Being foreign · Studying

Culture Differences: Surviving and Thriving in Classes


University is different this time around. Maybe it’s because it’s, well, not the 20th century anymore. Maybe it’s because, back in the mists of time, I went to a very traditional institution where you learned in a combination of lectures (which you were free to attend, or not) and supervisions, where you were taught one-to-one or two-to-one, but the teaching really was a case of being set essays and then going over them. Yes, essays, every two weeks, in each subject. That meant some people were writing three essays a fortnight, and some of those people had to read a lot of books for each of those essays. The terms were only eight weeks long, but we might have dropped down dead otherwise. (When I say “we”, I’m not necessarily referring to myself. I was comparatively lucky with my workload.) Our essays were marked and discussed, but the only mark that really counted was the one at the end of that year’s exam. And then, it only counted to make sure you could move to the next year. The only mark that really properly counts is your percentage at the end of the final year. Class participation is irrelevant; essays written along the way merely preparation.

Maybe, though, just possibly, there’s also a culture thing in there somewhere. In my fiction workshop today – easily the favourite among my classes – I noticed something that at first annoyed, then intrigued me, as a student of cultural differences. No sooner had the tutor asked a question that someone had answered it. I mean, no pause. No embarrassed silence. No furtive glances to check if someone else wanted to go first before you spoke. No opportunity for the teacher to say something cheesy like “don’t be backward in coming forward” or “come on now, don’t be shy”. The reason it annoyed me was that I had what I thought was a reasonable and vaguely insightful point to make about David Foster Wallace’s The Depressed Person, and that may be the first and last time I ever have anything insightful to say about his writing. (If you’re interested, it was that I felt like the whole “oh my gosh, this is going round and round in circles, please let this be over!” feeling that the reader inevitably suffers from when reading it is actually a good illustration of the depression he is trying to convey – of both how it feels to the depressed person, and to the support network she constantly calls on. Anyway, I digress.)

But that was also the first insight someone else shared when the teacher asked what we thought. There had been no pause, no opportunity for me even to catch my breath and say something – I didn’t even have the opportunity to be scared – and I missed my chance. I was a little annoyed – let’s be honest, I wanted a chance to show off – and then I noticed that it kept happening. It happened last week too, but I was terrified and didn’t want to join in – because in America, you are in lessons with second and third years, everyone mixed up together. So the fear and intimidation you may be feeling anyway – the insecurity that may be the one thing that hasn’t changed since I last went to University – how did I end up here? Why are all these people so much more intelligent  or better at writing than me? – is multiplied. As is the fear of looking like an idiot in front of someone far cleverer and better informed than you.

In some classes, participation is actually part of your final mark. Not with this one – it’s pass/fail anyway, ie there’s no A-D, which is a Very Good Thing. I get myself all tied up in knots when there’s an A to aim for. But in our International Student Orientation, they warned us about this. They explained that our tutors will be expecting participation and that we might find it odd or awkward to engage as fully as they expect us to. Yeah, yeah, I thought. He’s talking to the people from other countries. I can hold my own.

Well, apparently not. Okay, I can, and I will – I have to, if I want this to count – but it doesn’t come naturally. It’s not like I don’t have plenty to say, but I need the silence. Just a little one, one that lasts maybe half a minute. Long enough to gather my thoughts and raise my hand or just (since that’s mostly what people do here) start speaking. Long enough not to feel like I am not giving others a chance to respond.  But that, apparently, is British. If I’m going to flourish at an American University, I’m going to need to play by their rules. Like arriving at a Belgian school aged five and a half and clinging on to my British handwriting for a little while but then giving in and writing in cursive like everyone else.

We had a piece to write for today, and by the end of the lesson I had got my head round this concept of having to just speak as soon as the teacher took a breath. Once I’d decided I wanted to read mine out, I jumped in. Well, first I failed at jumping in, because the other guy was American-quick. But I managed it the second time I tried. And lots of nice things were said, and now that First Time is out of the way, so it can only get easier. As, hopefully, can the whole jumping in to speak thing.

A little glossary for my American friends:

essay = paper

lecture = class where the teacher does 95% – 100% of the speaking, often to a very large group

mark = grade 

term = semester, kind of, except there are three of them, and we get holidays (vacations) in between!

tutors/teachers = these could be any kind of professors. A Professor in the UK is something very specific, and whether or not someone is a Professor, they are still my teacher, or my tutor – it indicates a relationship to me rather than their title.


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