Thursday, 24 September 2009

Day 13/99: The Two Ways of Life

I promised a comparative post on Oxford and Princeton education, so here it is.

Firstly, there are definitely merits in Princeton's approach to some things. The requirement to take a language to advanced level (i.e. about a quarter of your degree being a language, for two years) is something we don't see so much in England, and it's definitely a useful preparationfor scholarship - if I want to become an ancient historian, I really should learn to read Latin and German, and probably some competency in French, Italian and ancient Greek too.

Nor can I find fault with the independent research work - though I haven't done any at Oxford, and have only just started at Princeton, so I'm really just comparing on the basis of word counts. Once you decide to major in History here (halfway through your degree), you write one 7,000-word paper per semester in your third year, and a 12,000-word or so senior thesis in third year; if you take a "certificate" (what most other US universities call a 'minor'), then you may also have to do another piece of independent work (the length varies), but often a thesis spanning related fields can qualify for both - so a thesis on Jewish history would get one both a major in History and a certificate in Judaic Studies. At any rate, this basically compares with the History Special Subject's extended essay and the thesis at Oxford.

Before proceeding, a bit of statistics to show how the courses compare - to get a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) here, you need to take 31 courses over the four years, so about eight courses per year. In History at Oxford, you take four papers for Prelims and seven over two years for Finals, so about four per year - roughly speaking, then, the average Princeton course should be about half as intellectually rigorous as an Oxford course. To be frank, it isn't.

To some extent, that must be inherent in the system; at Oxford, the academics setting and teaching the History papers can be confident that everyone sitting them has aced an A-level in History, and has been selected by the tutors on the basis of their skill as a historian. That's not the case at Princeton - almost anyone can walk into almost any history course despite only having a high-school (equiv. GCSE) education in it, and perhaps not even having done that well. Even a History major might only have done two survey courses, such as "A History of the World since 1300" and "Science in the Modern World".

There's also something of a cultural difference regarding vacation work. At Oxford, when I took an Optional Subject on Augustan Rome in Trinity, I thought nothing of an email from my tutor at the start of the vacation before telling me that I should read all the set texts (selections, some quite hefty, from fifteen translated ancient works) and maybe some other stuff - and likewise, someone taking a course on Shakespeare would think nothing of being asked to read his plays over the vac, so that tutorials could focus on specific issues and the secondary literature regarding it. As far as I can tell, this doesn't happen at Princeton - certainly nobody's mentioned having been set summer reading. There are courses - one of which I decided against taking for exactly this reason - which seem to be wholly reading courses, ploughing through the texts at a ridiculous rate (three books of Herodotus between Monday and Wednesday, Dante's Inferno in a week) but with no articles, academic analyses nor commentary to read - no discussion beyond the one-hour, eight-student weekly precept. Certainly in a general, liberal arts education, there is some merit to reading and understanding the texts, but in a university context I think that understanding the relevent scholarship is even more important, and I don't think that that's emphasised enough in Princeton except in higher-level seminars and when doing independent research work.

The mode of assessment is also different. As Oxford students will know, for an ordinary Finals paper you'd write six to eight 2,000-word essays (one a week), have a Collection (i.e. mock exam) the beginning of the term after you finish work on it, and take the real exam - three essays in three hours, like Collections - anywhere from three months to a year and a half after finishing the paper, the exam being the only thing that matters. By contrast, in my History/Classics seminar, thirty percent of my grade is based on my participation during the seminar, ten percent on short quizzes which might happen at the start of class, thirty percent on the midterm exam (lasting one hour twenty minutes, consisting of some multiple-choice questions, some names or concepts for identification such as "Pericles" on which we write a short paragraph each, and finally a short essay), and the final thirty percent on the "term paper", the only real piece of written work needed, of about the length and quality of a weekly Oxford tutorial essay. I am not entirely convinced that this is "about half as rigorous" as an Oxford course.

One final point is about books. At Oxford, between JSTOR, the college libraries, and non-lending libraries like the Bod and the Codrington, you'll never have to buy a book, and most people don't. That really isn't the culture at Princeton - even looking at ancient history courses where all the texts are available as Penguin Classics, the reading lists approach $100 or $150 per course ($1000/year on course books wouldn't be surprising), and it must be even worse for scientists or mathematicians who need hefty textbooks. There is, for all intents and purposes, only one library, and it only stocks a few copies (if any) of each text, making it pretty impractical to use for larger courses. Furthermore, because you often only get the syllabus at the first lecture, there's a lot of pressure to go and buy the textbooks at Labyrinth Books rather than buying them cheaply online - and of course, I don't have a US debit card, so I pay an extra currency exchange and commission fee if I buy off Amazon. Long live the Bodleian, then.

I'm still glad I came to Princeton - it's a good experience, and I'm having fun here - but it has made me appreciate, amongst other things, just how good an Oxford education really is in comparison.


  1. Re. the cost of books
    I probably spend an average of £100 a term on copies of the texts for each paper (I made up the maximum allowance on my first year book grant form from just 5 books) - I like working from the same edition every time, and being able to write in them if I want. I just don't buy textbooks/critical works.


  2. I guess I'm more annoyed about buying books at Princeton than I would be at Oxford (admittedly, I did buy quite a few of the texts for my Optional Subject), simply because I don't have room in my luggage to take everything home - I like books, but I don't like throwing them away after a couple of months.

    Still, £100 a term is small change compared to some of the payments at Princeton - one guy mentioned paying $600 for textbooks this semester, and I saw $325 change hands in one transaction while I was queuing at the bookshop (bookstore?).