Humanities Students: it is not all about contact hours

A phrase I am often saddened to hear relating to the way a university education is judged is in its ‘value for money’. This phrase not only saddens me because it reminds me that we live in a country  which insists on putting a price tag on a university education – the value of which I believe is priceless – it also depresses me because it reminds me of the perverse attitude that we now have towards education in general.

Ever since the increase of university fees in the UK, I have read a number of pieces in the media, often by students themselves, concerning contact time for humanity degrees. One that I remember quite vividly was by a student at UCL studying English. She lamented the lack of contact hours in an English degree compared to science ones, suggesting that perhaps, when applying for a humanities degree, students should be asked whether they would like to reconsider their decision. These feelings and opinions troubled me profoundly.

Firstly, one’s degree course should stem from love for their subject and a desire to acquire a sophisticated knowledge of it, so their decision should be completely unrelated to contact hours. (I will, however, concede that this could influence one’s choice of institution, for example if a course at one university has more hours than another). Secondly, why are more contact hours seen as intrinsically better? From the viewpoint of an English student or, indeed, any humanity student, surely the question is one of quality not quantity? If you do a lot of preparation for a seminar, then you will surely get a lot more out of it than if you had three and did not prepare for them at all. That is simply obvious.

However, my main objection to said article, as well as this feeling in general, is summed up by her title ‘Are humanity students teaching themselves?’ Fortunately, we both came to the same conclusion – yes. Although for some reason she saw this as a bad thing.

When a student reaches university they must realise that this is a step up. Not only is it a step up in terms of difficulty, it is also a step up in terms of attitude. It is no longer adequate for a student to merely go through the motions, revise for exams and do essays the night before – if you intend to succeed you must live and breathe your subject.

What seems to dominate this argument about value for money and contact hours is an attitude that the university and our departments should be trying as hard as possible to help us achieve in our degrees. Unfortunately this is not the case – this is not their responsibility – it is ours.

If you are doing a degree then academics and lecturers are not there to spoon feed you answers. They are there to offer guidance and assistance, and they are not teachers. As a student you are making the transition from someone who is taught to someone who is self-taught. This is crucial; as how else would any student go on to do an MA or a PHD?

Now, many students may argue that because my point is true for humanities and science students I am being inconsistent. Well, science students have more contact time due to the way in which their degrees are set up. They need time to be in labs as well as having a lot of rigid content outlined in lecturers. This is not true for humanities students – an awful lot of what we need to learn we can learn from books and does not require copious amounts of contact time.

Is this not, in fact, a desirable situation? Why would you want more lectures and seminars where you are told what to do, when you could have plenty of time to think for yourself, reflect on problems, and read into the aspects that interest you?

It really upsets me that some humanity students do not care for the freedom that their courses offer them. It upsets me that, in a time when what we really need is creativity and ingenuity, people wish to be spoon facts that will serve as a means to an end with no interest in the content. As I have said, education is process – we need to think less of what we get from it and more about what it can draw from us.

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10 thoughts on “Humanities Students: it is not all about contact hours

  1. I am a humanities student and I think this article is a complete load of rubbish. You obviously like pissing your money away. I think that my course is way too expensive, just do the maths –

    Typical humanities student weekly contact time = 7 hours
    Typical number of weeks in an academic year = 30
    Average number of students in seminars/lectures = 35
    Cost of education = £9000

    Therefore, every hour lecture I have, a combined sum of £1500 has been paid by the students to be “guided/assisted” by their lecturer. How on earth do you think that is good value for money!?

    • Have you even read the article? Because to be perfectly honest I really do not think you have.

      My whole point is that you cannot just say that 1 hour of contact time in Maths is equivalent to one hour in English – I study Maths & Philosophy, if i prepare properly for one hour of a Maths seminar it takes a lot less hours than a Philosophy seminar – because to prepare properly for a Philosophy seminar or any humanities seminar takes a lot of hours of reading.

      Furthermore, Maths lecturers in many cases are just reading from a textbook where as Humanities lecturers actually have make a lot of decisions about which aspects of the material they wish to present. So in that sense in will take a lot more time for them to prepare a lecture than for their science counterpart.

      If you read what I said you will realise I am not interested in ‘Value for money’ if you are then you are doing your degree for the wrong reason and you probably won’t get anything out of it anyway – because you are thinking more about what you can get out of it rather than what it can draw out of you.

      If you want to be spoon fed facts to get a good grade ton get a good job then good for you! But this was never the purpose of a University education.

  2. I’m sorry, but here you seem to be implying that doing sciences requires no creativity or actual ability, merely an ability to regurgitate facts. I will point out to you, that after a rather tiring 18 hour lab session over two days, I still have to go home, and do my reading, my essays, and everything else. We still have to work outside of our contact hours. Also, if you truly believe you can simply learn science or maths from reading a text book, that a maths degree is really no more difficult than regurgitating some information, you are heavily misguided. Sciences require creativity, and innovation, and whats more, that innovation feeds humanities growth and prosperity.

    So yes, I do feel like students when picking a degree, and they pick english, should be offered a choice “Sure you wouldnt rather do something meaningful?”

    • Also, I feel I must point out, in terms of value for money, you are losing out. Science degrees often cost up to or more than £9,000 to run, due to lab costs, equipment costs, and higher cost of lecturers. So the average humanities student is in reality paying for their own degree, and then part of someone elses. This does represent bad value for money, as they are not paying for something they are receiving.

    • And finally, why should someone pick a degree, an investment into their future, with no financial considerations in mind? Do it purely for the love of the subject? I will tell you this, I dont love the subject(Science Based) which I do, but I sure love the degree…

      Its going to get me paid, nicely. Its helping to garuntee myself some measure of job security throughout my life. It means that I can walk out of university, with my new, shiny, overpriced piece of paper, having already found a good job, a career infact.

      University is a tool. A tool to achieve the next step in your life plan, whatever that is. Its an expensive tool. Therefor its also an investment, in your own future. You are effectively taking out a loan against your future self, and saying “This degree will benefit me more financially than the cost of this degree.” This type of investment, if made with “real” money, would be made painstakingly, to generate the best return possible, not done for the love of it. People seem to forget that a student loan is a real debt, a real investment, which should be treated as such.

    • Well I am sorry to disappoint but yes I do believe that they aren’t as creative. This is not to say that there is no creativity but I have done the first year of a Physics degree, and I currently do half a maths degree. So I am probably uniquely qualified to comment on the difference between arts and science degrees – having actually had experience of both.

      I am sure you do, but isn’t your underlying point that after all the time in the lab in is quite an effort to do your essays and your reading? Of course degrees should be an effort but what is an Humanities student really going to get out of having a science students contact time and then having to go home do all the reading and researching they had to do before? Not much. I am not misguided, I know that it isn’t the same, but the effort that lecturers in humanities put in to the material they prepare is not equivalent, I actually had lectures in physics that were literally out of a text book – okay you can say they were a bad lecturer – whatever, it happened. I really do not see how you are actually engaging with what I have said – if you believe having more contact hours in a humanities degree would be better then tell me why it would be so?

      Science at its highest level is of course innovative but having started a degree i can tell you categorically there is more creative freedom in the arts – surely that is just obvious, I wouldn’t even be sure why you would argue with that, isn’t that to some extent one of the qualities of science? boundaries? ‘Innovation feeds humanities growth and prosperity’. Really? Is that what you think? I mean innovation flows from all fields, you can’t make some asymmetric distinction.

      ‘More Meaningful’? Really? In what sense ‘More Meaningful’? Science and Humanities are both meaningful they just have different focuses – the point really is do you really want what your interested in spending three years of your life doing to be dependent on job prospects and how easy it will be to get a good grade rather than what you are actually interested in. Furthermore if you are an English student and you engaged properly with your reading and used what time you have wisely you would get more out of it than if you had 18 hours of contact time anyway.

  3. The reason why humanities students are angry is simply because the fact is their degree does not cost the university as much as others so based on that, they should have to pay less. Simple.

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