I am spending the Spring 2015 semester studying at University College London (UCL), presumably one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. Majoring in International Politics, I chose to pick all my courses from the course list offered by UCL’s Political Science department. Strangely but interestingly, UCL does not offer a “Political Science” Bachelor’s degree per se. The closest the Bachelor’s degree programs can get to Political Science is through a degree offered by the European Social and Political Science (ESPS), a degree that, according to my fellow ESPS colleagues, you can obtain without ever enrolling in a Political Science course (let alone a Europe-oriented Political Science course), as long as you study a European language and take a random assortment of humanities courses.
If the Political Science department doesn’t exist to serve ESPS students, then why is it there? To serve affiliate students—that is, study-abroad students—, the head of the department said during Orientation Week. As if to emphasize the apolitical nature of the undergraduate program, he continued on stating that all UCL Political Science professors are used to teaching graduate courses, and so we, study-abroad students, should expect the difficulty of their courses is higher than the UCL average. I will touch on the implications of the lack of compulsory Political Science courses on the intellectual development of UCL students in the second part of the blog post. For now, let me explain the structural and content difference between UCL courses and those of my home university, Georgetown in Qatar.
The first noticeable difference between UCL and Georgetown in Qatar is the structure of lectures. At Georgetown, with the exception of seminar courses, class meets twice a week. And except for Economics courses, there is no requirement to attend an extra “recitation” or “practical” session. In all courses, participation is a must—and you’ll find it almost impossible to earn a grade above B if you don’t ask interesting questions, discuss your fellow colleague’s questions, or voice an (enlightened) opinion every now and then. At UCL—at least in my courses—it’s quite different. All classes meet once a week for a lecture, all courses have complementary practical sessions where the class is divided into groups to discuss lecture topics with “light” supervision from the professor, and, finally, participation does not count towards the final grade. Although practical sessions provide students with some discussion spaces, the quality of discussion they produce is not as good as one would wish. This is most probably due to the lack of the grade incentive and the absence of the continuous watchful eye of a professor I am used to at Georgetown in UCL seminars.
What I mean above by “quality” of discussion is based on a twofold (completely subjective) measurement. The first is the depth of analysis and degree of knowledge of the subject that students demonstrate. Performance is usually low in this regard due to, in all likelihood, the students’ awareness that they will be neither penalized for lack of participation, nor rewarded for meaningful engagement.
The second meaning I hold for “quality” is cultural sensitivity and the ability to engage in discussions with an unbiased attitude and an open mind. On average, UCL students in my courses rank lower than Georgetown students in that respect. Many Political Science students at UCL engage in what one could call unintentional Orientalism. In the context of class discussion, this involves the use of a discourse that stereotypes the “other,” usually a developing country or a section of its citizens, and explicitly or implicitly dehumanizes them, overemphasizes their differences or implies their “natural” inferiority.
This discourse could be adopted by both Western and non-Western student. It was clearly demonstrated during one of the seminar sessions I attended for a course entitled “International Development and Public Policy.” Reflecting on whether foreign aid should be given exclusively to “moral” governments in the developing world, an American student confidently stated “It doesn’t matter if the government’s “good” or not. What matters is that we give them the money to develop themselves” (emphasis mine). Coming from a country that is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, and fully aware of the “imperfect” allocation of financial resources that results from it, I can find a thousand reasons to poke holes in this argument. However, what struck me the most was the implicitly derogatory way in which my fellow colleague employed the pronouns “us” and “them,” which I found to be quite Orientalist. Not only does it personify an issue that should be approached in non-personal, objective terms, but it also gives the impression that the two countries—donor and recipient—exist in as part of some “natural” hierarchy, whether the latter cannot “develop” (whatever that means) unless the former “gives” it help. These messages are not visible immediately, but they do exert psychological pressure on students from Third World countries in class, whose voices and opinions—which may differ from those of this particular American colleague—could be potentially silenced by her Orientalist discourse. In fact, I have witnessed another colleague from a Middle Eastern country, enrolled in the same course, internalizing this discourse and engaging in a discussion that dehumanizes people from her own country, in all likelihood in an attempt to “go with the flow”.
So why is this discourse more prevalent in UCL than Georgetown? My guess is that the apolitical character of UCL Bachelor degrees highly contributes to such attitudes. As mentioned earlier, ESPS students are not required to take Political Science courses, but only to study a European language and some humanities courses. The lack of politics-related courses in their course plans deprives many students of the opportunity to examine the complexity of political processes, and the contingent, shifting nature of cultures. Instead, it breeds ethnocentrism and encourages the essentialization of cultures, which can potentially lead to cultural insensitivity. This is further intensified by the highly Eurocentric nature and focus of the ESPS degree. Having had this experience, I began to appreciate the quality of discussions I am used to having at Georgetown. Although not immune to Orientalism, class discussions at Georgetown have a sort of self-regulatory mechanism, where signs of racism/Orientalism are automatically undone by the abundance flow of informed participation of a mostly culturally sensitive student body. Of course, this cultural sensitivity is not innate, but seems to have come from the diverse nature of courses offered there, and the inclusion of global and intercultural political issues in almost all course syllabi.