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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Why I Won't Take Five Courses Again

When I started this blog my intention was to talk about Big Things. This is why I remember originally having the tag-line “our views” rather than “my views”. By using the former phrasing, I was evoking a collective idea of experience and/or relevance. As you may have noticed, this blog spends a lot of time talking about pretty narrow experiences, if not strictly me. However, as time has gone on, this blog has started to become big in a different way: I’m not sure what exactly I’ve talked about anymore. This is, admittedly, complicated by the large number of draft posts that I have (and eventually intend to finish). So, if this point about Big Things is giving you a sense of déjà vu, that’s probably why. Or, maybe, you’ve read The History Manifesto, which sort of brings me to the point: Why I Won’t Take Five Courses Again.

When I made this blog, I was in year thirteen and approaching my first year of university. By the time I actually started writing posts on a semi-regular basis, I was at university… in New Zealand. The point here is that unlike most students in NZ, what I’m doing takes four years, rather than three. Such is conjoint life. In fact, a conjoint degree generally has slightly higher entry requirements (and, in some cases, requires permission, which you might not get, e.g. Engineering and Music) because of this. That’s not because the courses you take in a conjoint programme are tougher. No, that would require far too much organisation on the university’s part. A conjoint degree takes four years when it's between degrees that are two three year programmes (e.g. BA/BEng (Hons) is five years, these are rules of thumb anyway) because you have to take nine courses a year, rather than eight.

Uni being uni, you obviously don’t have to take nine courses. You could, for instance, just do eight and take four and a half years. This is a different kind of challenge (i.e. endurance): most of my friends are pretty glad to be done (and, in truth, I’ve been feeling a bit burnt-out lately) and a friend of mine whose programme (BCom/LLb) takes five years can’t wait to be king done. This is not the sort of challenge that higher rank-scores are likely to filter. You can’t, for instance, win long-jump and then immediately win the 100m relay. You may, however, get away with competing in both immediately. Doing well consistently, in other words, is probably more taxing, and the longer you go, the closer you are to running on fumes. You may even find yourself mixing metaphors at midnight. What raising the rank score might do, however, is filter out people who can’t nearly win long-jump.

The idea that Auckland University has is that taking five courses is harder. I can’t speak with any certainty, but I think this explains the higher rank score: cynicism about fees and impersonality aside, Auckland doesn’t set people up to fail. It’s harder because you’ve got to do more work in the same amount of time. It’s harder because you’re meant to have 50 hours, not 40, of uni stuff in a week (the old 10 hours a course standard). It’s harder, then, because you are asked to perform well at something, and then you’re asked to do it again in something else. And generally, nine courses a year is not done via summer school (which, despite my experiences at the start of this year, probably isn’t universally chill; although I also have no basis for the “generally” statement). Whether or not smarter people are better suited to coping with this environment is one question. Whether or not people who are able to get high rank scores are able to is another. The former question, well, I’m not sure how you’d answer it but mechanically the latter is simple: does performance across a school year translate well to university? As far as I know, yes (but by how much?).

So, that’s the context. And the reality is, that I stand by claims I’ve made about taking five courses to the effect that it’s not too bad. Firstly, I’m not convinced that anyone actually does spend that amount of time. I don’t think I do. Some guesstimates for this semester (which I have found relentlessly busy) add up to 16.5 hours of timetable (lectures and tutorials), and about 12 hours of reading with a very conservative minutes a page estimate (i.e. almost certainly at least a minute too high). Sure, I haven’t considered assessment time and with enough pages, I would hit ten hours for one course, but I don’t think I’m atypical… I think most students don’t diligently review their notes (I would like to, sure) and I think most students don’t do all the reading they’re meant to. Secondly, I think that for people who are able to work with four courses, then they’re able to cope (however they do it) with five, just three/four hours less leisure and/or work time (assuming you do no readings). Yet, here I am saying I won’t take five papers again?

Well, on one level, the answer is actually really simple. I won’t take five papers, because I don’t need to. That is, I took eleven this year and (assuming I pass the five from this semester, which looks likely… but, yeah…) as a result I only need another seven. That’s three and four in each of next year’s semesters (in whatever order). Okay, well, I could take five in semester one and two in semester two, which brings me to the next point. Only take five papers when at least one of them is stage one. That’s actually the extent of what I have to say here. After all, when we’re considering my earlier experience with five course semesters, I was taking either mostly stage one papers, or two. That hasn’t been the case this year. Two Stage II’s and Three Stage III’s last semester was pretty bad, but by the end of the semester, I was sort of recovered and much of the problem related to how I allocated my time re: coursework. I wouldn’t recommend it and would advise against it, but it’s not a capital P Problem. This semester, though, has been insane. I have felt like a pebble in a can that’s been kicked down the stairs. Each time I stop working on something, I am immediately working on something else. Stage III just wants more in some unidentifiable sense and Stage III definitely needs more.

Now, I could do five papers in semester one next year and two in summer school. I won’t because I don’t really want to take five when I won’t have to. It’s my last year and I want it to be a bit more relaxed. I am also considering taking papers in subjects I haven’t done before and ones that I am expecting to be a bit harder. Finally, I don’t want to take too many stage one papers (for personal reasons; see my complaints about the SNA problem). So, my advice to fellow and future conjoint students (or anyone else thinking of taking five papers) is pretty simple: think about what stage one papers you need to take, and what ones you can get away with taking a bit more strategically. Of course, because you’re doing a conjoint, you probably shouldn’t be experimenting too much with majors anyway… but do remember you need to keep options open too.

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