End of Classes
Yesterday was my last day of classes in Spain, and though I still have two final projects and three exams before I’m done with the school year, I can feel things coming to an end. Finishing school for the year isn’t quite as exciting when it corresponds with finishing my adventures in Spain, but it will still be a relief to have it done. Since most of my posts are travel-related, I’ll reflect a bit on my experience with school here.
Spanish university was interesting because it was in some ways far easier than UCLA and in other ways far more difficult. We all expected it to be a piece of cake, but there are actually a fair number of people in my program who failed classes. No one thought that would be possible. Anyway, I’m a fan of bullet points, so it was easier because:
- They go by the semester system, so classes go by much slower. At UCLA, it feels like pretty much as soon as a class starts, it’s midterm time and then once you recover from midterms, it’s finals time, and then it starts all over again.
- Most classes here have very few, if any, midterm projects or exams. UCLA classes usually require one or two midterms, a final, plus a few papers and little assignments in between. Here, some class grades were based only on one final exam or one final project, and others had a final and one final project. In other words, as long as you don’t mind working really hard at the end of the semester, you don’t have to do anything for the first 13 weeks or so. (Fortunately, I successfully overcame my natural instinct to procrastinate.)
- Class attendance? Yeah, not really a big thing here. Last semester, I had one class with about 150 students where only 4 students showed up one day. This semester, I had a class of 19 students where I was sometimes the only student to show up for the first 20 minutes of class. It’s not weird here for a student to come up to you halfway through the semester and say, “Hey, this is my first time coming to class. Can I copy your notes?” and then you never see that student again. So the fact that I actually went to class automatically put me ahead of the vast majority of students. If they actually took attendance, I could probably win some award for the Complutense student with the best attendance record in all of history.
- Professors’ standards seem to be lower here. To pass a final, you just have to regurgitate some facts, usually facts of your choosing, rather than remembering every topic covered in the class and having to draw up some profound analysis that synthesizes all that information. And papers seem to be about writing as much as you can, not coming up with a clear, concise thesis. My 11th grade English teacher’s mantra, “Reduce wordiness to improve clarity,” does not seem to apply here, and spewing out miscellaneous information is much easier than actually having to think. Though, on this point, I will add that my high school was way better about making students actually think than UCLA has been. Apparently my education is regressing.
- Most professors are very sympathetic toward foreign students. I did master the material in last semester’s classes pretty well, and I did work super hard, but I have a feeling some professors were a little more generous in their grading because I was foreign. Some professors my friends had are actually really awful to foreign students and pick on them in class, refuse to cut them any slack, etc., but I fortunately wound up with nice professors.
- I feel like I never went to class. I mean, I always went to class when I had it, but I didn’t have it much. Both semesters, I had two full days of class plus one day with one class, which meant lots of time to sleep, travel, and just hang out. I only had 12 hours of class a week and virtually no other responsibilities. Most Spanish students take 8 or so classes, but EAP has us take only 4. I’m not complaining.
How classes were harder:
- They were conducted in a language in which I’m not fluent. Of course, I’ve had Spanish language classes conducted in Spanish since 8th grade, I’ve taken two non-Spanish language classes at UCLA that were conducted in Spanish (and where at least half the students were native speakers), and I had all-Spanish classes in Granada in 2006 and during orientation this year, but with those classes, there’s always the understanding that the students aren’t fluent, so they speak slower and more clearly and are willing to stop to explain things, and if the teacher doesn’t help, you can always turn to your similarly confused classmate and ask for help. Here, the professors were speaking to Spanish students, so they talked quickly, used colloquialisms, mumbled, and made culturally-relevant jokes. It wasn’t American high school Spanish. It was real Spanish. And because I took some not-so-mainstream classes, I had very few, if any, fellow foreign students to help me out. I always had to be fully alert in class, always feared misunderstanding an important concept, and was, of course, nervous to participate in discussions or ask questions. But I did it! I’m sure I missed a few things here and there, but I understood what was important, and I excelled in my classes last semester and hopefully will do so this semester too.
- UCLA professors always provide a class syllabus that they stick to for the most part, but, here, syllabuses contain class descriptions but not much else. When you start some classes, you have no idea what kinds of assignments you’ll have to do and when, you don’t know exactly when you’re supposed to do the reading by (or even what reading you should be doing since most of it is considered optional). Professors change due dates around all the time and end up covering different topics than they said they would. I don’t know how students who don’t come to class deal, because the only way to know you have a 50-page paper due in two weeks may be hearing your professor mumble it in passing as students exit the classroom.
- Ah, yes, speaking of 50-page papers, sometimes there are those. I only had one, but I talked to a friend who said that’s not entirely uncommon here. Most professors will require 25+ page research papers (single or 1.5 spaced; no easy double-spacing like we have in the U.S.), and students actually start on them in advance! Coming from a culture where most students b.s. their way through their 5-page, double-spaced analysis 12 hours before it’s due, that’s pretty shocking to me. It’s even more shocking to me since Spanish students come across as slackers in every other way. I guess I underestimated them.
- I said earlier that there’s usually only one final or a final exam and project, but the hard part of this is that your entire grade is based on very little, and you usually have no way of knowing how you’re doing in a class until you get your final grade at the end of the semester.
- Grades aren’t really a big deal to Spanish students. The goal is to pass a class, not to get an A in it. Some try to excel because better grades = lower tuition (though the tuition is still crazy low compared to American education) or because of whatever other personal reasons, but getting a C is okay, because that’s passing. This means that Spanish professors don’t feel as obligated to give out A’s. “Great job! I’ll give you a C, because passing is what matters!” I’ve heard a lot of professors say, “Don’t worry, this class is easy to pass.” Yeah, thanks, but passing isn’t what I’m worried about. Getting an A is. And if students fail, they can always re-take the exam in September, no harm done. That’s not quite so easy for me.
Overall, second semester was much better than the first. I had a better grasp on the language, my classes started at 1pm instead of 8:30am, they were generally easier, and the subjects interested me more. The web design-related classes I took this semester, which I was extremely excited about, didn’t really end up teaching me anything I didn’t already know, but I did end up doing a lot of personal research and practice in my free time, so I did improve, even if my classes didn’t assist much with that.
Ah, the other not-so-fun thing about school? The fact that my EAP adviser completely fails at helping with it. Like I explained before, she initially put an F on my EAP transcript where I should have received an A, and that’s sort of resolved except that my UCLA transcript still says I got an F. Plus, one of my professors says I’m not on the roster, and I need her help getting permission to print in the computer lab, and she’s not responding to any of my emails. Everyone in my program agrees that she has been a terrible adviser. Thanks for nothing, lady.
Hopefully my final projects and exams go well. I have my first one this Wednesday, then a two week break (during which I’ll be going to the Canary Islands), then another exam and a project due on the 16th, then an exam on the 18th, and another project due on the 24th, before I’m free! I’ll also be going to England for the Stonehenge Summer Solstice Festival (awesome!) June 19th-21st, and then my mom and sister will be visiting the 22nd through 27th, during which we’ll visit Granada. And then I return to California on June 30th, which I’ve already explained I have very mixed feelings about. Maybe if I keep wishing for it I’ll somehow find a way to live here and in California simultaneously.