british as a second language.


big ben.

LONDON – We all sat down in our individual desks, nerves as palpable as the rainy chill we just endured on the walk to class. Our hair still slightly damp and our clothes smelling of the crisp outdoors, we sat in the dull classroom with open notebooks, a leisurely demeanor and pens at the ready. Our professor entered with a casual walk and a fedora atop his middle-aged head. The this-is-not-normal alert rang through my thoughts – as I’m sure it did others’ – as our professor asked us to ditch his title and call him simply, Justin. I am certainly not in Kansas anymore. Nor Spokane for that matter.

Noting the absence of many of our cohorts (due to East Coast flight delays), Justin suggested that we simply have a little chat. Not about class, the syllabus or even studying abroad, but about him as a person, us as people, London as a city. It was fantastic. Before I knew it, the three-hour time limit that I viewed as a prison sentence melted away into laughter, genuine questions and actual learning. Even if it was mostly learning which area pubs were the most worthwhile. I swear, in London that counts as a major of its own.

Right before class was scheduled to be dismissed, Justin handed out the syllabus. Like clockwork, the flipping of papers could be heard as students scoured the pages noting responsibilities and tests, papers and percentages. As if through a haze of mental calculations (“What do I need to get an A on this and even out this potential grade…?”) our professor’s voice broke through the thick sheet of thoughts and spoke to us, “I’ll bet you’re all trying to figure out the most efficient way to get an A in this class, huh?” Our heads snapped up, ready to extract the pearls of wisdom he was surely going to hand us.

Instead, he shook his head slightly and told us, “You are Americans.” He needn’t red and white spangles or fifty white stars on a blue background to alert him of our country of origin (not to mention our dastardly plain accents), but only our learned instinct to focus on grades and assignments and deadlines.

Indeed, on one side of the paper, our syllabus outlined exciting events such as learning about the mystery of Jack the Ripper, the complexities of nationality in the UK and Republic of Ireland, the entrancing notion of the modern monarchy, while the other side had two lines mentioning our final exam and a 3000-word essay. Guess which side us Americans flipped to?

The British educational system is much different than the United States one, our professor explained. While in America, we strive for As and need constant direction and instruction, in the UK, students are much more self-sufficient and are encouraged to deal with uncertainty in the classroom. Because of this, British university students become less focused on letter grades and more motivated toward turning in their best, independent work.

Here, the same instruction on an essay could yield a classroom of different responses and thought while, at our home universities in America, the detailed and specific instructions that our professors give returns such a narrow field, that it seems as though we are in competition with each other. And how do we measure who is on top? Through our grades, of course. To the British, success is not measured through letters and percentages, but through the effort, time and pride that one puts into a project.

The normal coursework given in British classes are simply one large research essay and one final exam. That’s it. The ample time given is meant to help guide your essay, as the paper should be worked on all throughout the semester. Here, learning – genuine learning – is encouraged in order that our essays are well informed and of at least some personal interest.

This is not to say that grades and GPAs and deadlines should be ignored. We Americans aren’t completely dull. More that the British offer an interesting look at how university, learning and education in general can be viewed from a different lens. And to adopt their lens would be to learn something new and complete a picture from which something is missing. Indeed, truth is in no one place.

So this semester, I will set down my pen and stop writing furiously each time the PowerPoint clicks onward a new set of information. I will note the meaning of the words on the screen instead of merely collections of letters. My focus will be not on grades (Ooh, I cringed still when I wrote that), but on creativity, truly absorbing information and enjoying class – an experiment of sorts, a meshing of two cultures.

I am an American in London, after all.


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