Fisher out of water: Why easier classes are not always better

Image split diagonally shows a student studying in both CMC and abroad in Amsterdam
(Emma Tao • The Student Life)

I did not think I would appreciate Claremont McKenna College’s rigorous academic curriculum so early on during my semester abroad, but I actually miss many aspects of it, including writing papers for government professor John Pitney’s Politics of Journalism course.  

Prior to enrolling at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, I assumed my professors would structure their courses similar to my previous ones in Claremont. 

Oh boy, I was dead wrong.

First, there is no “busy work” in two of my courses, which have a combined three assignments — one exam in each and an additional group project. 

The lack of assignments might sound like a dream compared to CMC’s curriculum. There is certainly less work, less stress and fewer all-nighters cramming for exams. But such a small workload makes it more difficult to engage with and learn the material. 

A professor at CMC is likely to assign homework, which helps students master the material and receive constructive feedback. No such structure at VU makes it easier to procrastinate, a terrible reality for someone like me, who already considers himself a procrastinator. It also creates a lot more uncertainty surrounding what should be tested in an exam. 

VU’s lectures are massive, hoarding hundreds of undergraduates into crowded auditorium rows. Not only does the excess of space make it more difficult to stay engaged, but it also creates a disconnect between students and the speaker.

At CMC, I feel more connected to the professor, who often sits at the same table as us. But this poses a disadvantage, too –– I can’t glance at my phone notifications in class.  

I vividly felt the impact of CMC’s intimate learning environment when government professor Jennifer Taw delivered a powerful talk on atrocities taking place in Afghanistan. Her wide eyes and intentionally slow speaking pace captivated me –– it put me in a “flow state.” Such an experience seems almost impossible in a large learning environment, where students text, check Facebook or find any other distraction to avoid paying attention for the nearly two-hour-long session. 

One of the most difficult adjustments at VU has been limited access to professors outside of the classroom. To my knowledge, office hours do not exist, and students may feel as if they are infringing upon a professor’s time when asking to meet.

CMC is famous for its professor accessibility, and some of my most memorable moments have taken place inside their offices. I chatted with professor Taw for nearly an hour about how I can make the world a better place. I expressed my concerns about not being able to improve the world if I ultimately end up working in sports. She described some really impactful international sports organizations such as Little League Baseball, which helped alleviate my concerns.   

Please don’t get me wrong — Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is a great institution that employs highly qualified, intelligent faculty. Two weeks ago, one of my professors teaching the course New Media Challenges discussed the politics of many countries in great detail, including the U.S. and less popular European nations.

He provided a brilliant synopsis of why President Donald Trump won the election, using niche political jargon such as “blue wall,” which surprised me because of his Dutch nationality. However, his explanation left out Russian interference, so some Dutch students may not know the messiness behind Trump’s victory. You owe a thank you to the professor, Mr. President. 

Throughout his talk, I had a large grin on my face and was sitting on the edge of my seat. But in my day-to-day academic environment, I do not feel nearly as engaged. The classes are too large and not individualized enough for my preference –– there is a reason I chose not to make my home college a massive public school. At least, I’m grateful that studying abroad has affirmed that choice.

Could there be another silver lining? Perhaps so. Exposure to this system might influence me to become more self-reliant in pursuing an education. This seems like a positive change that I can happily embrace, especially as I prepare to graduate college, a transition which certainly requires independence. In three months, I’ll have a more developed answer for you. 

Gabe Fisher CM ’21 is TSL’s study abroad columnist. He is a government and psychology major who enjoys golfing and spending time with his twin brother Max when he isn’t studying or writing for TSL.

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