Academic shallowness hinders students in the long run

Bird courses prevent students from spreading their wings 

CJ Cowan weighs in on the negative implications of an easy A.

We all think grades matter, but not always for noble reasons.

An impressive GPA can lead to graduate school and other exciting professional and academic opportunities. These indicators act like gatekeepers at doors to the future that can be hard to pry open. This instrumental reality can cause students to see education as means to an end rather than a valuable end in itself, resulting in them approaching their studies with apathy and a lack of genuine academic curiosity.

This detracts from the quality of the university experience and the skills that can be gained from it.

Considering the popularity of websites like QU Birdhunter and Rate My Prof, you would be hard-pressed to find a student who doubts the practical use of good grades. The time and energy it takes to get high marks is often at odds with the demands of students’ social and community lives, especially at a school like Queen’s.

As a result, “bird courses” (classes known to reward low effort with high grades) become doubly attractive. There’s a growing, unspoken consensus at Queens that one’s interest in a course is secondary to how easy it is to pass. Sometimes, this leads students to forgo valuable learning experiences and seek sneaky ways to avoid difficult course content and hardnosed professors.

However, falling into this trap can limit students’ abilities to develop critical thinking skills and a love of learning.

First, I want to clarify that I’m a hypocrite. My own transcript includes some of the most notorious bird courses at Queen’s. I understand the appeal and security of a guaranteed A—but it comes with some unexpected costs. 

In my experience, I’ve gained more useful habits and vital skills from hard-won C’s than easy A’s. Being challenged and uncomfortable is a healthy part of learning and growth. It should be worrisome to the Queen’s community that through word-of-mouth, many students feel the need to find ways to avoid long readings, big assignments, and tough markers. Campus Facebook groups are alight with students exchanging course mark distributions, information about workloads, and the grading habits of various faculty members.

This can go too far. At best, it’s about making informed decisions and sharing fair warnings, but at worst, it normalizes apathy and academic shallowness.

Students should encourage each other to seek out courses that interest them, challenge them, or broaden their horizons and worldviews. Difficult courses force us to develop better study skills and network with other struggling students, which in turn makes us better people and bolsters our self-worth.

It’s an unfortunate design flaw of human evolution that we learn from more of a kick than from a kiss, but in knowing this, we can seek experiences that spark growth.

When I get a great mark in a course that’s well known as a bird course, it feels like a hollow victory. I feel a little dishonest—not on a moral or professional level, but in an intellectual sense. There’s great joy and esteem to be earned by exceeding your own expectations when you’re challenged, rather than settling for easy gains.

I feel this inclination towards easy grades is partly rooted in the party culture of university life, which is particularly potent at Queens. Some students are more eager for parties, barhopping, and late-night trysts than for growing intellectually and spiritually through coursework.

It’s perfectly fine to indulge yourself, but it’s wrong to do so until you lose sight of your long-term goals. University is a not a prolonged summer camp for twenty-somethings. If that’s all you want it to be, then you might be in the wrong place.

However, I don’t suggest diving headfirst in the other direction. It’s possible to achieve balance. Many students are obsessively hyper-professional and stress themselves out to the point of toxicity. Those who take no time for revelry and those who only live for revelry are equally doomed. 

Overall, I make a case for wellness—not just for your time here at Queen’s, but well beyond. Healthy work habits and intellectual strength are virtues that can last a lifetime, but regrets can unfortunately last a lifetime as well.

Many university graduates come to regret missed opportunities as their time at school grows distant and their perspective grows clearer. You have the time, energy, and means to learn almost anything while at Queen’s. You could learn a second or third language, how to draw, how the universe was formed, how your body functions, or anything else. You have access to experts in dozens of disciplines.

There’s enormous benefit to be gained from spreading your wings and facing intellectual challenges head-on. You gain great work habits and a justified sense of self-worth.

Life gets busy after graduation and you might come to regret not exploring your fullest potential, or the experiences inside a book or in a lecture hall—not just on a dance floor or in a bottle.

CJ Cowan is a fifth-year History & Political Studies student. 

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