I’m officially more than half-way through my first semester of grad school- hooray! Going back to school after a 6 year absence was intimidating to begin with, then compounded by my unfamiliarity with the Australian education system. I’m starting to settle in and feel more comfortable with my courses, and thought I would share three insights from my experience so far.
1. Grades are Marks, and No One Really Cares
One of the biggest changes from the American university system has been the lack of emphasis on grades. Here, we call grades “marks” and instead of an A, B, C, D, F system, they use a much broader range to encompass a student’s degree of understanding and mastery.
85-100%: High Distinction
49% and lower: Fail
In grad programs, anything that receives a mark of 90 or higher is considered publishable, so that mark is reserved for only incredibly outstanding, thoroughly researched, original work. I’ve only received one mark thus far, on an oral presentation I gave in my Critical Reading class on a highly theoretical, difficult reading. When I first saw my mark (I got an 88) I was disappointed. In my American mind, I’d received a B+, which was a letdown for the amount of work I’d put into my lecture. However, when I met with my professor (or tutor, or lecturer, or coordinator– I still haven’t figured out exactly what to call my professors here) he was full of praise and remarked how well I had done. We then spent a few minutes discussing the differences in grading here and in the States (he came to Sydney Uni from Harvard.)
Marks are really less of a judgment and more of an acknowledgement of a student’s output. Students here are also much less concerned with specific marks– they want to pass, and generally want to earn at least a credit for their work, but students are much more concerned with actually learning material and being able to apply new knowledge in their work. Honestly, it’s pretty refreshing. I’m still adjusting, but overall, there is much less pressure to earn a perfect mark, and more encouragement to take in new information and be able to apply that information to class discussions, future readings, and written work.
2. English is Hard, and also Worthwhile
I’ve loved reading and writing since I was able to do each. My first journal begins when I was around 4 and half, and contains many amazing descriptions including: (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) “Today we had a snowball fight. My daddy hit me in the face and I cried and cried.” And then an ending note, clearly in my mom’s handwriting, stating “It was an accident and he said he was sorry!”
However, from an early age I can also recall trying to figure out how to find a job that used my love of reading and writing, but was profitable. I landed on law first, then journalism, then editing– but ultimately ended up teaching. I love education, and I will always consider myself an educator, but I’ve also realized that I spent 28 years skirting around my true love: literature. Why? Because it wasn’t practical, profitable, or pragmatic. (Not that teaching is profitable in the States either.)
There is such an emphasis today (especially in the US) on earning a degree that is “worth it.” I kept English relegated as a minor area of study in my undergrad because Communication provided much wider access to the job market, and as I graduated in 2010, the job market was scary enough on its own. I’ve read countless articles that advocate for students to look at entry-level salaries in their chosen field, and then use that data to determine whether it is worth it to pursue their chosen major. It is exactly this thinking that kept me from pursuing the degree I truly wanted.
Education is a privilege, and the material we have covered in my courses this semester (namely Critical Reading and Global Lit) has only reinforced the privilege and responsibility that comes with an education. Many times, the only way repressed or unrepresented voices are heard in our privileged community is through words– by producing literature that is then accessed by broader communities. Literature provides us with a real, authentic education, and I’ve found that studying literature, and the greater cultural context inevitably surrounding all literature, immensely rewarding. Will I ever make a ton of money with an English MA? Nope. But I’m learning to look outside of our rigidly capitalistic societal norms and find a greater purpose. (Dad, please don’t read this as your already liberal daughter turning into a Socialist, I promise I’m not!) However, literature does connect us in a way nothing else can, and studying those connections prompts us to be better, more responsible, more responsive global citizens.
3. Experience Creates Better Students
I was a pretty good student in undergrad. Pretty good. I went to (most) of my classes, I did some of my reading, and I almost always turned in assignments on time. It helped that I went to a tiny school where you failed if you had more than 3 absences in any given class and where your professors knew immediately if one of 15-20 students were missing from a class. I also remembered my Dad telling me that each class I took cost something like $7,500 or something ridiculous, so that motivated me as well. But I also cared a lot about my friends, my sorority, my extracurriculars, and sleep. Thank goodness Netflix instant streaming didn’t exist while I was in undergrad, or I really might not have gotten anything done.
As an adult, who is actually paying for her own degree and taking this on completely voluntarily, I am a much better student than I ever was in high school or college. Because I’m only working part-time, I have the time to read all of my assigned readings (though reading Moby Dick in one-and-a-half weeks was still quite the challenge) and take notes on everything. I have the space to think through the context surrounding different works, and even read interviews with authors and other critical pieces related to the work. I’ve been prepared for every seminar, and I feel like I’m able to participate in a meaningful way. I’m earning this degree because this is a subject matter that I love, and it changes everything.
I believe there’s a lot to be gained through taking a “gap year” (loads of Aussies take one, it’s a very common practice here) and growing up a bit before undertaking an undergrad program. I’m learning that education should be a process, not a product, and that we’ve (Americans) missed the mark in a big way with our current university system. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know I’m developing the skills and critical knowledge necessary to take on this problem in a meaningful way for the undergrads I’ll eventually teach.
Bonus: The University of Sydney has a gorgeous campus, and better coffee than I was ever able to get at UE or Harlaxton. Although this school does have considerably more asbestos than I’ve encountered in the US or UK. (Yikes.)