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Opinion | Why my academic life was better studying abroad

George weighs in on his experiences with academic life at Bristol versus on his study year abroad.

By George Leggett, Second Year, Ancient History

For a number of reasons, academically, I felt far more fulfilled by my study abroad experience last term at UNC (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) than I have this term at Bristol. As a humanities student, there are only a select few assignments that are necessary for you to complete a unit in a semester. In my case, for Ancient History, this term I only have one formative assessment per unit, with two other group projects, both summative. These formative assessments, furthermore, are only due towards the end of term, leading me to wonder, “other than having a routine and pursuing knowledge about my degree, what would I actually lose by only turning up for a couple weeks and writing my end of term essay on the topics discussed in that period?”

Whereas at UNC, each of my units had something that you had to consistently do that contributed towards your overall grade. For one unit, there were pop quizzes assigned on recent readings, for another, a compulsory online forum where you had to write comments on them, for another there were short written responses in class, etcetera, which feels much more rewarding than occasional assessments and essential transcriptions of notes on slides. Your attendance also usually counted for 20% of your grade, and most professors would threaten to take marks off for more than two absences per term - though in hindsight, I question how legitimate this threat was. Nonetheless, given I’m an anxious people-pleaser, I tried my best to limit my absences, but since getting back to Bristol and not knowing of any repercussions for even a consistent lack of attendance, my attendance has probably already been the worst it’s ever been during my time at university.

On that point about the lack of repercussions for lack of attendance, my evidence for this is an email I received whilst abroad which I thought was hilarious, where it was noted I had been absent for over 80% of the term and the university was questioning whether I was OK. I politely replied that I had a pretty good excuse for not coming to classes (approximately 0% of them), which was that I was in a different continent. Anyway.

I first thought that classes were harder at UNC, but I then realised that even though it was more work, it wasn’t necessarily more difficult work. The challenge was keeping on top of all of it-especially given four units were the required minimum as opposed to three - knowing that you would gain from doing so. 

The lectures themselves were more interactive, too. At this point I would like you, dear reader, to cast your mind back to the last time a lecturer asked a question and was greeted with an awkward silence. Perhaps eventually someone puts their hand up, or perhaps no one does. That would rarely, if ever, happen at UNC, but it happens frequently at Bristol. And I’d imagine that others in UK universities feel similarly. This isn’t exclusively true, I imagine some Bristol students have highly interactive seminars-especially in courses bigger than Ancient History and some UNC students have had largely non interactive seminars. However, having experienced both university cultures, I think the stereotypes of the over-exuberant American who loves sharing their opinions, and the Brit who’s cold and dead inside…I mean, quiet, restrained and maybe a touch too shy, is not without its evidence, saying this as someone who’s absolutely guilty of that. (I do think once you get to know people at a UK university like Bristol, they’re largely very nice people, but this I consider separate from the academic side of uni and more the social aspect of it.)

Furthermore, this is not a criticism of any of the academics at the University of Bristol, who I’ve largely considered to be excellent. Instead, I view this as more of a systemic problem in UK universities and particularly their humanities departments - though of course, American universities have their own deep systemic issues. Essentially, due to a combination of factors, the most important of which being a lack of incentive to actually attend classes consistently or absorb the information in said classes due to the format of assessments, students are jaded or at least less passionate than they would hope to be about their subject.

The fact remains, the experiences I’ve had and the friendships I’ve made at Bristol mean that I’ve generally had a positive experience at this university, and I don’t consider the academic side of life here to be overwhelmingly negative. I did, however, get a glimpse of how fulfilling an experience of university academia has the potential when studying in North Carolina, outmatching that of Bristol and perhaps UK universities in general.

Featured Image: George Leggett

Have you studied abroad and have noticed differences in your academic life? Let us know @EpigramPaper