On Intellectual Despondency

School is starting to seep into the veins of this blog, hopefully for the better.

My neurons are stretched, worn, weary, and hating me for having to do what they did for me over the past few days. For my information systems class, we were asked for the moon and the stars.

Well, not quite, but close enough.  We were asked to design a central information system hub for intra and inter-municipality-wide transport while taking into account nuanced sociopolitical contexts and processes surrounding the issue. The assignment fused together the notions of how information gets used, how systems aren’t implemented in a vacuum, and what needs to be taken into consideration when doing something like this. Hell, there was even some philosophy guiding the information system development methodological framework.

Never have I felt such a range of conflicting sentiments about an intellectual endeavour like this. My problem with the hard sciences has always been rooted with its abstraction, with its tendency to isolate things in a lab as opposed to seeing them in context, seeing their richness. That is why the notion of this task was exhilarating. I was bowled over at the notion that there are real-life scenarios where everything gets interwoven together and the world–at least the part around you–changes. I’m still thrilled that my professors thought that my puny little mind could take all this in and produce something that even came close to measuring up to the pedagogical grandeur of this assignment.

Thinking about the technology needed for the implementation of such a hub, of the need to address issues like the history of transit authorities and the cultural issues attached to owning and driving a car, was a delightful process. As long as I thought about those things individually. When it came to actually making the connections between these factors in the form of a proposal for an information hub, I found myself in the midst of a chronic, throbbing mental agony that came from not knowing where to start, not sure whether my solution made sense in the light of my analysis, or whether my solution was even a valid one that addressed one of the needs that could be teased out from the case given to us. I suppose the strain came from knowing, fundamentally and completely, what in a general sense needed to be done, but at the same time being powerfully aware that no matter what I did, my solution would only address one dimension of the case, and that I could only engage in the loathsome process of abstraction in order to solve this problem.

That’s what comes from being in an interdisciplinary program. Interdisciplinary is short for: you have no idea what the hell you’re in for. Some philosophy will be thrown at you in one direction, some IT modelling from another, some abstract management theory from yet another. Your mind will get a workout it never did before. It will hate you for the havoc you are wreaking on it, just like your body will hate you for blasting it with a gruelling Zumba workout after months of feasting on peanut butter cups and having your sneakers gather dust at the back of your closet.

Writing this paper made me feel awful not in an emotional but in an intellectual way that went above and beyond the “so bad it’s good” way. You know that feeling of paralysis, that writer’s block when you are simply not sure what you are doing or whether you’re even on the right track? Imagine feeling that while writing every sentence. I spent the last few days looking like I’d seen some twisted academic ghost. No amount of time, consulting, reading, reflecting gave me the “aha” moment I so badly needed. And chasing that elusive moment became exhausting.  Nothing can quite describe the frustration that comes from understanding knowing exactly what needed to be built, but to open a mental toolbox to find that I don’t have what it takes.

Although some fellow students are swearing off having to do anything like this ever again, and are basking in the afterglow of putting this behind them, I’m just glum. I will most likely pass the assignment (and hence the course since half the grade for it was riding on it). But surely I should be able to do better? Am I more capable of doing better than I did here? What assurance do I have that I’ll do better next time? Am I even worthy of a next time?

At this point I am probably expected to say something redemptive, something grand about how humbling this all was. It wasn’t. There’s no redemption here. Just despondency.

There is one thing, however. I learned from David Brooks’ The Social Animal that the biological process through which we learn isn’t about using your brain as some kind of a container, but the pattern of firing synapses between its neurons. Learning something new means a new pattern of neurons lighting up, and the more familiar something becomes, the less work is involved in following the path that has been charted already. So I suppose what happened with this assignment was that a brand new path was charted out, a process that can be nothing short of painful. After all, I was being asked to do the yogic equivalent of this. But now that I’ve tried it, surely the next time will be easier. I hope to dear God it will.


7 thoughts on “On Intellectual Despondency

  1. Farah

    Sarah, that exactly described how I felt!! Although I am relieved to get this behind me, I, too, do not feel catharsis, exactly. I am not as brave or as good a student as you though, since I am just going to lay low and pray that another assignment like this never finds me. ever. again. fingers crossed 😉

    I spent my first all nighter at school until 5am when I finished and went home on the TTC when it opened at 6am. I suggest locking oneself in 224/225 which is safe because you need a key to enter, warm, bright and less scary than the lounge when there is no one else there in the wee hours of the morning lol. There is also a printer in case the Inforum is closed and you don’t want to trek over to Robarts at 5am. I am, if nothing else, very satisfied with our faculty’s facilities :p

    Thank you for painting an exact picture of that torturous experience with such eloquence. I will refer my family & friends to this blog when I try to explain what I just went through. Love your writing!!! =)


    1. Okay, I’m going to remember that 224/225 tip from now on! I’m not a night owl but given how the coursework can get at times I have a feeling I’ll be needing that in the future. And thank you SO much for your lovely words.


  2. Oh University days – I am so glad I am done! Some times I will have a nightmare that I am failing a certain course or it’s an exam and I don’t know anything! And then I will wake up remembering wait, I am done!


  3. Pingback: On 2012: Looking Ahead « A Muslimah Writes

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