Friday, November 15, 2013

In defense of the American college/university system...

One of the more intriguing conversations that I had last week was with another American student. She mentioned that in one of her classes, the American students were saying how much more laid-back UCC seemed to be when compared to the American colleges. The (Irish) professor in the class then mentioned that they thought it was more because they do a lot less "hand-holding" in European/overseas colleges than the U.S and that the students are more grown-up when they first come to university. Anyway, I was talking to the other American girl about this and honestly, I'm not sure I agree with the assessment of that professor. Initially, I DID agree, but the more I thought about it (and continue to think about it), I'm not sure I totally agree with that assessment.

First, I think it REALLY depends on your definition of "hand-holding." Are students perhaps more "guided" back in the U.S? To a certain extent, yes. But I would almost argue that's due to the nature of our education system before we even enter college, and also, it has to do with our society. Also, I'm just not sure the European students are any more "grown up" when the enter college than American students are.

I mean, here at UCC, the Irish students do go home on the weekends. Granted, I think that's partially because they might have jobs back home, but they are still home. I'm not saying that in itself makes American students "mature" (because they stay on campus), but it ISN'T like the European (Irish, in this case), are going MONTHS without any direct family interaction. They tend to stay in apartments, rather than dorms. Granted, there isn't TOO much difference, but there isn't a meal plan, for example. You have to cook and clean for yourself. At W&J, you have to have a meal plan (you could theoretically cook for yourself in the kitchen of the dorm, but nobody ever really does that because we have meal plans). Dorms in the United States are suited more for interaction among students as well, at least I think so. Anyway, all this begs the question: are the European students perhaps slightly more independent? Yes. But I wouldn't go as far to say that they are more "mature." I think maturity is a difficult concept to measure, particularly during the college years.

I think one of the reasons why American students studying abroad get the impression that UCC is more laid back is that there is less day to day work. The concept of continuous assessment isn't a thing in European universities, at least not at UCC. It SEEMS like a good idea to not have to deal with exams every few weeks, until you realize that you're being graded basically on ONE exam or essay. That's IT. And there are no points for participation or attendance. Honestly, I'm not sure that I could handle going through college like that. I like knowing how I'm doing in classes at any given point during the semester. Also, for as annoying as it is to have to read for classes and study constantly, there's something to be said for it. I would argue there's more motivation when you have to study or read for a class every day. There's more investment on the part of the student. I think here at UCC, students take year-long classes, then take a massive exam in the spring. And I THINK it's possible to re-take the exam. I think back home, there's more incentive to continuously try. In terms of work, American students definitely have more daily work to do for their classes.

There is a different view of this concept of continuous assessment. In my 3 years at W&J, I've known quite a few international students. The one thing that they have to say about college in the United States is that they are surprised by the amount of work that is assigned. So it really isn't just the American students studying abroad who perceive the workload as different.

American students take a greater variety of classes. The European students seem to take classes that are specific to their major, that's it. In contrast, I've never had a semester at W&J where I didn't take at least 2 classes that were unrelated to my major. I mean, freshman year, I took a political science class, a history class, economics and Spanish all in one semester. Four completely unrelated classes. I'm not saying that this translates to more work necessarily, but it does mean studying broader.

So, how does this relate to being more or less "grown up" than European students? It doesn't necessarily DIRECTLY relate, but it does make the case that, for as "guided" as the United States college students may be, we still put in a lot of work. So, what did the Irish professor mean by "hand-holding"? I'm thinking that he/she meant that back in the United States, colleges and universities definitely take steps to ensure that students know what's expected of them, where to go, what to do etc. They do that here at UCC as well, but it seems to be on a much more general scale. Back home, we get syllabi that outline exactly what goes on week to week, class to class. And American students DO need to know exactly what the professor wants in an essay, test etc. That's true. However, I would argue that this need for reassurance or definitive answers is partially due to the way that the American education system works. Granted, I have no idea how or if the European education system is really any different than the United States system. But the point is that in high school in the United States, we are told EXACTLY what is expected of us. So, naturally, this is what happens when the students get to college. It isn't "here is the incredibly general topic that you are going to write an essay about, now go write it and it's due in two months." Honestly, that's essentially the situation here at UCC with writing essays and I've never been so uneasy about writing essays in my life. I don't like not having specifics or a rubric to refer to. There is something to be said for specificity and detail.

So really, I think the point I'm trying to make (and have kind of ended up off topic and ranting just a bit) is that I think the two systems of university structure (the United States and European systems) are different and it is not really fair to compare the two and then state that the Americans are less "grown up" or that American universities "hand-hold" more than European ones. It think there is more to it than that and a lot of it is societal differences, especially with regard to education systems. Each system has benefits and negatives, but I do like the way the W&J (and the United States) system works. I look forward to returning to the organization and specificity of it all. One more month left, then it's back to the land of the U.S dollar, snow (if is correct), Walmart, baseball, American football, driving on the right side of the road (literally, the actual right side, as opposed to the left side) and the familiar sight of the Red, White and Blue.

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