Monday, 14 October 2013

University challenges

I’m now into my third week of lectures and gradually getting used to university here. My lecturers seem nice, and I’ve generally been able to follow most of lectures. When I haven’t, it’s normally been when they’ve talked about concepts that would be difficult enough to get first time round in English or because of the impact of 5 consecutive hours of lectures on my concentration levels.

I particularly like my Storia Contemporanea (Contemporary History) lecturer, though when he kept referring to gli anni ottocento (which literally translates as ‘the 800s’) in my first lecture, I worried that I was in the wrong class or that his definition of ‘Contemporary’ was very different to mine. I soon worked out that Italians say ‘800’ to mean 1800s. I can see why. To say ‘milleottocentoquarantesette’ (1847) et al each time would be quite a mouthful.  The Contemporary History module has been the closest you get here to a seminar. There are still 50 students or so, but that's fewer than my other modules, and he makes an effort to make it interactive and turn parts into a discussion. Which, by all accounts, is fairly atypical in Italian universities. The concept of seminars doesn't seem to exist, so this seems the best I can hope for (I've always vastly preferred seminars to lectures).
Don't worry: I'm not the only one taking photos - everyone does to avoid having to write everything down. The idea of uploading slides to the web portal doesn't seem to have reached Palermo
Something new to me is the customary round of applause at the end of each lecture. Yes, genuine, prolonged applause for the lecturer (or is it for the fact that they've finished and we can go home?). However much a lecture has dragged on and however much everyone in the room has been so ready to leave that they’ve stopped taking notes and packed up 10 minutes before the end. One of the things you’ll notice in this video, a good starting point in comparing Italy to the rest of Europe, is the round of the applause for pilots that land planes successfully, which you’ll have witnessed if you’ve ever flown to Italy. I used to think it strange:  ‘You wouldn’t clap when someone in any other profession [except music/sport etc.] does their job as expected’, I always thought. Maybe I was wrong.

The university canteen, though, deserves a standing ovation. Erasmus students pay 3 Euros for a first course, a second course, a side, some fruit and a drink (a can of soft drink or litre bottle of water). And unlimited bread. My flatmates and I always get water and bread and take it home, meaning we never need to buy any. Or, if you go for the pizza option, you get a whole pizza (brought to you by a waiter once you've chosen from the menu), a side and drink. Always good quality; always 3 Euros for Erasmus students, and even less for others.

Students on any kind of bursary – which is most here – pay as little as 1 or 2 Euros or, often, nothing. While spending cuts to higher education have been as savage as in the UK, bursaries have been protected. That’s how it should be. The fact that a university in the most cash-strapped region of Western Europe’s most cash-strapped country finds a way to continue bursaries and also heavily subsidise meals for many students makes Bristol’s shameful attempt to scrap the few bursaries remaining seem even more unforgivable. Especially considering it collects £9000 per undergraduate (ten times what Italian universities charge) and even more from international students and postgraduates. It's about priorities, and while Bristol prioritises research and doesn't spend nearly enough on teaching or helping students get by, Palermo has a different and more student-centred approach. That's not to say that Palermo University does everything well - far from it - but on this, I think it's spot on.

One of the things it doesn't seem to do well, though, is time-keeping. The History lecturer even made a point, at the start of our first lecture, of saying that he’d start lectures pretty much dead on the hour. But he'll normally arrive at quarter past, then he'll wait 5 minutes for the technician to arrive to set up the laptop and projector. Then it'll take another 5-10 minutes to get the slide show up, and by now it'll be getting on for half past. Finally we'll get started, but then he'll forget to use the mouse for 5 minutes, the computer will log off and he'll need to call the technician again to get him to type in the password required. This has happened in all but one of the lectures we've had. And he's meant to be one of the more punctual ones... While I really don't like the fact that lectures here last for 3 hours (with a 10-minute coffee break in the middle) I can understand why. If they were only 50 minutes, like at Bristol, we'd barely get started by the time we're scheduled to finish.

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