CUCD conference panel at the Classical Association, Royal Holloway, 13 April 1997:

Classics in the UK and Overseas: Some Comparisons

  1. Teaching loads, assistance, training
  2. Student motivation
  3. Quality assessment and market forces

Three speakers from different corners of the diaspora gave accounts of their experiences in different countries. Marcus Wilson from the University of Auckland, an Australian based in New Zealand, spoke about the teaching and research culture in the Antipodes. Paola Vianello de Cordova, an Italian Hellenist at the Autonomous University of Mexico, spoke of the distinctive pressures facing Classics in Mexico, where the classical languages are emerging from the shadows after a long monopoly of Latin by the church (and a consequent marginalisation of Greek), there is a huge industry of translation, and the problem is expansion of numbers rather than contraction. Finally, Lene Rubinstein, a Dane now settled in the UK, compared traditions of language teaching here and in Scandinavia. The ensuing discussion included contributions from the UK, US, Germany, and South Africa. Thanks especially to John Betts, Chris Carey, Gillian Clark, Lynn Fotheringham, Barbara Gold, Judy Hallett, Tamar Hodos, Barbara McManus, Shelly Haley, Christopher Rowe, Alison Sharrock, David Scourfield, and the speakers; the editor's usual apologies for the inevitable omissions and corruptions of contributions and credit.

Teaching loads, assistance, training

British higher education still rests, however precariously, on a tradition of individual contact, with written work returned with extensive individual comments, small-group tutorials, and individual pastoral care (in the academic rather than the moral sense). There is a wide gap between this model and the European system, with its large classes and much smaller element of written work and tutorials - whence part of the difficulty in inducing British students to go overseas in Socrates/Erasmus and similar programmes. It is the European rather than the UK model that tends to be mirrored elsewhere in the world, with large course enrolments that make individual contact impractical, so that most students are encountered only as faces at lectures. But even in the UK the model is under threat: in some institutions in some non-classical subjects, individual focus has been strong in the runup to TQA but neglected as soon as the hoop has been jumped through.

Use of postgraduate teaching assistants depends partly on institutional structures, partly on supply; Auckland has historically had fewer graduate students to be TAs because they tend to go overseas, and most teaching is done in large lectures, with all the marking done by the lecturer (plus one tutor per course) - a huge teaching load. Training for new staff, well established in the US, is still in its infancy in the UK, with a variety of different systems of widely varying usefulness; Academic Audit has at least brought institutions' attention to the issues, and it is likely to loom larger in the wake of Dearing.

Student motivation

This touched a common nerve, particularly in connection with language learning: "the refusal to learn grammar is cross-cultural". There was discussion of the extent to which more "visual" kinds of learning could make up the difference - though the danger is that once lectures become too entertaining the students may just put down their pens. One problem perceived with the British system is students' lack of responsibility for their own progress; the case can be made that too much responsibility lies with the teacher, and too little with the student (something a spell overseas can help to correct). British staff teaching in the US are often surprised to meet a more active appetite for work; UK students can be reluctant to go to the library and read, and are exasperatingly happier to be "spoonfed".

Quality assessment and market forces

UK participants were especially curious about the extent to which their own nightmarish experience of a fanatical state culture of quality assurance was mirrored overseas. Though there is a lot of this kind of thing in the Antipodes, it tends to be rooted in the institution rather than the state. In the US, though there is no single equivalent to (for example) TQA, there are numerous mechanisms in the State system for teaching assessment, promotion, and "accountability to many different masters". The US model is perhaps more outcome-led (what students have learned, and how to prove it - an area where documentability of transferable skills is valuable) than input-led (hours put in &c.). In the US, private universities are heavily at the mercy of market forces, and league-table pressures are strong. Though the introduction of topup fees in the UK, however undesirable in other ways, might encourage the student to take more responsibility, it also puts the learning contract on a dangerously commercial footing: "once people start paying for a product, they'll start suing you." This is already a significant pressure in the US: one contributor typically received around 20 calls a year from people threatening litigation.

And what, in the end, are we trying to turn out? - "flexible, cultured, humane persons", or potential graduate students? Ideally, we should be aspiring to both - and many UK institutions would still hope that their degrees do produce both.

CUCD Bulletin 26 (1997)
© Council of University Classical Departments 1997

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