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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