Undergrad fatigue: Footnotes on a college career

"Undergrad fatigue" plagues many in their final year of university. (Shane Magee/AQ)

I had a major paper due a few weeks ago. I put it off and put it off until the night before when I realized I had to read 200 pages of a book before I could even start my research. Still, I didn’t panic.

I skimmed the chapters for key words and highlighted sections I’d come back to later. Then I went to bed. I figured I would get up at 5 a.m. and just pound it out for class that afternoon.

But when my alarm clock rang, I hit snooze — a few times. Around 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m., I headed to campus to finally do the paper. I finished it in time for class, but it wasn’t my best work.

I’d heard rumours about this sort of thing; “undergrad fatigue” they call it. It happens as you near the end of your four-year degree. You stop caring as much as once did and all the academia seems a bit pointless.

I talked to a few fourth-years suffering from the same ailment.

“I’ve definitely gotten to the point where I avoid research material that I can’t control-F. For example, books,” one said.

Essays about newspaper amalgamation and Hungarian agricultural policy have become nothing more than annoying tasks we do to get by.

But it’s a bit weird, isn’t it?

We spend the first 18 years of our lives doing what we can to make sure we get into university. Then we work for four years so we can be accepted into a good masters or professional program. We write papers and read books for a letter grade, but our formal education concludes with nothing more than a pathetic final push; a close-your-eyes-and-slip-the-paper-under-the-door ethic; a struggle to cross the finish line, gasping and crawling and drooling and hoping that no one notices, but not really caring if they do.

Maybe I’m a half-miler, not having the staying power for academic glory, or I lack the attention span for footnotes and distinguishing between the Chicago and MLA formats.

Or maybe the answer is buried in a TED lecture I watched recently by Sir Ken Robinson.

While critiquing the lack of creativity in our education system, Robinson said, “The whole purpose of education throughout the whole world is to produce university professors.”

And maybe that’s one thing I have learned by my fourth year: I’m not an academic.

We’re told it’s the highest platform of intelligence we can hope to attain—professors, after all, are the experts in their field — but if we’re drying up after four years, how will we ever earn the privilege of wearing sweater vests and loafers with purpose?

Maybe I’m allergic to tweed and minutiae and endless abstractions and seemingly silly arguments. In fact, by fourth year, university can seem like a slightly absurd world where, as it’s said, “the arguments are so passionate because the stakes are so low.”

But that’s not all I’ve learned here at St. Thomas University. I’ve read literature I would have never heard of otherwise, I have a love for T.S. Eliot and the modernists that could only be cultivated in a literature class; of poetry and literature and the abstract; of the shades of truth and the beauty of grey. That, I think, is one of the most valuable things I take away from this degree. And it’s only the beginning. It’s a starting point from which we can consume more.

And don’t get me wrong, I love academia, I’m just not cut out to be a professional at it. And that doesn’t mean my education was a waste, nor was the $20,000 I paid to get it. And though for some of us, the long hours at the library and the endless pots of coffee synonymous with higher learning have met their end, that doesn’t mean our education has.

Because living is learning, and it’s time for the world to teach us something.

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