Thursday, October 4, 2012

Britain's single fault

There's no use in putting up false fronts. No reason to give into saying things because someone expects you to, or not saying things because someone expects you not to. It took a long time to convince me of this fact, because I always assumed that if I wrote something down, someone somewhere could see it. And it would matter to them.

To be quite honest, even having inhibitions did nothing to curb the consequences of being slightly too frank in a public forum. So today, because I refuse to hold back and pretend that everything is going well, I'm going to tell you a little bit about my first week in classes during my study abroad program. No holds barred, sans worry.

When I'm at school in the states, I'm no stranger to the coffee table chatter about how difficult courses are, how much time is spent in the classroom, the sheer quantity of midterm exams and the number of essays due in the days leading up to finals week. There is something inherently crazy about the assessment methods in school. We learn this when we enter middle school and start taking notes in classes. And for the rest of our careers, in high school and college, nothing changes.

Once the learning method inserts testing periods and hours upon hours of out-of-class work, we lose all our will to live. Scratch that, all our will to work. Sometimes all our will to live too, but maybe that's just an exaggeration for dramatic effect.

For years I've gotten by without doing my work and somehow scooting by with minimal attention paid outside of class time. Because I'm conscientious when it's necessary, I do well in my courses. I get adequate grades. I got into an excellent university. Two excellent universities, now.

But after two years of studying at a top notch school, and another year starting at a new one - I still don't accept how learning occurs. An uncountable number of years, we've used this same method. But I will never accept it. And I am particularly unamused with how things go at university in Britain. Here's why..

On Tuesday I went to my first lecture. It was in a tiny classroom in the round where the professor sat on one side and all the students sat in a horseshoe shape facing him. After introducing the course to us, he sat for the rest of the two hour session - occasionally leaning back and alternatively leaning forward - telling us historical factoids and analysis until there were only nubbins where our pencils used to be. We scribbled and scribbled for hours and then we were excused.

The next day I had two courses. One, another regular lecture in a small rounded setting where a professor talked at us for two hours. The next, a seminar where we sat in a room learning key terms (a preparation for the next few weeks in the class which will be characterized by trips to art museums around London).

Finally, today I had one class split into two separate hours. The first was, again, a lecture. Though it was only an hour, the length of time spent sitting and listening felt interminable. And when it was over, it actually wasn't quite yet. On the same day there is a follow-up seminar (discussion section, more like) where we give group presentations and have classroom conversations about the material covered.

At this point, you're probably saying there's nothing wrong with the educational system here. I'm crazy for making a fuss.

Aside from the structure of these courses being terribly long and at times monotonous and boredom-inducing, there are other factors which make them at times absolutely ridiculous.

Coming from an American university, I'm used to having little assignments and projects due throughout the quarter. There are midterm exams and group projects, instances where we have to fill out workbooks (oh, French) or even things like problem sets. It may seem a bit daunting to constantly have this work to consider, but it keeps us on our toes. Keeps us constantly learning.

In England, the great majority of (not science and math) classes (and all of mine, to be honest), assess their students on two assignments. Two essays, 2,500 words, due at the middle and end of the quarter. These are research papers, requiring over a dozen sources each.

If you're taking four courses, that's over 48 sources, twice a quarter.

I'm a pretty bad reader. I am the first to tell you how difficult and tedious research can be. Unless you devote yourself to one topic alone - like when writing a dissertation or becoming a specialized professor - you can't possibly wrap your head around 96 sources in one term. Personally, I can barely wrap my head around a dozen books in one year. The sheer quantity of material in each novel makes me forget what I've read in the previous one, until all I have in my head is a cloud of jumbled of thoughts with no purpose or angle.

Every class I've taken here has given me six or seven page long reading lists. There are core readings and suggested readings. Every week we're expected to do the core readings at the very least, understand them, and report back to our professors with thorough analysis.

In penance for giving us so much reading to do, they reward us with less time in class.

Are there no trade backs? Because I'd rather spend eight hours in each class and not have to do any reading, if it meant actually learning the material.

At the end of this experience, I fear that I will walk away with a lackluster knowledge of everything I'd hoped to learn in my three months in London. With professors talking at me, books forcing me to sink into their pages (and then forget everything I've read, a fate I'm doomed to like the eternal punishment of Tantalus) and a million research papers due at the same time twice a term, it seems inevitable that I have met my Waterloo - no pun intended, though I am in London.

I wonder how British students do it. Every term they come to this place, only go to class two or three days a week, spend the other two or three days of the work week in the library, and somehow learn something. Does this work for them? Do they all end up becoming researchers, since that is what they've essentially been trained to do?

They told us when we got here that teaching methods differed from that which we've come to know and love (or hate) in the states. I wasn't worried. But even after this first week, I realize how very uncatered the British university system is to my strengths. For once, skirting past on my wits will not be good enough.

To that I say: Britain, I've found your single fault.

And as an addendum to that little bit of pessimism, I say: I believe I'll do well anyway.

I guess we'll see.

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