Declaring in the Dark

Graphic by Quinn Halman & Zach Lanys

I have a major declaration, and that is that I have no idea what — or how — to declare my major. Course selection is fast approaching, and after several examinations of the updated course calendar and countless tangos with Minerva, I’m more lost than ever. Staring blankly at the wall in McLennan, I wonder, when will this wandering end?

I naively began thinking about my would-be university program back in high school. Resting comfortably in the post-Christmas daze of grade twelve, I mused to my friends about how I’d like to do a joint honours in political science and history, perhaps with an accompanying double-minor in English lit. and economics. I can now imagine how absurd that must have sounded to my teachers; to this day I still smile at the fact that my peers and I once shared such outlandish ambitions with one another.

I have learned what Political science actually is, which is not simply discussing current events and dissecting political campaigns.

McGill’s mandatory freshman Arts program has certainly given me a rude — though enriching — awakening. Obligated to take a minimum of six credits in the “humanities, social sciences and languages or sciences”, my life has become a sea of introductory classes. I have been exposed to the dull and enduring pain of reading around 200 pages a night and the realities of having only a few, heavily weighted assessments in each class. I have learned what Political science actually is, which is not simply discussing current events and dissecting political campaigns.

All of this is to say that, quite early in my McGill career, it became startlingly apparent how badly I needed to narrow my focus, and how much I didn’t know about the natures of working and studying. The fact that I would not be specializing in four different subject areas was something I realized very quickly. Thankfully, I knew I was able to postpone deciding which concentrations I would emphasize until some time in the dusk of second semester, a distant date I could temporarily forget about.

That date turned out to be April 6, and here I am, still undecided, deeper down a rabbit hole of choices I did not know existed, and bogged down by the technicalities of a website and course list I do not fully understand.

Examining the 2018-2019 course list, I have been muttering the same questions at my computer: Are people crazy to do a joint honours? What are the advantages to doing an honours program over a regular major anyway? Does anyone ever see your minor(s)? Do you even see your minors, or are you just supposed to know in your heart that you completed them? Do grad schools and law schools care about any of this? Am I going to grad school? My screen glows with information, but no answers.

Are people crazy to do a joint honours? What are the advantages to doing an honours program over a regular major anyway? Does anyone ever see your minor(s)? Do you even see your minors, or are you just supposed to know in your heart that you completed them? Do grad schools and law schools care about any of this? Am I going to grad school?

Originally, this piece was intended simply as an ode to my own confusion. It was meant to lament the daunting challenges of course selection for most U0 students, and, therefore, end after the previous paragraph. In writing it, though, I have been reminded of something I learned in one of those introductory courses I both loathed and loved. It’s that famous Socrates saying I remember sticking into my final essay for Political Theory in order to sound smart. In this case, however, it’s far more naturally applicable. “I am the wisest man of all,” Socrates remarked in The Apology, “for I know but one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Even with all the stuffiness of academia and obnoxious philosopher-quoting, acclimating to university seems to be a process engineered to perpetually remind students that they know nothing. Over this past year, my fellow U0s and I have existed in a pattern: we are asked to complete tasks without any prior understanding, we amble through them blindly anyway, and then we hope for the best, usually with surprisingly good results. I did not have the know-how to thoroughly review my class schedule for this year — I just had to wake up last June and pick my courses. I did not have the skills to do a POLI reading, but I read those first thirty pages anyway, and the skills gradually followed. Maybe, then, the whole major-declaring process — the agony of the course calendar, the jungle of Minerva, all culminating in those few clicks and digits this week at 9am — is another exercise in that same kind of humbling. It is a confrontation with more uncharted territory, followed by a disillusionment with anything I thought I knew about it (read: high school me’s plan of a four-subject academic bonanza), closed finally with the simple resignation that I will have to make a choice and wait for its consequences to unfold.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advertising a sort of laissez-faire approach to choosing one’s academic specialty. I have still been scrolling through obscure 300-levels until the wee hours of the morning. I’m only getting more comfortable with the fact that, no matter how desperately we students try to navigate the course calendar, ask around, and predict the future, there is a sense of uncertainty that surrounds this process that can never be shed. On April 6, just like on the days we went to our first classes and handed in our first exams, our decisions will simply have to be made in a kind of darkness. In an institution where everyone has abstract opinions and hot takes, we’ll have to be humbled by the reality that we once again don’t know what we’re doing.

I don’t know what — or how — to declare my major yet, but I have a feeling that with some hard work and some inevitable uncertainty, I’ll do it anyway.

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