The Good, the Bad and the Bubbly

Graphic by Patrick Timmer

Imagine yourself cloistered in a 25-person classroom in the Education Building on a rainy Monday morning. The Teaching Assistant, in a valiant but fledgling effort to stimulate a modicum of conversation, encourages those in the class to share their politically charged views. As is typical, the most vocal individuals in the class launch into a battle of non-sequiturs; one’s rant about the shortcomings of communism spills over into another’s about the ongoing nature of colonialism. In hopes of preventing the classroom from getting any stuffier, most of your peers take the path of least resistance, opting to serve as spectators (and online shoppers) instead.

With your attention still fixed on the few debaters, you wonder whether they have ever spoken to one another before; if they could ever navigate through the non-sequiturs and identify points of agreement; and whether they could ever forsake the sass and ad hominem attacks in favour of productive debate. You look to your neighbours as well and note their unique combinations of laptop stickers and knapsack buttons, trying to identify the faces of those whom you’ve seen  on campus before. Just as the TA articulates an, “alright, alright…that’s enough,” you arrive at an unmistakable and ambiguous conclusion: we have all built walls around who we associate with, what we study, and what we believe. For better or worse, the resulting bubbles come to dominate our university experiences.

Though this conclusion is striking, it is in no way fresh. Indeed, seasoned columnists have lamented the presence of bubbles on campuses before, raging that they are impediments to the free exchange of ideas that the University is supposed to foster. Other academics and students have regularly retaliated, however, with arguments that institutions such as safe spaces are necessities, conducive to healthy learning environments.

But, the ways in which we isolate ourselves at school go far beyond the political culture wars depicted in the news. They extend to our social relationships, extracurricular interests, and academic courses too. Suspending for a moment the viewpoints of vocal writers, what can we as McGill’s student population say about the circles in which we immerse ourselves over our four years here? Should we embrace our existence within different bubbles of campus life, or reject and disparage them?

The oft-overlooked reality is that neither extreme is healthy, either for our schools or ourselves. Special communities of people are important; finding “your people” is a famous and crucial feature of the university experience. However, so is engaging with those views that are opposed to one’s own. The challenge for students today is neither to cultivate more bubbles, nor to burst them all; it is to create a semipermeable membrane through which new ideas can pass and be considered, but within which we still feel like ourselves. One in which our own identities and preferences are represented and allowed to flourish.

The oft-overlooked reality is that neither extreme is healthy, either for our schools or ourselves.

You enter McGill as a wide-eyed first year. Your parents wish you well, and before you know it, it’s just you and your McConnell-provided mini fridge humming together. What’s your first instinct? In Rez, it is immediately to gravitate towards something, someone, anyone you’re familiar with. Perhaps that means tracking down the people from your hometown or home country and grouping up, or finding that one other dude who likes 19th Century Russian literature as much as you do. Whomever they are, and for whatever reasons you connect, you grow close with those new friends over those chaotic first weeks and months of school–if not for the remainder of your time at McGill. They become your people, and from the bubble they create comes a much-needed feeling of comfort and support at a time of great change.

As that very first McGill September drags on, it is suddenly SSMU activities night. Swaggering into the Fieldhouse with your now-bona fide crew, you stare into the sea of clubs, looking for extracurriculars in which to plant yourself for the coming semesters. Keeping a not-so-subtle eye on the resume-building that will pay dividends two summers down the road, maybe you even set your sights on an executive position. The important thing, your older friends keep reminding you, is to pick one or two activities and run with them.

In the Fieldhouse, just as in the dorm room, we benefit from this pigeonholing of ourselves. Student life at university quickly materializes around us as a series of overlapping organizations, and embedding oneself in a couple often proves to be the source of friendship, experiences, and perspectives on university affairs that will shape the person you are during the time spent there. In this sense, we gain by inserting ourselves into particular spheres of school and existing–even growing–within them.

First year finally ends, which means it’s time to select a major. This decision blows yet another bubble into one’s McGill life, acting as a funnel into a more specialized education and perhaps, an eventual career. For the person who knew they wanted to be a doctor at the age of eight, perhaps the chance to finally become an anatomy major was simply a natural step toward achieving a life goal. For many of us lacking such a clear end, however, this process may not be as seamless. Declaring a major requires you to sequester yourself among a particular group of students and faculty, no longer permitted by the parameters of your course load to take the broadest array of classes. In this context, the elective courses that one manages to squeeze into one’s schedule are crucial, puncturing the barrier of a particular diploma and allowing one to engage, even just briefly, with different forms of work and thought. Perhaps all Physics majors (who might be able to study literal bubbles for years on end) should break one by taking a Shakespeare course or two.

In this sense, we gain by inserting ourselves into particular spheres of school and existing–even growing–within them.

Were all these bubbles detrimental? Of course not. The first days of Rez gave you a firm social foundation. Finding your people is a central part of university — it was precisely what you longed for in high school, when no one understood you and your teen angst! Those clubs you stuck with during first year gave you unforgettable experiences and amazing friends (one Opinion editor even got to meet the Prime Minister). Those executive positions that you so hopefully staked out gave you tactical training, improved your organization and time management, and helped boost your communication skills, all while providing a service to the broader McGill community. Your major concentration gave you intensive knowledge in one area of study in which you had interest, and beyond that, taught you exactly what hard work feels and looks like.

Let’s digress from discussion of these more institutional bubbles for a moment, since they’re not the ones that seem to provoke all the contentious commentary from outside the Roddick Gates. Instead, scrutiny of university campus culture focuses on those intra-student political realms that clash in your 25-person conferences and prevent dialogue between different poles of student opinion. What often begins as a series of shared ideas between you and your circle of friends, the people in your program, or amongst those you follow on social media, quickly becomes a self-reinforcing echo-chamber. It seems both natural and commonplace on campus today to limit our interactions to those who can preach our opinions back to us, be they further left or right.

The visibility of these ideological bubbles makes them easy targets for vitriol. Much has been written, for instance, about the development of “Safe Spaces” for those with particular social sensitivities. Developing an environment in which certain opinions cannot be expressed on account of their potential to trigger some attendees often feeds into a scrutiny of university students as obsessively politically correct, liberal “snowflakes” too delicate to confront the opposition.

Safe spaces serve a valuable function, though. They offer necessary support to individuals who have experienced trauma, promising them that the things that remind them of their past experiences will not surface and aggravate. They provide a refuge for those individuals who feel marginalized, and can introduce students encountering similar challenges to each other, fostering mutual support. Safe spaces are good, with the caveat that they are meant to energize and strengthen all people on campus to share opposing ideas respectfully and civilly with one another–not shield them from hearing those perspectives altogether.

Safe spaces are good, with the caveat that they are meant to energize and strengthen all people on campus to share opposing ideas respectfully and civilly with one another–not shield them from hearing those perspectives altogether.

The key to bubbles, therefore, is balance. You should keep your first-year crew close, without being afraid to make new friends. You should pursue your interests through clubs and activities, while also preserving the free time necessary to discover other passions. Balance means majoring in something you love, while taking electives that expand your intellectual breadth. It means joining groups and spaces that reflect your identity, while also challenging yourself to internalize new ideas and new norms, and to confront debate with enthusiasm.

Bubbles can shape who you are, but they can inhibit you as well. Strive to find the balance between this dichotomy and use it to broaden your McGill experience. Oh, and stop shopping in class!

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