Category Archives: McGill Tribune Column

Perspectives: A Response to the Critics

In my last column, I expressed some of my thoughts on the Egyptian revolution. I was initially surprised by the comments and letters which seemed primarily to be personal attacks on me, my religion, and my political beliefs. But as I read through them, I also found many that were respectfully written and constructively critical.

I did not intend to offend anyone and am sorry if anyone was hurt. I have taken many of the criticisms seriously, but a lot of people took my words out of context, and the message I intended to get across was not accurately received.

I did make an error in a particular sentence, which I would like to correct: I said the “only” thing driving the revolution was food, but I should have said “one of the many things” driving the revolution was food. The use of the word “food” was not meant to downplay other causes of Egyptian unrest, but to emphasize the high level of poverty experienced by approximately 40 per cent of the population, and the low percentage of GDP growth—0.21 per cent, compared to 187 per cent in Jordan and 132 per cent in Algeria. Many people felt I had misunderstood the Egyptians’ demands by mentioning poverty as the central cause of the revolution. I fully acknowledge that Egyptians were demanding democratic and human rights as well as an increase in their poor living conditions; however, it would be naive to claim that food was not a primary motivating factor for many Egyptians. Abdel-Wanis, an Egyptian father of six, when asked what his reasons for supporting the revolution were was quoted in the National Post as saying, “For five years I have been looking for my day’s food, and finally I found people to stand with.”

Yes, I am Jewish, as some people kindly pointed out, but when I mentioned the region’s volatility I was not only referring to Israel. As protests have spread to more parts of the Middle East we have seen countries that have not be able to protest as Egyptians did.

I did not intend to suggest that Egyptians do not deserve democracy. I do not see Egyptians as different from me or anyone else. The point I was trying to make is that democracy is a very expensive and time-consuming process. The costs of implementing a democratic system in a poverty-ridden country must be considered.

What was most misinterpreted was why I believe Egyptians do not necessarily want a democracy. While I was watching the news, I often saw Egyptians saying they wanted liberal rights, namely freedom of speech, press, and religion. I support liberal rights and certainly believe we should stand up for them, but democracy does not guarantee anybody those rights. Moreover, having multiple parties, free elections, and voting rights does not necessarily mean that liberal rights will develop in Egypt, or any other country.

I stated, quite controversially, that I do not believe democracy is a human right. I stand by that statement, though I don’t have the space to defend the idea here. However, I do believe democracy is something a society may strive for. I think that, for now, Egyptians should focus on obtaining liberal rights and better living conditions for everyone.

In my first column of the year, I said that I hope to have open dialogue with readers and to discuss new perspectives on issues we care about. I want to thank the readers who took time to write me thoughtful, respectful responses. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to hear different opinions and I hope we can continue this constructive dialogue and help bridge the gaps in our community.

 

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Perspectives: Making the Most of McGill’s offerings

If I took a survey of first-year students, I imagine that most of them don’t use more than one or two services offered by McGill. I know I haven’t. In my first year of university, I was completely unaware of the many things I could do at McGill—it took me a year to discover the school paper (and another year to discover that there was more than one), two years to discover McGill’s career services (CaPS) and three years to discover the McGill gym. I knew the gym existed and that I paid $120.50 a semester in Athletic fees. But I believed that walking around campus and up the mountain to my residence was exercise enough.

Many soon-to-be graduates will tell you that as graduation looms closer, a sudden desire develops (coupled with a panicky feeling that the end is coming) to try everything McGill has to offer. Recently I’ve tried to soothe the anxiety that I will never again be a student, will never take another McGill class, and will never again walk the halls of Leacock, by making the most of the services I haven’t yet used at McGill. And so, after overcoming the protests of my out-of-shape body, I bought a gym membership and trudged up Pine Avenue to visit the McGill Fitness Centre.

I’ll admit that I’ve never really been to a gym. I’ve been blessed with good genes, and even though I love eating Oreos and Pillsbury cookies, my body hasn’t put on all the weight it should have. But when I run from class on Peel to my next one in Trottier, my heart is beating rapidly and I’m short of breath.

My desire to try the McGill gym might also have something to do with the course I’m taking called “World of Chemistry: Food” where, behind the details on which vitamins to take, and which food to avoid, the underlying conclusion is that we need to eat less and exercise more.

Visiting the McGill gym is both scary and exciting. At first, I had no idea where to go and couldn’t ask anyone for directions because I didn’t want anyone to guess that I wasn’t a real gym enthusiast. So, despite the wrong turns that led me to a locked stairwell where the only entrance led to the snowy outdoors, after walking around the gym back to the front entrance, I found the fitness centre, hopped on a treadmill, and started my workout.

You don’t need the details of my first workout. But I will tell you that I can now check another item off my do-before-I-graduate list.

It’s hard to believe that in first year, I didn’t even know where the gym was or that McGill offers activities other than academics. Did you know that there are clubs for virtually everything? There are even clubs catering to people who just want free food or people interested in playing imaginary games that only exist in Harry Potter books. If there’s one thing McGill and the Students’ Society should devote more time and money to, it’s promoting the many programs they offer that students may not already know about. Maybe they covered it in orientation week, but shockingly enough, students don’t remember everything they learn in orientation—I know I don’t. McGill students: get to know your school. You’ll save yourself much anxiety later on and when graduation comes, you’ll know that you got the most out of your university experience.

 

Perspectives: Drop the laptop!

The beginning of a new semester is typically similar to the beginning of semesters past. But this semester is particularly different for me, not only because it’s my last semester at McGill, but also because it’s the first semester at the beginning of which I have resolved to only take handwritten notes in class.

After three and a half years taking notes with my laptop, listening to the pounding sounds of the laptop keys, I decided that I would try something new. Little did I know how much I would actually learn.

I don’t mean to criticize those who take notes on the laptop—or to tell you how annoying it is. But I’ve started to avoid sitting next to anyone who brings a computer to class because it’s hard to concentrate while someone’s loudly typing every single word the professor says. (Seriously, when professors tell anecdotes, there is no reason to write it down verbatim. You also don’t need to write the same concept five times, just because the professor repeated it five times). Concentration becomes even more difficult when someone is browsing Facebook or playing Tetris right beside me.

Taking notes by hand is indeed more difficult. When I initially tried to write down the majority of the important points my professors were saying, I usually wrote too slowly and missed key information, while my laptop-using peers got down every word. But the point of going to class is not to have every word memorized; it’s to understand the material. This semester, I’ve been slowly training myself to think about the concepts the professor mentions and then take notes—rather than just writing down everything he says and trying to understand it later.

One of my professors has recognized that students who take notes on their computer are often multitasking, instead of solely paying attention to the lecture, and are therefore disrupting their peers. She banned laptops in her classroom, claiming that grades were significantly higher in courses where students didn’t use their laptops.

In a 2008 study, a professor from Minnesota found that the more students used their laptops in class, the lower their class performance was, the less attention they paid to lectures, and the less they understood the material. These findings go against older ideas which suggested that technology in the classroom actually assisted student learning. So what happened? Has technology failed students?

I don’t think so. Rather, we’ve failed ourselves. Instead of using technology to be more efficient, to take notes more quickly or to enhance our learning, we use it to check our email when the professor is answering a student’s question that isn’t important to us. And our insecurities, which make us feel like we’re getting smarter only if we do have every word down, don’t help either. I understand this insecurity, because I used to think that way as well. It’s much harder to trust that you’ll write down what is actually necessary—and that’s not every word that comes out of the professor’s mouth. It requires trusting your own judgment and knowledge.

Becoming a non-laptop user in the classroom isn’t an easy path to take. However, I wish I’d made the change earlier. I would have spent more time listening and learning, instead of just typing, and would have appreciated my classes that much more.

This was published in the McGill Tribune as part of my bi-weekly column, Perspectives.

Perspectives: Airport Security is Essential

Every time I go through security, I get a complete check: shoes and jacket off, my bag is always searched. I still beep and wait patiently while airport personnel check me with the metal detector. On a recent trip home, it was  clear that I had nothing on me but the shirt and skirt I was wearing. Of course, I still had to follow protocol, so I waited for that metal detector search and a new security procedure that tests your hands to see if there are any chemical residues on them. While this was going on, one security guard turned to me and said, “It’s a little bit stupid, isn’t it?” We laughed about how it was a waste of time, but a necessary part of his job.

Going through security is time consuming and often irritating, especially for those of us with dark hair, dark skin, and a Middle Eastern appearance. But the last thing I would call it is stupid.

Recently, complaints over the TSA procedures have caused uproar among travelling citizens, who call them “invasive.” One unnamed ABC News employee said her experience was “worse than going to a gynecologist.” Even if the most extreme scenarios people have described are true, such as TSA officers feeling around travellers’ groins, breasts, and thighs, they hardly constitute that dramatic exaggeration.

Another traveller, a US Airways flight attendant, complained that she felt like she was taken advantage of after a TSA agent checked her extensively. Perhaps she thought that she, as a flight attendant, would be exempted from these searches. However, security measures should apply to all travellers, regardless of their occupation. I’ve been following these stories in the news the past few weeks and I’m genuinely surprised. Almost a decade after 9/11, people have already forgotten why security measures like these are in place.

The reason why even children, the elderly, and 20-year-old girls go through rigorous testing is that in order to ensure security, you have to think like your enemy. If a terrorist wanted to tamper with the flight, don’t kid yourself into thinking he or she wouldn’t stoop so low as to force a child or an older person to hide the explosives.

Perhaps the procedures seem a little silly or even inappropriate, but the purpose is important and should be commended. If an innocent person is checked for 10 minutes, then we can be hopeful that more suspicious people are checked for even longer—and that guilty ones might get caught.

I understand that we all have a right to basic privacies, but in this case, protecting privacy might also cause harm to our fellow citizens. Reducing the use of these procedures only makes us less safe.

That particular airport employee who told me the procedures were “a little stupid” probably had a long day and was tired of checking 20-year old girls for bombs. It might seem redundant to him, but to everyone who has to fly, it’s a life-saving measure and one I’m thankful exists.

This was published in the McGill Tribune as part of my bi-weekly column, Perspectives.

Perspectives: Learning to Network

It’s only when standing in a room full of strangers that you realize networking is not at all as easy as it seems. In fact, it might be the hardest thing a young professional has to do, and unfortunately, one of the most important things McGill doesn’t teach us.

Last weekend, I attended a conference in Ottawa for political junkies where we heard from notable Canadian political figures like Prime Minister Stephen Harper and New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton. I didn’t feel intimidated by these great politicians, but I was intimidated by my peers. The students at the conference were intelligent, well-versed in Canadian political history, but most importantly, knew how to shake hands and make small talk.

While I was first in line to take a picture with the politicians, my friends were first to introduce themselves to each other. I was surprised that during the rare and short five-minute breaks, my friends didn’t run to grab a glass of water or a snack, but instead used their limited free time to network with one another. It soon became painfully aware to me that small talk wasn’t my best asset. For a girl who wants to pursue a career in journalism or politics, this revelation felt like a flashing red danger light that my future might be in jeopardy. So, am I totally doomed? The short answer is yes, but my inner optimist suggests there’s still some hope for me and other timid people.

Queen’s University career counsellor Cathy Keates says that the social component of conferences or events are extremely valuable for students. Work relationships are fostered and new friendships are made. She believes that it can be very intimidating, but it’s something you can get over once you get used to it.

When I thought about how this weakness might affect my future, I realized, as with any other problem, that the first step is admitting I have one. I feel uncomfortable in social situations where I must ask fellow students what organization they are a part of, what student leadership positions they’ve attained, and which 50 extra-curricular activities they’ve participated in. However, students who are about to graduate need to perfect this small talk, since the ability to relate to other people, communicate effectively, and promote yourself is a part of the lifelong job process we are about to embark upon. Even if we have the skills and experience required for a job, if we can’t sell ourselves, we won’t even be considered. If I let my belief that I don’t have this skill stop me from even trying, then yes, I am “doomed.” But the point is that I don’t have to be.

I can change my skills. Four years at McGill have taught me more about interacting with books and computers than about interacting with students and teachers. Now that I’ve recognized it, I’m ready to change. Granted, it won’t be easy, and will probably be awkward as I maneuver social situations asking strangers personal questions, but it will be something that will get easier.

The first step starts with acquiring confidence. Soon-to-be graduates like myself feel intimidated leaving the protective school bubble and entering a new social environment. But we’ve been educated at one of the best universities in the world, and with that should come pride, not shyness.

Probably the most important thing to do is just to put yourself out there. Yes, it’s awkward and difficult the first 10 times, but I know that if I try hard enough, it will get easier, because at every new event I can meet people who will help me foster greater confidence in myself as I practice meeting other new people.

And the next time I attend a conference, I will be the one ready to network with both the presenters and the audience during those brief, precious free moments.