers. While Generation Debt was more focused on the financial burdens of attending college, DIY U, which came out four years later, is more focused on the future of higher education and how students and learners are taking advantage of the internet and other ways to craft their own learning pathways and accrediting strategies.

“We idealize it,” reflected Anya when I asked her about the positives and negatives of a traditional college experience.”It’s a walled-off kind of space. It’s not commercial. It’s not a place for childhood and it’s not a place for adulthood. It’s a place where different ideas are in play. That’s why it’s so important to our culture in general because it’s a kind of experimental ground. It makes sense to have a special space. And ideally that’s what you have, you have a space where you can contemplate, you can group together with other people your age, you can get some mentoring, you can grow as a person, you can pursue your passions. And it’s wonderful when it works that way.” However Anya went on to say that college often doesn’t entirely work out that way. She described the downside of students being walled-off. “Colleges are now in some ways isolated islands of privilege, and we are keeping our kids sequestered from the world. The parenting of this generation now too really contributes to a sense of ‘they’re staying children far too long.'” 

Awesome decorations at McNally Jackson Bookstore where I met with Anya!

When asking Anya about the future of higher education, she brought up several hopeful trends:

  • “It’s all about more options. It’s all about not having four-year college as the default. In order for that to be true, I think that there needs to be a prestigious alternative. There’s already commodity alternatives (like for-profit colleges) but we need to have an alternative that looks better, that feels like something that a bright student would want to do and would be a recognized and accepted thing to do.” She further discusses various up-and-coming alternatives in DIY U. 
  • In terms of accreditation (one of the things I personally find most frustrating when it comes to acceptance of self-designed learning in college) she says that “there really needs to be a more modular set of credits that you can get. I think there’s going to be big fights on the level of accreditation, in congress, the department of education, in regional accrediting agencies. But people are also going to find loopholes and find their way in.” 
  • The future of combined virtual and experiential learning also holds great promise. “I think the more that it’s accepted that you can get some of your academic credits online, then they can be somewhat more commodified and it will really set people free. If you say, for example ‘I want to go off and work in development in a village in Africa but I’m going to be studying calculus on my phone,’ that’s the hybrid solution. You’re part of a community and you’re getting experience in life.”
  • Another aspect she hopes will become more prevalent is the use of networks to supplement learning. One of the many examples is Github, an online community and collaborative platform for people working on open source code software projects. People can build a reputation and reflect their specific interests and strengths on the site by the work they contribute. Recruiters are now coming on the site to look for people with very specific interests. “So it’s a combination of showing your work, showing what you’ve done, and then having a group of people be able to recognize it. That’s the golden combination.” 

For would-be Eduventurists who are trying to balance grades and making their own mark independently, Anya cautioned not to over-focus on academic achievement and Grade Point Average:

No one has ever looked at my GPA, or my transcript since I left college. And people don’t even look at my resume anymore after my first job, they just look at what I’ve done. So you can afford to let it slide. The important thing is that you’re really working on something that turns you on, lights you up, makes you excited, and that you not just be busy for the sake of being busy or stress yourself out. Because ultimately, pleasing your professors is not the be-all end-all.”

Before Anya headed out the door to teach a class at Trade School (which I’ll soon be posting about!), she had this to say for young people seeking to prepare themselves for the “real world:”

Start something. You know, there’s never been fewer barriers to starting something. If you have an idea, you can start a blog, you can start a twitter account, you can start a project, you can organize people locally. It makes you stand out and it’s a way to actually make a difference, to learn a lot, to become a leader. There should be nothing holding you back.” 

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