Try Everything at University

This post is brought to you courtesy of three facts:

  1. I’m reading Small is the New Big, a compilation of Seth Godin’s blog posts, articles et al. Great, readable book (though, speaking as a former technical writer, that’s one slipshod index). I’m enjoying it even though some of the pieces are repeats for me.
  2. I recently contributed some advice to an eBook for college graduates.
  3. I’ve been sucked beyond the Facebook event horizon (why is the URL for my public profile so hard to find?), and discovered where some of my university classmates ended up.

Back in 2002, Seth wrote a post about the vast vistas open to every new post-secondary student:

t reminded me of my days as an undergrad (at a lesser school, natch), browsing through the catalog, realizing I could learn whatever I wanted. That not only could I take classes but I could start a business, organize a protest movement, live in a garret off campus, whatever. It was a tremendous gift, this ability to choose.

Yet most of my classmates refused to choose. Instead, they treated college like an extension of high school. They took the most mainstream courses, did the minimum amount they needed to get an A, tried not to get into “trouble” with the professor or face the uncertainty of the unknowable. They were the ones who spent six hours a day in the library, reading their textbooks.

Shopping Around

Through a happy accident (it certainly wasn’t insight), I took six courses from six departments in my first year of university: creative writing, theatre, geography, philosophy, english and…hmmm….there definitely was a sixth. Anyway, the point was that I got to shop around and see what I liked, and what struck my fancy. Mind you, that also meant it took me five years to graduate, but I really liked going to school, so that was a blessing, not a curse.

I chose creative writing and theatre, and by the end of my double-major, was really struck by the difference in the programs. The Creative Writing department (subsequently just renamed to the plain old ‘Writing Department’) seemed full of people like those Seth described–average, plugging away, just trying to get finished and get out.

The Theatre department, on the other hand, was full of passionate people who put in long hours for their classes, and then voluntarily put in even longer hours on extra projects. People didn’t care so much about grades, but about artistic achievement and the respect of their peers. Of course there was politics and infighting and backstabbing and everybody sleeping with everybody (I only learned that last bit after my degree!), but that’s because everybody seemed so stirred and, well, dramatic.

The Board

I wanted to offer a photo as tangible evidence of this collective passion and enthusiasm, but Flickr fully let me down. In the back hall of theatre department, there was a glass display case known as The Board. The Board displayed room assignments for the current week. Outside of classes, usually every room was booked from 8:00am to 11:00pm.

By the end of the week, The Board would be covered in Post-Its from students swapping rooms and claiming empty hours. There was never enough space, and it wouldn’t be unusual to find students rehearsing in the concrete hallways below the mainstage theatres.

There was this complex pecking order for booking rooms, and the work-study student who handled the board (hello, Tobi Hunt) was the Corporal Klinger of the department, constantly managing a stream of pleading requests for space.

It was a high-pressure environment, but also heated, creative and downright joyful. I’m sure I’m looking back at it through rose-coloured glasses, but when I compare it with the ordinariness of the Writing department, the differences are stark.

I’m sure my experience at the Phoenix (that was the difficult-to-spell name of the theatre) wasn’t that unusual. In fact, had I also not been in creative writing, I’d have assumed everybody had that level of engagement with their learning environment.

You Have More Freedom Than You Think

So what was the difference? The professors? The application process (both fine arts departments required an ‘audition’, but maybe one was better)? The art form (writing being solitary and theatre being collaborative)? I’m not really sure, but there was an unmistakable secret sauce at work.

I am sure that, though I do very little theatre these days (only the very occasional play), my time in the Theatre department served me much, much better than my time across the quad in the Writing department. It taught me how to be a leader, how to listen, how to understand design, how to harness my creativity…I could make a long list. The most important thing it did, though, is the thing that every university degree must do–it taught me how to learn.

I doubt there are many 18-year-olds reading this site, but if there are, take my advice: try everything at university, and follow your instincts.

For the rest of us, follow Seth’s advice:

You have more freedom at work than you think (hey, you’re reading this on company time!) but most people do nothing with that freedom but try to get an A.

UPDATE: Another telling difference between the atmosphere of the two departments: UVic’s Theatre department has no less than five Facebook groups. The Creative Writing department doesn’t have any.


  1. I agree. I spent a good chunk of my university in a department (Asian Studies), that while it was very interesting stuff wasn’t a good fit for me. Fortunately towards the end I realized that and added on major #2 in social sciences. It turned out to be a much better foundation for my other subsequent interests.

    I wish I had taken creative writing. In the 80s, a lot of people snubbed that as a major since what kind of job could you get with that? If they only knew then what we know now eh?

  2. I was so into the idea of trying everything at university, I almost got my degree in trouble: it wasn’t until my final year that I learned there was a regulation that you could only apply credits from at most 10 departments towards your degree. I had exactly 10, and had been contemplating an 11th at the time.

    I always remember one TA, an older Eastern European woman, asking me “What if you change your mind about your degree after your first year? You’ll have wasted a year of your life!” That view mystified me. How is it ever a waste if you’ve learned something? And I say this even though I often wish I’d studied music years ago, rather than computer science. The courses you take do not necessarily define your path in life. Maybe if I’d studied music, I’d have forever regretted not studying computer science.

    No matter what you do later in life, you’ll have worthy experiences if you seek them out. If you learn something, it’s never a loss.

  3. Hey, if you happen to go back and read this, thank you. I am currently a second year student and, well I had already planned to take a little longer completing my degree, it helps to know that others have done the same and enjoyed it. Thank you.

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