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Study Abroad: Leeds

By Colleen Wall '14

Every year the history department sends off a portion of its junior students to other countries to learn from other cultures via the Eagles Ambassador program via Juniata College. One of the Junior students, Colleen Wall, a History and Women/Gender Studies student went to Leeds in England for the Fall 2012 semester. This is an excerpt from the blog she kept while studying abroad. To read all the posts from her blog, please go to: http://abroadinleeds.tumblr.com/

When coming to study in England, I never really thought about how extraordinarily different their approach to education and to the study of history would be in comparison to the US. But believe me, it is.  It really is. I’ve actually had a lot of trouble adjusting to how they view learning. In England, learning is seen as a sort of a personal journey done mostly through independent study.  In the humanities, the amount of time spent in class is miniscule (I had 6 hours of class a week…3 for lectures, 3 for seminars).  Compare this to the US where I generally spend 15-18 hours in class a week and that’s a huge difference.  Here, professors expect you to do a lot of outside research and reading on your own and then supplement that with what they provide in the lectures.  They give you the outline and it’s your job to fill in all the details.  For some reason, this really irks me.  I feel as if I’m not really learning anything, rather just being told to go read and figure it out for myself.  I appreciate a professor who really knows how to teach, and Leeds has some really great professors, but I don’t think I was really given the full opportunity to learn from them.  On one level, I understand this method of education. It puts the power in the hands of the student; they decide how much work they want to do. At the same time, I think it punishes people who may have difficulty learning that way.  University should empower students and provide them with as many resources as possible to learn everything they can.  When did “easier to understand” become such a dirty concept? Coming here has made me thankful for Juniata and its truly exceptional professors who know how to teach and care about their students (a rarity in both Britain and the US).

From a purely history student perspective, I think the number one biggest difference is writing methods.  I believe I mentioned in my earlier post how much the professors discuss historiography in class and the same can be said for what they expect in their papers.  For those of you who aren’t historians, historiography is the literature and debate written around a specific subject.  In my experience, in the US, historiography is important in that it allows you to gage a critical understanding of the background and then from there you move on and construct your own argument.  It is a skill which is generally developed much later in your college career (either senior year or grad school) and before that, not much time is spent discussing it.  In every class I’ve had here, it is talked about constantly and therefore is expected to be a major part of all essays. 

In the US, this is not expected at all.  The study of history at an American university really begins with the student learning how to analyze and critique for themselves.  Of course, we read articles and historical interpretations, but we don’t place an extreme emphasis on their importance.  The more important thing is what you think and what you have to say.  We are taught how to construct an argument and stick to that argument, not go back and forth and then state your opinion at the end after it’s all over. To most, it may not seem like much of a difference, but for me, it was a drastic change.  Instead of being asked what I thought, I was being asked what everyone else thought.  Instead of doing my own research and building an entirely independent argument, I was just answering prompts.  It was like taking a step backwards.  Not once did I hear a professor even mention the word thesis statement while here.  

In a way, this small, isolated difference is actually a reflection of the larger differences between the US and Britain culturally.  In England, there is a great respect for scholars and for those who have come before you.  These are the experts and therefore, you should respect what they have to say.  As a student, their thoughts are more important than yours. One of my professor’s literally told us, “Your tutors appreciate historiography because they are scholars and they like it when you acknowledge their work.”  At the time, I was shocked by this statement.  I thought it was pompous and pretentious and literally said to myself “who cares what they think?  I want to write about what I think.”  And then it clicked.  Here is the difference between American University and British University.  In the US the student is the star, teaching and learning should revolve around us and conclude with us succeeding.  In England, the student is at the bottom, they are there to absorb and understand in a much more quiet, subservient manner, not wanting to insult anyone.  I’ve realized that the American way of thinking is almost inherently self-righteous.  In some manner, all of us have been bread to think that we are the best in a way that goes far beyond personal identity.  Freedom and independence and that rebellious, stick-it-to-the-man mentality are an ingrained part of the national sentiment, something that is obviously reflected in our learning style.     

In the end, we all end up with the same result and the same set of skills, just with very different foundations. And maybe that’s for the best.  On one side there are the American historians standing high atop the mountain, shouting their opinions to anyone who will listen, and opposite are the British, quietly reminding us that we probably aren’t the first person on earth to think this great thought. 

Balance. It makes the world work.


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