The Myth of Sisyphus the Engineer: Reflections on “Futile and Hopeless Labour”

By Brian St-Luchon

Around this time of year, as the semester approaches its bitter climax, all McGill students inevitably share in some way in the most natural of McGill feelings: that certain and inescapable mix of desperation, listlessness, and lack of motivation we each know all too well.

Outside the sun is shining, and we can feel its warmth on our skin the way we haven’t since the distant days of add/drop in September. And yet we spend these beautiful days tucked away in library cubicles, aimlessly reading the same notes over and over waiting for something to click, all the while hoping to salvage a respectable (or passing) grade in that one class that’s been the bane of our existence for four months. Or that one class we haven’t attended since January. Or that one class whose prof must somehow hate us in particular. How then, in these times, can motivation be found? What can we do to pick ourselves up at the very end, and finally pull through for those crucial three hours spent in the soul-crushing, echoing hell of the McGill field house?

Engineering is not an easy program anywhere. This is most certainly true at McGill, as any engineering student has probably mentioned in passing at least once or twice (or lamented every day for the length of their degree). Every aspect of engineering can be a challenge in itself: the workload, daunting; the courses, impossible; the professors, ranging from well intentioned but harsh to both inconceivably demanding and almost purposefully malevolent. However, in the face such a constant uphill climb, the engineering faculty still manages to have some of the greatest spirit and diversity of extra-curricular activities of any at McGill. These things help us cope, and after all, academic suffering seems the socially accepted price to pay for a degree from a (debatably) world-class institution. The daily reality of our struggle provides all the more reason to genuinely appreciate and enjoy the other fine things that university living has to offer: the culture, the alcohol, the new experiences, the drama in student politics, and the alcohol. There is no reason these two institutional pillars, academics and vibrant student life, must be mutually exclusive, a fact McGill engineering students conclusively prove year after year.

In Greek mythology, the tragic figure of Sisyphus was sentenced by the gods to continually roll a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down the slope each time. The gods reasoned that, as the French author Albert Camus explained in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, “there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour”. Sisyphus, then, should be a most sympathetic figure in the eyes of engineering students. We all know the feeling of fleeting accomplishment, and having that brief sense of hope quashed by the sudden yet unsurprising emergence of some new burden. Just as the boulder surely rolls back down to the plain below, a completed midterm, quiz or assignment is always followed by another. And another. And yet another.

 

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