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Monday, February 23, 2009

The University of Toronto Effect

When I first started university I was far too cocky for my own good. I was entering the Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto (hereafter referred to as U of T), which was apparently the best engineering program at the top university in the country. Therefore, I must be, apparently, awesomely smart. I tried to remain humble, but more in a polite rather than actual manner. Reality started to set in about two-thirds of the way through my first semester when we had our second calculus midterm. I skated by the first midterm on latent high school knowledge, pulling off an 85% with minimal studying. I was therefore entirely unprepared for the second midterm and it showed with a 45%. The first thing I had ever failed was a music test in grade 5 when visiting a friend in New Zealand (a test which I maintain was the height of cruelty for someone who is utterly and completely tone deaf, but that is a story for another day). However, my second calculus midterm was the first thing that I can remember failing that actually mattered. Unfortunately, it didn't phase me as much as it should have, something which is reflected in my first year marks. I idled through first year roughly around the middle of the pack. Though I made an attempt at reform by the second semester, it was poorly executed as I didn't actually know how to study, and, aside from an A- in my computer science course based on the fact that it was something I was actually and genuinely good at and an A that I somehow pulled out of nowhere in physical chemistry, my grades remained at the mediocre level of the previous semester. It was a humbling experience. Part of how I rationalized my mediocrity was to completely buy into what my peers and the faculty were selling us. I wasn't truly mediocre, it was just I was middle of the road in a group of three hundred and fifty (two hundred and fifty by second year) of the best and brightest students in the country. We were told we were in the hardest, most challenging program in the university, and I bought it completely. Part of it was my naive acquiescence to scholastic authority, but, to be honest, part of it was also to validate my own self-image.

With my ragged confidence somewhat mollified but not wholly repaired, I went into second year with something to prove. It didn't help that second year we were saddled with a ridiculously time consuming design project on top of the normal course load, but that didn't matter. I became so sleep deprived I exhibited narcolepsy more blatantly than at any other point in my life (I even fell asleep mid-conversation a couple of times. My experiences second year were primarily what led me to eventually go to a neurologist and get diagnosed in third year), but it paid off scholastically. My grade point average and class rank rose significantly, and my clueless cockiness of first year was reformed as grim arrogance.

Of course, my world underwent further convolusions when I hit third year and met my girlfriend. However, this trip down memory lane and how I became the person I am today is already getting longer than it was intended. Perhaps I will elaborate on this story in a future post, but suffice it for now to say that my girlfriend helped me to realise that my education was my own and I should stop simply taking other peoples' (even professors) word without further reflection. Just because a professor tells his class they are the best of the best doesn't mean there are not others doing far more complicated things than you. Eventually I stopped really caring about the reputation of the program I was in and my standing within it, and started caring only about what I was learning. My grim arrogance was once again reformed into the wry but confident trepidation of today (of course, when future me is looking back at how young and stupid current me used to be, my rather positive characterization 'wry but confident trepidation' will instead likely be something like 'unacknowledged hubris covered in a deceptive blanket of false humility'. But, that is future me's problem).

Despite my reformation into what I hope is a moderately wise and decent person, the flames of my past arrogance can still sometimes be stoked, which is what this post originally set out to relate without realising just how much rambling background I was going to give. You see, a small part of my arrogant pride over being a student at the U of T sustains itself off of little confirmational anecdotes like the one that happened today. My neuroanatomy professor has taught neuroanatomy for a fair number of years, but I believe this is her first year teaching it to U of T undergraduates in neuroscience. Over this past week I was fairly proud of the fact that I had earned an 86% on our midterm, only to discover this afternoon that apparently the average was 86%. That is an inordinately high average for a midterm, which is something that invariably seems to happen on the first test given by instructors who are not used to teaching at U of T (I have had a couple professors in the past who were experienced lecturers but new to teaching at U of T). Noticing things like that is what keeps the tiny little worm of arrogance still squirming within my brain.

Reading over this post, the story about my midterm mark sounded much more amusing in my head. I am still going to publish this, but I apologize for that rather anticlimactic ending.


cornucrapia said...

mmmmmm hubris. I hope to never lose it.