College…New Zealand Style!
As hard as it is for y’all to believe that I am actually engaging in academic activities whilst here in New Zealand (judging by the sarcastic comments that have populated my inbox over the past few months), I am indeed enrolled for a full course load (Field Studies and New Zealand Geology, Philosophy of Religion, Intro to Maori Studies, and Intro to Geographical Information Systems) here at the University of Otago. Consequently, I figured it might be apropos to comment on the educational system here in New Zealand. I also figured it was time for some procrastination after spending the last 5 hours obediently studying for my philosophy final tomorrow. Given that I haven’t really left Dunedin in the past few weeks (due to finals studying and my current financial predicament…), all pictures in this post are from places I’ve been over the course of the semester but never actually got around to actually writing about.
Going to college (or “Uni” in the local lingo) is overall a pretty comparable experience to what it is in the US. By far the most obvious difference for me is the sheer size of the University of Otago. With a total enrollment that rivals the entire population of Walla Walla, merely walking from class to class feels like pushing your way through the sidewalks of New York City. The most noticeable consequence of this is that there are roughly 20,000 students partying it up across Dunedin every Thursday and Saturday night. The most noticeable academic consequence of this is that classes here are large because (with a few exceptions) there is no enrollment cap. In one way this is great because there is no stress associated with getting into the classes you want to take. My Maori Studies class has about 400 students (of which half are internationals, and of which, perhaps not coincidentally, only about half actually attend class on any given day), philosophy and GIS both about 100, and geology about 70. Ultimately, the ramification of this is that there is much less discussion and interaction with other students and the professors during class time which, to be blunt, doesn’t really bother me a whole heck of a lot. In-class discussion is not really the way I learn best nor is it something I am particularly good at (to which I am sure several of my Whitman profs could attest). However, I know that the complete opposite is true for many people, especially the type of student that is generally attracted to a small liberal-arts school such as Whitman so I’m sure having enormous classes drives a lot of my fellows abroadies up the wall but for me it is pretty much a non-issue. In my opinion, a more annoying consequence of the large classes is professor can’t realistically do all of the grading themselves so assignments and papers are often marked by graduate assistants, tutors, and TA’s. While I don’t have a problem with TA’s grading assignments and papers, the fact that several different people will grade the same assignment across a class is bothersome from a consistency standpoint. It’s difficult to see how 5 different people can grade the same assignment and still have grades be consistent across the class. Watching my graduate Kiwihost grade economic assignments over a glass of wine didn’t exactly reaffirm my faith in the whole grading process either.
I have found the Professors here to be generally very helpful, freindly, and accessible to students outside of class time. There is always the occasional “dud” lecturer that can’t seem to string two cohesive sentences together or those who will drone on unintelligibly for 50 minutes in a sleep-inducing monotonous drawl, but, like at Whitman, these are the exception rather than the rule. My philosophy professor is quite possibly one of the best and most engaging lecturers I have ever had at any level and the other professors in my other classes I would say are also on par with an average Whitman professor. One major difference in classes here is that lectures are often delivered by a committee of different professors over the course of the semester. For example, my GIS class has had three different lecturers, each who covered his particular area of expertise in the subject.
Another big difference is that there is shockingly little motivation for actually attending class. The structure of the courses and the fact that nearly all professors post their slides and lectures online means that one stands to gain comparatively little by going to class as is evident by the fact that in one of my classes, I received a perfect score on an exam that covered material for which I missed a third of the lectures (due to travel and general apathy) while getting only a pedestrian score on the exam that covered a unit during which I missed no classes.
Grading is a bit different as well. Grades here consist of two components: “internal assessment” which is basically all of the stuff you hand in during the semester, homework, midterm exams, essays lab reports, etc…and “external assessment” which basically means the final exam. For my classes, the final exam makes up anywhere from 50%-80% of my final grade which is WAY more than at Whitman where a final exam worth 30% of the final grade is enough to give people nervous fits and night sweats in the weeks approaching finals. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m not complaining about the lack of work during the semester. Last semester at Whitman, I had at least one “mid-term” every week from the 3rd week of school all the way up until finals week which in my opinion is a little excessive. I don’t feel like its necessary to have an exam every 3rd week in order to assess how well a student is doing in a class. But having no midterms (as is the case in two of my classes here at Otago) and placing such a huge emphasis on the final scares me a little too. With little to no work being handed in during the course of the semester, its harder to gauge exactly how well you are doing in the class and impossible to get an idea of what types of questions the professor is liable to ask on an exam. Having the final be worth so much of the final grade would seem to put people who just aren’t good at taking exams at an unfair advantage.
There is no debating that I spend significantly less time on school-related activities here than I do at Whitman. Whereas in Walla Walla, spending at least several hours on homework every afternoon/evening is the norm, doing so here is the rare exception. After becoming accustomed to working my ass off the last five semesters at Whitman, these four months at Otago have felt like a sort of glorified extension of winter break. Whether this should be attributed more to the supposed academic rigor of Whitman or the “un-rigourousness” of Otago, I do not know. Part of me thinks that the experience here at Otago is more similar to what one would experience at large public university in the states given that there are international students here from said large public universities that echo many of the same sentiments that I do means this is probably not a fair comparison.
Ultimately, I am pleased with my educational experience here, even if the thought of throwing myself back into the academic fray at Whitman next Fall is absolutely terrifying right now. My geology class was, if a bit chaotic and confusing at times, a good hands on and practical experience that will likely benefit me down the road and possibly even this summer doing field work. Same is true of GIS which I will also be using when I do research this summer. I’ve learned tons in Maori Society about the native people and society of New Zealand although given that I knew absolutely squat about the subject beforehand, this probably isn’t saying much. Philosophy was also rather enjoyable and enlightening especially given my general dislike of humanities classes.
I head for home in 13 days. The next few weeks will be mostly studying with hopefully one more sightseeing/hiking trip thrown in there somewhere. Then on the 22nd I will take my last exam at 9:30 A.M and then head straight out to the airport to fly up to Auckland and then onto Los Angeles and Phoenix before a drive home to Flagstaff.