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(c) 2013

(c) 2013

Despite all the frustrations over scheduling and advising, our daughter is getting ready to graduate this semester. Yahoo! She is busy making certain all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed so that she can leave with that degree—for which she will have an extra 14 credit hours. No, I told her not to accept the department adviser’s minor error on her graduation contract—it could matter. (My niece is marrying a man whose academic department started quibbling with him regarding his degree completion over two months after they said he had graduated.)

Besides completing her capstone art semester, which will culminate with a solo art show, she is also taking a professional practices course. She’s been working on tasks such as creating business cards and setting up her professional Facebook page. Somehow it’s hard to believe—despite the extra two semesters—that she is finally graduating.

Yes, we are those “crazy” parents who “let” our daughter declare a major in art—with a concentration in drawing in a small and highly competitive program. Will she be able to support herself solely with her art? That remains to be seen, but the desire to support herself is one of the reasons she is getting her art education within a four-year (make that five-year!) university program.

In these times so many people believe studying the humanities at all, let alone art, is a license to starve. And I have to thank everyone (sarcasm intended) who has pointed that out over the years, including some of her professors who think it is some sign of poor artistry to do anything with her art that doesn’t involve selling in a studio. Also, I would like to thank the many lackluster students in more practical majors who are shocked—just shocked—that she not only has a lot of work to do for her classes but also that she gets graded. How many of them could survive having all their highly unique work critiqued not only by the professor but also by their peers, every single time?

I happen to believe that being a passionate student in any subject teaches students more than they will learn if they only do the bare minimum in some subject they take because it is supposed to earn them money. Hey, I have an MBA (to go with that lowly humanities degree) but I’ve met a lot of former and current business majors who cared more about partying than balance sheets or P/E ratios.

When my daughter tells many students what she is studying, they say, “Oh, wow, I can’t draw.” As if somehow this has anything to do with them in the first place but I think they’re trying to point out how irrelevant her knowledge is. I’ll get to what’s relevant about her studies in a moment, but let’s just say that it’s too bad they can’t draw, because she can draw by hand and computer (plus edit by computer) as well as create spreadsheets, perform accounting, write, do research, and excel in math and science classes.

You see, she’s graduating with a bachelor’s degree just like all the other people at her university—they don’t give those degrees away no matter your major. Like everyone else there, she’s taken a variety of other courses besides those in her major and area of concentration.

Plus—and here’s where my liberal arts rant begins again—each discipline teaches valuable skills that apply to many situations.

In order to obtain a degree in art, for each project she does she has to follow a prompt—in other words, she has to design her finished product to some specifications. She must sketch possibilities from her ideas, research artists and works similar to her idea, investigate materials and see how well she can apply those materials to her specific project plan, and change the plan as needed. She has to manage her time in order to finish a long project by the deadline. When she is finished she must go through a group critique where the professor and her peers get to weigh in on how they perceive her finished project achieved its intent. At times she must create art in partnership or as part of a team. Keep in mind that few of her courses involve taking multiple choice tests by Scantron—most of the work she does is distinct and individualized.

So to summarize: For any given project she must work from directions, use creativity, perform research, practice good time management, remain flexible as her project develops, meet established deadlines, communicate ideas in writing and orally to individuals and groups, and receive criticism and feedback from multiple individuals.

Don’t discount her education—it’s been rigorous and has helped her develop the tools she needs to meet the demands of a variety of professions. Hey, I’d be happy if you’d buy her art and she could live as an artist. But just so you know, her discipline has taught her many skills and developed others that are valuable to many kinds of jobs and careers.

Just because she can draw a box doesn’t mean she isn’t able to draw outside the box.

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A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person. Dave Barry

(c) 2011 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2011 Christiana Lambert

Everyone in a workplace has a backstory—how he or she got to that job, as well as the life led in the hours away from work. People are more than their jobs—and thank goodness for that. Life happens 24 hours a day, whether or not a person is working.

Here’s a bit about my own backstory in the work place. Almost 30 years ago I arrived in Denver during another tough job market with a liberal arts degree (in English) from a good mid-western college—a college no one knew about in this region. While I still believe in studying the liberal arts, I will concede that gaining employment with a brand new liberal arts degree is harder than if a person had studied something that led to a definite career path.

So eventually I decided to start at the bottom of a company in an industry where I wanted to grow. Thus I became a receptionist at a magazine publishing company. No matter that they would have hired me a day after graduating high school—or maybe not, since at that point I had yet to teach myself to type in order to produce all those English literature papers.

Kids, this backstory about answering telephones is no fictional device—back in those dark ages, real people actually answered telephones—there were no automated phone trees. And phone calls were expected to be answered within a ring or two, even if several lines were ringing. Talk about causing stress for a person who really wanted to take care of each person individually. Then add to that the stress caused by a total lack of logic regarding additional duties. With a phone system that was not at all mobile, I was also supposed to make coffee (and clean up any messes caused by others), water plants, prepare all business mail coming in and going out, prepare a bank deposit, type any letters asked of me, sharpen the publisher’s pencils (5 a day—no exceptions), and go in to the publisher’s office to tell her when she had another call if she were already on the line—all while not asking those assigned to back-up phone duty to do so too often.

My liberal arts degree did teach me how to be flexible, but not how to do the impossible. The job was hard enough without many people treating me as if I had no skills or knowledge, even when I caught any errors in documents I was given to type or when they read my detailed and accurate messages or if I knew that a phone call from a certain Malcolm Forbes was a big deal. For so many of the staff, a receptionist was just a person who was beneath them. So can you blame me for putting a picture of me in my college graduation gown on my desk?

However, those who called in couldn’t see my little photo. The magazine’s policy required me to ask for a personal and company name so I could announce the information in order for our people to answer their calls with a personal response. (Yes, I was caller ID for our staff members!) Many of our callers found this policy offensive, I guess because they, too, were so important. My second day on the job, I asked a caller, “May I say who is calling?” His reply came, “You know who this is. I call every week.” To which I replied, “I’m sorry, sir, this is my second day on the job so I really don’t know who you are and I am following company policy.” And, no, though I got his name, I never received an apology.

Thank goodness for those other callers who treated me as the human I was. Their decency and small kindnesses got me through three harsh months before I got promoted into a position where I only backed-up the receptionist. To this day I can’t forget the name of the gracious woman who published the city’s social register and how she went out of her way to thank me for being so courteous and diligent each time she called. I only wish my backstory included more such names.

Backstory—it’s something to remember as new college and high school graduates go out into the world or as other students take to summer jobs. These people are more than just the people learning their jobs or meeting (or learning how to meet) your needs. They have backgrounds and lives away from work. They deserve to be treated with respect, whether that is in day-to-day interactions or even when they need to be reprimanded for some on-the-job mistake.

I like to think that I didn’t have to work retail, clean toilets, bus tables, or answer phones to learn how to treat people well, but I also think that having those jobs really taught me to understand that there is a human being behind all the people who perform activities for me. In case I’m ever tempted to assume I’m so much better than someone, I try to remember what it’s like to clean up after someone who deliberately made a mess on a table or who even left a mess around the coffee station at work, believing they were too important to clean up after themselves. The truly defective person is the one who treats “underlings” with disrespect rather than the person who earns less or who performs an unglamorous job. Actions and words speak louder than titles or rank.

That’s also why I like to remember the backstories of people who I see all the time—even when I’m the one paying them and they have fancier letters behind their names. I try to understand a bit about who people are outside their jobs, such as knowing that the receptionist at physical therapy worries about watching out for her elderly father, or that the older PT had concerns about her kids, too, or that the younger PT’s dog shares a similarly disgusting habit with my dogs. They are real people to me, not just a position, title, or a means to an end.

These days I, for one, do my best to avoid places where others work so hard to try to make me feel small. I also do my best to check myself if I find myself minimizing others and their efforts. The more all of us realize that other people have backstories too, the likelier we are to create workplaces and other social environments where we treat each other with respect, concern, and empathy.

Trying to keep others small so you can be big is the kind of backstory that should be history.

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