Opinion: Wee Words From Edinburgh: Foreign Classes 101

By Alyssa Small

For the Montana Kaimin

Published Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I didn’t believe it when people told me my classes in Scotland would be radically different from studying at The University of Montana. I figured, both countries speak English, and I’ve taken British literature before. How different could it be?

Yet, here I am, studying at a school with four different campuses, and learning about the first British novels in a building that used to be an insane asylum for the Scottish nobility.

I am expected to do a whole lot of reading over the 12 weeks of class — close to 3,000 pages for one class alone.

Last week I experienced one of the strangest weeks academia has ever created: reading week. It’s like a spring break for the overachieving control freaks like me. The professors forgo classes to allow students extra time to catch up on reading.

At the end of that week, I had a paper due on one of the novels I had read for my lit class.

Now, papers don’t scare me. I can cite in MLA style like it’s a basic human function, and I can talk about symbolism for whole pages without losing momentum. This paper for my lit class, though, filled me with an overwhelming dread.

I remember those glorious words each of my UM professors told me: “You shouldn’t need to include a bibliography. The text alone should suffice.”

This is not the case in Scotland.

When we asked my lit professor how many sources we should use, he responded, “Well, I’d say if you have fewer than six sources, I’d start to worry.”

I couldn’t believe his nonchalance at this. Why would we ever need six sources for a four-page paper?

In another class, my professor explained, “We don’t expect you to have original thoughts here,” he said. “We expect you to be able to intelligently utilize the thoughts of others.”

Basically, “You don’t have anything new to say, so why don’t you just regurgitate what these other guys said, instead?”

So approaching this paper, I was sufficiently irked. Add to that the different grading scale (A = 70 percent or higher; B = 60 percent or higher, etc.), and I was willing to admit I was in uncharted territory.

When I finally finished the four-page masterpiece, figured out how to use the different writing style instead of my beloved MLA, and reformatted it to the UK paper size (21 cm by 29 cm), I went to submit it at my insane asylum.

In the insanely busy submissions hallway, I learned that, to avoid subjective grading, all assignments needed to be submitted anonymously using a standardized cover sheet.

As I felt the paper slip from my fingers through the chute, I was filled with joy. It was out of my hands now. I walked back home, my utter exhaustion in no way quelling my happiness at seeing blue skies for the first time in weeks. It was like the sun had come out to congratulate me.

I’m still waiting on the grade, but I’m confident. I mean, I worked hard on that paper, and when I work hard on a paper in the states, I get good grades. How different could it be?