Light your academic fire

In the first few sessions of every graduate seminar I’ve taken at McGill, a particular routine has unfolded without fail: The class goes around the table introducing themselves, their progress in the program, and how their research interests relate to the course. When my turn comes, I take a deep breath, and prepare myself for the plunge.

“Hi, my name is Marie, I’m in the first year of my Master’s, and I’m interested in researching creation myths in post-disaster science fiction.”

I exhale, winded from the length of my statement, but contented by the accompanying knowledge that I have found a place in the academic ecosystem. That satisfaction is underscored by the fact that I haven’t always felt a sense of belonging at McGill, particularly in the classroom.

I find reassurance in having an identity within the confines of the university’s walls, which I can use to navigate its systems and networks. As an undergraduate student and a part of the largest student cohort at McGill, I felt that I rarely shared the privilege of asserting an academic identity.

Defining and taking pride in one’s academic passion is an investment that takes time and effort. However, neither are luxuries that a student has in particular abundance, preventing them from committing themselves to finding a passion to define their academic experience. I stumbled upon my own desire to study science-fiction literature somewhat by accident. The genre wasn’t included on any of my course syllabi, but I had always enjoyed reading it in my own time.

University is touted as a place for reinvention where young adults living independently, often for the first time, discover who they are. The best way to learn how to navigate the educational landscape is finding a way to adapt it to one’s own educational goals. Having a research interest allows students to interact with class material in more depth by providing them with an appealing lens through which to approach it. In graduate school, students are actively encouraged to make links between their personal research and the classes they take, which may not necessarily directly overlap with their interests. By trying to connect science-fiction texts with 19th century American literature, I have uncovered unlikely parallels between their plots which have informed the direction of my research.

Still, few universities extend undergraduate students the opportunity to develop an academic personality defined by their own unique curiosities beyond semester-long independent reading courses and honours programs. Without opportunities for research accessible to all students, finding an academic passion and identity is almost impossible.

Finding a calling and refining it is a lengthy process; it takes time to come up with a valuable question to research and even more to hone it into a manageable and useful project, an operation that often takes a student in a completely different direction than the one in which they were initially headed. With every new seminar that I take, I uncover a new angle to pursue in my research from an author I didn’t know to a whole range of themes. The knowledge that, with every passing day, I can find a way to broaden my project and interests without feeling rushed to do so has made my experience as a graduate student much more engaging than my undergraduate studies.

By presenting research as a one-time activity rather than a long term project that spans the length of an academic career and informs its progression, institutions mirror a contemporary approach to higher education as a requirement for a professional future where the piece of paper students obtain at the end is more important than the critical skills they acquire. It’s no wonder that students struggle to feel an attachment to their institution and class materials if they can’t see its broader purpose and aren’t encouraged to do so.

My own willingness to discuss my research interests is newfound and still developing. I struggle sometimes to explain what interests me about English literature when I am outside of the classroom. I broach the topic gingerly, a little embarrassed to admit that I have found a passion and a place for myself at an institution that sees tens of thousands of students rush in and out of its revolving doors. But, with the encouragement of my peers and faculty, I am starting to take pride in my academic passion.

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