23 October 2009

So, I am actually a student here...

I don't want anyone getting the impression that there isn't any "serious" work going on here, and while I was able to maintain the very non-academic illusion for a few weeks, I think it is time to talk a bit about school. Many people hold the perspective that going to school in England is not really that different, or at least not as different as going to a country with a different language, and there is certainly a great deal of comfort in a common language (Note: that I did not say "same" language, and the degree to which it is common is open to interpretation.), it would be misguided to assume that the English system is any less foreign. Here are a few observations:

1: For starters, on a strictly practical level, you have to buy all new school supplies. I had grand plans of packing three-ring binders, loose leaf paper and legal pads in my gigantic bags. Surprisingly, I ran out of room. If you need a mental picture of how big my bags were, assume the fetal position and then imagine a bag that could fit three of you in that position inside of it. In fact, when I bought my bags, there was a comment about fitting a dead body in it. I used my noggin and got as far away from that person as possible. I have to admit that at the airport I was slightly embarrassed to be that girl--you know the one who brought all of her (fill-in-the-blank, probably shoe) collection--and I got kind of sweaty trying to manuever my luggage, but now that I am here, there are all kinds of things I wish I would have brought, so I just feel sorry for all of the people who succumbed to social pressure and brought normal-sized bags.

But it's a good thing I didn't bring school supplies because they would pretty much be no good here. For starters, loose-leaf paper does not exhist--I know this for a fact. I have kind of gotten over trying to fit in, so I just confront strangeness wherever I find it, so a classmate informed me that loose-leaf paper does not exhist (Instead you have to buy notebooks, tear it out, and then put it in your binder. Or you can just put your notebook in your binder, which kind of defeats the purpose). But let's say I had brought some loose-leaf paper. I wouldn't be able to use it, because it would have 3 holes. Here, paper has 2 holes. You and I are both asking in unison, "Why?" Maybe for the same reasons why they drive on the left side of the road here, or maybe for similar reasons as to why we don't use the metric system, or maybe because the number of holed paper is related to the issue of what direction your toilet flushes (which I think is only different in the Southern hemisphere, but you get the idea). I think these arbitrary distinctions serve to create cultural pride and "solidarity" (Two points for using a vocab word from my reading! And just substitute unity in there...again, why?). I mean, I'm proud to be an American where at least I have more holes punched in my paper than you do.

2: Multiple times this week, there have been entire sections in my assigned readings that have been in other languages. At first, I thought the article featured a split translation, with English on one side and French/Norwegian/etc on the other. Imagine how puzzled I was to discover that the section in a foreign language was unique and untranslated. I was left with no choice but to shrug and assume that it is unimportant. As far as I can tell, the only reason to include such a section is to secretly bad-mouth exclusively English-speakers. For those of you who are unaware, pretty much the best place to find exclusively English-speakers is the good old USA. Let's be realistic, I read and hear plenty of American criticisms, I am sure these sections I skipped are unimportant.

3: Here, the authors of my texts have names like "Gunnar".

4: Perhaps the greatest difference, and the one that I will have the most difficult time articulating is the sneaky and secretive academic culture. It is almost a point of pride to not tell you, the student, what you are supposed to be doing or what is actually going on. For example, on my "syllabus" (I am sure there is some other name for it, which is probably in latin.), there is a list of twelve essays questions, from which I have to write two essays for my tutor over the course of the eight weeks. Strange, I think. Certainly there will be more direction than this, or the tutor will provide some guidance as to which questions I should answer. When I asked my tutor if he would make any suggestions regarding which prompts I should work on, he tut-tutted me and said, "Lindsay, (it is always very patronizing to me when someone who doesn't really know my name, but just looked it up for the meeting, starts a sentence with my name) you are a graduate student (another patronizing comment. Let's be realistic, I know what kind of student I am.), no one is going to tell you what you should be doing." Now we are getting down to business. The best part is that the lack of information, guidance, or clarity is the point of immense pride. Welcome to Oxford.

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