An Eph Abroad: Part 1 – Quentin Cohan

Study Abroad. At some point the two words got slapped together and entered the lexicon, so one would assume the two words related to each other. They don’t. Perhaps not since the invention of the term “jumbo shrimp” has an oxymoron of such epic proportions gone unchallenged in the collective consciousness. Not until I left the sanctuary of the Purple Bubble did I come to understand the admissions-propaganda-jewel of a quote from Henry David Thoreau about Williams College that “It would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain.” The advantage, as I have come to understand it, is that the isolation a mountain environment provides allows students to focus on their schoolwork and school community, a safe distance away from the city’s distractions. Study abroad is a wonderful experience, but let’s not kid ourselves that “study” has much to do with it.

Granted, part of me loves the less rigorous academic workload. I mean, how could I not? I rarely have undesired assignments hanging over my head, and, when I do, they don’t hang there for very long. I, therefore, have a lot of free time to sightsee in Copenhagen, experience a different culture and travel – in short, do here what I lack the time for at Williams. This may be the only opportunity I have to explore Europe, and spending the semester in the library would be less than satisfying. The lightened schoolwork also allows for the sort of outside-the-classroom learning all the brochures talk about: learning a new place, learning to travel, learning to shop for groceries and cook – that is, learning to provide for oneself in a way that Williams very much doesn’t teach. Indeed, with all my free time, I’ve been able explore museums and other cultural touchstones, interact with people I never would have come across otherwise, and become much more independent – experiences I am deeply appreciative of. Of course, all this can be found in any number of readily available and easily accessible brochures.

What those brochures don’t say, however, and the reason the “study” half of study abroad is such an issue, is that I still have over 13 hours of class a week, and though I understand how whiny that sounds, you, the reader, Williams student/faculty/parent/alumni/therapy dog, need to understand that these are not Williams classes, which are taught by Williams professors, filled with Williams students, and are, usually, enjoyable. These are not that. The dominant mode of engagement here is small-group discussion, and then sharing. In my Scandinavian Crime Fiction class we break into small groups, discuss the novel (i.e., speculate as to the murderer’s identity) and then come back together so a representative of each group can share their group’s conversation. End of class. In my Creative Travel Writing class somebody presents the reading at the beginning of each class, and then we move onto writing activities, with no further discussion of the reading (of which there have been none the last two weeks – I really don’t know what we do in that class). I could go on.

As hour after hour of my theoretically precious education disappears, I find myself frustrated with the teachers for not teaching, and with the students for not making interesting comments in class (whether out of lack of interest or ability I can’t quite tell, though I have a guess). I then find myself angry about having to spend time in these classes when I could be seeing the Continent, and wistful that I could, perhaps for the better, be sitting in the Rogers Room discussing lyric poetry. We only get one formal education in life, and, if my classmates have taught me anything, it is that not getting a good one can cause some serious brain damage.

While I sound like an odd, and potentially off-putting, combination of nerd and elitist in making this argument, the fact of the matter is that in going abroad you give up an eighth to a quarter of your incredibly valuable Williams College education. That’s obvious. I understood that I wouldn’t be taking Williams classes in Copenhagen – no duh.

What isn’t obvious is that you might find yourself in a class with a student who has to ask whether or not Australia is an island. Or that your professor will have so little to discuss in class that, even though she said she has to end class ten minutes early because of personal reasons, she lets you out ten minutes before that. Or that your professor will leave her notes at home, and admit that in class. Or that your professor will question how his students read (exact words: “I don’t know how you guys read, but generally it’s a good idea to take notes or annotate”) because only two students had anything to contribute. When I chose to go abroad for the fall semester I knew I would miss the orange of Mountain Day, the purple of Homecoming, and the gray of Turkey Roast. I knew that the schooling would be not quite up to the caliber of Williams. I don’t want to cheapen the experience, as I do feel like I am learning in a lot of different ways, but, at this point, it might be nice to focus a little bit more on the first half of the term “Study Abroad” before my brain turns completely to jelly.

4 thoughts on “An Eph Abroad: Part 1 – Quentin Cohan

  1. “While I sound like an odd, and potentially off-putting, combination of nerd and elitist in making this argument, the fact of the matter is that in going abroad you give up an eighth to a quarter of your incredibly valuable Williams College education. That’s obvious. I understood that I wouldn’t be taking Williams classes in Copenhagen – no duh.”

    You really do come off as an off-putting elitist in this piece, and a misguided one at that. For starters, Williams is hardly the paradise you make it out to be. A good number of students at this college are less than gifted, and the professorial travesties you point to in your closing paragraph are not without parallel back home. Denmark’s higher education system, on the other hand, is quite capable of producing outstanding graduates. That being said, if you were really looking for a fulfilling academic experience, then you should have picked a more competitive program.

    Although it’s not unreasonable for you to point out that the program you’re in has lower academic standards than Williams, I hope your Part 2 will be less supercilious.

  2. To underclassmen reading this – if you’re afraid you’re gonna be bored to death abroad because you’re too smart for other education systems, ok, but then you can go study abroad in a country with a different language! DO IT!!!!!!!!!!! A quarter or an eighth of your Williams time IS SO WORTH 4-8 MONTHS ABROAD!!!!!

    I promise taking all your classes in a new language – i don’t care what, French, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, what have you – even if they’re not as rigorous as Williams, TRUST ME – will be MORE THAN enough of a challenge. yep yep…

  3. Every Williams student should be required to study abroad in North Adams. Step outside the Bubble. That’s what abroad means. It’s not an academic exercise, but a lesson in empathy that’s essential for becoming an educated person.

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