Friday, October 29, 2010

The Gifts of Mind

Me: Guess what I did today!
Tom: Robbie Keane.

He is married, thank you very much. And not that attractive anyway. And yes, I did have to Wikipedia him to learn both of those things.

This happened last Saturday, and I’ll write about what I really did later. Along with an assortment of other things that have happened in the last month… I fail at blogging. For now, the prospect of going all the way back to my adventures in County Kerry is too daunting, so I’m going to ramble about life in Cork for a bit. Bear with me.

One other lingering thought about the field trip to the Burren: On the bus ride home, we filled out course evaluations. I tend to take a pretty lazy approach to course evaluations, although I recognize that this may not be helpful to the instructors or, by extension, to future students. Furthermore, I tend not to give highest ratings unless I really think they were deserved, and I am sparing with praise in the comments sections. (Actually, I routinely leave comment sections blank unless I really do have something to praise or I need to criticize something.) So, it’s a pretty big deal that I wrote a paragraph about how much I enjoyed that class and how much I think the field trips (we went on more than any other Early Start) added to my experience not just of the class but of being in Ireland in general. I also made a point of saying what a fantastic lecturer Tom├ís is, making this what I believe is only the second time in my college career that I have used the phrase “one of the best” on a course evaluation.

I wish I’d found reason to be as enthusiastic about my other classes. I’m enjoying them, I suppose, as much as classes are generally to be enjoyed. Just not on the same level.

The following are the topics for my history essay, verbatim:

1. Assess the historical significance of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852

2. Write an essay on Irish emigration in the nineteenth-century.

3. Assess the historical importance of the Easter Rising, 1916.

4. Why does Ireland have one of the most interesting culinary traditions in Europe? Please make reference to the idea of ‘tradition’ in your argument.

5. Write on essay on the development of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1938
Or
Discuss Ireland’s changing role in international affairs since independence.

That’s it. No other guidance other than 1500 words, typed, with citations. So, in other words… Write an essay on whatever the heck you want, with as broad or as narrow a focus as you please, that has something to do anything that’s covered in the lectures for this course. I feel like they could have saved themselves a lot of time and the world a lot of paper if they’d just told us to choose a relevant topic and have done with it.

On the one hand, I find the lack of directed work and, more importantly, the lack of graded assignments, here very stressful, and the emphasis on in-class essays for what grades we do get extremely intimidating. (I loathe in-class essays. Give me a multi-question exam (two or three essays does NOT count as multi-question, either), or let me write my essays at home.) On the other hand, the expectations seem low and the workload [at least from where I’m sitting] is negligible. I guess I don’t have any firsthand experience with the culture of large public universities in the States, and Oberlin is tough even by selective-private-school standards, so maybe I’m biased. I’m also used to working while in school and to taking discussion-heavy classes where keeping up with reading is necessary to avoid embarrassment if nothing else, which no doubt also contributes to my perception that I have a surprising amount of free time on my hands. I hear often that Irish students don’t value the opportunity to go to college very highly because it’s virtually free for them, but I know for a fact there are plenty of American students who don’t care about education either. And we all find ways to coast, even in places like Oberlin; that’s student culture, not Irish culture. What I’m surprised by is the way in which professors here seem to make it relatively easy to coast. Readings, at least in the classes I’m taking, seem to be a lot more optional than in most of my classes at Oberlin; you might do better if you crack a book once in a while, but good lecture notes will mostly get you through. That’s true sometimes at Oberlin (I would know), but usually not entirely. And having just one paper to write for almost every class, and rarely more than 1500 words? I write two or three or five times that much for nearly every class at Oberlin. It’s the price one pays to major in social sciences and/or humanities.

There is going to be a big student protest in Dublin next week. I am not well enough informed about Irish politics to understand the details, but it has something to do with a proposed increase in university registration fees and with the sense that the government should be doing more to stem the tide of college graduates emigrating in search of work (and thus depriving Ireland of their potential contributions to society). International students are being encouraged to go along, but I’m not sure this is an instance where curiosity about the experience is a good enough reason to do something. I’m not entirely comfortable lending my voice to something I can’t understand (and frankly, my student loans alone are more than it costs an Irish student to go to university, so even if it is a totally different system I find it a little hard to be sympathetic when they complain about fees) and I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea that I have any right to get involved in this—or in anything to do with Irish politics, for that matter. I’m a transient with a foreign passport. I don’t even have a work visa. I’m not even pursuing a degree here. This is not my battle, nor is it a human rights issue where saying that would just be a cop-out. This is, as far as I can tell, purely a political fight, and I think it should be a fight for the people who are actually affected by it. I’m not at all convinced that my opinion should matter even if I did understand exactly what’s at stake.

That was all a lot heavier than I think I was intending to get in this post, so I’ll end on a lighter note. Earlier this week, I had the surprise/pleasure of partaking in an experience I did not expect to be cross-cultural: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with props and audience participation. How funny is it that ordering a sandwich can be a giant culture clash and yet shouting and throwing toast in a movie theatre is something everyone can understand? Life is awesome sometimes.

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