Being foreign · Enjoying DC · Studying

Cultural differences: essays, papers, and what they may (or may not) say about our culture

I’ve been pondering the differences in university cultures for some time. Since I got here, basically. There’s so much I could say about it, and probably will at some point. I realise it will sound sometimes like I’m criticising; perhaps that’s inevitable. I am not a fan of change in general – which translates as “I like things being done the way I am used to their being”. It took a while for my teachers at my Belgian primary school to talk me into using cursive, joined-up handwriting instead of the print I’d been taught in London.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love my life here, my course/program at AU, and the opportunity to study the craft of fiction. Oh, and speechwriting. Did I mention speechwriting?

I really do love those things. A lot. Every night I half expect to go to sleep and then wake up in Brussels or London and find all of this was a dream. But I’ve been to sleep a lot in the last nine months and always woken up in DC. So this must be real. And it’s all kinds of wonderful. I’m learning so much. I’ve made some great friends – including some amazing writers. And I live in the city which captured my heart years ago. among all kinds of politics nerds who would not think me odd for watching MSNBC three hours a day.

I’ve also read some great literature. I’m doing 19th century Russian lit this semester, and am enjoying it – perhaps more so now that I’ve read Crime and Punishment  am two thirds of the way through Anna Karenina and have survived both my midterm exam (yes, exam!) and my first essay.

Which segues nicely (as they say here) to today’s topic: essays. They are different here. Very different.

In the UK, we might  be given the following title: “Raskolnikov’s actions are ideologically rather than financially based. Discuss.” We would then spend time discussing why they are ideologically based; time discussing why they are financially based. Our conclusion would probably be, as I seem to remember was the case with many of my essays at undergrad level, “neither A nor B, but a combination of the two”.

Not so in the US. To start with, you wouldn’t be given a specific title like that at all : instead, you’d have something like “write about the role of debt in Crime and Punishment” and you’d have to come up with your own thesis, your own theory to prove.

Yes, prove: not explore. Not look at from the point of view of the opposite angle and acknowledge that the other side of the argument has some valid things to say. Essentially, that means that when you start the essay you need to know what you think about the issue. (You can mention other arguments, so long as you can rebuff them, thus proving you are still right despite the divergence of opinions). Which, in my ethnocentric opinion, sort of goes against the spirit of essays. The word comes (please forgive me if I’m being overly patronising) from the French essayer, to try: the point of these things, I always thought, was to examine the issue form different angles, to try on different opinions, to then get to your own conclusion by the end.

Then again, essays in the US aren’t called essays, and maybe there’s a reason for that. (They’re called “papers”.) Maybe they’re not trying to do the same thing, and I just thought of them as the same thing because they are also pieces of writing that you type up and then hand in to your tutor, sorry, professor – in expectation of some red markings and a number.

Quite aside from the fact that it’s always easier to do what you’ve been trained to do all your life rather than embracing a new system, I think I prefer the British way. Yes, first of all, it’s easier to fill your allocated 2,000 words (or 8 pages, as they call it here) when you can play with two sides of a coin. So maybe I’m just being lazy. There is, let’s face it, quite a high probability of that.

But also, and here’s the rub: I don’t think it matters so much for literature essays/papers. But it might matter when you are studying theology. Or politics. To be able to acknowledge shades of grey. To be able to say, “actually, the other side does have a valid point here, and perhaps we could learn from this theory of theirs and integrate it into our practice” seems to me like a valuable skill. It seems to me that it’s a skill that could do a lot to mitigate the current polarisation of the parties – not just among elected officials, but among voters too – which is not just an ideological problem, or a social one at awkward family reunions: it’s a practical one. Look at the sequester; look at the frequent logjams in Washington. Job cuts. Furloughs. The cancellation of White House tours. More importantly, though far less covered, cuts in food stamps.

It’s good to be strong on ideology, don’t get me wrong. I always say that while I despise everything Margaret Thatcher stood for and hate the consequences of her actions, many of which my country is still grappling with today, I deeply respect her unwillingness to waver on what she considered the essentials. I wonder, though, if a university system that makes concessions to other ways of thinking might go a long way in training up a generation of open-minded, solution-orientated people.


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