Double Major Isolation

 
 

IT’S no secret that UCD is a big campus. There are over 33,000 students and a couple thousand of them are participating in the biggest arts programme in the country. But when you’re in a double-major arts programme, there are no specialised classes and while there might be tutors that learn your name if you’re the kind of person that speaks up in class., there is no reason ever for your lecturers to know who you are unless you go to them with a specific problem.

Here are the experiences of 4 double major arts students. Some speak about their treatment by staff or their college workload but all find the double-major arts programme an isolating and sometimes lonely experience.


Ian – Third Year Politics and Economics Student

“The harsh reality is Wikipedia, the Khan Academy and occasionally fellow students have had to fill in for overstretched lecturers on many occasions…”

 

The decision on what path to take in higher education places a lot of pressure on young shoulders, so when my guidance councillor nudged me in the direction of the double major programme in UCD, I was grateful for the focus that making a concrete decision gave me and was genuinely excited by the wide variety of subject options that were on offer. I expelled all the negative preconceptions that surround the programme to the back of my mind and put the attitude that cements the UCD “arts degree” as the butt of many jokes in Irish education down to snobbery and ignorance.

Alas, as is often the case there is a modicum of truth to what your detractors may say and soon the focus and self-assurance I possessed on day one began to fade. Firstly, I noticed what seemed to be an overreliance on autonomous learning as it physically impossible for a lecturer to have a hands-on relationship with a class that packs out the larger theatres in the Science Centre or the Newman building.

While attending lectures and completing readings is a reliable formula for moderate success, there are several times where every student will invariably struggle to get to grips with their course material. The harsh reality is Wikipedia, the Khan Academy and occasionally fellow students have had to fill in for overstretched lecturers on many occasions and will have played a pivotal role in the completion of my degree.

It is this lack of hands-on involvement that leaves me with minimal practical skills in my field that will leave me woefully underprepared for both further study and the workplace. I have had a minimal number of tutorials in Politics and virtually none in Economics where new and occasionally complex mathematical concepts must be explained. Not only does this impact on the educational experience but restricts opportunities for socialization among classmates; if we had a “class”.

Essentially there is no one “arts degree” while the choice and flexibility can be an enormous benefit it also has its drawbacks. With vast quantities of students spread across so many disciplines and modules it is hard to have any sort of class spirit or attachment and previously existing cliques from societies or elsewhere are hard to break into.

While I’ll always view UCD as a nemesis that I begrudgingly respect and have to be overcome, there is one thing that is certain (in my subjects at least), I have been incredibly lucky to be taught by such well-regarded academics who have imparted a wealth of information to me improving, whilst improving my critical and analytical faculties. I am certain that with some improvements everyone will come to enjoy the double major programme.


Laura – Second Year Arts Student

“It’s strange how you can feel more isolated in a lecture theatre surrounded by 300 other students than at home in your bedroom.”

 

When my dad dropped me off at UCD on my first day of University, I could not have been more thrilled. As I made my way around the enormous campus, it seemed limitless, as was my ambition to do well here. Thousands of students passed me by. After coming from a secondary school where education was not really a priority for most kids, it was refreshing to see so many people with similar goals to myself. Unfortunately, the novelty of being amongst thousands of other students soon wore off and my enthusiasm for college began to dwindle.

I knew it would be tough leaving my friends and teachers behind. Particularly because nobody from my secondary school would be joining me at UCD, but I had always made friends easily so joining a course as large as arts did not phase me. Orientation week had been a great way to meet a few girls I really clicked with. I was disappointed when I couldn’t spot any of them in my new classes in Week one. Each class brought with it twenty new faces. It’s difficult to bond with anyone you can only talk to briefly for 50 minutes a week. I began to notice most of the Dublin students had come from the same schools or areas, whilst a lot of students from the country had made friends living on campus. I felt as though I was slipping through the cracks and it became more difficult to make friends as time went by.

I tried not to let it affect me as I still had my friends at home. Yet the isolation I began to experience in the course itself took a toll. I found it strange in the first week when we were issued a student number, until I realized English and History were two of the largest schools in Arts and you really were just a number. I had no one on one communication with any of my lecturers or tutors, unless I had sought their advice on a particular issue. Blackboard and UCD Connect eliminated the human factor when it came to registration, module information and examination results. I found I could literally go one week at a time without having a single conversation.

The anonymity of double arts really had me feeling lonely for the first time in my life. It’s strange how you can feel more isolated in a lecture theatre surrounded by 300 other students than at home in your bedroom. I got to the point where I resented going into college every day and my poor attendance was reflected on my grades. I decided to take a year’s leave of absence and have since returned to UCD with a better outlook.

Although the isolation of a double major arts degree has not improved since I left, my mentality certainly has. I’ve learned to let go of the social aspect of University and try to focus more on my real reason for being there: getting my degree. I’m quite happy to chat with those new faces I see in different classes every semester, knowing it will probably not progress past small talk. I feel that the more comfortable you are in your own skin the less you depend on the company of others to make you happy.

If you’re feeling the anonymity which comes with the double major arts degree my advice would be to look outside your course, joining one of the universities many societies or taking a fitness class in the sports centre is a great way to meet new people with similar interests to you. If I could return to my first few months of University I wouldn’t let any social opportunity pass me by. It’s important to put yourself out there so everyone can put a face to that student number!


Adam – Second Year English and Music Student          

“Sometimes I would show up to class purposely late so that I could be the last to sign in with my giveaway student number.”

 

I entered first year, as many do, excited and impressionable. I couldn’t wait to dive straight into college life. Long story short: it wasn’t what I expected. I thought I would be thrown into the deep end in every way, but the only water I was treading was the constant flow of deadlines.

In a Double Major Arts degree, the lack of specificity means the general feeling is of a huge group of random people being thrown together. I realised that I could slink in and out of class without making a single impression, without any connection whatsoever. I could skip class with no repercussions. When everything’s available on Blackboard and nothing extra is provided in lecture theatres to incentivise attendance, why should I? To quote Ezra Pound, faces passed like “petals on a wet, black bough”. It’s hard to sit in the background and just do the work when there’s nothing more to look forward to.

Then, the worst; I failed more than two modules and had to undertake Semester X. If you think your dealings with the college are impersonal when you’re seen as a decent student, imagine what it’s like in a wasted year during which you are made to feel like a nuisance to be put up on the shelf to avoid those pesky fail rate reports, to be taken down again only when ready to re-join the successful students.

Once the technical aspects of signing up for a year of drudging through even less contact hours is out of the way, that’s it; there is no contact whatsoever. There is no checking up, no acknowledgement, no support for students in my position. I felt completely isolated, like I could pass, fail, drop out, and no one would care. The electronically-posted results and lack of personal feedback in most modules didn’t help.

In one module this year we were asked to submit regular worksheets by certain dates in order to receive “general feedback”. Lacking the time to finish one, I wrote “hahahahahaha” for one of the questions intending to come back and edit it after the deadline, knowing no one was ever going to read it anyway. If it was last year, I probably wouldn’t have bothered editing the entry at all; what is the point?

When there isn’t indifference towards students undertaking Semester X, there is stigma. It never happened to me, but I have heard numerous accounts of people, some of whom close friends, being called out in front of everyone by tutors and lecturers, drawing attention to the fact that they are repeating the module.

This is why I actively tried to sink into the background, because to succeed or fail loudly would have been an invitation to question my status, to put my failures down to my spotty record, or my successes down to my having “done it before”. Sometimes I would show up to class purposely late so that I could be the last to sign in with my giveaway student number. Being made to hate participation in every capacity is not how college should be.

This year I feel liberated, not just because I feel like the prodigal son returning home, but because I feel SEEN again, like I had been in academic and social limbo for a year, which I technically was. “Get in there and get it done, and then talk to us” was the tangible undercurrent during that time. This did not encourage me in the slightest, and I went through that whole year seeing it as a slog to just get done, constantly and desperately awaiting the shiny future. No matter how good it feels to have reached that future at last, it isn’t worth the lows reached by my mental health along the way.

Even now, my feeling of involvement is tenuous at best. If I were in my final year without having gone through the utter isolation I did last year, I would admittedly be much worse off. I have only now started to make connections because I actively decide each and every day to approach lecturers and classmates and attempt to develop relationships, otherwise it would be much too easy to sink back into anonymity. From my experience, it’s too tempting to sit back in the shadows. Effort must be made on both sides.


3rd Year Arts Student

“In the school of Arts, it’s incredibly hard to talk to people in general, let alone your lecturers or tutors. Students are added to Facebook groups with 300 or 400 people that they don’t know…”

I’ve just started my final semester of a three year degree; over the course of that time, I’ve had personal conversations with two lecturers/tutors from over 20+. Both came last semester, both were in order to get a better insight into end-of-semester essays.

I regret not using tutor’s services more.

In the school of Arts, it’s incredibly hard to talk to people in general, let alone your lecturers or tutors. Students are added to Facebook groups with 300 or 400 people that they don’t know, asking questions that (realistically) could be answered by their tutors but no one wants to ask them face to face.

These professors are painted to students in introductory lectures as extremely busy. I’ve believed that from the first time I stepped into an English lecture in 2014 that I was only to go to the head of my class/school/department if it was an urgent query. I couldn’t tell you who the head of English is. I only learned the head of History at the end of the last semester.

It affects people’s education because if they’ve questions, they’re not sure who exactly to go to. This is only compounded when the module co-ordinators are tutors in a first year class. We all know of the struggle to adapt to college life before you even bring in classwork. We’ve all sat in silence in a ‘group project’ (or at least, most of us have).

The more time went on, the more I felt that I needed some advice on an essay or a journal entry. I’m not exactly the best with confrontation, and felt slightly intimidated by my superiors encouraging me to ‘call by their office for a chat’. Hence why the majority of my correspondence with my lecturers have come via e-mail up to this point.

I’ve spoken to one English tutor, and one History tutor. I should’ve done more, but you can be sure that I’m not the only Arts student that is in this situation. You’re taught in secondary school to do your own learning, so to get the opposite advice once you start college is a bit jarring. It threw me off my rhythm.

As for a solution to this problem? It’s unfair to suggest a cut down of lecture sizes (Theatre L in the Newman building was regularly full in first year). I find it interesting that now, in my third year, the lecture sizes have been reduced to 20ish with seminars consisting of the same group it’s an awful lot easier to speak up with queries.

Maybe it’s all fallen on me, and I’m the only one in this kind of situation. I don’t know. UCD has over 33,000 students. It’s got thousands of lecturers too. So why is it that we have these Facebook groups with question after question? Is it the fear of embarrassment? That our tutors/lecturers will think our questions are stupid? Or maybe, just maybe, we think it’ll be a waste of time.

Regardless, it has to change.

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