my time at mcgill: a mid-term review

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.

no post of mine is complete without a reference to luigi, apparently.

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?

Me: Singapore.

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!)

Final Thoughts

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.

on the failure to fail

Two weeks ago, I had my first classes at McGill University. It is a gorgeous, sprawling institution located in Montréal, a city in Canada’s province of Quebec. (Took me a while to get that sentence too – geography eludes me.)

Introductory day was spectacular, setting my existential crisis into motion. I walk into morning class to be greeted by a course syllabus with no exams and massive class participation. Anyone who knows me recognises my enthusiasm for group work. And a poster exhibition worth 40%. What? But the module is on the sociology of science! I’d be a fool to let that go for some adjustment issues.

Three hours later, I am late for a seminar because it is a 15-minute hill away from the second lecture, and also because of my abysmal time management. (There’s no way around either.) I awkwardly fumble for a seat at the makeshift discussion space, made up of four rectangular tables aligned such that sixteen people can stare daggers at each other simultaneously. Sixteen. The instructor is devastatingly charming, up to the point he casually mentions that everyone in class will inevitably and individually lead a class discussion. You could pull that phrase apart into single words and I’d be as horrified. Individually / lead / class / discussion.

I share my personal difficulties with being nervous in social situations with two friendly classmates, as they walk me to my fourth and final class out of goodwill. They are mildly sympathetic. Or not. Could I chalk it down to cultural differences or personal weakness? I have no answers, and it doesn’t matter.

I attempt to strike a conversation with an aloof, if cordial, student seated beside me in the lecture theatre. She doesn’t catch my accent half the time. It’s fine. I won’t be seeing her in the next lesson, or the next, or any of the following lectures really. We sit in silence, and I make a comment on how the theatre is packed.

She replies: “Ah, don’t worry about that. The numbers start falling off in a few weeks.”

Me, intrigued and dumb: “Why? Is it because they drop the class?”

Her, blandly: “No. They just stop coming.”

well, there’s that.

I leave the theatre confused by my professor’s rambling on development, colonialism, and what the definition of “betterment of society” really entails. I am emotionally and socially depleted, and I don’t have anyone to go home to. To mitigate my nagging loneliness, I go searching for John William’s Stoner near my place as an alternative to the more scandalous books I currently possess. It’d be easier to read in public. There, on level 2, an older man’s fingers dance across the piano at an adjoined café as mine run across pages and glossy covers. The book’s not available.

On my way home, I ruminate on why I’m so worried about my performance when I’m being graded on a pass/fail scale. I could even get away with missing class occasionally (obligatory disclaimer: not that I intend to). The answer, introspectively derived, is that it’s not only my performance that I’m worried about. I’m worried, and I always have been, about how others perceive me. And that is inextricably intertwined with my fear of failure, in the words of my lecturer on human motivation. To be precise, it would be inaccurate only to say that I want to do well; it’s more that I can’t accept not doing well.

I am positively sickened at the prospect of sitting in a group discussion feeling like I’m the only one who hasn’t done the reading. That happened on the second day of class, actually. I forgot to read one paper in advance, I admitted it to the four other girls I was grouped with, and the discussion promptly continued as if Thanos had snapped his finger and scattered my humiliated ashes to the wind. For all I know, half of them didn’t do the reading either, a suspicion that was highlighted when they went off-topic multiple times. But I still hated every moment of being in that situation. I don’t know how the exchange student in my group last semester back at NTU managed to pull it off (not reading any assigned articles), though I do know I did not hide my contempt for him.

don’t do shit, get hit.

I recall one class presentation where it was readily apparent to me that I was putting out inferior work. Relatively speaking, at least, because the bell curve dictates that one’s work is judged only against the performance of compeers in the same module. Standing under the watchful eye of the lecturer and classmates, I remember thinking, why are you guys paying attention now of all times!? I was wringing my hands desperately, looking anywhere but at the lecturer (and the other students too) in case they discovered my incompetence.

Throughout the ordeal, the irrepressible urge to simply up and bolt out of the classroom held me hostage – a classic flight response to a situation rapidly spiraling out of control. Thankfully, I was too petrified to budge. It was not a good day. Failing is an incredibly noxious sensation that I don’t have the resources to handle.

The problem, then: isn’t failing a necessity for growth?

I can’t bring myself to relax now, because I’ve never allowed myself to under equivalent conditions. I’m deeply terrified of mediocrity, and my talent is escaping from that inevitability.

Still, I’m learning. I missed one day’s worth of class earlier this week. (Obligatory disclaimer: whoops.) I’m telling myself it’s okay, even if I didn’t understand half of what the lecturer said in the class on development today. (At this point, I’m inclined to think it’s him and not me.) Even if I don’t have anyone to help me catch up on the content. I will get through it as I always have. There will be no caveats here, only a commitment to self-acceptance. After all, exchange promised to be a time for growth. I’m going to make the best out of it – even if it means pulling apart and rebuilding myself in the process.

excerpts, #2

— That time you looked at me, regret splintering within your distant gaze, you said you remembered everything. But did you really? What I remember is that exhibition, where time was represented as unbroken swirl. Past, present, future: they fuse as chaotically as the particles of the universe. And if you stand inverted facing those waves that outline our memories, a new perspective comes through each time.

You can say it again to me — everything, all over again.

penis envy

Especially at the peak of puberty, I used to wish I had been born a boy instead. In those years, that desire was fuelled by curfews and a classic catch-22 cast upon me by my parents. The conundrum was as follows: to protect myself from being attacked out there by males, I should find a male chaperone. If that seems logical to you, think harder. Never mind that historical romance novels inform me that chaperones are a dated concept that belong to and should remain in the 19th century. On top of that, boyfriends (a version of a male chaperone) were disallowed, because my parents believed boys were distractions. (They were right on that one, and they still are, but that’s besides the point.)

Granted, those were abstract principles and were not implemented to fundamentalist extremes. I was still allowed to leave the house alone and have fun in a mixed school. Still, as an example, my parents – particularly my father – distrusted my first boyfriend (and me), while simultaneously conceding that they had to entrust me to him. I am unable to comment on whether they would have approved the subsequent ones because I stopped updating them, LOL. As a side note, even now it seems to me the concept of female sexuality is still actively resisted by the social mass, at least back at home. We want love, but the love we demand should be chaste… according to society (and men)! Step outside your allotted boundaries, and get struck out.

Either way, my left-wing identity strengthening with education further fanned the flames of my frustration. My budding sexuality was the gasoline. As far as my young, female, feeble mind was concerned, men were allocated disproportionate privileges that I was in turn denied. If only I had not been born a girl, I rationalised, those illogical and unfair restrictions on what was most important to me – freedom and control – wouldn’t exist. Perhaps because I was powerless to do anything else at that point, the most viable strategy to compensate for my perceived helplessness was simply to wish I was a male. An awful strategy, by all means. But we move on.

That pubertal penis envy faded as I grew older, more gender-appropriate desires blooming in its place to mask its putrid stench. The liberal female empowerment phase happened. But recently it’s been coming back to haunt me. For all I know, it never left. As if this remission is my surrender to the recognition that women are indeed the second sex.

The trigger? Being a minority.

To coexist in a sphere where men dominate, trying so hard to get noticed, starting to wonder why the conversation is happening with everyone except you, and whatever you say echoes off the walls against the impassive silence of the others who won’t even meet your eye because you make them uncomfortable, and starting to think you’re better off being quiet. The discomfort that hangs in the air, because my existence as a woman, and all the social baggage that this master status entails, overshadows all my interactions with members of the opposite gender. (I haven’t even gotten into intersectionality, currently very much salient as I type this from a place where I’m in a minority group.)

Your presence is noted, but not acknowledged. And the thing about privilege is you can’t explain it fully until you realise you don’t have it: for example, I can relate somewhat to Chinese privilege by drawing parallels to male privilege, but what about my Chinese male friends?

I wish I could brush this feeling off by simply tacking a “grass is greener on the other side” sticker onto it. And I know some people who would argue to that effect. But to say that would be to downplay the reality of the lived experience, mainly my own here but definitely shared by others, that feeds into it. I’m not saying men don’t have their own unique set of problems. But ultimately it’s important to realise that there are hidden power structures (gender, race, disability, among others) that pervade and colour our everyday experiences of living, and we don’t always get to be on top. In classic sociology terms: if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. (Note the absence of the woman!)

Do I still wish I had been born a guy? Sometimes. Would I necessarily have a better life? That I don’t know, though I’m guessing it would be statistically easier to achieve. In the meantime, I would do better to stop the self-loathing and focus on elevating my group as a whole instead.

superwoman

That day I was alone and sobbing, I thought of my mum. If only she was there with me, I wouldn’t have been that wreck crying in a public place. Superwoman, my mum, would hold up the sky if it was crumbling for me. She can achieve impossible physical feats, like breaking that plastic piece holding a new pair of socks together with her teeth. Of course she has psychic powers too: knowing my latent eczema would flare up in the blistering cold, she supplied me with the weapons that were moisturising creams. I returned one to her, but guess who likely needs more? She always masks her concern under her prickly exterior – her affection only manifests in her regular reproaches of my careless behaviours. Yet I remember the quiver of her voice and her lovely face as she struggled not to cry the last time we separated at the airport.

And that was only for six weeks, not six months.

anticipation

if you kept me waiting on your words
would you give me nothing in return?
and I need to know if you’ll be gone
… but I guess your silence keeps me warm

monsune, nothing in return

bibliofailure

Okay but the real question is: is it cheating if I count my mandated class readings towards fulfilling my annual Goodreads Reading Challenge? After all, reading is reading… (I’m ashamed to say I probably still wouldn’t meet my goal even with their inclusion, though.)