I’m into week four of my schooling, and it’s interesting to say the least. I had three months at a UK university before so I got a short taste of what it is like to study across the pond, but that was during my undergrad years. I assumed my MA would be much more intense than it is, which is why I tried to mentally prepare myself for school this summer. But I am finding out very fast that grad school in the UK, at least for my creative writing program, is turning out to be even easier than getting my Bachelor’s degree. I would guess that certain programs, like science, math and technology fields would have a more in-depth and rigorous class and study schedule, but with this whole arts thing, I think the teachers want us to take it easy and use our huge amount of free time to gain inspiration.
Then again, this is only my experience with one university, so I can’t know if others work the same way or not. Oxford and Cambridge are probably more academic with their grad programs, whereas the University of Westminster, where I study, isn’t nearly as prestigious, and probably doesn’t need to work at the same level as those other schools. I wish I had a way to truly compare different universities and their methods of teaching and instruction, but because I can’t, for now I will compare the teaching style of my university to what I am used to in American higher education.
- In America, I was lucky if I got a three or four-day weekend. I tried my hardest to make sure I had no Friday classes, and there was one quarter when I packed all my courses into Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, giving me that much coveted four-day weekend that all students dream of. It was always hard to do this because each of my classes were usually two or three times a week. I’d have a Monday and Wednesday, a Tuesday and Thursday or a Monday/Wednesday/Friday class load, so I was used to meeting with the same class a couple times a week. In the UK, your classes are once a week. You’ll meet on a Tuesday and wont see those people again until the next Tuesday. This is very odd to me. There’s not much you can accomplish in two hours, so two hours twice a week is great to have. I always feel very shorted on information when we blow through a discussion in two hours and don’t get to meet again for a week.
- In America, the homework is set from week one. You get a syllabus from your professor, telling you everything happening in each class, and what stuff is due on which date. So far, at my university in London, our syllabi have been very vague. It may say what to read for that week, but a loose idea of homework may be assigned at the end of the class, meaning anyone who isn’t there, doesn’t know what is due for the next week, and the professors aren’t very strict about it actually getting handed in. I noticed this both at the University of Chester (where I was three years ago), and now at the University of Westminster. It’s a bit frustrating to not have a set schedule, because it makes planning out my homework very hard, because I don’t know what is due or if there’s something more to prepare for class.
- Perhaps this is just because this is a Masters course in creative writing, but a lot of the work we’re needing to do is highly independent. We have entire weeks off of a certain class as a “writing week,” which is nice to have extra time to write, but I think we have the rest of our spare time to write anyway, and I would more value the time in-class to learn and be taught mechanics of the craft than to probably end up slacking off. For example, for my playwriting class, we have next week off to write, but that class is only on Wednesdays from 1-3pm, and I highly doubt I will spend those exact two hours working on my play. I think being in class and discussing how to formally create a play would be more helpful than having that time off. Maybe I’m strange for wanting it that way, but I did come to London to learn, and I thought there’d be more in-class instruction, rather than leaving us to our own devices.
- And lastly, just so you don’t think I’m only complaining, I do have something to rejoice about the differences in the systems. Again, I can’t speak for all American or UK schools, but at least during my undergrad, most of my coursework, especially the finals, were due up to two or three weeks before the quarter actually ended. This led to a lot of stress to get things done in only eight weeks. At the University of Westminster (as well as Chester), our due dates for our final projects or papers for each semester are not due for a month after the classes end. I am done with my courses for this first semester in mid-December, but my work doesn’t need to be sent in until the middle of January. The professors won’t even look at it before then. This is something I like. It gives you time to perfect your work. I know some people would hate to do stuff over Christmas or Easter break, but I end up not doing anything anyways, so why not have a month to write and edit as much as possible before turning it in for a grade?
Well, that’s my list. It’s hard to transition from the American school system to an English one. You’d think they’d be more alike, but they really aren’t, so I’m glad I have gotten to experience both in my lifetime. I know it will aid me later in life when I have to switch between two ways of doing something. Flexibility and adaptation are two skills that are so important for someone to have, especially going into the working world.
I’m an undergraduate whose studying abroad at the university of Westminster this semester! Wish I had read something like yours before starting here though, it would have made my transition easier to the UK system. Not having a writing center that helps proofread homework is something that I’m still having problems adjusting too! Great post!
Karen Rousey says
I can’t speak to the differences today but have a perspective on this from my experience of a year of Sociology study in 1973 at University of Bath. I found that the British university system taught me how to think and problem solve independently versus the American system of more rote learning. We would have the weekly seminar on a topic and everyone would do independent research before the next seminar to be able to discuss what they learned from their research. We then had to be prepared for essay exams or individual tutorials to take a position on the topic and defend it. It taught me how to look at different perspectives, learn from others, and integrate information to form my own opinion. That has served me well for 40 years in my career. Th US university system relies too heavily on textbooks purported to be the one and true knowledge on a subject and spoon feeds students in a way that is not always conducive to life in the real world. There is no textbook with all the answers in life. You have to discover individual truths on your own.
Terence J says
I’m sorry to say this, but that’s why a lot of American Universities look at job applicants with degrees from the UK and they get tossed aside for other candidates.
One thing that threw me off when I studied abroad (undergrad; spent a term at the University of Essex) was that my British professors actually assigned paper topics. In my US school, we would have to choose our own topic, but at Essex, the entire class had one or two topics to choose from. I took a class on Anglo-American relations, and the paper topic was something like, “Compare the relationship between the US and UK during WWI and WWII.” I asked if I could narrow that down; nope. It was supposed to be a 7- or 8-page paper.
Jessie Baker says
I earned a BA from a public university in the USA and read for my MA in Lit. of the European Renaissance at University of York. It was much more labor intensive and academically challenging than anything I did in the States. I did find the hands-off approach of the English faculty intimidating, and when I thought about an advisor for my dissertation, I chose a young professor who was willing to spend time with me.
As someone who also took creative writing at uni in the UK, I’d say that the course enables you to write independently, which, now as a creative writer 50% of the time, you have to just do! Enjoy the ‘space’ and the ‘freedom’ 😉
P. Beale says
I was an undergrad student studying at the University of Westminster (Business School) in the 80s – we had classes once a week, the course work was not set out week by week, nor homework, but that is very similar to the high school system there. You don’t know the work schedule ahead of time. Lots of independent study, lots of homework and research papers to do on your own and lots of critical thinking on your own. You learn how to get things done by yourself and also how to work as a team with fellow students – all skills that translate well to the workplace.
They expected you to get on with it!
I just came back to the states after finishing a MS degree in Zoo conservation and Biology with Plymouth University in the UK and I have to say my experience was the complete opposite. I found schooling in the UK to be way tougher and more challenging than anything I’ve done in the US. When I first arrived I quickly realized my US education (BS in conservation and animal biotechnology) didn’t prepare me in the slightest for a masters program, or at least not a program in the UK. Maybe it was just the school I went to or the teachers, but most of them flat out refused to help us with any work, instead they force fed us the excuse that we were masters students and had to figure things out ourselves. If you didn’t understand an assignment tough luck, if you had never previously taken that subject take out a book, they weren’t helping, or any help they did give was even vaguer than the original instructions. I had applied to the course because it was advertised as a taught program (which were hard to find in the US for my course subject), from my personal experience I learn better sitting in a classroom and listening to teachers than from reading books on my own, so i was looking forward to that, but it turn out taught program must mean something very different in the UK, because everything I learned from that program I learn on my own from the library books and not the teachers.That being said I’m sure any masters program requires A LOT of dedication, and my dedication to the work was probably the only thing that got me through the program. All that aside the school itself was extremely helpful, the library was open 247 and they had plenty of services to help with math, english, and writing. And it was extremely helpful and friendly to international students, which they had tons of students from all over the world.
I’ve experienced both systems (degrees from American universities & a study-abroad at Oxford). Based on my experience, I’d say that the American system teaches you WHAT to think, while the UK system teaches you HOW.
I prefer the UK system, personally.
Dick Bringloe says
Same here 🙂 !
On key difference that nobody has mentioned is that when you’re an undergraduate in the UK, you study only subjects relevant to your “major”. You are expected to have a sufficient understanding of “core” subjects from high school and are only required to take English classes if you’re studying English, math classes if you’re studying math, etc. Also, the courses are more structured in terms of what classes you take during a term. I prefer both of these aspects.
It actually mostly sounds like the difference between grad and undergrad. I have an MA in history from a US school, and pretty much everything you described was different from undergrad for me too (meeting once per week, vague syllabi, writing weeks, later and looser deadlines). From my colleagues both in the US and the UK, the biggest difference seems to be the separation of “taught” and “research” degrees. Ah, the joys of grad school…
Patricia Mackenzie says
My perspective is somewhat different as I’ve been on non-academic staff both in the US, and Australia, where, until now, we have had the UK-style university system. The basic difference that I can see between postgraduate study (i.e., after the Bachelor’s degree) in the two has been mostly covered already, but I’d like to add that here (and in Britain), postgraduate students are expected to be, and are treated as, mature enough to ensure they get the education they’ve signed on for. Best wishes with your creative writing degree; understand and be confident that you can acquire the tools you need to make it work for you.
Patricia Mackenzie, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia