Guide to University: subject disparity

The first thing you’re asked at university is: what are you studying. It’s not surprising, really, if you think about. People want to know what subject has driven you to this point and whether or not it’s the same as theirs. Unfortunately, the subject you pick to study defines you in ways you may not like. For example, people who study medicine are clever, those who study physics are astronomically clever but never get dates, those who study philosophy are pretentious, english students just like reading old books, history students are all mainly male – same goes for war studies, etc, etc, etc.

Thankfully, in this day and age, these immediate presumptions about subjects, these ridiculous stereotypes that are more false than true, are slowly dying out. Still, the amount of times I encounter them are ridiculous.

‘Classical Studies with English’ is the full title of my degree and, honestly, I probably don’t help matters with my explanation of it. As soon as I finish saying the title, I’m met with blank stares and crinkled brows, so I quickly clarify with ‘basically, lots of books’. In all honesty, there are a ton of books that I have to read, so that’s not a lie, but there is so much more to it. It’s about learning language, culture, the context of literature, how to write well – and that’s just the English side of the course. In my Classics side, I’ve learned about ancient history, philosophy, literature, archaeology, language – so many different areas, it’s a surprise it all fits into one degree. Yet, when I’m asked about Classics, my short answer normally starts with ‘ancient greece and rome’ then goes to ‘do you know Homer?’ and, finally, ‘have you seen the film Troy?’. It’s pretty dire.

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So there are my faults and failings for all the world to see, but it could be worse – and I’m doing my best to change that. However, not everyone is of the same mind and there is one thing that helps cause this: contact hours. Contact hours are the amount of hours you’re at university each week – and by that, I mean the hours of lectures and seminars you have, not the hours you’re at university having a coffee or studying in the library. Contact hours vary considerably between subjects, and the reason for this is that some subjects need more teaching, whereas others require more time for individual work and research. Take physics or maths, for example. The quickest way to learn is to have lots of lectures and seminars, as it would be pretty difficult for students to be just given a textbook and sent on their way. However, when you get subjects like English, students need time to actually read the books, research critics, write essays etc etc. Despite knowing this, most people – students included – still make presumptions on the difficulty of your degree based on your contact hours.

At this stage, I’d just like to remind you that – at least in the UK – every student pays the same amount. Whether you have a lot of contact hours or very few, each student pays £9,000 a year.

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I live with two medical students, one of them being my brother (but I’ll save that topic for a different post). My brother is in his final year, and the other one is in their third, so they both are in hospital from early in the morning to at least late afternoon Monday-Friday. This makes perfect sense; they’re training to be doctors, to help heal people, so they need practice and experience rather than just staring at a book all the time. I, however, only have 8 contact hours a week. This is supposedly so that I have enough time out of lectures to read all the material set and write my essays etc, but there are some weeks where it doesn’t feel like enough time at all. One week, I had two essays to write, three books to read, and 2 critical papers to study for every module. It’s tough. Those who say (insert subject name here eg. Classics) is an easy degree are idiots. Each and every degree is difficult, and you get as much out of it as you put in.

To the outsider, it doesn’t look like I work as hard as my room mates. When they come back from a day at hospital to see me reading on the sofa having had only one lecture that day, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that they make comments about how ‘easy’ my degree is compared to theirs. I mean, look at how much they work! I couldn’t possibly understand how difficult their degree is. And, one of my favourite comments, ‘reading isn’t work’. You can imagine my frustration at a house party where I was the only one not studying medicine to hear my room mate say ‘Eleanor’s work this week is to read Frankenstein. Man, I wish that was what I had to do! That isn’t work!’.

Ok, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading Frankenstein, but that’s beside the point.

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The issue here is that there are disparities among subjects. In all honesty, I would love to have more contact hours a week and actually feel like all my money is going somewhere. But the fact people are so quick to jump to conclusions is really quite upsetting. There are weeks when I’m set books that I do not want to read, or books where I think there is no chance I’ll be able to finish unless I don’t do anything but read. One week, for just one module, I had to read Joyce’s Ulysses. People take months to read that book, let alone a week! On top of that, I had to prepare short paragraphs answering questions on the book, and that was just for one module. For my others I had to read certain chapters or prepare essay questions, draft an essay and critique someone’s assignment due in for that week. Some weeks are a nightmare, other weeks are a dream. Obviously I wouldn’t change it for anything, I absolutely adore my degree, but the amount of times I’ve had to defend it seem ridiculous. When someone says ‘I wish all I had to do was read ___’, I say ‘well why don’t you?’. You pick your degree, I pick mine. If you’re going to be the person that complains, then do a different degree.

It’s an unfortunate fact of university, I’m afraid. My advice? Stand your ground, don’t be ashamed, and ignore the haters.

Cheezburger haters gonna hate pony haters

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NaNoWriMo

As I mentioned last month, I tackled ‘NaNoWriMo’ (NaNo) this year. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, NaNo is National Novel Writing Month where, for the month of Novemeber, you try to write a novel.

As you can imagine, this is extremely difficult. To ‘win’ NaNo, you have to reach 50,000 words – and, let me tell you, that is a lot of words for 30 days. When you break it down, you have to write 1,667 words every day in order to reach the target. I, however, decided before writing that my goal was to have fun (due to university and work) and I set a personal target of 25k. I’ve never attempted NaNo before, but apparently this year was the year despite the fact that I have more work than ever and a new part-time job which I do all weekend every weekend.

It’s been kinda busy.

Not only did I have university work and my part-time job to contend with, but the past month I’ve been writing a lot for TLE and attending events (head on over to my portfolio if you’re interested plug plug plug plug). It’s safe to say that out of every year to do NaNo, this wasn’t the best one to choose. Then again, with that attitude, I’m sure I would have never started. The ‘might as well’ and ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ attitude worked like a dream.

The interesting thing about NaNo is that the main advice given is ‘keep going’. It doesn’t matter if what you’ve just written is absolute crap, you just have to keep writing and hit that word count. It gives people permission to just write without worrying that they’re not the next J.K Rowling. When I wrote for NaNo, it was with a completely different mindset than what I write for my creative writing class this term. For class I’m agonising over every word, changing my ideas and reworking sentences over until they have some kind of cadence or rhythm. For NaNo, I would just sit down and write whatever came to mind. Every now and then I would deicide ‘this is boring’ and change the scene entirely – one moment in particular that I remember is two people having a conversation, then because I didn’t know where to go from that I set everything on fire. Literally. The two people began arguing and ended up running for their lives. It was great.

Although I had several blocks during the month of not writing at all, I actually managed to get to 30k by the end of November – which I was ridiculously happy with. Not only that, but I actually like my story – a miracle in itself. I’m surprised to find that I’m looking forward to going back to it and expanding areas to explore some characters that I brushed over in my mad dash to reach my word count. It’s one of the first times I’ve written a story where I’ve actually felt seriously invested in my characters and their lives – which might seem strange, seeing as I’ve written hundreds and thousands (not even a slight exaggeration there) of story ideas. Although in the past I’ve liked my characters before, NaNo pushed me to keep writing and, when you can’t think of any action, you’re undoubtedly going to have some scenes where all you have is a character to develop. What I didn’t expect is for my secondary characters to take over the novel, up until the point where I kind of wanted to make it multi-perspective just so I could live in their heads for a bit.

So. NaNo has taught me a lot of things to do with writing and organisation and new responses to the question ‘how are you’ with gems such as ‘not bad, just killed some characters, how are you?’ among a tonne of other things. The best thing, I think, I’ve discovered is that even when I think that I can’t do anything more and that I’m knackered to the point that I just want to sleep for three days, I can still push myself to take on new things.

It’s been fun, NaNo. I’ll see you next year.