I agree with Gigi that study abroad is a good thing. The question is, how good? Or, put another way, is it worth the cost? When I try to answer those questions, based on my own experience as a study-abroad program director, I can’t help coming away with a paradoxical feeling: strong ambivalence.
There’s an important distinction to be made right off the bat: between enrolling in a foreign university for a year and taking part in a program run by one’s home college or another American institution. I have no doubt that the relatively small number of American students who are brave enough to go the first route, and have the patience to cut through the requisite red tape, have an amazing academic and cultural experience.
And the home-away-from-home type of thing? Speaking from the experience of having directed such programs five times (four in London and one in Italy; four during summer or winter session, once for a semester), I am skeptical. The sentiment uttered by a student to the writer of the Chronicle article that started this thread off definitely rang true: “For many students, study abroad is a semester off, not a semester on.”
Overwhelmingly, my students spent almost all their time with each other, or with other American students. They had almost no encounters with native people, other than shopkeepers or bartenders. Unless it was part of a class trip or assignment, they didn’t venture to non-touristy parts of the city. Academics played a distant second fiddle to their fun, much of which involved consuming alcohol.
And make no mistake: the academics were exceedingly unrigorous.
I should know. I assigned the work, and I graded it.
(Bear with me as I briefly try to defend the unchallenging assignments and charitable grading without sounding defensive. These programs attracted freshmen as well as seniors and, though run through the UD English department, a good number of non-English majors. Therefore, I generally pitched them as introductory-level courses. Meanwhile, libraries and computer resources were limited or non-existent, so it seemed unreasonable to expect the same sort of work I would on the home campus. On second thought, it’s impossible to defend this without sounding defensive.)
Not that the course work was a goof-off. One summer, I devoted an entire course to an chapter-by-chapter study of “the great London novel,” Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, and, week by week, took the students to the places he wrote about. One day we followed Dickens’ route when, as a boy, he got lost in the City of London—an experience he wrote about in a great essay called “Gone Astray”–and compared the landmarks he described with the way they look today. In another class, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway got the same treatment. For a course on the British press, the students compared the eleven dailies’ coverage of the same stories, visited the Guardian’s newsroom, and polled citizens on the street to find out how their backgrounds and attitudes correlated to choice of newspaper. In Italy, they read Forster’s A Room with a View and saw what the characters saw; read Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” while standing in front of Lippi’s great paintings in the Uffizi gallery.
Good stuff, and I wholeheartedly stand behind it. My problem comes when I consider the expense of the five-week programs. At the University of Delaware, these are offered both in summer and (more commonly) in January, where they provide a convenient way to fill the five-week winter session. The school follows an entrepreneurial model, you submit your proposed courses and your proposed budget, which are approved if they seem generally reasonable. If at least twelve students sign up, the program is a go.
Unless you come from a well-to-do family and/or Delaware, the numbers just don’t add up. Students have to pay a substantial fee to cover their airfare, housing and program expenses; for winter ’10, this ranges from a little over $3000, for courses in England, to close to $7000, for Asian programs. (There are about ten trips to Australia, probably the most popular destination for two reasons: sunshine and beer.) Financial aid doesn’t cover the fee, though a limited number of scholarships are available.
Equally troubling is the cost of tuition. And here’s where the bargain I referred to in the heading comes in. The first time I taught abroad, in London in the middle ‘90s, I gave just one class. But some time after that, the university decreed that all summer and winter programs had to offer two courses, and all participating students had to enroll in both. I suspect, though can’t be sure, that this was because the university’s bottom line was too measly with just one course’s worth of tuition on the revenue stream.
Did professors go along with this? Is the pope German? After all, two classes meant twice the fee for them, since in summer and winter session they are paid by the course. (If you’re interested in roughly how much we’re paid for a three-credit course, and can understand contract language, click here.) Let me change pronouns here—it meant twice the fee for me. Added to the airfare, housing allowance, per diem meals payment, and an administrative stipend, this added up to a sweet deal—one that allowed my family to come along basically for free, or even a slight profit.
But this system isn’t right, in terms of equity or education. While spending five weeks in a foreign land, I reckon that a student can comfortably absorb the equivalent of one full course. It’s not that I have educational purist reasons for objecting to forcing them to take two. What bothers me is how much money they have to pay. For an out-of-state student, two courses costs $4172, and when you add the program fee, the total cost can be more than $10,000. That, of course, is on top of a regular academic year’s worth of tuition and expenses.
It’s a non-starter for the non-privileged. Given the downturn in the economy, it’s not surprising that UD’s summer and winter programs have had a hard time attracting even the privileged. I had planned to do another Italian session this past summer, in the beautiful Italian hill town of Cortona (setting of the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun), but didn’t get enough applicants. Several students told me they would love to have gone, but just couldn’t afford it.
I’m offering the program again in the summer of ’10. The trip runs June 1 through July 3, and is open to students from any college or university. Side trips to Rome, Venice, Florence, Assisi, and Siena, to see the most amazing horse race in the world, the Palio. Interested? More info here.