Saturday, 25 September 2010

He was so learned that he could name a horse in nine languages; so ignorant that he bought a cow to ride on.

So... Wow. It's been almost a month since I wrote my last post. Please accept my apologies, but the explanation can be easily found within this post – because I am going to be writing about UNC, the classes, and the avalanche of a workload.

But first, a little update on the homesickness situation. Moving abroad to somewhere as beautiful, interesting and friendly as Chapel Hill is comparable to an ill-advised rebound. You know, logically, that you have upgraded. Your days together are filled with sunshine, everything is new and exciting, and you know that this is an experience you will never forget. But it is also hard to forget your ex, who helped you become the person you are today. You try to focus on the bad stuff: that time it snowed constantly and you had to wait outside for 45 minutes because the stupid 22 bus apparently had more pressing things to do than show up. The fact that you never know where you stand, like when your timetables are held back until the first day of term. (What am I supposed to do, be up and ready at 8.30am just in case there's a seminar at 9?) Anything to do with Prince of Wales road. Despite all this, your rebound isn't your ex, and Chapel Hill isn't Norwich. There are an infinite number of things that, objectively speaking, make UNC a better university than UEA. But UEA had me first, and it has my heart. With all that said, Chapel Hill is shaping up to be a good second home. We don't have a history together, sure, but I think we have a good chance at a future.

I have many things that I want to write about – and if there's anything you'd like to hear about too, I'm open to suggestions! – but for now... Academia. Wait, don't stop reading! There's weird stuff ahead. I promise.

Firstly, I suppose I should give some background to the American college system in comparison to England's. (Or to cover myself, I should point out that there are probably many discrepancies from university-to-university in both countries, so really my comparison is just between UEA and UNC.) At UEA, we are told how many modules we are allowed to take per semester, and our choices are usually limited to subjects relevant to our degrees. In America, the system is much wider. You don't go in necessarily knowing what you want to specialise (Major) in, and have until the end of your second year to decide. (NB: American degrees are typically 4 years in duration as opposed to the average 3 years in England.) I have to say, I think this is a great system; you get a wider education for longer and it means there's less hassle if you don't end up liking your subject as much as you thought. You can also choose how many credits to take per semester, so you are more in control of how you structure your degree. At the beginning of each semester, you can sign up for many classes and attend the first ones, then drop whatever doesn't suit you. How much do I wish we had this at home? It would definitely have saved me from Shakespeare.

The minimum amount of classes I'm required to take per semester is 4, but I tried out 5. The first of these was the History of Southern Music, which was situated in a place called the Love House & Hutchins Forum, right on the edge of campus. It really was like a little house, with a table and chairs on the porch, and books stacked up around the room. The professor, William Ferris, is originally from Mississippi; I had trouble concentrating because I was entranced for awhile by his accent. Am I the only foreigner who loves Southern accents? Probably. At the end of the class, he got out his guitar and sang, amongst other things, 'Baby Please Don't Go' and something by Elvis Presley. This was actually the class that I decided to drop. I didn't feel that it was designed for someone without prior knowledge, and I knew I would spend the entire semester struggling. I was sad, of course, as I love Southern Music.

The next class that I had was Intermediate Fiction Writing, for which I had to submit prior work in order to get into. (There's nothing more fun than trying to write a short story whilst moving house.) According to my personal journal, it was in this class that I laughed and smiled more than I had done since arriving. The instructor, Randall Kenan, was just nuts. We didn't have to do much in the way of writing. We wrote a short bio and listed our favourite movies, books, authors and food. Then, one by one, we had to go up to the blackboard, hand our bio to him, and draw a picture of a horse whilst he questioned us on something in our bio. I'm not kidding. When someone asked why we were drawing horses, he would respond, "You're such an inquisitive bunch. Because I say so." At the end of the class, he told us it was a tradition started by Jessie Rehder, and that each class he had made to do it had been a good class.

For this class, we are all to write three short stories. We went in reverse alphabetical order, so I only just handed in my own story. We have to both give a hard copy to Mr Kenan, and post a copy online for the entire class to read and critique. Then we talk about it in the next class. Needless to say, I occasionally think about what's coming for me Tuesday and feel ill. I've had some glorious fantasies about just not going, and not reading the comments online. But this, unfortunately, is a big part of being a writer: acknowledging the effect it has on your readers, whether good or bad. I am thoroughly enjoying this class: it might be my favourite class I have ever taken in my entire educational career. Critiquing other people's works has been almost as beneficial as the writing practice itself. The other project we have is to write several papers on a published author, and present our work to the class.

My two literature modules are the American Novel, and Nineteenth Century British Literature. Both have reading lists which are ready to kill me, but they are full of books I either love already or have always wanted to read. I make it sound like I am actually keeping up with the reading. I'm really not. SparkNotes is as much my best friend now as it has been since GCSE. In fact, I'm pretty sure if I ever went as far as a PhD – hell, if I became a lecturer myself – I would still check out SparkNotes and Wikipedia first. The main form of assessment for these classes is exams. This of course, has lead to a number of freak outs on my part, but midterms are actually nothing like our exams at home. You're sometimes given the questions beforehand and can use the book for clarification; the main stipulation is sticking to the time limit (an hour or an hour and a half usually). More than anything, the midterms encourage you to keep up with your reading (or in my case, be diligent when it comes to SparkNotes). They're a less pressurised form of testing than our short essays at home. Finals, on the other hand, may be another matter entirely, but I'll let you know come December.

My last class has caused me a decent amount of stress. Native American Activism, whilst coming under American Studies, is also a history and politics module. How much do I know about history and politics? I know to ask Tash about it. Which, actually, is what I've spent a lot of time doing. Anyway, there is a ton of reading for this class, as well as short assignments every week on top of the bigger assessments, such as short essays, presentations and a research project. I spent the first month convinced I was doomed to failure. But what I lack in general knowledge, I more than make up for in sheer stubbornness. And my fail-safe tactic of turning up, a little hysterical, to the teacher's office. It turns out I'm doing okay anyway, as the two assignments I got back were graded at 90 and 95, and my tutor, Dr. Cobb, thinks my presentation and contributions in class were promising. Plus, this is such an interesting experience that I could never get at home. The way we learn about American Indians (if, indeed, we ever learn about them at all) is so backward, and tied in with this idea that their issues – and they themselves – belong in the past. In some ways the class is intimidating for me: a good portion of the class has at least some Native heritage, and there is a large population in North Carolina anyway. It's been a purely academic interest to me at home, but now it is reshaping itself into something more real.

It's really true that in order to get a better understanding of the country you're studying, you have to go and live there. I've learned so much in the space of 5.5 weeks here that I could never have learnt out of books at home. Like, for instance, about food – which incidentally will most likely be my next blog topic.

And now, entirely irrelevantly, I will leave you a song that regularly erupts in my head when I hear someone particularly Southern:

Y'all need to hide ya kids, hide ya wife...

Take note.