I hadn’t intended to write this blog, let alone to have it preempt the schedule but the topics I will be perusing upon today have been something that I’ve been thinking about for a number of months now, and have reached a certain level of interest for me this past week with the start of the school year at King’s College London and my first tenure as a Teaching Assistant. Since I am apparently constitutionally incapable of keeping my mouth shut when I believe I have a point to make, I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about some of the differences that I’ve noticed between the Canadian and the UK University systems.
I’ve had the fortune and opportunity to attend three excellent universities. My current University, King’s College London frequently ranks highly in the world rankings, and both the University of Guelph and Wilfrid Laurier University are consistently excellently rated within the Canadian system. It’s not a simple matter of choosing one over the other or stating that one system is wholly better; I’ve noticed things that I like about both systems. For example, the academic community and environment that exists in the UK and particularly in London is far better than what existed even in Southern Ontario with it’s high number of very good universities. On the other hand, I feel that King’s disparate campuses lack that atmosphere for me is so integral to the University experience. On the other hand, I’ve been told that if you’re tired of London, if you’re tired of Life.
One of the biggest differences between Canada and the UK is the length of degree programmes. Although there are some exceptions it seems the standard is that an English undergraduate degree is three years, compared to the standard Canadian four-year undergrad. I have a friend who completed studied Classics and Egyptology at Oxford for her first degree, and she recently explained that although she finished her time there with essentially a Masters in Egyptology, that was pretty much all she studied. On the other hand, when I finished my BA at the University of Guelph, I had taken 40 different courses, or modules as they’d be described in the King’s parlance. Aside from the large majority of history courses, I also studied Computer Science (of course that’s where I started), Anthropology, Psychology, Political Science, Biology, and Choir. Even within the approximately twenty history courses I took (from first year to fourth year) topics ranged from the very basic HIST 1010 that began with the Renaissance, to several courses in Indian History and Mexican History in addition to the many courses in British and European history that dominated my interests and my education. Of course, this is one of the fundamental differences between England and Canada in that Canadian Universities require large number of bodies to teach courses, lead seminars etc while English universities (at least the ones similar to Kings) have an entirely different structure that requires far less TAs, far fewer courses offered but on the other hand apparently offering students much more focused historical educations. This again extends to the PhD programs, where the first year of a Canadian program is dedicated to preperation for Comprehensive Exams, while in the UK PhD students are thrown directly into the archives and the production of their thesis. Frankly, I far prefer the UK system although I do have some severe reservations such as the total absence of opportunities for PhD students to gain full teaching experience and perform the role of a lecturer. Of course, one of the main reasons is the difference in the purpose of the programs. Canadian PhD programs are designed to create history professors, while UK PhD programs are much more focused on research.
I am well aware that with my limited experience, not to mention the fantastic opportunities that I’ve had at KCL that I’m not really in a situation to complain about my program. I certainly have no complaints about my supervisor, or those people that I’ve had the good fortune to work with at Kings. I have to admit however, that I’m aware that my time in the UK is rapidly coming to an end and that I’m starting to really worry about academic job situation when I get home. That said, there is no other place in the world that I could be to do the research that I am doing. Of course, I would not be here without the framework and practice that I was taught as an undergraduate at Guelph, and during my MA at Laurier.
I think that the teaching of history is something that requires a delicate balancing act, and that the differences between the Canadian and UK systems really emphasizes that. Since I study the Royal Navy, I am a member of the Department of War Studies rather than the History department, and the department’s interdisciplinary approach means this balance can be more difficult to achieve. In my essay about interdisciplinary study that is being published in the Canadian Nautical Research Society‘s quarterly publication Argonauta, I argued that a key to interdisciplinary study is the possession and reliance on a single primary academic discipline to provide a pivot or framework to ground the incorporation of extra-disciplinary ideas and influences. I also think that it’s very important for young people, and young academics to be exposed to different sorts of ideas, different approaches and different disciplines. In the Canadian system, that is mandatory. In the English system its not so much discouraged as impractical due to the limited number modules that comprise an undergraduate degree. On the other hand, the focus ensures that undergraduates are able to develop the skills of what it means to be a historian, whether it is how to research, perform analysis, communicate, and write history. With a multi- or interdisciplinary department like War Studies, I am a little concerned that the number of influences and disciplines combined with the smaller number of modules will leave undergrad with a less sure sense of their primary academic discipline which could hinder their future studies. Of course, the purpose of War Studies is not to prepare historians per se, despite military history being central to and a founding aspect of the Department.
Recently tuition fees have skyrocketed, with many different implications and results within the academic experience. People talk about how students about to be ruthless with how they spend their time given the pressures and costs of academic programmes. At KCL, like most English Universities, costs have trippled for undergraduates. In comparison, my tuition fees as a PhD student have risen from £13,050 to over £14,500 in two years. In comparison, the tuition costs for my MA program was approximately $7500 for one year, and I received $10,000 in scholarships and TAships. I’ve sensed from many students both at the Undergraduate and Graduate levels that unless an activity counts for marks, or is very specifically related to the topics that they study, that it is a waste of time. I loved my time at Guelph and Laurier, but neither of those Universities had 1/10th of the academic environment available to the students at Kings. Between the seminar series held at Kings and the IHR there is an incredible opportunity for students to be involved in an incredibly rich academic community. This year, because I’ll be the City three days of the week, I’m definitely going to be attending as many seminars as I possibly can, whether they are are on my topic or not. Every single time I go to a seminar I find something to ask about, a new perspective or question to consider for my own research, or somebody interesting to talk to. Often, I find all three. Of course our first priority as students has to be our degree program, but I think given the relatively limited number of modules and topics that students are able to study during a degree program that it is important to grab the opportunities such as the seminars to learn about topics that aren’t strictly within the purview of their primary topic. As a person who actively uses interdisciplinary practices, I have to say that my studies are actively improved by interaction with academics and scholars who are doing other things. I would like to say that I also think that the absolute lack of interplay between the historians in the Department of War Studies and History at King’s College London. We have so much in common, but there is some almost impenetrable barrier, as if neither side want to be associated with each other socially or professionally. I applaud the formation of a new military history group at KCL that will bring the departments together, but to be honest I think that strong interdepartmental support for social integration of historians across Kings will be a much more important factor in the academic integration than the creation of a new administrative entity. That said, Professor Sir Michael Howard surely deserves this honour.
The final thing I’d like to discuss today is an academic tempest that has erupted recently at home. David Gilmour, who is a guest lecturer in English Literature at Victoria College, University of Toronto, recently said in an interview that he only likes to teach what he loves. Specifically, he classified his interests as masculine, heterosexual men, and that he would never teach his students about women or Chinese authors, because he does not love them. Of course, there has been the predictable explosion. On one hand, some people have simply attacked him for not being democratic and even handed in his topic selection. On the other, Victoria College has backed him and argued that students understood what they were getting into because the course content matched the course description in the catalogue. There are a number of really good responses, including one from Dr Holger Syme of the University of Toronto. There is a lot of valid perspectives and discussion around this episode, but I take two things from it. First, that to be an academic or be part of Academia all you need to do is participate in the academic community. Second, that in many ways this is an extension of the philosophy that I discussed above. I find it hard to condemn Gilmour for speaking his mind, he loves what he loves. I’ve often spoken of my love for the 17th Century and the Restoration either before or after I mention how I am less interested in a list of topics that includes Nelson, the 19th century and Canadian Battalion and Brigade commanders from the Battle of Vimy Ridge. I would like to say that my lack of interest in those topics doesn’t mean that they are less worthy or that others should not study them. Frankly, there are enough academics already working on those topics so I might as well work on the topics that I love. I also think that it’s simultaneously an expression of that dichotomy of whether education is the dissemination of information to be known and regurgitated, or of the knowledge of a practice or discipline. In history, there is a necessary and delicate balance between teaching students what happened in the past, and how to be a historian that is only exacerbated by the fact that so much of historical analysis is dependant on a knowledge of the events of the past. I think that once we get beyond the political aspects of the debate and furor around Gilmour’s comments, there should be a real discussion about the role and nature of courses and the balance between information and practice.
Thank you for taking the time to listening to my ramblings, these are topics I feel very strongly about, and would love to hear your opinions. As always, you can find me on Twitter.