We joke about it all the time: how we students start and finish assignments the night before the due date, disregard weekly readings, and skip lectures and tutorials. Yet at the same time we continue to protest tuition hikes and the increasing cost of attending university. Makes sense, I suppose—we’re paying far too much for the amount of effort we’re actually putting into our education.
I don’t mean to be bitter. As I approach the end of my degree, I’ve recently realized what a wonderful experience I’ve had these past four years. But this year in particular I’ve also been struck by the careless attitude we undergrads have towards our education.
I came to UTM the neurotic high school student who did every math question assigned for homework and never skipped class. (I did attempt to once, but my chemistry teacher heard my loud voice in the hallway and I got dragged back in.) And while university has surprisingly taught me how to relax, I still have not lost my work ethic. I’ve never missed an assigned homework question for French, a reading for English, or even a lecture itself for no reason whatsoever. I’ve never even pulled an all-nighter. (I know I’d just break down come 2 a.m.)
I’m not proud to admit to my work ethic, though. Sure, I’m doing it here in this article, but I’d never seriously voice these achievements. Instead, I make fun of them. My friends lovingly poke fun at it too. They’ve never known me without homework. I haven’t either! A Snapchat circulated three weeks ago featuring yours truly on her living room floor justifying to herself why it was okay that she didn’t start the essay due April 1 that night. The day that I don’t pack my bag—no matter where I’m going—with a textbook will be a shock. My point here is this “actually doing all the-required work in advance of when it’s supposed to be done” mentality is abnormal. I am not a normal university student.
I think I well and truly realized that in a senior seminar I’m in this term. We’ve finally moved on from being lectured at. Now, in this 300-level course, we’re welcome to participate in the discussion and share our thoughts on the weekly readings. I turned up at the first class in January with my filled binder and pen in hand and slowly realized that note-taking was completely unnecessary. With no test or exam, there was no specific information to study. I was free to simply jot down what I thought was truly interesting or nothing at all. No judgement. I was relieved. Finally I could just enjoy class.
I hit this realization maybe a week or two into the course. However, everyone else in the room continued to bring their laptops. Everyone. One class I naïvely thought to myself, “What possibly are people writing down?” And then I figured it out—Facebook messages, Google searches, and Tweets. You look up at your classmates and instead of seeing faces, you see tops of heads with eyes locked on their screens. The professor must realize, right? If anybody were to look at this situation from outside it, they’d wonder what was going on.
When did it become totally acceptable to attend class, sign the attendance sheet, and never once check in? And of course no one does the readings unless it’s their week to facilitate the discussion. Some are better than others at still sharing their opinion—even if it’s not grounded in anything from the texts we’re studying. We don’t even all know one another’s names except those of us who met before that particular course.
Despite all that, don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed it. The readings would definitely make my top five of favourite assigned readings list (yes, I have one of those) and they’ve allowed for engaging conversation. I’ve always participated in classes, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do so to the degree that I currently do. But at the end of the day, it’s me, the professor, and a handful of others doing the talking, in a class of almost 30. And let me reiterate, that’s normal. It’s not just this one class—I’m certain of it. It might be more apparent in this class, but that’s partly due to its physical arrangement.
I don’t understand why we even go to university if this is the approach we take. Have university students never actually done the readings? Did they even do them 40, 30, 20, or 10 years ago? Did my own professors complete all their essays the night before too? Have we ever cared? Are we all just here so we can move on to bigger and better careers? Or to make a few friends? I think maybe I’ve completely misunderstood why we go to university.
All these questions then make me wonder if it’s entirely our fault. Maybe this careless attitude towards education is implicitly encouraged. Perhaps it’s a result of the current format of university, including our relationships with professors, teaching styles, and mark breakdowns. Personally, I’ve never felt inhibited by any of these factors, but that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be considered.
In president Meric Gertler’s visit to UTM earlier this month, he expressed a desire to improve undergraduate education in order to increase opportunities for student success. “That’s why I believe that we should not be rejecting the traditional liberal arts model, but in fact rejuvenating it and renewing it, and thinking about how we can make it work for our students more effectively,” he said. I wish I could share what I think might rejuvenate and renew postsecondary education. That’s a tall order to fill, though. Even for a university president like Gertler.
All I can suggest is that current and future students engage with their academics more. And I don’t mean freak out about marks. Please, no. There’s nothing I hate more. What I’m referring to is learning for the sake of learning. Why not enjoy our academics? We all agree that extracurricular engagement is important and educational in its own right. But I think we jump too quickly to that agreement because we’re happy for another excuse to ignore the reasons we’re at university in the first place. Why not do the readings? Why not go to your professor’s office hours? Why not participate in lecture?
If there’s one thing university didn’t teach me, it was the answers to those questions.