Open Units hold so much promise, but they are deeply flawed at this university

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Open units are a good idea in theory. But in practice, the options are too niche, the organisation around them is abysmal, and it is taking time away from my degree.

By Alice Proctor, First Year History

In the weeks leading up to my first term at Bristol, one of the things I was excited about was the prospect of doing an open unit. Of course, I enjoy the subject that I have chosen for my degree, but the idea of studying something that I was interested in just for the sake of learning really appealed to me. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me to try something new.

In the awkward first few days of Freshers' Week, it gave people something to talk about. ‘What do you want to do for your open unit?’ is hardly more exciting than the go-to, ‘what are you studying and what halls are you in?’ But, talking about open units was a good way to start a conversation about peoples' wider interests.

However, when it came to choosing open units, the excitement of it quickly faded.

Scrolling through the surprisingly short list of oddly niche units from ‘How to Be Creative’ to ‘Critical Concepts in the Study of the Hispanic World’, there was nothing I could see myself spending a whole teaching block on. I decided to keep an open mind, still grateful for the opportunity to try something new. I chose a Spanish unit with no prerequisites, hoping that this meant I could learn something completely unrelated to my course from scratch.

This is not quite what happened.

Although I checked the course document countless times and a friend on the same course phoned the department running the unit to check, the department seemed to have forgotten to tell us one minor detail: we needed an A Level in Spanish.

it does reflect a more general sense of disorganisation or disinterest on the part of those running the open units that I have heard about from friends doing other units.

Neither of us found this out until we had sat through a lecture and a very uncomfortable two-hour seminar, after which the head of department sent an email round informing us that many people without this qualification had signed up because she had forgotten to list this as a prerequisite, and that we had now all been ‘de-registered’ from the course.

Obviously, this is a very specific example, and cannot be something that everyone has experienced, but it does reflect a more general sense of disorganisation or disinterest on the part of those running the open units that I have heard about from friends doing other units.

Being kicked off my open unit for not matching a secret prerequisite was sort of alright, even funny, in a way, and it meant that I had the opportunity to revisit the options list and pick a new unit.

Though, because they had taken so long to realise that we should not have been on the course, the only options left were some very specific innovation courses. Luckily, these at least did not have prerequisites and according to their pages on the University website, were designed for beginners.

However, I can honestly say that the best thing about the open unit I am now on is that it has helped me make friends. There is nothing like bonding over shared confusion and a heavy workload.

Within the first few classes, I found that many people in the unit were not there entirely by choice. They also had had issues with other units they had picked, or had decided to change at the last minute to one of the only available options.

It was like some weird purgatory for the indecisive and the unlucky.

As it is a beginners course, we were all relieved that we might be able to accomplish something here, or at least do well enough to pass. But, this is not how open units seem to work, as I am coming to find.

It was like some weird purgatory for the indecisive and the unlucky.

Some of the open units are new this year and must be in some sort of test run. This explains a lot.

Although the course is apparently designed for beginners, the careful balance between treating us like idiots and explaining things in a way that goes right over our heads has not been found yet.

This is not helped by the workload: I am already pushing aside work for my actual degree subject just so that I can spend time on my open unit. Not just the assignments themselves- which are much more frequent than the ones I get for my actual degree course- but also just re-teaching myself everything we are supposed to have learnt so that I have some chance of keeping up.

I am already pushing aside work for my actual degree subject just so that I can spend time on my open unit.

Like I said, this is not entirely a bad thing, because I have made more friends on this unit than I would have done if we did not have this shared experience to laugh (and be confused about) together. On top of that, it has made me realise how much I enjoy my actual degree subject by comparison.

However, I am already finding myself counting down the weeks to the end of first year because of it. Talking to people on other open units has revealed that I am not alone in this thought – so is there something wrong with the system as a whole?

I still stand by open units as a concept: I really like the idea of being able to follow up a passion outside of a chosen degree subject, or learning something new. It just seems like they would be more effective – and more popular – if they were organised more like the University website suggests; as a broad range of options, catered towards people who have little knowledge on a subject and want to learn something new.


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