As an English major, choosing which country to study abroad in was easy – England, of course. My main incentive for going abroad was to travel and simply have international experience, so I wanted my classes to be as least demanding as possible. I figured that taking English courses while abroad would hardly be different from taking English courses at home.
For the most part, things were the same. We read books, discussed and analyzed them, and wrote essays on them. However, there were some things I had to adapt to – here are some of the key differences I experienced between the English classes at my home school (UC Berkeley) and host school (University of Bristol).
1. I barely had class.
At Berkeley, taking 2-3 English classes and 1-2 other classes for graduation meant that I was in class for at least 15 hours a week (which was actually nothing compared to my science major friends’ schedules). My class schedule at Bristol, on the other hand, only required me to take two classes that put me in class for 6 hours a week.
The two classes I took during my semester at Bristol were a 3rd year lecture/discussion on British Literature (ENGL30101 – Literature IV) and a 2nd year seminar called “The Uncanny” (ENGL29027). The unit or “credit” requirement at Bristol was 60 per semester, and classes ranged from being 10 credits to 40 credits. With my 40-credit lecture and 20-credit seminar, I had my full load of classes for the semester. So how many times did my classes meet? The Brit Lit class met four times a week at one hour each – three of the meetings were lectures and one was a discussion (or “tutorial”). The seminar met once a week for two hours. Not only did I barely have any class time, but I also only had one class session a day. My schedule looked something like this:
Monday 10-11am: Literature IV lecture
Tuesday 11am-12pm: Literature IV lecture
Wednesday 12-1pm: Literature IV tutorial
Thursday 2-3pm: Literature IV lecture
Friday 9-11am: The Uncanny seminar
All of that free time meant I could spend hours reading and developing the theses for my essays, but since I was a study abroad student, it meant I had SO MUCH ROOM FOR ACTIVITIES.
On top of all that, a few majors like English and History have a “reading week” with no classes at the start of each semester to give students a chance to get ahead of the course reading and be prepared for the upcoming lectures. I can say that I was academically productive that week, but I would be lying.
2. Lectures were pretty much optional.
I know that Bristol would never condone skipping class, but because I attended every single Literature IV lecture during my semester there, I am comfortable saying that my English lectures (not the discussions/tutorials or seminars) were unnecessary in terms of completing the course and getting a good grade. Each lecture or couple of lectures was led by a different professor in the department with a theme loosely based on 19th-20th century British literature. Sometimes they lectured on texts from the syllabus, and sometimes they talked about something unrelated. They never shared information that would be useful for a future midterm or exam (not that I had those in Bristol – but more on that in difference #4).
I still went, though. It’s not that I wanted to be a star student, but because I only had one class a day, I would have felt completely useless if I skipped. It is called “studying” abroad, after all, even if the studying is minimal.
3. I had discussions (“tutorials”) in my professor’s (“tutor’s”) office.
This was more of a shock to me because I came from a very large public university where my English discussions had an average of 30 people per section. My tutorial was made of only 8 people and we sat in a circle of chairs in my tutor’s office. Because of the small size, there was absolutely no way to hide, something that is easy to do in large classes. Every member of the tutorial was expected to have at least three discussion points/quotes prepared each week, should the discussion ever die or slow down. Being a normally quiet person in class, this was a huge challenge for me, but was ultimately beneficial as I tried to hold my own amongst a group of very intelligent-sounding British students (it’s the accents).
4. I was required to include extra (like ten) sources in my essays.
The feedback I received on my first essay was good, but I was marked down because of my Works Cited section. All I had cited was the actual text I examined, so when I received the paper back from my professor, there was a big handwritten “DISAPPOINTED” in the empty space of my Bibliography. At Berkeley, I learned that when analyzing a piece, all you need in order to extract meaning is the text itself – this could actually be seen as the purest form of analysis as it isn’t influenced by outside sources.
In the UK, I was expected to have at least ten outside sources used and cited in my essays. I personally couldn’t wrap my head around the point of it, but like the English major I was, I made connections (BS-ed) and had a full page of sources on my next essay. I got a much better grade that time.
5. I had only two essays per class and no finals.
Speaking of coursework, I had two essays – one 2,000 word and one 4,000 word – per class, due at the middle and end of the semester. The experience of writing them was the same as writing them at home. Spending two weeks umm-ing and ahh-ing about which book to write about, setting unrealistic goals for first, second, and third drafts, writing something mediocre just to feel accomplished, scrapping my original idea a few days before the due date, and spending hours in frustration and delirium until I suddenly have 4,000 words on my Word document. The only difference may have been being self-conscious about my very American way of spelling certain words and wondering if I should edit them or leave them in an attempt for sympathy points.
Turning in the essays was also a struggle. Instead of sending a digital copy or printing a single copy to give to my professor at the beginning of class, ALL English majors had to turn in their papers on the same day at the English department. I needed to print three copies of my paper, fill out three different cover sheets, and hope that I did everything correctly.
There was nothing to really complain about, though. My second and last papers were due during the last week of instruction, so while my friends finished class and went right into finals mode, I got to do some extra traveling and enjoy my final month abroad without the pressures of school.
Although certain things like essay format, discussion size, and having to print multiple copies of my papers were different for me, the lack of class hours and exams was a huge plus during my semester abroad. I still stressed as any university student does, but the overall workload and level was absolutely manageable. If you’re concerned that the workload may be more difficult in another country, don’t worry. If you’re already diligent and proactive enough to want to apply and study abroad, I say that you’ll be more than fine in your classes there.