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.
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.
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.
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.