Indiana University Overseas Study

So far in my blogs, I’ve been writing about culture, festivals, and how to adjust to a different way of life in Prague.  Seems like I’m just on vacation, doesn’t it?  Though we didn’t have class the first few weeks of the program, we did finally start class in the middle of September!   I was really looking forward to all of my courses and taking class here in Prague, so I’m really excited to tell you what classes are like here in Prague. How does my program compare and contrast to a semester at IU?

The major difference between school at IU and school here is the size of the “campus” and the amount of students.  In my program – which is through CIEE – there are about 100 students.  I’ve had classes at IU with more than 100 students, as I’m sure many of you have had as well.  This definitely changes the dynamics of the campus, because I know – or at least know of – everyone in the program, where at IU I could walk around campus for an entire day and not see anyone I know.  In addition, our “campus” is one building; we have most of our classes in one 3-story building with 5 classrooms and a computer lab.  Clearly this is a big change from the square-mile campus we have at IU, so it is taking some getting used to.  Based solely on the amount of students and the campus size, it is more like a high school environment than a college environment.

One thing that is also really different is that our campus is located in a secluded, historical part of Prague called Vyšehrad.  Vyšehrad is the where the oldest royal family in Prague originally lived.  There is a Gothic church nearby, surrounded by a cemetery and several nice parks.  It is a really quiet area, with few restaurants, stores, or really anything nearby.  Thus, this is really different from Bloomington, which is a bustling college town, centering around the attractions and restaurants on Kirkwood.  However, we also have the rest of the entire city of Prague to explore on a daily basis, so that definitely makes up for it.

The CIEE Study Center in Vyšehrad is the white building on the right. The building off to the right is the Church of St. Peter and Paul.

Apart from the campus, the classes are a little different too.  I am taking 5 classes, for a total of 16 credit hours: Czech Language, Psychoanalysis and Society, Contemporary Czech Culture, Media Impact in Central Europe, and a film class called Hollywood and Europe. Four of these classes are at the CIEE study center – the Hollywood and Europe class is a little different, so I will talk about that below.  Considering the smaller amount of students here, the class sizes are also much smaller, about 15 people per class.  This can be quite a change, especially if you are used to taking huge lecture classes or labs, where there could be 200+ people in each class.  Here, the classes generally focus on discussion rather than lecture, so being prepared for class is important.  Also, it is way more difficult to remain anonymous in your classes (if that’s what you’re used to doing in large lectures).  The professors generally know each student by name by the second or third week, so they can clearly tell who is participating and who isn’t.  I don’t want to make it seem like the professors are mean, expect too much, and are going to randomly call on you to answer a question you don’t know in the middle of class: none of my professors are like that.  The professors are all really easy to talk to and treat us as if we are on their same level.  Thus, it is really easy to get to know them and feel comfortable engaging in discussions in class.

One of the best ways to get to know your professors is to go on the class field trips.  CIEE offers several academic field trips in which you go with a particular class for a weekend or day trip.  The other weekend, I went on a field trip with my psychoanalysis class to Olomouc, a city in Moravia (the Eastern half of the Czech Republic).  Our professor, Joseph Dodds, accompanied us and also led us on a lot of tours and gave lectures about the history of Olomouc, as well as about topics that related to our class, such as the witch trials which occurred in this region during the Protestant Reformation.  In addition to these tours and lectures, we also spent a good amount of our free time getting to know Professor Dodds:  He sat with my table several times during meals, and also joined us on a wine tasting event that CIEE sponsored.  Thus, it was these times outside of the classroom that really allowed us to get to know our Professor, as well as classmates, a lot better.  This allowed class discussions to be a lot more fluid, as we felt more comfortable around each other as a class.

My Contemporary Czech Culture class is also very interactive and field trip-based, which has definitely increased the level of discussion in our class.  My professor for this class is a woman named Pavla Johnssonová.  In the 1980s, she was in an all-girls punk band named Dybbuk and was involved in the underground culture during the Soviet era.  Thus, she has a first-hand insight to Czech culture and really wants to take an interactive approach to the subject matter.  Thus, we have already had field trips – one to a legal graffiti site! – guest speakers, and have several other field trips planned, one of which is this week.  Usually when I think of field trip, I think of visiting a museum and enduring long tours.  However, this week we are taking a “class trip” to a concert of a popular Czech rock band named Tata Bojs (pronounced “boys”).   The concert is at one of the more prominent clubs in Prague, called SaSaZu.  Thus, rather than a typical museum tour – which I would also really enjoy – this is a more fun and less-academically based trip which will really allow our class to bond, while still learning about things relevant to Czech culture.

These are only two of the many field trips offered by CIEE. I don’t know if I could even count the number of trips and cultural events that CIEE sponsors. Some are academic – like my field trip to Olomouc – some are more culturally based – like the weekend trips to Krakow, Vienna, and Berlin – and then there are also smaller sponsored cultural events, such as group outings to soccer games, pubs, and theater events.  Sometimes it is nice to have someone else plan some really cool events for you! I have had only positive experiences at CIEE-sponsored events or trips, thus I HIGHLY recommend that you take advantage of the trips and events that your program has to offer.  They allow you to get to know your classmates outside of class, and also help you learn more about the region in which you are living.

View of the Prague Castle from the Charles University philosophical faculty building.

Another difference between the classes at IU and CIEE is that nearly all of the course content here has to do with either Czech culture and history specifically, or at least Central European history and culture.  CIEE offers a wide variety of classes – ranging from economics and politics, to art and psychology – but all seem to focus on the place in which we are living.  I find this aspect extremely helpful; now when I see landmarks around Prague or go to different museums or events, I know the history or cultural relevance.  Being aware of the history of the place in which you are living makes the experience much more valuable.  I feel like I appreciate the city a lot more when I know the story behind it.  Thus my advice in this area is two-fold: 1) learn about the city in which you are going to study before you go there: this will reduce the period in which you feel like a tourist because you will recognize landmarks and know some history; and 2) take classes about the culture while you are there: this will just build off your previous knowledge and make you feel like a more natural part of the city rather than just an ex-pat or tourist.

Another thing that will make you feel less like a tourist is learning the language.  Right off the bat, I will extend a warning to anyone wanting to learn Czech, or study in Prague:  Czech is an extremely difficult language to learn.  As a Slavic language, it operates completely differently than English.  Regardless of this difficulty, CIEE still makes it a priority for all students to learn Czech.  The first two weeks of the program started with intensive language classes for five hours a day.  Talk about information overload! Fortunately I had taken some Czech classes before I studied abroad (shout out to the IU Slavic Department) and thus had a pretty good foundation with Czech grammar and vocabulary.  My previous Czech knowledge, however, has also given me a very unique classroom experience:  I am the only person in my language class.  At IU there were only 4 people total in my Czech class, so I am used to small classes.  However, being the only one is a little different, both good and bad.  The positives is that I am allowed to move at my own pace, ask as many questions as I want, and get a really personalized education.  However, I am the only one contributing to class conversations, which sometimes is draining.

Regardless, I am really enjoying my Czech language class because my professor, Petra, and I have the freedom to structure our class however we like.  Thus, on Tuesdays we meet at the CIEE study center and study grammar, and on Thursdays we meet at a café and focus on conversation.  The hardest part about Czech is speaking and maintaining natural conversations because I tend to get too hung up on if I’m using the proper grammar.  One thing that is really helping is living in a host family: I hear Czech spoken in a natural environment every day.  Thus, my listening skills are much better.  I also find that it is easier to learn Czech here rather than at IU, simply because I am around the language and have to use it on a daily basis.  Knowing the language enhances my experience in Prague: I don’t feel as much like a tourist when I can go into a café or restaurant and order in Czech instead of English.  Thus, I strongly encourage everyone to at least try to learn the native language, even if it is a difficult language such as Czech!

While most of my classes meet at the CIEE study center, I have one class that does not: Hollywood and Europe.  This class is actually not one that is a CIEE class, but it is offered through Charles University in Prague.  CIEE partners with Charles University, as well as a Prague film school FAMU, and thus offers us some classes at both Charles University and FAMU.  The Hollywood and Europe class, thus meets not at CIEE, but in the city center at the Charles University philosophical faculty (or department).  And though the view of the fall foliage from the third floor of Ballantine is beautiful, the view from our classroom is the Prague Castle perched above the Vltava River!  Besides the spectacular view, this class is different from my other classes in a few ways.  First off, it only meets once a week for 3 hours; my other classes are all two times a week for an hour and a half.  Luckily for half of the class we watch a movie, so the discussion does not drag on too long.  Another difference is that most of the students in the class are from a different study abroad program (I believe they are from the NYU program). Thus, all of them know each other so I am sort of the odd man out – I just have to make a bit more of an effort to stay involved in conversations.  There are also some European students in my classes, whereas all of my other classes are Americans.

Just like my other classes, though, discussion and participation is the core of the course.  Thus it is crucial that you are prepared for class, otherwise you will not be able to contribute (and it will be noticeable).  However, the workload is generally a lot lighter than for my classes at IU.  A majority of my homework is reading – which is the same at IU – but it is a much more manageable amount than some professors would assign at IU.  I think that there is an understanding that we didn’t come to Prague to spend all of our time studying – though this is important – but that we are here to experience and explore a new culture.  Thus, we need time to do so!!

It still has been and adjustment, though, figuring out when to do homework and readings.  Luckily, we don’t have textbooks, but instead we use flash drives that have all of our course readings on them for the entire semester. The flash drive is free, but you can also choose to buy a paper reader if you would prefer to read physical readings and not on your computer screen.  Thus it is pretty convenient to do readings, because I usually have my computer or the flash drive with me.  However, I am used to doing homework at night after dinner.  The problem is that my host family eats dinner much later than I would at home, so then I have less time after dinner to do homework.  I’ve had to adjust my schedule to do more homework during the day, or to do a lot of homework in advance so that my nights are free.  Even though the workload is manageable, I would still recommend getting ahead on schoolwork as much as possible, especially before travel weekends.  I am going to be traveling every weekend in November, so getting ahead now on work will save the stress later when I won’t have time to do homework on the weekends toward the end of the semester.  In addition almost every class has final papers and projects due at the end of the semester, so I need to plan ahead for those now while I have time.

There is one more significant difference between classes in Prague, and it has to do with the structure of the classes.  At IU, I cannot wait for the syllabi to come out for each of my classes; I love to plan the semester and write on my calendars when all of the assignments are due and when we have tests.  Professors at IU tend to make it pretty clear what the structure of the class is going to look like and what topics will be discussed on each day, when assignments are due, etc.  However, things are very different here.  If you are looking for structured, organized classes, then a semester in Prague will take some getting used to.  All of my classes do have a syllabus; however, we rarely stick to it, nor are the details of it explained.  For example, in my Media Impact class we had a paper due on one Monday.  A week before the paper was due, we still didn’t know what the paper was about, nor were the notes from the classes online (most of the professors post the PowerPoints online).  The professor was sick the next Wednesday so we didn’t have class the class before the paper was due.  Typically I would expect the professor to email the class if the paper was still due on Monday or not, since we hadn’t discussed the requirements very much.  However, we received no email and showed up on Monday to find out the paper was not going to be due for another week, even though we had all struggled to write a makeshift paper over the weekend.  The disorganization of the professors and the classes is sometimes annoying.  However, I think it is part of the culture to be more flexible and to have more variance in what will be covered in class from day to day.  I prefer to have more structure, but I am trying to adjust and get used to this change.

Overall, the semester here varies no more than two different semesters at IU.  The major difference is that all of the classes are directly relevant to the culture that we are immersed in.  Thus, going to class is actually beneficial to our living experience here in Prague, and not just our educational well-being.  There are also a lot more interesting field trips – I wish professors at IU let us take field trips more often!  My recommendation is to really to take class seriously.  Whether the class is about something related to your major or not (luckily most of mine are), the information can really be helpful and open your eyes to things you would not have found out about the city/region otherwise.  So even though study abroad is not entirely a vacation, the educational part can really enrich your experience!

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