*I had originally written this blog post for 10MinutesWith but I am reposting it here as it might be relevant to some of the prospective international students. All views my own and hope it helps.*
As one of the most popular study destinations in the world, I don’t think the United Kingdom needs much introduction. However, if your reference points are limited to the Queen, Adele and Hogwarts just like mine were, here’s an introduction from Hugh Grant’s prime ministerial speech in Love Actually – ‘(It’s) the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.’ And this list can certainly go on for miles but as the title suggests, my focus is less on country facts and more on my own perceptions.
Now besides sounding self-centred, the problem with that of course is individual experiences can rarely be generalised. So as a social scientist trainee, I want to be cautious with my words and start off with a methodological confession – this blog post is about my academic encounters, discoveries and struggles based on my past and current experiences as a social science (and international) student in the UK. I certainly make no claims that all other experiences will be similar but I do believe it will provide a small glimpse of a bigger picture.
Apologies if it sounds too academic but that’s the thing after four years of essay writing, it’s quite difficult to disentangle writing for knowledge and writing for pleasure. Not to forget, the word knowledge would be within inverted commas like this: ‘knowledge’ – if this was a piece of academic writing. Why? Well, almost everything in social science is contested, that’s the first rule. For example – what is knowledge? What counts as knowledge and what doesn’t? Who defines it? How is it produced? As you can see, it’s like opening a can of worms and to be honest, it does drive you crazy at first.
Learning to constantly question what seems to be ‘the obvious’ was certainly not easy for me considering that I came from a schooling background where we put teachers on some sort of high and divine pedestal, and the unspoken rule was to never challenge the unidirectional flow of ‘knowledge’. I could be generalising but I think in many countries, students share similar teaching patterns – take lengthy notes, memorise and regurgitate them in exams. Very straightforward study technique indeed but in the UK, that won’t be sufficient to pull your grades out of gloom – if anything you might be charged with plagiarism for copy pasting somebody else’s ideas.
So the most common phrase you will hear, almost like a divine mantra, from all lecturers is be critical. In simple words, ask before you accept, but it’s easier said than done. As a social science student, you have neither laboratory nor studios to test, experiment and reach a conclusion. Constructing/deconstructing ideas, building connections and coming up with an explanation – all happens within your brain and to do so you need to think, which is why the classes have been structured in a particular way.
Now this particular way is all about independence and self-study. There will be lectures and seminars for each module once a week. Lectures are all about sitting down with your whole year group, listening, taking notes and in the end some lecturers might be generous enough to open the floor for a brief Q&A session. In seminars, however, there will groups of 10-20 students who will lead discussions around the lecture topic with support from an academic staff member.
Without a doubt, seminars are probably the best way to articulate your thoughts and discover your voice. It’s comparable to playing volleyball – you throw ideas into the air, pass them from one team member to the other, and most importantly, team work really matters. It’s surprising how much you can learn from your peers (provided all of them do their readings, hence the importance of team work) and unlike lectures, the things you discuss during seminars make a long lasting impact probably because it’s an experiential form of learning. You listen, dispute, participate and best of all, you don’t remain isolated in the library staring at your lecture notes or comprehensive reading list. Although, that form of isolation is unavoidable as it’s common to get an essay question that requires some form of deep meditation.
Despite enjoying the structure and technique of teaching, the thing I struggle with the most is the Eurocentric vision that underpins the whole discipline itself. To unpack my accusation or discontent, I would say most of the course materials resonate European (and US) history. So things start off with the Enlightenment, followed by subsequent European encounters and development.
Now this might be justified on the grounds that UK is in Europe and so it’s obvious that things are Eurocentric. Yet from a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Europe is the main subject that encounters, observes and defines world history and current affairs. If you are not from ‘the West’ like me, then it’s certainly daunting to find your reflection and you might find yourself wondering where do I fit in?
I guess this leads back to the earlier question on who has the power or legitimacy to define and produce knowledge. In fact, this is one of the thousands of questions you will come across as you try to understand the social world you inhabit. Although I have explicitly focussed on the academic side of things, being a student is much more than that and crossing continents for your education deserves a whole blog in itself so hopefully my next blog post will cover more on these aspects.