Thursday, May 9, 2013

So, What Do Hungarian Students Think of Americans, in general?

     I've just come from my last class meeting at the University of Pécs, dear reader.  No, please, I don't need your handkerchief to dry my tears just yet.  I'm not leaving Hungary for a while.  In fact, I must give my final exam in one course three or four times yet, in an interesting contrast with American-style final exams.  (If students fail the first or second time, they get another chance!)  We had a fun final session, including a mock final exam, and a chance to discuss students' final questions for me.  Last week, I asked them to write down a question, anonymously, about any aspect of the United States, past or present, that interested them.  The results were quite interesting.
     Many students were curious what I, or other Americans, think about Hungary, its educational system, its politics, its standard of living, or its general atmosphere.  I mostly referred to students to this blog, though we talked a bit about the interesting distinctions between university systems, how they are set up in the U.S.A., how much they cost (which students found shockingly expensive), and how few classes Americans usually take at once (which students seemed to like the idea of.)  Of course, I was also curious what these young Hungarians think about the U.S.A., and many of their thoughts came out in their questions. 
     There were some questions about the past of the U.S.A. still, and they showed a great deal of intellectual curiosity, and a particular preoccupation with the post-World War II world.  "What do we call history?" was one big question.  Questions about favorite presidents and the development of education were also juicy ones.  But the Cold War dominated the list.  "Why did the Americans let the Russians occupy states after World War II?"  "Was the Communist threat the only reason for the Vietnam War?"  "Who murdered John F. Kennedy?  Was it the FBI or the CIA?"  Another question asked what the role of the CIA and FBI has been over the years.  There was lots of interest in these, especially the CIA.
     Most questions, though, were about the U.S.A. in the present.  These questions focused on Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants and immigration policy, religion in America, and many on Barack Obama.  Do I like him? Do Americans accept him, as an African-American President?  What do Americans think of his role struggling with recession?  In general, there was great interest in knowing what the general stories of Native Americans and African Americans are now.  A series of questions focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. foreign policy in general, and the significance of Osama Bin Laden or, more recently, the terrorist attack in Boston.  In another course, a student was quite curious about the situation of Muslims in the U.S.A. Another big question was: "Does the 'American Dream' still exist?"
     One particularly intriguing question, I thought, was this: "Why do so many stereotypes exist against the U.S.A.?"  I told my class that I had no idea why so many stereotypes existed against the U.S.A., and maybe they could tell me why, or at least what the stereotypes were.  In fact, another question had betrayed one stereotype: it asked "Why do Americans think they are the 'ruler of the world?'"  I asked what other
Totally inaccurate!  I have a black cowboy hat!
stereotypes were, and tensed myself for the answers I thought might come.  And, with a mixture of apology, embarrassment, and laughter, they came: "Stupid," "Fat," "Immoral," "Gun-toting," and "Happy."  In short, the rather glib picture of a stereotypical American which we painted was of an overweight and violent gun-slinger, who manages somehow to engage in sexual escapades in his spare time, and is so lacking in the area of intelligence, that he cannot help but be happy, not really knowing any better. 
     I like to think we exorcised that image just by naming it.  Or perhaps students were so impressed by my erudition, pacific nature, and dashing good looks, that the stereotype was silently and yet decisively laid to rest. 
     At any rate, it was rather a fun conversation.  Students acknowledged how many of these stereotypes came from Hollywood, and yet there were other sources for these stereotypes as well.  In general, I think students of course grasp the complexity of the United States.  They seem to appreciate most of the history I chose to focus on, but were particularly interested in African-American and Native American experience, as well as post-World War II foreign policy, especially including the Central Intelligence Agency.  Many seem interested in studying or working for a bit in the U.S.A., but are a bit cautious, wondering what Americans' reactions would be to Hungarians as immigrants or visiting students.  I think they are quite welcome.  They are a fun bunch, with lots of interesting ideas and questions, and it has been quite insightful to try to get in their heads this semester, to try to know what in American history they care about, or wonder about.


  1. Are finals oral or written - I sense the later, but just checking :-)? Do students in Hungary pay an "Exam fee"? Because they do in Serbia and every time they go for the exam, they have to pay again. I am afraid I am not wrong when I say that professors abuse this fact. Many actually pride themselves on the number of students that failed their course. The more fail, the better professor they hold themselves, the more respect from peers. Can you imagine this in the US? Seriously, I'd like to know what would happen to you as a professor in the US, if you had 50% (at least) of your class fail your courses?

  2. These are good questions, Lidia! I actually don't know about the exam fee. I know that if you sign up for an exam and then don't show up you have to pay a fee. I did not get the impression you had to pay a fee for your first exam, but it did not occur to me to ask.
    As a general observation, it seems to me that students who attended lecture regularly pass comfortably, while students who did not sometimes pass and sometimes fail. So far the rate in my class is not 50% failing. (Maybe I'm easy, but I think the exams show that students learned something.) In my mind, though, the greater rate of failure so far seems linked to the fact that so many students do not attend. It seems really challenging to me to learn material without attending class. Generally, in my history classes in the USA also, it is people who do not attend who fail quizzes and exams. So far, that seems to be true here. The only difference is that there are more people here who do not attend. Amazingly, to my eyes, some of these non-attendees seem to do okay on the exam.

    1. In the US on both UG and G level most of courses had attendance record part of the grade. Thought it was a norm in the US? I attended different institutions in different states for UG and G levels. When discussing failing rates in Serbia one US professor told he would be called to the Dean's office and have some explaining to do, if so many students continuously failed his courses.

    2. Yes, Lidia, you are right on both accounts. Attendance is usually part of the grade, especially for graduate and upper division undergraduate courses, and sometimes for lower division lecture courses. You are also right a professor who failed lots of students would be under a lot of pressure from administration. I think part of this is the fact that American students are more often paying a lot of money for each semester, and this makes it less acceptable to the student (or the student's parents) to fail. Also, I think the fact that American students do lots of things for grades, and not usually one big final exam, makes it easier to pass. In some cases (and I don't like this) institutions tend to treat students as paying customers and for that reason discourage flunking the customer. But generally that is not the case.

  3. Thanks Gabe for clarifying. For a moment I thought I went to some very special higher ed institutions :-). Call it subjectivism (or not) for the US side, but I still feel that any assignment where you have to work and apply knowledge from class to is, will make that information stick with you for for much longer and have larger impact on your education, than just memorizing bunch of info for a test. It is learning by doing or experiencing where people remember more . It is true in all levels of education, even adult. You did mention in the other blog that those who pay in Hungary seem to pay much higher fee than those in WI for the state school. Again, without experience in HU, and using the Serbia model, the professors at state schools don't care about this and treat everybody the same (flunk those who pay or don't doesn't make a difference to them). Unfortunately the private institutions in Serbia are the opposite, from what I hear.
    Like your last sentence above.
    You will also though agree that if 50% of student failed in a class (continuously too), something just isn't right here. I doubt it is possible it is only the students' fault - you know what I mean :-)

  4. Well, in my case, it turns out, a significant number of students failed. Almost all of them did not come to class, though, or almost never did, or did not turn in an essay at all. I chalk that up to having too many classes to deal with and/or not taking classes seriously enough.

    On the cost, I was quoting about the most expensive it could get at Pecs. For an English major, I believe I heard it was about $1,000 per semester in tuition for an unfunded student, which is still significantly cheaper even than UW Oshkosh.