Saturday, June 22, 2013

Some Things I Would Like to Bring Home: Esprit de Corps among Majors

Beer from Pécs- egészségedre!

Among many misconceptions I have harbored about Hungarians and their language, dear reader, one is this: the meaning of the Hungarian equivalent of “cheers.”  I have been fortunate enough to have toasted perhaps hundreds of times in Hungarian, and am finally able to pronounce the cheers equivalent: “egészségedre.”  It means “to your health,” since the Hungarian word for whole, egész, forms part of the word for health, egészség.  More literally this translates as wholeness, and English speakers will recognize the similarity to our synonym for health: wholesomeness.  For years, though, I understood this word to mean “unity,” which is actually the similar-sounding word egység.  So, while my Hungarian friends were toasting to my health, I was toasting to our unity.  Silly me.

At this point, you might be asking yourself what this has to do with esprit de corps among university students.  Let me explain.  While I may have been mistaken about the importance of unity while toasting, I think I am right that unity, solidarity, and esprit de corps characterize my students at Pécs who are English majors.  In particular, English majors who start in the same year, and make up a cohort together, seem to me to be quite close to one another, and quite cooperative with one another.  I wish my history majors back home had this kind of esprit de corps.  I think it helps to make one’s university experience even better. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I know lots of UW Oshkosh History majors who are friends, who’ve gotten to know one another in classes, who appreciate their mutual interest in history and their comparable career paths.  It seems, though, that it is more challenging for history majors at UWO to get to know one another well.  Likewise, it was challenging for me to get to know other history majors at UC Berkeley until my last year or so of university. 

The differences in esprit de corps between Pécs and Oshkosh, I think, largely boil down to a major pedagogical difference between the university systems.  Hungarian students generally have to choose a major before even starting at university, and almost all of one’s classes will be in that subject, especially in the first year.  American students can typically wait to choose a major until the second year of university, and the first two years of university are mostly filled with breadth requirements, not with courses in one’s major. 

I like the American insistence on breadth, and its flexibility in letting students take longer to choose a major.  If there are deficiencies in this system, though, one is that American majors take longer to form the esprit de corps that Hungarian students enjoy from the first semester.  In my own experience at UCB and in many of my students’ experiences at UWO, one is just starting to get to know one’s fellow majors, and to be able to rejoice or bemoan shared experiences right when one is graduating, and must leave the community of the university.  It seems to me that this is a missed opportunity for American students, especially at larger universities like mine. 

By contrast, Pécs students are thrown together with their fellow majors from the beginning, and at first take classes in lockstep with one another.  They are one big learning community, something we are trying to build more at UWO with our new general education program.  Where our new gen ed program will keep groups of students together in two different classes in the first semester, though, the Pécs English major keeps groups of students together in several classes through the first year, and then in many thereafter as well.  It is a much more intense learning community. 

Fellow Majors may not need the esprit de corps of a marching band, but some is good.
This might make it difficult to meet students in other majors at Pécs, and it also clearly leads to some rivalry between majors.  In some cases, I think, students regret their choice of major as a high school applicant but soldier on because of the difficulty and extra time involved in changing majors.  On the other hand, students learn to rely on one another and learn from one another quite a bit.  On a couple of occasions this learning togetherness went too far, as in a case or two of plagiarism.  In many cases, moreover, English majors divvy up which lecture courses to attend and then rely on one another’s notes for the lecture course they don’t attend.  These are not good practices, I think.  This esprit de corps, though, is largely a very good thing.  I think it helps students learn better, together.  It also builds a strong community that sticks together for four or five years, or as long as majors stay in the program. 

At UWO, both in the university general education requirements and in the history major, we are trying to find ways to build little learning communities earlier.  All of our new ideas, from new gen ed requirements to a new history methods course for history majors help.  They will not shape the lives of first and second year students as powerfully as the Pécs English major, though.  Is there a way to combine what I like about both systems?

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