The Homeschooled College Teacher: Part Two

In my last post, I introduce an old friend who was also unschooled growing up, and who today is an Anthropology teacher at community college. In between her homeschooled upbringing and becoming a college teacher, Nina has spent a lot of time as a college student, beginning in a community college, then a four-year school, then overseas for her Master’s degree, and additional thesis work beyond.

I think it’s fair to say that Nina has come from unschooling into an adult life of immersive academia, and I was interested to see what she had to say about that transition, and her experience of choosing the space of a college, and a classroom, as the setting for her career.

When we left off, we were remembering coming to a point in homeschooling where each of us were ready for something new – something more structured and rigorous than unschooling. We both began community college in our mid-teens to fulfill our curiosity and interest in new challenges.

Here’s where the conversation picks up…

Lindsey: You began attending community college before I did. What age did you begin, and what did you study?

Nina: I was just barely 15 years old. My first semester, I took a computer science class and an anthropology class… based on the recommendations of my older brother and mother, respectively. I had to talk to the Dean to be admitted without a GED or high school diploma.

LM: Do you think that your time at a regular school in fifth grade gave you confidence to begin community college at that age?

N: It probably made the classroom environment a little more familiar. But I think I would have been more comfortable with the college environment even when I was 10. I don’t mean the course material — that would have been way over my head — but just the more relaxed rules, picking what you wanted to take… showing up and leaving.

But, I was always really stressed out about exams and getting good grades.

LM: So, initially, you didn’t find the same “gold-star” appeal in community college?

N: Not exactly. I read your post about beginning college (of course!), and, in contrast, I tested into remedial English when I took the placement test. Oddly, I tested into math as highly as I could despite the fact that those relative results hardly reflect my interests or aptitudes. So, I had more mixed results and fewer gold stars. I mean, I got straight A’s, but I felt like I was working for them.

LM: Interesting. So, at what point did you realized you were going to seriously immerse yourself in academia? Was it when you transferred to UC Berkeley, or did community college ultimately win you over?

N: Well, it was definitely gradual. But I was already an anthropology major before I transferred to Cal, and I was already thinking about where I would go to grad school. I had some truly fantastic professors at community college. Not powerhouses in the field, like the professors at Cal… but some really magnificently good teachers.

nina at cal

LM: Even when we were teens, it seemed to me that you became really passionate about studying in a formal way… and that you laid out a path that was school-bound for many more years than I did.

Would you say it was just the unfolding of your interest in anthropology, or did the environment of academic institutions interest you in themselves?

N: I think I’ve always done that… Planned the long-game for delayed rewards, I mean. It’s easier than deciding what will make me happy right now! But, community colleges absolutely interest me… as a place where people from so many different ages and backgrounds are mixed together for different reasons… with different goals, but, ostensibly, to learn.

I do think research institutions can be pretty dysfunctional places of learning, though. My husband and I were just talking about this last night. Who decided that researchers would be good teachers in the first place? So, while I still enjoy my fieldwork (mostly), I’ve been prioritizing teaching more, recently.

LM: Interesting point. My dad talks about that a lot – he feels like he’s really committed to being good at the communication and bonding and storytelling and question posing that makes someone a good TEACHER… A lot of those skills are really specific to standing in front of a group of people and talking about something. not necessarily connected to the subject that’s being taught.

N: Yes. You learn hooks. You learn that you can explain the concept of “founder effect” in precise, clear, technical terms a thousand times (evolutionary concept). But what really works is saying, “When I was a kid, we had some stray cats move into our backyard…” It doesn’t matter if it’s not even a good example. Making things personal makes people listen.


anthropology |ˌanTHrəˈpäləjē|
the study of humankind, in particular:
• (also cultural or social anthropology )the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development.
• (also physical anthropology )the science of human zoology, evolution, and ecology.

LM: Now that you are teaching community college, are there things about the teaching role that you feel frustrated by or uncomfortable with, coming from an unschooler paradigm? Or do you think that the unschooler paradigm applies to kids and not to college?

N: Uncomfortable isn’t the right word… But unschooling colors my understanding of where students’ problems might come from. When I first started college, the environment was still very novel, and I took everything very seriously. If I was told to read a chapter, I read the chapter, twice or more if I wasn’t sure I had retained everything. But, as I went on, I gradually became more like my peers. I realized that I could cut corners. The system wears you down a bit. And the students in my classrooms now have had 13 years of that. So no wonder the idea of studying for another test doesn’t motivate them. Where are the rewards? I mean, deep, meaningful rewards. Not gold stars.

But, I don’t think that the unschooling paradigm applies that well to college. I think you sign up for it, and it’s your job to play by the rules. I’ve certainly given out my share of F’s without feeling too much guilt. On the other hand, I think our society is demanding that too many people go to college. People should go if they’re actually interested in what they’re learning about. Or there should be more diversity of college systems and styles. People get forced into it who don’t really want to be there. I feel badly about that, and I see their frustration.

LM: Looking at my peers when I was in college, I felt like, if you choose to go to college, get it together and play by the rules and work hard! But, there’s this other part of me that’s just like.. why do we have such stupid rules!? I didn’t learn things I was tested on more than other things. I guess I was wondering if you ever feel that, as a teacher, you’re stuck with “rules” that don’t feel useful?

N: Um, a little bit. I don’t disapprove of grades, though. There needs to be some measure of how much someone has put into it. There are all sorts of ways of making those grades more reflective of learning than they are, though, and that would be great.

And I definitely disapprove of the system where you have to take a bunch of classes that you might not be interested in. I loved the liberal arts system. My older brother couldn’t tolerate it at all. It should be possible to get more focused degrees that are accepted for various fields, and are equal to a typical college degree.

LM: Can the measure of what you put into it just be what you get out of it?

N: I think college is useful (grades are useful) as a sort of certificate system that applies to certain things. I mean, it’s pretty clear that we want people with EMT certifications to know how to do CPR, or electricians to understand electricity, or architects’ buildings to stay up… It’s obviously good to have standards in these types of fields. But, even in more academic fields, people who are deciding who to let into anthropology grad school want a body of work to see whether the applicant has done the basics first. Hardly as important from a public safety perspective, of course!

LM: Have you heard of the term Un-College? it’s a term I’m aware of since starting the blog.

N: No, I haven’t. Tell me!

LM: Well, people are basically just burning out of the “everyone has to go to college” thing, like you said. Especially in relationship to high student debt and low employment.

My understanding is that some people are turning to a more “real-world,” field-based, travel-based, experience-based period during your typical college years.

N: I think it sounds totally reasonable and viable. I don’t believe that people have to go to college to be well-rounded, well-educated adults.