Stressful McGill

By Luke Devine

The culture of success at McGill University is omnipresent, and at times can be overwhelming. Many students enter McGill as the wunderkind of their respective high school, but are hit hard by the law of the shifting mean. In other words, those who used to score well above the academic average now just barely meet it. The inherent pressure of McGill’s rigorous academic standard and heavy workload is exacerbated by a student culture that regards academic mediocrity as a hard, often unacceptable pill to swallow. But at McGill, success for the less spectacular (i.e. the majority of us) requires one of two things: (1) an exceptional work ethic, which often implodes by fourth year; or (2) an unorthodox edge. The latter manifests itself in the rampant abuse of study drugs, plagiarism, and other various loopholes that often work against the students who resort to them. Success at McGill often comes at a heavy cost, and it is important to pay attention to the detrimental side effects of McGill’s rigorous academic standard.

Vyvanse, Adderall, Ritalin – to name a few – are legitimate medications prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The problem, however, is that they are now regularly falling into the hands of students without ADD or ADHD, who abuse them to gain an academic edge over their peers. What’s worse, it seems like an increasing number of perfectly capable students feel that they would not stand a chance without these stimulants. This sort of sentiment is most likely owed in part to the classic campus-wide perception that everyone, excluding you, is doing well. Let it be remembered that your fellow McGillian has no reason to point out any lack of success and every reason to trumpet their rare successful breakthrough. Now whether or not study drugs actually help those who abuse them to do better in school, their widespread misuse undoubtedly feeds the trap of academic anxiety. If you sense that everyone around you is using them, you are more likely to feel anxious about your relative standing. The perception of their supposedly widespread use, along with a widespread perception that they work, convinces many students that they are at a disadvantage by not using them. In this way, students may perceive yet another shifting mean within the university setting, and do whatever it takes to stay atop once again. Looking past the deleterious effects of study drug abuse, their pervasive use on campus is indicative of a greater structural issue: an unhealthy, systemic pressure at McGill to academically succeed. After all, study drugs are usually used as a last resort, when someone needs to force themselves to engage with the contents of a reading or finish a 15-pager in a day. If they are seemingly being used on a regular basis by a notable percentage of the student body, then obviously something about McGill’s academic culture is awry.

Still, the use of study drugs is not as unambiguously “unorthodox” as, say, plagiarism. Sure, I have seen friends in computer science copy and paste code whole-scale from one student’s assignment into another’s, but that’s not necessarily indicative of any greater trend. Cheating, like corruption, is pretty hard to gauge and so it is difficult to accurately determine exactly how rampant plagiarism is on McGill’s campus. But, if Reddit McGill is any indication of this campus zeitgeist then cheating – to whatever degree – is quite popular. And surely the same structural forces that drive study drug abuse must undoubtedly also contribute a higher rate of incidents of academic plagiarism. To address cheating at McGill, one possible course of action is for McGill to step up its academic integrity game. McGill could intensify its efforts to crack down on cheaters, like the anonymous Reddit Professor here, who went a great deal out of his way to verify a student’s medical note; or the disgruntled Computer Science Professor who created a website to raise awareness of McGill’s allegedly backwards plagiarism protocol. At the end of the day, however, the pressure to perform is still going to be weighing down on students’ shoulders, and not everyone is going to stay the straight and narrow.

Indeed, a merciless crack down does little to address the actual root cause of what leads someone to cheat: a student culture of success by any means.  This is where the water gets murky. If McGill’s rigorous academic standards are a contributing factor to study drug abuse and a rate of plagiarism, they are also a contributing factor to McGill’s prestige – and prestige is paramount for this University. Therefore, lessening the academic pressure at McGill to better care for students’ health may be counterintuitive in its own right. Herein lies an undesirable trade off between rigor and prestige, and a healthier student body and academic culture.

Perhaps, then, the only solution is to equip newly enrolled students with a series of empty platitudes: ‘take everything with a grain of salt’, ‘a B is not the end of the world, or, the one that peeves me the most: ‘you are more than your marks’. Thanks; tell that to my grad school applications. Of course, most McGill students realize that marks are hardly the determining factor for their future success, but the pressure-cooker created by the constant McGill grind often makes that insight elusive and anathema to those who are unable to grasp it. Therefore, insofar as McGill’s academic culture serves as a breeding ground for stress and anxiety, an adequate solution may require a degree of separation from campus itself. Taking a step back and evaluating the cost-benefit of sacrificing personal health for success is, in my opinion, the best remedy. Indeed, a great way of placing things in perspective – when one feels bogged down in tests, essays, labs, etc. – is to explore the world beyond McGill. Taking it a step further, the measly solution I propose is this: McGill students who feel the pressure most acutely should move out of the McGill Ghetto, or to a place where they can escape the trap of a campus caught in an whirlpool of anxiety and self-sacrifice. By creating a tangible separation between student and campus, the student can reclaim some peace of mind, and some piece of their personality. It is important to remember that we are ourselves first and students second: and we shouldn’t sacrifice the former for success as the latter. Furthermore, being a student means more than getting the right marks. The hard truth, simply put, is that the McGill bubble can be dangerous when you never leave it.