Re-learning to Learn Abroad
Study abroad challenges the work-life imbalance of the American college, but leaves something to be desired in the classroom.
By Flavia Martinez, Amherst College
Winter storm Niko brought snow days to college campuses up and down the Northeast this past February, prompting Facebook statuses like, “Now I can finally get a full night’s sleep,” or “Maybe I’ll actually get all my work done for once.”
In the U.S., students’ time outside of class doesn’t always feel like their own. With such a large workload, it can be hard to enjoy college, even when surrounded by friends.
To take a break from this routine, some students choose to spend a semester abroad, where the structure of a week and the passage of time can vary a lot. Going out on Wednesdays and Thursdays isn’t unheard of. Thus, having fun and “destressing” isn’t limited to Saturday nights.
Studying abroad is a healthy reminder that life isn’t all about work, and that leisure time isn’t just acceptable, but necessary. Study abroad is a reminder that the work-life balance of college students in the United States is anything but balanced.
However, study abroad’s welcome change of pace prompts reflection. College in the U.S. is a rigorous experience that prepares students for the future. But, at what cost? How do universities abroad differ from those in the U.S., and do they succeed at providing a quality education?
Having studied in humanities fields in France and now Spain, I’ve noticed clear differences in teaching methods between the two countries and the U.S. With U.S. educators pushing for more “active” teaching styles, the lecture has become a dying art. In France, on the other hand, the two-hour lecture is alive and well.
Though the lecture does have its benefits, abroad professors who lecture seem much less likely to pose questions. Instead of discussing the meaning of a poem with students, abroad professors will likely explain what everything means. Collaborative decoding of a text isn’t common in a lecture-style class.
Despite the heavy workload that U.S. colleges demand, the U.S. classroom is a unique and satisfying space. Hearing others’ observations and questions is valuable, and arriving at a conclusion together is unbelievably satisfying. French students deserve to engage with the professor, the text and each other.
That being said, there’s still hope for the French university classroom. While some professors only lecture, others do welcome questions, but many professors need more practice engaging students, and students need more practice as well.
Academic expectations of humanities students in the U.S. and France are different, and the way students in each country spend their personal time is also different.
Participating in multiple extracurricular activities, for example, is much more common in the U.S. than it is abroad. Though college is about getting an education, extracurriculars exist to nurture students outside of the classroom. However, extracurriculars also play into students’ future marketability to employers. Extracurriculars are assets.
For a long time, the high-achieving American student has felt the need to do everything and be everything at once, a process that begins in high school and continues into college. The need for the student to feel active is all too legitimate, and it threatens students’ mental health and academic experience.
Sure, a hefty syllabus exposes students to important pieces in a classroom setting, but a heavy workload affects students’ well-being and the quality of the classroom experience. In humanities classes, getting by doing the minimum is all too possible, oftentimes necessary and always frustrating for the individual and the classmates involved.
Students pay for an expensive education that sucks them of their energy and will to do anything, including the work demanded of them. Professors will only get the best product in the classroom if students actually have time to do their work.
On the other hand, when students don’t have work outside of class, the results can be equally unsatisfying.
Once, in Paris, a professor handed out four or five long, dense theory readings. The passages were dense, but interesting, because they required decoding. However, the way the professor presented the material required much more. She sped through them, reading them aloud herself. After each, she asked the same broad question, “What is the author saying here?” No one answered. The experience was ineffective and disheartening.
Handing out readings like this in class is frustrating and, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon in the French classroom. When no one’s seen the text before or had time to reflect and form questions, class time is wasted.
Lack of work isn’t the problem in France; the expectations for French pedagogy are what need to change. Students’ time is their time, but to have meaningful class time, sacrificing some personal time is necessary.
In the U.S., college students have a rigorous workload and work-week, and students’ relationship to the weekend can be quite toxic. Waking up on a Saturday morning and feeling the need to do work is painful, and partying on Saturday night to destress becomes routine but always leads to Sunday’s hangover, which affects work flow for the rest of the day.
Perhaps, somewhere in between the two education systems, there’s balance.