Eight weeks have elapsed since my first class at McGill University. Some things have changed. I have gained new memories, like that of the biting agony felt in my fingers under -20ºC weather, courtesy of Quebec City. I bruised my chin from being stabbed in the face with a pole during a fall while skiing. I started playing MapleStory again out of nostalgia (what? Hmu losers). Other things remain unchanged: being late for back-to-back classes, and burning the midnight oil to chiong assignments. Anyhow, I am the least interesting part of this article. Instead, let me share some observations I have made in my time at McGill. Get ready for a ride – as my time here has been.
As a primer, here are the modules I am taking:
- Human Motivation (P)
- Advanced Topics in Social Psychology (P)
- Development and Underdevelopment (S)
- Sociology of Science (S)
Where P = Psychology, S = Sociology (I’m taking a 2nd Major in Sociology). But this subject discrimination is less important here, for reasons I will later explicate.
Institutions & Structures
McGill is a left-winger/social liberal’s wet dream (suffice it to say that the module on societal [under]development has vastly expanded my repertoire of political terms). I’m not sure if it gets better than this. It is apparently one of the most diverse universities in North America, with ~30% of all undergraduates being international students. I am unable to find corresponding statistics for NTU, because 1) our website is clunky and 2) if Google can’t find it, it’s not worth finding.
Here, student care and empowerment is a big deal; campus protests are common and normalised; you catch glimpses of Bernie supporters at the library; student-run newspapers write scathing satirical pieces on both administrative and student hypocrisy; there is a Marxist coalition named “Socialist Fightback Club” registered as a student society. The members are dead serious about it, and attempted to charge me $4 CAD for a copy of The Communist Manifesto that they printed. The school’s humble “Shag Shop” distributes free condoms and sells experimental sex toys.
One can actually engage in productive discourse on matters of copulation here, without the risk of retaliation from concerned conservatives. In particular, sexual assault at least seems to be taken seriously here – can you imagine? (No, we couldn’t.) This is not to say that McGill is any less susceptible to the inertia of bureaucracy, but it does have a dramatically different outlook on the surface. Social inequality and the repercussions of a colonial past on indigenous peoples are readily acknowledged, though I cannot comment on the extent to which rectifying measures are effective.
On the note of liberty, professors are allotted more freedom in structuring their classes here. Rules appear to be readily revisable at lecturers’ wills. One module I’m taking (Human Motivation) provides an automatic option for students to reduce the weightage of the mid-term exam to 10%, such that the final exam accounts for 90%. (That’s hot.) I can envision that such a policy would be ravenously popular in NTU – not that it would ever be approved. In contrast, NTU appears to have a restricted range on the proportion that the final exam can account for (40-60%). This comparatively laissez-faire regulation runs in line with McGill’s institutional structure.
Classes & Lessons
Right off the bat, classes are more interdisciplinary here – both in content and student composition. That module on development that I jumped into on the sheer fact that it “looked interesting” turned out to be a composite of economics, political science, anthropology, and geography. The last time I took a geography test, I got 6/20. Imagine my terror when I came face-to-face with papers like The Political Economy of Import-Substituting Industrialization in Latin America from the Quarterly Journal of Economics after the add-drop period had passed. It’s halfway through the semester and I’m still not sure what a market economy is. The good news is I’m doing okay, but I might not do this to myself again. (Who am I kidding – I know I would.)
I have a classmate in my social psychology module whose major is Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies (GSFS for short). If you thought I was a radical feminist, you have yet to see the world, my friends. The lady is a hurricane. She wrote a 1,738-word response to a reading on attitudes and beliefs in social cognition where she made the following points: the potential inapplicability of the research to diverse populations, ableism in research, and the problematic assumption that sexual identity is a binary construct. The recommended number of words for each response is 300. I probably wrote my response under 15 minutes. Another student pursuing a branch of neuroscience enjoys relating findings to physical (e.g. fMRI) measurements of the brain, as well her personal difficulties with mental health. The perspective that each student brings to the table is coloured by their unique education and identity, and it makes for a fascinating exchange of ideas.
Class participation is played up more at McGill. Another module that I’m taking (sociology of science – excellent content) is designed with student interaction at its core. In the 1.5 hours of each session, our lecturer spends the first 20-30 minutes enumerating the key concepts of the assigned reading(s) for that day. The class then splits up for the next hour to mull over a set of questions that extrapolate from the reading. And they’re not basic questions limited to “what did the author mean?”; these questions demand engagement and connections across readings, and there are often no clear-cut answers. We upload the content of our discussion in a Word document and are collectively graded for the quality of thought shown (25% of total grade, collated across all responses). Peer evaluation is also taken seriously here – each member anonymously rates the performance of their groupmates, and one’s score is adjusted based on their relative contribution. It’s something NTU should definitely consider implementing as a default, because god knows how many people don’t know how to pull their weight in projects.
Individually, we are also expected to craft and submit discussion questions (another 25%). Outstanding submissions are included as part of the group discussion worksheet, and automatically receive full marks. The system works such that if there are 6 questions on the worksheet that day, there could be anywhere from 2-6 student submissions. Including 10% for simply doing your readings on time, here it can be seen that the participation aspect already accounts for more than half (60%) of the final grade.
In my view, learning at McGill entails more negotiation and subjective interpretation, while NTU adopts a more definitive-instructive approach. This style of learning intrigued me, because I’m more of a lone wolf-type – the environment at home favours this approach. The general sequence of my tutorials in NTU is this: lecturer/tutor rambles > asks if students have any questions > receives no response > class ends. That doesn’t mean you can’t attempt to participate, but active participation is simply not built into its blueprint.
Either way, the merits of this collaborative learning approach at McGill are clear enough: listening to multiple perspectives on an issue widens one’s scope of thought. The downsides are that conversations veer off-topic rapidly, and clarity is sacrificed for variety. It also doesn’t always mean that the quality of thought is better. Silence appears to be an uncomfortable concept here, to the point that fluffed up nonsense is better than nothing. I disagree. Nonetheless, it surely contributes to a livelier classroom that can be simultaneously stimulating and overwhelming. It’s an important reminder that what works at home does not always work elsewhere, and the world out there is much greater than my tiny safe-space bubble. You know what that means: ~character development~! Catch me back in NTU more eloquent, outgoing, and assertive than ever before! /s
Montreal’s Quirks & People
McGill’s medium of instruction is English, but everyone I’ve met there is effectively bilingual. Still, natives seem more comfortable in French, which is reflected in the ubiquity of the language in Montreal’s physical infrastructure. As a whole, French dominates in the Quebec region. Montreal has a particularly curious history of Franco-Anglophone relations.
Part of the reason why I picked Canada (and McGill) as my exchange destination was because my gut said I wouldn’t experience racism as much here than if I were to go elsewhere, like Australia or the US. I think I was right. My friends at other places have shared instances where they’ve faced aggression and outright discrimination (e.g. UK). I toured New York and Boston before entering Canada in December 2019. Even with four of us, I never felt safe. There was always an undercurrent of chaotic instability that I couldn’t shake off. A man seated barely two metres away from me at the metro suddenly punched the air in an uppercut motion, and I was so terrified my knees nearly gave way. And there was this one exchange with a phone operator when I was purchasing tickets for Chicago on Broadway:
Operator: … and your country of residence?
Operator: Oh, so you’re from China! That’s fine, you could have said so from the beginning.
Me: [sigh] … No, that’s not in China.
Operator: No? Japan then?welp.
Especially with the coronavirus, it’s not a great year for the Chinese. The upside is that Canada remains fairly unafflicted, and the panic hasn’t set in. A man did give me the side eye and scooted away from me when I coughed on the train once, but I can understand that, LOL.
In Canada, at least in downtown Montreal, it’s different. If there is racism, they mask it superbly. The people here are more assertive than we are, but they are not rude (which is a fine line the Americans often transgress imo). Crucially, I feel that I can breathe here. It’s merely a feeling, not grounded in any good science, but it’s a powerful contrast. Then again, it should be noted that most people I interact with are from the same group – basically, liberals with heightened political sensitivities. (Not everyone is the same, y’know, like one of my [Singaporean male] followers who made it a point to declare to me via DMs that Bernie and his supporters were hypocritical for being “anti-big corp”. God, I get so wet when boys take on the Mantle of Responsibility to let me know I’m misguided because they know so much better. Hit me harder with that Big Knowledge, daddy!)
Learning is more intrinsically enjoyable without the omnipresent pressure of having to outdo your peers. Here, the only target to outdo is myself. I go to classes because I want to learn (fine – to be accurate, the kiasu mentality of not wanting to lose out on what I could be potentially learning kicks in, but that’s just semantics). I push myself equally hard for my assignments, though I will admit I give myself leeway on smaller matters. Of course, I still want the A, but it is a bonus byproduct rather than the motivating force.
Things aren’t transformed simply because you’re overseas. In fact, you realise that some phenomena are indeed universal, like social loafing (à la groupmates slacking off). The boys from NTU with me are still tanking the group projects for their modules, because their perfectionist mentality persists. I was lucky enough to have zero modules with group projects – I’d be damned if I had to deal with that BS even on exchange.
This is by no means a campaign against grades – I continue to endorse that people should be rewarded in proportion to the effort and quality of work they put in (wow, meritocratic ideal siol, indoctrinated Sinkie). The point is that we don’t have to, and in fact shouldn’t, take the existing standards of our education system for granted. They are not set in stone, and can always be changed for the better. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I wouldn’t say my experience at McGill has been life-changing. I’m still very much in a comfortable space, with my beliefs and values unchallenged. In fact, McGill might even suit my ideology better. What I’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg. However, I believe acknowledging this fact opens the door to a new beginning. I’ve seen glimpses of how things can be different, but still work well. The next step is to get out there with this (marginally) broadened perspective and use it. Baby steps, small steps, progress all the same. Maybe it’s not the goal, but how we get there that matters.