12 May 2009

how they learn us at cambridge

Way back in early October, 54 bright-eyed Development Studies grad students packed into a seminar room to meet and mingle with our new professors and classmates. I don't remember much of what the profs said during their remarks, but I do distinctly remember an acerbic lecturer warning us not to expect any "spoon-feeding." I doubt anyone was expecting to be spoon-fed, and his comment might put a harsher spin on the teaching system here than it deserves. However, I've come to realize that the spirit of his remark runs through many of the things that make Cambridge different from my experience of higher education in the U.S. It would be an exaggeration to say there's a "sink or swim" mentality, and the atmosphere is collegial, but it's true that you're on your own here to a much larger extent than I've seen back on my side of the pond.

Back-loading. There's tons of variation among courses--as I will discuss later--but in most cases it's possible to go an alarmingly long time in Cambridge without doing any work. Most of the Development Studies classes here are year-long, and I didn't submit a single thing that counted for a grade until January. One of my classes is evaluated solely by means of a 3-hour exam later this month. (No pressure or anything!)

The philosophy seems to be that as a student, you're responsible for disciplining yourself to work even when deadlines are very distant. This has suited me just fine, as I can generally keep my procrastination under control, but for the undisciplined it poses major problems. Largely gone are concepts like midterms or problem sets, which provide incentives to study consistently and, if needed, a signal that one needs to ratchet things up before it's too late. We do have unassessed essays for some classes, with "supervisions" conducted by PhD students, but these do not necessarily resemble the work on which we'll later be evaluated. During a recent round of gathering student opinions in my capacity as student rep, the lack of feedback was the new #1 complaint, especially among non-native English speakers. To be fair, though, I'm not sure how much of this is a function of Cambridge vs. the U.S. and how much is a function of grad school vs. undergrad.

Resources. One of the starkest differences between small, uber-friendly Williams and big, impersonal Cambridge is the availability and ease of access of academic resources. It takes a certain amount of forethought, savvy, and competitive instinct to get the books you need here. At Williams I remember getting reading lists for my classes, buying the appropriate books at the bookstore, and receiving chapter- or article-length readings bundled together in course packets. Nobody seems to buy their books here--it would break the bank if I tried--and we don't get those handily photocopied course packets. You get the reading list, which often contains more readings than any human being could possibly digest in a year, and then it's you and the library.

Or should I say, libraries. This year I have used the Mill Lane library (Development Studies and a few related fields are housed there), my college library, my friends' college libraries (thanks guys!), the economics library, the geography library, the law library, and (cue dread-inspiring music) the University Library. The absurd monstrosity-- or is it a monstrous absurdity?-- that is the UL probably deserves an entry of its own sometime, so I won't get into detail now, but let's just say that any day in which I learn that a needed book is only at the UL and can only be used in the UL reading room is a sad, sad day.

I should probably mention at this point that there is little to no communication between the professors assigning the readings and the librarians selecting, buying, and stocking the books. The Mill Lane Library by now has many copies of the most sought-after Development Studies books, and usually one copy is not allowed to be checked out, so if you come after the stampede you're not completely screwed. Cambridge is huge enough that the risk of a book on a reading list being completely unavailable are practically nil. But you might have to bike across town to an obscure departmental library, or get your bud to check it out from his college.

Of course, there are mitigating factors and coping strategies. Nobody does all the reading, and for essay-based classes you can do well by intensively reading on your essay topics and getting a glancing familiarity with the other pockets of literature. For exam-based classes, any sane person gets in a reading group to benefit from some division of labor.

Anonymity, Accountability, and Feedback. My experience in the U.S. was that professors generally know the identity of the students whose essays and exams they were grading, and professors have a huge amount of discretion in assigning grades. The system could hardly be more different here. We submit all of our work anonymously, marked only with an individual student number; each exam or paper is graded (or "marked" as they say) by the instructor and a second "reader" whose identity we never know. All marking happens at the end of the year, so in many cases several months elapse between submission deadlines and marking. Somewhat irritatingly, we don't even get marks on individual exams or essays--students receive only an average mark for each class. And to top all of that off, all of the exam and essay questions, student responses, and marks for the entire year get shipped off to be scrutinized by an "external examiner" at a peer institution, such as a Development Studies program at Oxford or Sussex.

I can see the merits of this system: more objective evaluation of student work, greater uniformity of standards, external accountability for the department. Because this system severs the link between the professor-student relationship and grading, I imagine there's less grade inflation here, though I've never really been persuaded that grade inflation is such a big problem. Yet I think there's probably too little mercy mixed in with the justice. Sometimes a professor might have knowledge of mitigating circumstances, and I don't know that the occasional bit of accommodation for that is always a bad thing. The system also seems to suffer from a gaping lack of transparency--which is a troubling hallmark of this university at every level.

Variation among courses. There are huge differences in work routine and lifestyle between PhD students (who often have something that approximates a 9-to-5 job) and MPhil students such as yours truly. There is also tremendous variation between MPhil courses. Some require dissertations; some don't. Some treat the dissertation like a year-long class; others block off a few months at the end just for dissertation writing. Some are wrapped up by June; others go to September. Some have year-long classes; others have different modules each term.

The upshot is that there is much less of a shared academic experience across different programs. There have been times when I've been crazed with deadlines and some of my friends have been sitting pretty, and vice versa. On balance, I think this kind of variation is probably a good thing--let a thousand flowers bloom. I do think it militates against a broader community spirit, though. It's one of the reasons why Cambridge occasionally makes me think of the way some of my friends who have lived there describe New York City: vibrant and active, with limitless social activities, but with a strong undertow of isolation.

I don't know how all of this sounds to outsiders, and I'm sure a lot of what I've described seems crazy. Now that I've been here for a while, I realize more and more that in a multilayered, complicated and crusty place like Cambridge, there is often a strange rationality to the absurdity. If you bang your head against the wall enough, you can reach a point of acceptance and even appreciation for the odd ways of Cambridge.

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