Comupter Science and Mental Health on Campus

by Alice Xu

Home has always been complicated. It has never been as simple as the comfort of warm food or loved ones together, but nuanced by the challenges of daily conflict, clashes in goals, and financial burden. To think of UofT as a home is to apply and rearrange my notions of home in context to family and locality, to one that situates itself as a learning institution. I also recognize that as a domestic student who has always lived about 40-minutes driving distance from the university, my experience of home may very well differ entirely from that of an international student or someone with more migratory experience. In this way, it becomes hard to position the university as home in more literal and geographic contexts when what has been known in solidarity as my one and only home for so long, is so close in proximity. I wanted then to challenge myself to think through a different context as to how home is situated in one of the majors I study – Computer Science.

My research was based on observations and short interviews with friends and colleagues at the Scarborough and St. George campuses of UofT. To provide a little bit of background and context, the computer and technology industry is perceived amongst my computer science peers as providing opportunities for wealth generation. There is a lot of capital and investment in this sector because it is imagined and predicted to be the leading producer of all things “future”. Lots of capital means lots of opportunity thus there is a large labour demand for people to work in this sector with a likelihood of higher pay relative to other industries. The student body of the computer science faculty also plays a role in the institutionalization of the field. Many of my friends in computer science embody what can be imagined as the ‘cultural identity’ (Hall 1993: 393) of the field; they are firstly male, then likely categorizable as Asian based on phenotypical traits alone. From there, it can even be further divided into two subsets, those who are international students and those who are domestic.

There is a distinct pool of international students studying computer science, many of whom have arrived from China. This might be because of the Green Path program offered at UTSC, but it also speaks to larger discussions on globalization and neoliberal capitalism. When I asked my peers and friends who are also studying computer science about their career aspirations and what they aim to do with their specialist or major, the answer (across the board) was related to getting a well-paid job. This insinuates a certain degree of institutionalization that reflected more “contemporary conceptions of social citizenship”, what Elizabeth Brulé calls the “reengineering of capitalist relations of classical liberalism, which included a reorientation of the ‘proper’ role of the university toward meeting the industrial sector’s occupational needs” (2015:161). The faculty then serves to produce “sheeple”, prepared with the knowledge and structure necessary to compete and work in the industry it comes from.

Enter the “University of Toronto”, a name that is highly reputable, and attached with it, prestige and sophistication. The computer science program at UofT gives students an extra bump in reputation and makes graduates more identifiable and attractive through the beneficial associations of the institution’s name. It is for this foot in the door or an “upper-hand” that students flock to UofT and this shows how the institution serves as a gateway for them to move towards their goals in the industry. The overwhelming benefit from the name “Computer Science” is, what I suspect, from its validation of the “unregulated” fees that students pay at the undergraduate level. The university is aware of the profitability of the industry and the profitability of earning a degree here so they are able to issue higher tuition fees because they know that students will still consider it a worthy investment in themselves. It is important to understand that a certain level of rigidity highlights the institutionalized and systematic nature of computer science at the undergraduate level. For example, I had gone to see one of my computer science professors to ask for a small extension and I was slammed with a firm and immovable “No” if I could not produce the documentation necessary for a formal request. Assignments also tend to emphasize precision and accuracy, so often times a failure to capitalize one letter in a word can be the difference between pass or fail with an auto marker software. This means that outputting “hello” versus “Hello” can be the difference between passing or failing the assignment.

Due to the branding, the unregulated fees, and innate individualistic sense of competition born out of the ways first year courses are structured, computer science students subject themselves to a system of learning heavily influenced by neoliberal institutionalization. Thus, as a result, they reproduce a neoliberal subject that is crafted and polished for the workplace. If institutionalization is derived from the process of habituation (Ahmed 2012: 26), then it can be seen how the computer science faculty at the Scarborough campus fits into this process, as it trains students from their first semester to understand that “success” as is measured in their capacities to follow curriculum and systems with a high degree of precision as they would in the industry. Yet, because of fundamental problems related to scale and because the field is so largely institutionalized, broader social issues, specifically discourses on mental health, have become extremely difficult to address meaningfully.

Last September (2019) there was a suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, a building located at the St. George campus that is largely dedicated to holding computer science and engineering courses. In the following week, my partner, who attends computer science classes at St. George, told me that, of his four computer science classes, none of his professors directly addressed the event. Only after that incident, which was the third from a string of suicides in Bahen over a span of eighteen months, did the university decide to put up barriers in the building but made no further mention to meaningfully improve mental health resources. Students staged protests and sit-ins, outside Simcoe Hall (which houses the President’s office) and a Governing Council Business Board meeting, as well as at the 2019 Ontario University Fair. They were concerned that there was a lack of “care” on the part of the University and about UofT’s reluctance to call this a “suicide”. This shows how there is not only a mediocre prioritization of attending to the needs of institutionalized bodies, but also, as a consequence, a violence that is also subjected by it. It also silently perpetuates a rigid institutionalization in the ways it tries to remedy it.

In conclusion, here at the UofT, there is a desire to produce and prime individuals for success in their careers as it seems to benefit all parties involved (students, the university, the industry), yet something in how it is being done has killed and will continue to kill students. I have addressed points of possible interest, such as unregulated fees, competition for program enrollment, and a lack of attention and prioritization of mental health resources for students, but more specifically computer science students. I hope that by sharing this with you all, I might have been able to shed light on some issues currently faced by students in computer science, but also to have kept the voices that are no longer with us from being lost and squandered by an institutions’ vanity.