Queen’s engineering exam question tweeted by Jordan Peterson

Students call the question ‘distracting and diminishing’

Image by: Herbert Wang
A picture of the exam question circulated online.

Engineering students writing their final exams found themselves pages deep in controversy due to a question on “wokeness.”

A picture of a final exam question, allegedly written by Civil Engineering Professor Colin MacDougall for a first-year engineering mechanics exam was circulated online and re-tweeted by controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson on April 27 with the comment “thank God for engineers.”

The exam questions asked students to design a “woke” light fixture with LED lights which, “are capable of producing a wide range of colors providing an opportunity for centering diverse anti-cis-normative identities.” The question ends with, “you’re not sure what any of that means but you decide to get to work.”

The exam question concerned many students, including Zoe Irwin, Sci ’25 and Anna Wasylyk, Sci ’24, co-presidents of EngiQueers—a student-run club advocating for queer students in the Faculty of Engineering.

Irwin and Wasylyk felt the exam question was distracting and inappropriate. Both heard about the exam question from other students and saw the question after Peterson shared it on Twitter.

“I interpreted it as discrediting the queer community kind of saying, ‘well, this is kind of stupid and pointless, right?’” Irwin said in an interview with The Journal.

“Regardless of his opinion about queer people, we shouldn’t be finding out his opinion via his exam questions. That’s very inappropriate and is not a valid place for academic discussions on this stuff as students can’t respond,” Wasylyk added. MacDougall’s class, APSC 182, is mandatory for all first-year engineering students.

The picture of the exam question posted online generated discourse between engineering students and the public. There were varying reactions, with many students finding the question funny, according to Irwin and Wasylyk.

“It really makes you question your place in engineering as queer student,” Irwin said. “It makes you shrink. It makes you feel smaller.”

Being a previous student of MacDougall’s herself, Wasylyk e-mailed him personally to voice her concerns. Wasylyk took the class during COVID-19 but recalled MacDougall made a large effort to keep students engaged.

“I can’t comment on his intent, but overall, he was a really great professor. I emailed him personally and explained how I felt about the question,” Wasylyk said.

According to Wasylyk, MacDougall responded but she did not share the e-mail with The Journal.

“We don’t want to feed into any ‘us versus them’ discourse. We’re just trying to build the queer community at Queen’s,” Wasylyk said. “We’re hoping to see change from him on this topic. There’s room for improvement and room for discussion.”

In an e-mail sent to first year students who sat for the exam, Faculty of Engineering Dean Kevin Deluzio acknowledged the University was aware students were concerned about non-academic content integrated into the exam.

“We have heard and are listening to students who are concerned by this. We take these concerns seriously, and are reviewing the matter,” Deluzio said in the e-mail.

The University provided students with links to support services, including Engineering’s Personal Counselling & Wellness Services.

This is not the first time an exam written by MacDougall raised concerns among students. A March 2021 exam question asked students to critique a design created by their friend who the question made fun of for being a gender studies student. The question called the friend “Dieter,” described the friend’s preferred pronoun as “zhey” and indicated the design was “monstrous looking.”

In response to students’ concerns regarding the 2021 exam, MacDougall sent students an e-mail explaining the question references a Mike Myers sketch from the television show Saturday Night Live. He admitted the reference “did not land well.”

The Journal could not independently verify the e-mail posted to Reddit was indeed sent by MacDougall. The Journal did not obtain a copy of the e-mail, despite past students confirming they received it.

“I firmly believe that education is a two-way street, and instructors can learn from students while also fulfilling the role of teacher,” MacDougall allegedly wrote in the e-mail to students, which was subsequently posted to Reddit.

“This has been reinforced this week. I’m taking away a lesson on the value of not making assumptions about how what’s amusing to me will sit with people who do not share my cultural background.”

In a subsequent exam sat in April 2021, MacDougall assured students all the content was above board.

“By order of the Dean of Engineering of Queen’s University, this exam has been certified as completely woke, unproblematic, and humour free,” MacDougall wrote in the instructions.

Following the incident, The Journal requested an interview with MacDougall. He declined the request for comment citing he “[did] not have any comment at this time.” The Journal reached out to MacDougall to verify the e-mail posted on Reddit, to which no response was received


Engineering, EngiQueers, exam, Jordan Peterson, woke

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Comments (17)

  • Engineering has a traditional “in group versus out group” humour culture. in group: engineers, smart, capable know how to make things that work. Out group: everybody else, dumb, have bad ideas, want things that won’t work, get in the way.

    I don’t know any engineering teachers who want to change this humour culture, but most want the best brains to succeed. Fortunately, what happened here has nothing to do with what anyone thinks is funny or not.

    If you want professional engineers, to not be entirely straight white guys (most engineering teachers will go on record as saying they really do want this, because that’s how you get the best talent) you’ve got to exercise your brain to see that on the exam you’re not sending a message to some of the students that during this exam they are not in on the joke, they ARE the joke. (They might want to be engineers, but they are also part of an out group ie, dumb and useless.)

    If that’s not the message, the prof wanted to send, well he sent it anyway. It has nothing to do with what’s funny or not. The prof didn’t use his brain, he didn’t THINK, and he gave some of the students whom he wants to do well the extra cognitive load of being blindsided with their teacher’s insulting and personal vote of non-confidence during an exam. A vote of non-confidence from their respected teacher, similar to the insults they’ve received throughout their non-engineering lives.

    Badly, stupidly done, and I hope he understands why.

  • the ONLY question that comes to my mind is what does being queer have anything to do with engineering??? Why do they need a school related club? defending or advocating what exactly???

    • Uh, Mel, do you lack critical thinking skills? The professor’s question is proof why an LGBTQ+ engineering group is needed. Same reason a women’s group is needed. Engineering is a predominantly straight male field and they continue to ostracize those who are not.

  • If you are more worried about the optics and feelings you get in an Eng. Exam.. then good luck in the real world with that kind of soft skin. No one in the eng profession will want to be near you, much less work with you : when your job is to make sure your structures don’t kill people, having q/2 your day taken up pandering to soft sensibilities for no reason is a non starter. Get over yourselves.

  • Time to serve up some of these “professors” with an ultimatum. Teach the core principles of the course, or find alternative tenure somewhere else. What an absolute joke, engineering “woke” lights?

  • Andrew T Johnson

    As an engineer, the question is 100% okay. In the “real” world when using the level of sensitivity that certain people desire, it triggers others people, and those people get fired.

    In engineering services there is the question, in this case how to make a device that can play a rainbow colors, however there is also a social network which has attached strongly to certain works and other meaning to the point that they have new meaning and have diminish the old meaning, by blocking the word usage with the new meaning and their sensitivity to others using it differently than them.

    You deliver what the general public needs as an engineer. The honest truth over convenient dishonesty and lies, yes to everybody who identifies without the use of science or without saying I’m okay being this and liking that person. It doesn’t matter you’re all loveable if you choose to be. Yet this attitude that we feel the words hurt, and rather than grow up, we want you to change how you act, so that you’re freedoms are less, and your happiness is less, because it makes us important, instead of ignoring us like children who are just whining for attention and not being part of a solution just creating more trouble and mischief because they don’t have anything better to do like feed the hungry work on getting everybody a job that they enjoy, work on preventing crime by providing legal safe fun ways that people can earn a living so that when you walk down the street it’s not a question of well do I get to eat or do they get to eat, working together everybody can eat. However catering to the 1% who want to go and have their cake feel perfect and not plan one iota for the future, not have a sustainable model that works has a model that says will somebody else will take care of me.

    Any of the engineers that have problems with this stuff need to work on that because clients are going to be much worse, and when it comes down to this if it’s a question of whether or not you have enough money in the bank account to feed yourself your friends and your family or whether you pretend you didn’t hear something a client says. Sometimes you’ll probably pretend you didn’t hear it. Sometimes you might take the client aside and provide some guidance because as a professional responsible adults you may be the only one in the room that’s got the ability to provide that guidance. You may also be looking for another job afterwards.

    So to anybody who’s not an engineer
    All it takes is lots of effort at school
    Lots of effort after school to keep current
    The ability to put up with people who think they’re right but I have spent on average 10,000 hours less and 50 to 100 times as little on additional collective experience that is available through institutions such as academia to provide to the next generation. You never know what you don’t know. And contrary to popular belief everybody is capable of understanding the vast majority of the existence of this life because it is not actually that complicated everything is connected and as long as you’re willing to sit still and listen and learn you can figure it out so that you can predict with a great deal of accuracy what’s going to happen given any set of variables.

    So please figure out how to put a muzzle on the out of control sensitivity police. And if you can’t figure out how to put a muzzle at least figure out how to use them in a way that is beneficial to everyone, rather than the whole world having to cater to their needs and wants and desires.

    So if you can’t take a joke or give a joke you’re never going to get out of this business alive.

  • Meanwhile, teachers are expected to use “inclusive language” in their curricula which often use similar terms. That’s however OK because …… because we say so.

  • Why are these people completely insatiable is having a sense of humour. It’s embarrassing and completely undermining their efforts. I’m pretty strongly “left” on pretty much every conceivable issue, and even I’m sick of this perpetual victimhood. It’s ridiculous already

  • <>

    An uncommonly sensible and balanced reaction from this student. Queen’s Engineering is lucky to have Anna Wasylyk, which underscores the importance in ensuring students like her are not alienated from the profession. Even if your generation finds the new identity discourse at times exhausting and perplexing (I do), the professor should have understood that he was winking at his straight male students here, which of course was diminishing for the much smaller number of students not in on the joke.

    What was impressive about Ms. Wasylyk was that she treated MacDougall with humanity and gave him the benefit of the doubt, which has an excellent chance of achieving the result she’s seeking. At least a better chance than the excommunication that tends to follow such incidents.

  • Having drag queen in school is OK, and putting all the rainbow type flag in class by teacher is OK, forcing DEI requirement in research project is OK, but we should be shock by this ? This show why there is a cancer growing in the academia and more teacher like this, showing the ridiculousness of it is needed.

  • The fact that there is a group called ‘Engi- queers’ Just about says it all about the times in which we live. This whole thing is ridiculous. We live in times where the inmates are now at the table helping to run things.

  • Oh no humour how inappropriate. How was this anti queer? Complete bs and not what I would consider news worthy.

  • I feel the need to point out that working engineers get handed client specifications that have words like “inclusive”, “innocuous”, “calming”, “unassuming”, “non-preferential”, “egalitarian”, “zen”, etc a surprising amount of times.

    So, yes, engineering humor absolutely includes mockery of these sort of emotive specifications.

    Trust me, there is not a textbook in the world that describes the path for designing a toaster that will “enhance the zen of a workspace”. Unfortunately, if you question the client about the possibility that their specification is imaginary, you might lose the client or, worse, (as happened to this professor) be considered something-ist.

    The choice of “woke”, “cis”, etc. was a much more controversial choice than the professor expected. However, dollars to donuts, he or someone he knows has been instructed to ensure that “insert product here” be completely “something-inclusive” despite nobody being able to define what that actually means.

    This is a real-world thing. Sooner or later, this will come up in a meeting and you or someone you know will be asked how they intend to fulfill this requirement. I wish you the best of luck with your answer.

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