For someone who’s been studying abroad since January, I haven’t blogged much about studying, have I? Not because I haven’t been studying, Mom. Just because big concepts like “academic experience” and “day-to-day life” are things I prefer to reflect on over time, forming my thoughts, before attempting to describe them to other people. Partly because I hate giving an uninformed opinion; partly because my academic experience here inevitably has changed over the semester, and I like being able to put things into the context of that change.
SO, anyway, preamble over. It’s April now and I’ve been a student here for almost four months and it’s time I say some stuff about it, I think. Maybe it’ll more fun to do this in an interview format. My interviewer would probably be a Welsh journalism student named Gwenyth or Sioned, wearing a really cute blazer.
Gwenyth/Sioned: So, Melanie.
Me: Mel’s fine.
G/S: Alright then, Mel. I’ll start with the obvious. How has your Cardiff Uni experience compared to your academic life at Madison?
Well, the class structure is totally different here, for one. I only have 1-3 hours of class a day, three days a week. It’s convenient when I feel like taking the train to Penarth on a Wednesday or spending a long weekend in Snowdonia, but it’s weird for me to have so little structure to my days. I tend to flail a little bit without a routine, and there were definitely days where I ended up wasting time laying in bed because it was, like, Monday morning and I didn’t have class until 2. But at least now I’ve learned that about myself.
G/S: So did your grades suffer as a result?
No, I don’t think so, but until I take my finals I really can’t say. Final exams here are 60-80% of my grade, so I’ve only had, umm…four or five assignments this semester. I wrote two papers, identified some fossils, worked on a group project, and did some Excel things, and that’s it. I’ve gotten two good grades back from those; that doesn’t tell me much, but I’m trying not to stress. If anything, I’m a bit worried that I haven’t read enough off the reading lists yet.
G/S: Reading list? Like pages in a textbook?
No, like scientific journals! Most of my classes have extensive “recommended reading” lists full of papers that, to be honest, I’d never get around to in Madison. But here, we have all this extra time. Professors have told me that to get an A on their final exam, not only do I have to reference papers from the reading list – I have to reference papers I looked up on my own. Obviously I’m not going to read all of the recommended papers for each class, because I enjoy things like eating, drinking, sleeping and socializing in addition to Science. But my plan for the time leading up to finals is to read at least two a day.
G/S: And you didn’t read a paper every so often when you had all that unstructured time in, say, January?
No, because I suck and am lazy. Okay, I don’t suck. But as I mentioned above, I really need to work on self-motivating. I’ve definitely gotten better over this past semester – doing things like shutting down my computer and going to bed at an hour that allows me to get up and get some work done in the morning, when I’m most productive. I didn’t even know that I was most productive in the morning until this semester. Now that I know that, I’m going to try reading journals in the morning in a café, like a coffee-and-newspaper type of situation.
G/S: Sounds lovely. Tell me a little more about your classes…were they interesting? Did you make loads of cool British friends?
I really liked my classes! Lots of guest lecturers who were specialists in the various class topics, so the research being presented always felt very current and relevant. And the classes were all 50 minutes long – no power lectures, a big plus. Two of my classes included “practicals” (labs), and to be honest, I really only talked to my classmates in practical.
Most of the kids in my classes knew one another and had all their classes together. At Cardiff (and I assume in most of the UK), once you choose a major (a “course”) you have a somewhat rigid set track of classes (“modules”) that all relate to your degree (as opposed to Madison where I am taking Forest Ecology, History of Photography, and German Women Writers in Translation in the fall). So, even though there were probably other study-abroad kids in my classes, I usually felt a bit of an outsider. Which is normal, I think, and didn’t bother me at all once I established a solid group of friends.
But I was definitely grateful for the practicals, which pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to chat with British students about their lives here, their hometowns, cider, Lord of the Rings, etc. So if you’re studying abroad and you’re not a raging extrovert, consider enrolling in at least one class with a practical or with a discussion/group work component!
G/S: Nice! But you say you made a solid group of friends. It wasn’t based around your classes?
No, not at all, actually. I’d love to talk about it but this post is starting to drag on, so I’m going to break it into multiple parts if that’s okay. Thanks for your time! Oh, and sweet blazer.[To be continued. Thanks for reading! Here’s a picture of a three-wheeled car as a reward.]