Saturday 22 October 2011

Blog III: Academia

Originally this was going to be a blog about the first week of classes, but then I got so distracted and preoccupied by said classes that now this blog is going to cover the first month of classes which works better because I am now in the thick of academia. As an American student from a public state university, I am used to having to take the variety of courses from; history to science to science to English; so Edinburgh has been a bit of a shock to the system. Here at Edinburgh University all of my classes are major related unlike in the States when I was taking maybe four major related classes and two “other” non-major classes to fill graduation requirements so that I am a well-rounded graduate at the end of my undergraduate career. Instead, as a 3rd year student I am taking three courses all of which are literature specific and that is all. Though it is possible to take non-major related classes they recommend that you don’t, mostly because the work load is so much already that to add another subject with different rules and a different work load could be too much.

In the America I am an English Education major, but my real passion has always been literature (or the canon of agreed upon great works that have withstood the passing of time; Bram Stocker, R.L. Stevenson, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, etc.) so naturally I chose to study at Edinburgh because it has one of the best literature programs in the country and in the world. I also chose to come my junior or 3rd year because I had a better variety of courses to choose from and I have discovered from taking two 3rd year courses and one 1st year course that not only are the upper division courses more enjoyable but they are a lot more focused. What I mean by focused is, instead of giving an overall general introduction to literature, like what is done in my 1st year Scottish Literature class, my 3rd year courses –Shakespeare’s Comedies and Chaucerian Romance- focus specifically on a single author, or genre my courses right now are author focused, and break down a single genre associated with that author. So in my Chaucerian Romance class we just look at Chaucer’s work and specifically his texts that can be considered romances; so for example we have read The Knight’s Tale, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Franklin’s Tale in the last month and discussed the different portrayals of chivalry, courtly love, gender relations, etc. Similarly, in my Shakespeare’s Comedies class we have read (going in chronological order) Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labours Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like it; for these texts we have discussed the characteristics of Shakespeare’s comedies and each week we build on the previous week’s discussion with the addition of another play and we look at how the comedies change over time and notice patterns of focus, plots, characters, and themes. In my 1st year Scottish Literature class, on the other hand, we started with the novel then we will go to plays and end the semester with poetry; though there is the focus on Scottish authors and contexts that is the only focused part of this course. In the last month we have read two gothic novels (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner), one of the first novels written in Britain –Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe- , two short stories one by Stevenson the other by James Hogg, one that displays in new type of narrative- The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark- and one that is important for the discussion of how time can be portrayed in a novel- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Though these have all been great novels and very enjoyable to read I can’t help but compare to the ‘sporadic’ feeling of this course to my focused 3rd year courses.

Another shock, besides the wonderfully taught literature classes (I really feel like literature is a valued thing here where as in the States I have always gotten the sense that literature is old news and it’s just an easy major, here that is far from the case), is how rarely I actually have class. I have three lectures and one tutorial for my Scottish literature class all of which are 50 minutes long, one 2 hour discussion (though we have a professor who is running the class and telling information they question more than lecture) class for both my 3rd year courses and two hour ALG’s or autonomous learning groups for both those classes in which I get together with three to four other students in that class (we were assigned into our groups at the first class) and discuss the text we had to read as it pertains to a question given by the lecturer. So in total I have five classes a week, two ALG meetings and one tutorial; I have Wednesdays off and am done by 1pm on Thursdays and Fridays (Mondays and Tuesdays are my busy days); as a result attending class has become more and more difficult. I have discovered as the weeks have passed that I much prefer being in my flat doing the assigned reading for the week and working on research for my papers versus sitting in the classroom or lecture hall listening to people talk at me; though the classes are always interesting and enjoyable I have started to get a bit of an anxiety about going to class because I feel as if I am getting nothing done. With the increased mandatory reading load and emphasis on compulsory study I have started to associate having a progressive day with how many books I have read. If I haven’t read a single book I feel like the day was wasted, even though I did get things done that pertain to my studies. That is the overall hardest thing about University here; they don’t give pointless assignments. In my 3rd year courses I have one essay due in November that is worth 25% of my grade and a final at the end of the year that is 75% of my grade the rest is just reading, and in my Scottish lit. class I have two essays due before Winter break (one of which I turned in a week ago), one due right after break, probably at least one more next semester than a final at the end of the year. Though the minimum amount of essays is refreshing, it’s also incredibly stressful because so much emphasis is placed on these essays and if you do poorly on them there really isn’t any wiggle room to make up for it.

Though the classes may seem intimidating and the compulsory study difficult, especially if you are a procrastinator (just a note for that: if you are a procrastinator Edinburgh will be the worst experience of your life because they really demand a lot of you and if you don’t do it until the last minute you will do poorly and not be able to make up for it), the worst part is not at all class related but rather book buying related. Unlike in the States where it is relatively easy to get the books for your courses because you can just go to the University bookstore and give them your course list and they will gather all the books for you; here there is no university bookstore, you must find the books on your own. That is not to say that there isn’t a University associated bookstore, there is one they are Blackwell’s and according to them they are the only university bookstore in the whole of Edinburgh so if they don’t have the book you need for class most likely no one will. Thus begins the problem known as Blackwell’s’ rip off. Blackwell’s gives the allusion that they will cut students a break and help them save some money by supposed deals like three books for 15 pounds even though only five out of the ten or so books that you need actually count for this “deal”. Also they advertise that you can save a good deal amount of money by renting your books but to rent a book is about as expensive as buying used. Which brings me to another point; Blackwell’s makes you go on a wild goose chase to find the very few “deals” and when you do find them you realize that they are just another hidden or cloaked way of ripping students off. I finally discovered after about six frustrating and expensive trips to Blackwell’s that if I am going to be led on a ridiculous book hunt I might as well leave Blackwell’s and hunt around the many used bookstores in Edinburgh. Edinburgh has the most bookstores per block in the world and the majority of them are used. In one instance I ended up saving fifteen pounds (roughly $28) by buying two books used and found another that I had sadly already bought and written in for two pounds fifty and I paid twenty-one pounds at Blackwell’s. Finally, after having to write one essay already and getting ready to write three more, all of which demand at least four secondary sources, I have discovered the beauty of the LIBRARY! Edinburgh University library is one of the best in the country and as a student you have free reign over all the books within its walls and there is no price (except the price of attending but you wouldn’t be in Edinburgh if you didn’t pay that so..). To conclude, as a student you will have to go to Blackwell’s and you will be led on a wild goose chase but sometimes they are the only store that has the books you need, though before you buy anything there make sure to check the many used bookstores (it’s a great way to get in a nice walk around the city anyway) and the University library.