academia, academic, ideas & perspectives

ideas || woke up to a cancelled online exam… am I getting older and more irritable or is the world just going crazier?

I woke up this Monday morning and headed to my computer to write my very last online, open-book, 24-hour exam of the semester – more of a time slog than anything truly difficult. After which, this would be my week to decompress, get back into a routine, and enjoy some holiday prep. But I logged on to the big, red words “CANCELLED” followed by “to be rescheduled for a later date”.

It’s a result of Queen’s University’s decision last night to rapidly (read: abruptly) pivot in light of outbreaks on campus that have been emerging for at least two weeks. To say I’m frustrated that this would be applied to online exams too would be an understatement… so here I am writing a post again after a few days of being deep in the push of final exam season, not quite done yet but hanging in limbo, and trying to pretend like I’ve wrapped up with the semester (getting there by the minute though… I can still make it my week!).

story time

The university’s email last night announced that, effective immediately, in-person exams would be postponed. For illustrative purposes, I’ll also make note of the fact that this email was incredibly vague.

Exhibit A: Maybe my online exam isn’t affected?

“This announcement does not affect online exams previously scheduled, which will proceed as planned.”

Exhibit B: Because my online exam happens to be on Monday, maybe it is affected…

Regardless of what they were trying to communicate there – which goes out to faculty at the same time as it goes out to students – it sent both groups into a frenzy. My exam was deferred as per the faculty’s subsequent clarification to professors.

The timing is astonishing considering that cases have been rising for at least two weeks now in Kingston – which currently has several outbreaks – and the additional not-so-minor fact that we’ve been dealing with this pandemic for two years. You’d expect some contingency planning to be in place that mitigates a sudden one-day uprooting of December plans.

That information was followed-up by the university officially discontinuing all exams for December 2021, and deferring them to January which is after our three-week holidays.

speaking candidly…

Student petitions were a big factor influencing this decision. I’m both completely unsurprised and mind blown by this. Here are the main arguments that were made.

Argument #1: exam halls aren’t distanced or safe for students. I’ve heard mixed things about this, but the ones that most exams are held in (Mitchell Hall) are giant gyms where students are separated to prevent cheating. I’m also not sure exams are the super-spreader… most cases happened under other circumstances. In any case, the onus really is on the university who should have been planning for improved distancing measures.

Argument #2: individual circumstances make it difficult to study or focus if you have an ongoing case. I can personally attest to how difficult this situation is, having gone through a three-week illness and hospitalization during April exams in first year. However, I used the academic accommodation policies in place, deferred my exams, and got through it. I don’t see how this should be any different.

Argument #3: stress. It’s hard to know what to think about this. On one hand, I’ve experienced high levels of stress around exam season, particularly when you have upwards of six courses and are the last one writing like I was in December of second year. And yet, I really feel that this is going too far. My ability to handle stress is in large part built up during the experiences I benefitted from while at university. How will we handle the real world if mild stressors can get postponed and changed at the slightest raise of a finger?

In any case, to have this whole circumstance applied to online exams, which are arguably the least affected by a pandemic, and are already drastically lower stress than any alternative… is ridiculous. No students I’ve spoken with are happy about the situation, and I can’t help conclude that the ones petitioning for it simply uncovered an opportunity too good to pass up.

the real issues

The first thing that dawned on me when this unfolded was how it renders so many things pointless. An institution promising high-caliber students emerging from its programs, while failing to uphold any semblance of standards, is a recipe for loss of credibility.

Not to mention that taking on internships and client work as I’m beginning my career makes me realize how far removed exams and projects already are from the sort of work we are expected to do upon graduation. Constant back-and-forth on deadlines is really just the university’s complete lack of effort in upholding any appearance of an education. Projects are reduced to the pretend, frivolous exercises they already were to begin with.

Lastly, from a student’s perspective, it’s completely unjustified to flip the exam season completely on its head. This period of time has a certain atmosphere for students. In most cases, you just have to push through and do your best to stay afloat. To completely cancel what most people have spent at least the past week working hard towards, in the span of one day, is unjust.

a bit cynical

It’s weird having these past couple of years happen at the same time as growing up because it makes it harder to isolate where my strong feelings come from. For the record, I’m not talking about final exams anymore; the initial annoyance is already subsiding and I’m sure I’ll get this one over with too. I might even start to feel my vigor and energy returning after a draining final few weeks of the semester. I’m talking about this unwelcome, previously undiscovered, deep-rooted cynicality emerging from some recent experiences.

I used to consider “open-mindedness” to be one of my hallmark traits when meeting new people and having new experiences, but lately – again I’m not sure if this is from growing up or recent events – I feel like too many things are being pushed too far. Without even getting deep or philosophical, I could list ten superficial experiences or interactions off the top of my head that were absolutely ridiculous this past year. So here are a few, and maybe you can see where I’m going with this.

To start: a horrible job interview. In my fifth and final round interviewing with a company, I was told with a smirk and in a condescending tone after my first response, “for your next answer, that was great, but take the length of it and cut it in half. So make your answer shorter, let’s see if you can do that.” Not only that, but the entire interview consisted of entirely negative, inappropriately personal questions: my most stressful day, whether I need to be in control of everything, my stress response, the biggest conflict I had ever dealt with (which after was followed up with surprise: “are you sure that’s the biggest conflict you’ve ever dealt with?”), and the biggest failure I’ve ever had in my life.

Next: entirely unfair peer grading. For one of my classes this semester, we gave presentations where half of the mark came from the professor and the other half from our classmates’ grades. One group chose an incredibly difficult topic, and their presentation demonstrated a lot of research. However, the professor picked apart one key omission during their Q&A. The second group presented on a very simple topic in such a lacklustre way that there simply weren’t many questions to be asked. After quizzing my classmates on how that affected their evaluations, it was clear that the first group received a lower mark for trying and falling short of a more ambitious topic. Since when?!

Though I’m not entirely surprised.

A presentation I gave in a corporate setting where I prioritized justifying my recommendations (as a mere undergraduate student) with analyzed data points was met with the feedback that there was too much data and I should have focused on speaking more to my recommendations because “I don’t hire people to not have an opinion.” It seemed like I either misinterpreted the presentation’s data focus, or simply my hours spent doing the digging to find useful soundbites that built up to an argument were irrelevant beyond my personal opinion of what we should do. In short, I should have spent less not more time on it.

Countless other presentations I’ve sat through this year were filled with jargon and long-winded sentences without actually saying much (though again, I’m doing a commerce degree so I anticipated this particular flavour of disillusionment). It’s ten times worse though when everyone afterwards exclaims what a great talk and how interesting was that information! What information?! To paraphrase, the “let’s generate synergies and enhance the capabilities of our cross-functional operations by implementing out-of-the-box solutions” information? It tells me nothing, but maybe I’m missing something.

But on top of it all, going out for a brunch earlier this year in Toronto, a woman holding the door for someone yelled after them “the least you could do is say thank you!”

I say it haltingly and through a painfully forced smile, but have people become more intolerable this past year or… is it just me? I think we really just need some more of this energy right about now.

I actually wrote these very optimistic words just two and a half years ago…

In being vulnerable, it was a mark of strength. And most of all, it fostered a genuine connection that went beyond just the quality of my presentation and the business acumen I was demonstrating.

Well… can I maybe take them back? My belief in that doe-eyed mentality about the unfaltering goodness of man is beginning to shatter.

disillusionment (adjective): disappointed in someone or something that one discovers to be less good than one had believed.

All this to say that… this final exams mess, along with the student petitions that accelerated it, are just the cherry on top. Although verbalizing this has already made me feel better, it doesn’t give me a resolution to my real question.

Am I just gradually feeling the result of a bad couple of years distanced from the warm fuzzy feeling of togetherness, like a frog slowly boiling in a pot? Or has the world always been this way and I’m just noticing it more and more? Also… can it stop? Either the world or the noticing, whichever is easier.

Just something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately… while simultaneously being frustrated that I’m frustrated, because questioning the origins of your feelings isn’t nearly enough as questioning whether you’re justified in having them in the first place.

As always, feel free to comment or direct message me your thoughts.
I’m always interested.

You can watch my initial thoughts that I shared to Instagram stories here:

2 thoughts on “ideas || woke up to a cancelled online exam… am I getting older and more irritable or is the world just going crazier?”

  1. Sorry that you had all those shitty experiences! I especially relate with the interview. Well, mine last week didn’t go as well as I initially thought. They just smiled and lied to my face and completely wasted my day. I guess I still learned something from it. But does it have to be that hard?

    1. Sorry to hear your interview didn’t go well either! It’s a good mindset to see it as a learning experience… or at least a good story. 😉

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