Astrid Kitchen – Social Anthropology – University of Melbourne – Australia
The participation expected of students at Melbourne is very different from my experience at Manchester. It’s hard to pin this down to cultural differences or differences in the standards of the universities themselves, since Melbourne is regarded the best in the country. It may also be the result of differences in degree programs as I have chosen modules from different disciplines outside of Anthropology, such as Politics. Either way, my experience is students are far more self-assured and articulate and so engage in debate constantly in tutorials and lectures of their own accord.
Part of this seems to be due to a stronger work ethic; most have always done all the core reading and some further reading. Otherwise they almost all seem to take a wider interest in their major and how its politics manifests in their day to day life through film or radio or TV, for example. This has encouraged me to partake more in class discussion, it is so normalised that speaking up is not given much import and so feels less daunting. In many of my Anthropology tutorials at Manchester, getting students to engage with the content at times is like getting blood out of a stone. This may also be the difference between second and third year classes but regardless, it has been such a stimulating change! Tease me if you will for I say this decked in my anthropology hat but it may in part be also by dint of Australia being such an egalitarian society (economically speaking). The structural relations between student and teacher feel less hierarchical, there is no insistence on referring to them with prefixes or by their surnames nor do there seem to be any formalities surrounding the appropriate way to contact a lecturer e.g. the correct way to phrase an email yada yada. When I sought help from one particular tutor we met for a ‘catch up’ (her words not mine) in a cafe near her house. When the end of semester came around for my Australian foreign policy module, Alan Patience-and no name has ever suited someone so well as it does him-invited us for drinks at his home! Together with his friend who co-ran the topic, they hosted an open house with copious supplies of wine, beer and fresh food where ‘the one rule is to not talk about work!’ how adorable.
The implication of seeing students on a par with their teachers means also that students do not tend to hesitate when it comes to challenging the tutor. This has resulted in many a very tense tutorial hour and at times has almost ended in a full blown argument. I think it has encouraged me to think more independently and critically and also to trust my judgement. Personally, a large part of actualising my intellect depends on my confidence, which has been so well facilitated by this different learning style in Melbourne.
Further, because student fees are so heavily subsidised by the government and because there is no time period in which you have to complete your degree in, students have much more freedom in choosing what they study. They are able to take as many or as few credits as they wish each semester and most disciplines (particularly in the Arts, of course) accommodate for a number of free electives. This means each class often pools from a range of major subjects which brings such new angles and perspectives to topics-such as regarding animals as displaced persons, as was suggested by a law major student in a social justice class. This, together with being an exchange student, has meant for me that I have been able to widen my area of study. This past semester I took a Politics module, an Indigenous studies module, one breadth course (called Sex, Race, Species and Social Justice) and only one Anthropology. Admittedly, this might be more possible for an Anthropology student when ‘Anthropology is everywhere, everything and everyone’, a statement which has stayed emblazoned in my memory since one of my first lectures at Manchester. Coupled with the lack of pressure on grades, since going abroad I am happy to report a revived appreciation of learning for learnings sake!