Friday, December 30, 2011

Wrapping up the Semester

December 2011

Just like any other academic institution, UNC has exams at the end of the semester (yeah, I know – what’s that all about?!). It has been very interesting observing the differences between how UNC does its exams compared to other places such as Manchester or my secondary school (high school for you Americans!). The first major difference (and this is major) is that at UNC the exams are done before the Christmas break rather than afterwards, which is what I am used to after years and years of exams after Christmas. This does have its advantages (I have a proper Christmas for the first time since I was like 15 – luuuurvely!), but also its drawbacks in that everyone at home is studying for their various finals, and you have less time to revise. Not that I’m really complaining due the fact I will actually get a Christmas!

I had a total of three exams over the 10 days of the exam period, and I was quite lucky that they were pretty spaced out. I did hear some horror stories of people having 4 exams in one day which they had to rearrange. I was totally bewildered by the exam process at UNC – to say it was completely different to Manchester is probably an understatement! Firstly, as I have said before, there is no such concept as anonymous marking. Our names are written on all the exam papers, which in turn are marked by the professor of that class. So if you managed to piss that professor off in the semester, the chances are your mark will be affected as they would know who you are. Awkward right… Second biggest difference with Manchester is the fact that in exams one can get up and seemingly leave the room during the exam and then come back. During all my exams people were getting up to go to the toilet and fill up their water bottles etc. I was just astounded at this. The potential for cheating is phenomenal – anyone could hide notes in the toilets! Furthermore, the potential for copying off others is huge too. Exams are generally conducted in the classrooms the classes are taken, and so everyone sits next to each other. Added to this is the fact that in many of my professors fell asleep or left the room during these exams, so im so surprised more people arnt caught cheating to be honest. But then again, if the professor has fest the room I suppose they cant see anyone to catch!

Streaking at UNC in the Undergrad Library

Another interesting aspect of the exam period was the (sort of) party atmosphere of finals too. It seemed that Americans don’t really party throughout the whole semester (generally speaking here), and then suddenly went mental! The evening before every study day (that’s a day without any exams in case you didn’t realise…) there was some sort of event going on on campus. The two main ‘traditional’ events were streaking by students from the library around campus, and a ‘rave’. I missed the streaking as I forgot about it, but apparently it was a sight to behold! I did attend the rave with Lexi however, which was interesting, with a couple of hundred students filling the “Pit” in the middle of campus. With a DJ and proper lights was quite fun, although a bit mental with everyone packing into a smaller space jumping around like absolute muppets (ok, yeah I did join in…). the whole 15mins of the rave was ended with some good old collegiate pride in a rousing chorus of the UNC fight song (don’t worry, if you’re not at UNC you probably won’t have heard of it). Originally this rave was held in the Davis library, but due to ‘elf and safety (see what I did there?!) it had to be relocated to outside. Nice to see us Brits aren’t the only ones dogged by crappy bureaucracy…

The Rave

The end of exams was a drunken affair (obviously!) with me, Fiona and Harriet, joined by Lexie, going for a drink after our last exam (at like 11am…) and were promptly judged to hell and back by the waitress for drinking before 12 and not having any food. Sod it, we needed a bit of British culture! The next two nights won’t be dwelt on too much. Probably because I don’t remember them that much. I will say however that Lexi tried to match me drink for drink, and failed. Miserably… 

It was sad to have to say some goodbyes however, with Jess and Lexie from the Pritchard household studying abroad next semester in Seville and Edinburgh respectively. If you two are reading this – it’s been a blast getting to know you and hopefully we will bump into each other again in the not too distant future! Thank you so much for taking me in and helping me settle in at UNC and coming out and partying with me! I have to say I think my best memory of you two is crammed into the back of Lexis car singing (well, I'm not sure if singing is the word but we’ll go with it!) at the top of your voices to this song.  It will always remind me of you two crazy lasses! Furthermore, many of the Aussies and Kiwis I’ve gotten to know over the semester had to leave too, as their time abroad was only for a semester. Again, it’s been a blast guys with the nights out we’ve had together, stay in touch and give us a shout whenever you’re next in London/Manchester (if I’m there that is!!) – Because you know I will be to you when I’m Down Under!

Gonna miss these two mad Pritch-ers
Saying goodbye (to those who are staying)
With the Down Under-ers in Topo

It’s weird to have realised that I have spent 4 months in the States now. But I am definitely am looking forward to getting home for a few weeks and see my mates and my family. And eat some fish and chips and have a proper pint in a proper pub!

These pictures from the last week in Pritch were just waaay too funny to not put in (sorry John!)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Academic Rant to Manchester

November 2011

As part of my Study Abroad Programme, I have to write a few things for Manchester, whilst at UNC. Below is the first assignment, written in a (slightly more formal!) diary style about the academic process at UNC. Seeing as I have no photos to do with academics, I have put a couple of photos in of the UNC campus in the Fall (not all are mine, some of the ones I wanted to put up didn't come out well unfortunately - thanks to Pip for some of them!)

"It’s been an interesting experience coming to a different university, in a different country and comparing aspects of the place to Manchester. In the USA, and in particular at the University of North Carolina, the academic system of both teaching and assesmnet is different than at Manchester, requiring a need to adapt to a new academic system, similar to the progression from secondary school to university in the UK. Whilst I naively thought I would cope with this change, thinking that surely academic assessment could not be THAT different between different academic institutions, I was proven to be rather wrong!

Wilson Library

Davis Library - clearly spend a lot of time in here...

South Building
The most shocking difference (to me at least) is the fact that a portion of the overall grade awarded is based on attendance and class participation. This really took be by surprise as coming from Manchester where the attitude is more of a “don’t turn up don’t do well; your choice”, and I have struggled with the concept of being graded on my participation within the class. Especially when everyone else wants to get a good participation grade, therefore leading to an almost Hermione Granger-esque situation where everyone is clamouring for attention from the Professor. In some classes this participation and attendance grade can count up to 15% of the overall grade, which means it’s quite important to attend every class, even if at times it seems a waste of time because the professor has left a TA do to the teaching for that day. 

The marking scheme in general is a lot different than Manchester’s one too. Where as in Manchester there may be two or three assignments which are generally longer and carry a higher grade weighting, at UNC there is a much greater amount of assignments set, but each carries a much smaller grade weighting. Whilst on the surface I thought this seemed a good idea, the smaller grade worth per assignment means less chance of skewing the overall grade if it doesn’t quite go to plan, it conversely has led to assignments being unequally weighted, with some of the ones I have received being having the same percentage of overall grade, yet one may take 4 hours to do and another only 30minutes. I have to admit that the greater number of smaller assignments does mean students are forced to keep on top of their work, and one cannot do what is typically done in Manchester with essays left to the last week and blitzed in a massive work session. Similarly, monthly quizzes (known as Mid-terms) also force students to make sure they are keeping on top of the subject, and these midterms can count to as much as 15% of the overall grade too, and so are treated in the same way as finals.

However, I have found that by having these regular assignments, the work tends to be a lot more prescriptive and doesn’t allow for as much free thought and development of ideas, simply because there isn’t the time to do outside reading and think about what one is writing to the same extent as in Manchester. In fact many of the assessments and quizzes I have been set have simply required regurgitation of facts and figures, rather than the development of an argument. Furthermore, I have heard horror stories of it being finals week and students having essays set to be in the same week, or mid-terms the day before the final, which to me seems paradoxical to the learning environment in that they aren’t given enough time to actually do the work to the best of their ability. Now whilst some would say that time management is key in these situations, there’s only so much time management one can have when you have a Mid-term on the Monday, a final on the Friday and an essay set the week before due the Thursday all for the same class!

Sorority Houses

In terms of the actual assessment of assignments and quizzes, the mark scheme is completely different to Manchester. UNC uses an interesting marking scheme that I’m not 100% sure how it works. I think it is a negative marking scheme, so marks are deducted from the actual score for every wrong answer, yet it is not uncommon for someone to gain more marks than allocated (for example 33/30) simply for going above what was required of the question. It is even stated within class syllabi that extra credits can be gained from completing x, y and z, making it possible to get a mark of above 100% in some classes. To me that is crazy!
To me my biggest gripe with the UNC system is its lack of feedback. I have come to realise that at Manchester we are very lucky with a formal laid out feedback system which guarantees fairly detailed feedback within a certain time frame. At UNC this is not the case, with me waiting upwards to 2 months for feedback on some assignments, which would have benefited me enormously in the subsequent assessments. Furthermore, a lot of feedback received is simply a mark, with no comments on what could be improved or how. Obviously, I don’t know if this is simply the professors I have had this semester, but comments from other international students has led me to believe this may not be the case.

Around Campus

It is interesting to hear the terminology used to describe these assignments too – referred to as ‘homework’ rather than “coursework” or “essays”, more commonly used in Manchester, which sounds like one is still in secondary school again. To me, being a UNC does at times feel like I am back in secondary school, which is hard to adjust to after two years of pretty much being left to what you want at Manchester. I feel that the difference in academic assessment, as well as other parts of the academic culture at UNC, has led me to become slightly infuriated with the system as a whole. Although I have to recognise that I am writing this at the end of a very long semester (16 weeks compared to Manchester’s 12), and as such may not be looking at the UNC system in the most favourable light, I still find that I have (intellectually) enjoyed myself more at Manchester, and I don’t think I could cope with studying at UNC for 4 years. Having said that also, I do enjoy the courses I am taking here, and it is great experience seeing a different way of teaching and assessment in another country, yet I feel that it isn’t the best method for my own style of learning."

The Chapel on the Hill

That All-American Holiday - Thanksgiving

November 2011

Now I have to admit I was INCREDABLY excited to experience my first ever thanksgiving (for you Americans who don’t know, no we don’t have thanksgiving in the UK). It is the archetypical American holiday held at the end of November, and with some time off from classes (a whole three days – so damn nice of those lovely administrators at UNC) it was the perfect opportunity to chill out, and relax for a few days. 

Pats family very kindly invited me to theirs for the Thanksgiving holiday, living in Raleigh, the state capital roughly 20minutes drive away from Chapel Hill. With classes finishing on the Tuesday, Pat and I headed to his that evening. That evening was spent being very American, watching the basketball on the TV (a Duke game though…) and eating pizza whilst chatting Pats family. Both Pat’s dad, Chuck, and brother, Charlie, are Duke graduates, where as Pat’s mum, Susan, is a Tar Heel like Pat. Within the extended family there are also a sprinkling of Tar Heels and Blue Devils, with a couple of Wake Forest graduates too. An interesting combination considering these three schools are supposed to hate each other! Needless to say Pat and Charlie seemed to enjoy arguing at great length the ins and outs of Duke-UNC basketball. Most if not all of it went way over my head, so I just agreed with what Pat said. Good little Tar Heel I am! That evening we also went into Downtown Raleigh for a drink or two, stopping off at a really cool place with over 100 beers on tap to choose from. My kind of heaven! Raleigh itself is a nice place – as seems to be the thing with many of the southern places I’ve been to so far, and rather stereotypically American with wide boulevards and statues of important looking people on horses etc etc. We didn’t stay out long, with both Pat and I being totally knackered. Getting back to the house and getting into bed was amazing. A nice double bed in my own room and no annoying roommate playing video games till late or keeping lights on. And it was a comfy bed. Absolute bliss! Needless to say I slept like an absolute baby, and felt a bit awkward getting up really late the next morning after everyone else. Ah well…

In the (very) nice Raleigh suburbs
Wednesday was a bit of a lazy day in many ways, which was completely fine with me – the lazy sod I am... Basically it involved helping around the house and running a few errands such as pick up the turkey (which was HUUUUGE!). I also met Pat’s grandparents, which again I was rather nervous about, and again I had no need to be as they were a sweet as anything and took a genuine interest in what the hell I was doing in the USA over thanksgiving. I really enjoyed chatting to them, even if there were a few issues with accents and understanding one another! In the evening there was more basketball on the TV so making a good attempt at being American I watched Duke (ugh) win the tournament they were in… Ah well, can’t have everything in life I guess! I also got too see a lot more of the Raleigh suburbs, which were just how I expected. Very stereotypically American with large houses set back from the roads with big drives and perfect lawns. Some of the houses were amazing, and the whole area in general was beautiful with the leaves changing colours etc. I did really strike me how dependent you have to be one a car in the suburbs though, because everything was at least a 5 minute drive away, and many of the roads didn’t have pavements at all on them. Just the general spaced out nature of America is an interesting to see, something I knew was the case but didn’t really realise the extent of it.

Thanksgiving Day itself was Thursday, and the day had a feel to it a bit like Christmas day at home, but without the presents. The challenge was to eat loads at dinner, which was in the afternoon, and so one had to limit what one ate during the day, in order to maximise food consumption then. Or so I was told (they have articles about how to gorge yourself at thanksgiving in the papers – only America!) The day was spent helping around the house with laying tables taking out trash (rubbish) and other bits and bobs. The extended family started to turn up in the afternoon, and so I was introduced to everyone; which I was quite nervous about but they all turned out to be really friendly and good fun to be around, so I don’t know why I was worried! The whole afternoon felt just like when my extended family gets together, with lots of banter flying back and forth and joking around. The biggest problem being a lot of it went waaaay over my head, but ah well! Im really gutted i completely forgot to take any photos of the festivities, but rest assured you British lot it is not too dissimilar to our take on Christmas (well, I say our take on Christmas because I was told that Thanksgiving and Christmas are quite different in the US, yet Thanksgiving was in many ways the same as how my family celebrates Christmas! Except for the last of presents...) The food itself was phenomenal. Turkey, wild rice, stuffing, pumpkin pie - to name a few of the dishes! One thing I really was quite sceptical about at first was sweet potato bread. Basically bread made with sweet potatoes in it (obviously…). However upon trying it (because you’ve got to try everything in these situations!) I was completely surprised at how amazing it was. Sooo I promptly gorged myself on it for the next few days! As is customary after a dinner of the large proportions it was (to me at least – and I ate waaaaay too much!), one has to relax on the couch and watch the many American Football games that were being played that day. This bit I really enjoyed, sneaking a cheeky doze in the armchair whilst the Green Bay Packers dominated the Detroit Lions. I hasten to add I wasn’t the only one! I also want to point out it was a short doze and I did watch a good amount of football (the fan ive become now!) with lots of questions being asked as usual about the rules. Bloody foreigners eh?!

Friday was a lazy day spent in the house. Well, I say lazy day in that we put up the Christmas decorations. So not that lazy at all really! I’m going to sound so uncouth here, but again the Americanisms astounded me. The stereotype of lots of Christmas decorations is certainly true, and that is with Susan assuring me that the family isn’t the worst in the neighbourhood! I really enjoyed helping put up the decorations however, even though I didn’t have a clue where stuff went! I really made me miss home too, because by the time I would get home all the decorations would be up. The last two years in Manchester my flat/house mates and I used to get a tree and some decorations to put up, but being in halls this year meant it wasn’t really worth it, and apparently not really allowed because it “wasn’t inclusive”. I’ve already had a rant about that one so I won’t repeat it here! We also went and saw a film, Hugo (a very good film by the way!), but disappointingly American cinemas are exactly the same as in the UK. Except with Americans everywhere (I guess that should have been obvious really…). That evening we (as in Pat, Charlie and I) went to downtown Raleigh for a few drinks, meeting up with a couple of Pat’s high school mates, and trawling a couple of bars. We (well, Pat and I seeing as the rest weren’t UNC students) were keen to watch the UNC game that night, so insisted on a sports bar. Again, a very American thing to do! UNC won (so they should), and I was well pleased because the waiter we had screwed up so I ended up paying for all of 2 of my 6 drinks. Result!!

UNC taking on Duke

Halftime band show

Saturday Pat and I headed back to Chapel Hill for the UNC-Duke football game, which I was keen to go and see. An interesting experience to say the least, with the paid tickets part of the stadium packed, yet the student ‘pit’’ very empty. Didn’t matter really as those students who were in the pit merely screamed and shouted twice as loud to make up for it! The game itself was good, with UNC dominating Duke (as they should) and many anti-duke chants being shouted out by the students. That was also the last home league football game of this season which I was rather gutted about because I loved going to watch on a Saturday afternoon and getting really caught up in the action and student chants. Talking about UNC football is a good excuse to upload a new video, which is played to the crowd as the 4th quarter is starting. The students usually greet the video by standing up and holding 4 fingers in the air (signifying the fourth quarter, if you had to ask!) and swaying back and forth. I love this video though - really captures some of the best bits about football (that being some awesome tackles - I'm not obsessed. Honest!)

I guess with the move towards basketball now I can still scream myself horse, just at different players with a whole load of new rules to learn! We stayed in Chapel Hill Saturday night, at Pats apartment, as I couldn’t get  back into my room until Sunday (a dumb rule by Housing in case we fall over and hurt ourselves or something anal like that…not bitter at all. Obviously.). That evening was spent in the Carolina Brewery with Andy and some others watching UNC basketball team play in the final of a tournament in Las Vegas. The game was a close one, but a bit of a shocker on UNCs behalf, who as ranked No.1 in the nation at the time should have won. Unfortunately they lost, which was a tad annoying, but never mind.  As Pat said, better to get the loss out of the way before the season proper starts!

Sunday we headed back to Raleigh, to meet back up with Pat’s dad and drive out into the country to a place called Salem, for an afternoon shooting. Now obviously I was very not bothered about this at all. I can take or leave an afternoon blatting off a load of rounds at targets. NOT! I was so excited to have the opportunity to shoot some different weapons I’ve never had a chance to before. I was really amused by the notion of just rocking up to someone’s land and cracking off some shots, and even more amused by the gun closet in the family home. A normal closet (although it was locked) and you open it up and weapons literally come tumbling out. I think there was something like a dozen shotguns, a couple of handguns and a high velocity rifle. Just a casual collection I guess! Pat and Charlie had their own individual shotguns (how cool is that!) of which we took Pat's with us, along with another shotgun, a Magnum revolver and the high velocity rifle and .22 rifle. And LOADS of ammunition. I don’t need to say I had a HUGE smile on my face as we left the house…
We rocked up to this amazing farm out in the middle of nowhere, with me getting more and more concerned that I wouldn’t understand the accent at all out there, and met Glen, a family friend. His farm was huge, with horses running around the fields and a gorgeous farm house set in the middle. It was sort of the place you would go to is there was a zombie invasion – set in the middle of know where (and with the gun collection Glen had you definitely would want to end up there!) Anyways, we set up the targets and had a jolly old time shooting bits of lead through paper at different distances with different weapons. I had never shot a handgun before and really enjoyed shooting that, along with the pump-action shotgun (bit of a Rambo moment going on there!). Glen also bought out an AR rifle to play with (just a casual assault rifle for home protection that. Obviously…), which for those of you who know is very similar to the SA80 and uses the 5.56 round as well, and so obviously I shot the best with that (which I would hope so what with the training I’ve had!).

I am not a redneck. Honestly!

The Magnum. Bruce Wayne stylee

AR rifle (similar to SA80)

High velocity rifle
It was a great afternoon shooting in the sun, and having a laugh at the same time. Although with the pictures I’ve been called everything under the sun by people back home (most commonly redneck…haters gonna hate!), and I’m very grateful to Glen and Chuck for letting me use their weapons and ammunition! Lastly, I would like to thank Pat and his family for taking me in and putting me up over Thanksgiving. I had a fantastic and culturally eye-opening few days and really REALLY enjoyed myself. So thank you Susan, Chuck, Pat and Charlie, and the extended family I met on Thanksgiving Day proper (too many to list you all!) for your incredibly kind hospitality!