Mitch, second year, studying English Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin
I’m just going to come right out and say it: a literature BA from FU Berlin, while similar in some ways, is actually very different (in this blogger’s opinion) from the version of the degree you get from, for example, Manchester.
The dynamics of classes, and particularly the flexibility as an Erasmus student of being able to basically freely create your own own degree from whichever subjects at whichever levels you want (Bachelor, Master, forgive the terrible pun but this is the Free University of Berlin after all!) create a very different kind of academic experience.
Take, for example, the class on the ‘Modernity/Alterity of Literatures of the Medieval Period’ that I took last year. I know, I know, “Medieval lit? EW,” I hear you cry. I feel you, not really my thing either, but it was such a useful thing to do! The course was challenging because almost everyone was at least a year older than me (people usually take an Erasmus year in third year as far as I know) but they could also be Master’s students. This was pretty surprising to me, having been in classes with people who were mostly around my age, and it really forced me to feel like I had to up my game, think more thoroughly about my verbal responses in class, and try my hand at thinking in a somewhat different way than I was used to. This does happen at Manchester, but in my opinion, and having been here for a year, a more diverse student population is a better student population, so the course at Manchester has a thing or two to learn from the course here at the FU.
I think the fact that this particular module was good, though, owed much to the fact that it was primarily focussed on literature by Tolkien. Hobbits, rings, and dragons Tolkien. The one author to rule them all (these puns are killing me today). And it utterly surprised me just how interesting and involving particularly the main trilogy of The Lord of the Rings was, to the extent that I went away and wrote a 4000-word essay on it, otherwise known as a Hausarbeit. Sometimes, though, people are repelled by a module, much like at Manchester, as soon as they start it, as with one of my best Berlin friends Kai in the Tolkien module, in which case you have literally ages and ages to change. But the fact that I went from having not really read very much of Tolkien’s writing apart from the occasional brilliant Beowulf analysis (lookin’ at you, The Monsters and the Critics) to suddenly having focussed on more than 1000 pages of his books was a completely pleasant surprise for me. Especially considering how long those books and essays seemed to be at first. Eek.
This is another thing to mention about the differences between Manchester and the FU – the assessment. Oh, the assessment. First things first: if you take modules outside of English lit, such as German, prepare yourself for the randomness and almost total subjectivity of the grading at times. German homework? Graded for that. Participation in class? Yup, that too. Final exam at the end written by the teacher most of the time? Just gonna throw that one into the mix as well. All of this is fine, no major issues, and the English modules are standard 4000-word essay fare per module, but wow, did it take some adjustment for me. The total lack of any anonymity, yet the expectation of almost entirely independent research for a paper carried out by yourself, is both amazing at this second-year stage, and also a wee bit frightening to the almost-first-year that arrived on the FU’s doorstep expecting the wonderful hand-holding that you get at UK unis. They deny it, but it’s true, the UK does mother students a lot. But I admit I loved how comforting it felt in first year, to be able to show a very short excerpt from an essay to a lecturer and get some quick feedback – here, though, it’s all you!
These ‘modules,’ as well, are basically all free-choice. There is the expectation that you will be an adult about your decisions, and mostly pick modules in your subject area, otherwise, y’know, you kinda mess up what you want to study. This sense of diversity is literally everywhere at this uni though. I love the fact that you could walk down the corridor of the university – nay, the pavement of the main street of Alexanderplatz even – dressed as outlandishly as you like, being exactly who you are, and I highly doubt anyone would bat an eyelid. Gay? Totes fine. Trans*? All good. From a particularly far-flung location? You’re more than welcome here. And all these random, sometimes ludicrously smart people gather together in one place for this great big university palaver in the middle of one of the most out-there, vibrant cities on the planet. Not to sound like I’m selling it but, well, I kind of am selling it a bit because it’s really that cool. Manchester has just as much of this, if not even more, but with the size of both of these universities, you’d be hard pressed to call, from a student’s own perspective, which was the more inclusive or dynamic. And you basically have the hip Northern Quarter feel here, scattered, breadcrumb-like, across the city, in just about every corner and crevice you wouldn’t expect.
Basically, the academic differences in semester one last year, as well as the broader differences I’ve noticed between the FU and Manchester make the place more attractive, definitely not less. Up next are the differences I’ve noticed in semester two so far.