We have all heard the jokes many times before. It’s about arts students who have too much time on their hands and get off lightly with class hours, giving them endless amounts of time to eat, drink, and be merry. If I had a penny for every time someone said to me, “You study English? Lucky, you barely have any contact hours. Do you get to relax all day?” or some variant of the above, I would be rich in pennies. The response is usually bearing your teeth in a fixed grin and agreeing, just to keep the peace, while screaming internally.
As humorous as it may seem during light-hearted conversations, it remains an undeniable fact that students studying science degrees have far more contact hours than their arts counterparts, particularly during the penultimate and final honours years of the degree programme. In my first year, I remember being astounded at the lack of class time I had, especially since I was used to the full working days of secondary school. I took English literature and French, and even with the many languages classes that came with my third module, beginner’s level German, I was thrilled that my timetable was so light. It meant that I could explore the town and go out and enjoy myself during the day rather than being stuck with my head in a book.
Yet as the academic year wore on, the novelty wore off. My roommate studied chemistry and had far more contact hours than me. The work she was given to do between classes seemed more substantial, too. Whereas she was almost constantly in class, I felt like I spent much more time in the room we shared than in a lecture or tutorial. In second year, things remained pretty much the same. I became envious of students I knew who studied physics or maths, feeling like they got much more out of their degree than I did. I thought I couldn’t possible have fewer contact hours. I got to honours and found that I was wrong. I was then left to helplessly cling to the few hours of class time I have per week.
The current system of contact hours may be well entrenched, but that is not to say it works for everyone. When talking to other arts students, the broad consensus is that we are not given as much structure as science students. True, we are given several thousand-word essays to write and thousand-page texts to read, but the majority of the content seems like it could be (and often is), self-taught. Seminars and tutorials seem like an add-on, and at a push, it would almost be possible to self-teach entire modules. We should be paying to be taught, but instead we are paying to teach ourselves in what is made to seem like our own free time.
Office hours with tutors are irreplaceable and, speaking as someone who learns particularly well on a one-to-one basis, I find these far more useful than any form of group teaching. Yet I am obviously not the only one who finds these popular, as there is often a long queue when I arrive outside a tutor’s office. This limits the amount of time individual students can spend with tutors. If there were more hours in the day, then no doubt the tutor could offer more office hours, but until then, the snatched ten minutes with a tutor as they try simultaneously to talk to you and eat their Prêt sandwich will have to do.
With increased contact hours for arts subjects, course content could be so much better explored. Just a few extra scheduled class hours per week, perhaps spent analysing articles or book passages and assisting with structuring essays, could make all the difference.
I rarely leave a class feeling like I have done an amount of work substantial enough to justify the extortionate fees the majority of students are paying. Being a university student, I am not expecting to be spoon-fed knowledge, and I agree that useful life skills are obtained through managing work in a self-sufficient manner.
Arguably, the lack of contact hours means that arts students can structure their own learning. With deadlines given several weeks in advance, they can research topics, make plans, scrap plans, re-draft plans, and then start the arduous task of writing the actual essay when they want. Whether the library, a coffee shop, or one’s own bedroom is the chosen essay-writing venue, students’ learning is largely in their own hands.
Yet I would feel much happier if we arts students were given more fixed contact hours. Every degree is valuable, and we should all graduate feeling like we have gotten our money’s worth with help and instruction towards our degree.