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Talk About Teaching and Learning

UScandia and Hibritannia

Tasked to compare my new to my previous experiences of teaching undergraduates has been a worthwhile provocation. LSE and Penn are a ludicrously small sample from which to generalize validly, but since this is not a methodological essay, let me stereotype the differences. US and Canadian research universities (UScandia) combine individualism and egalitarianism, whereas UK and Irish universities (Hibritannia) combine hierarchy and individualism.


Here professional “freedom of design” is constitutional law. Faculty design courses on their own, without vigorous departmental assessment, or mentoring. To do otherwise would be intrusive, hierarchical and collectivist, and in the US a violation of the First Amendment.

American professors teach on their own—or with subordinate teaching assistants. Professors have a contract, tacit or explicit, for a number of courses, which inhibits co-teaching or team-teaching, except through “alternation.” Professors are individually responsible for modes of evaluation, and examination. No one validates his or her evaluations—unless there is an appeal, or a lawsuit. Colleagues do not co-grade. There are no “external examiners.”  The department does not meet to award degrees. This is a model of individualist professionalism.

“Freedom of choice” exists for students in the social sciences and humanities. They need not take “coherent” or cumulative courses.  They may take an American pizza. If there are coherent or cumulative programs, they have  exit rules:  “pre-requisites” are negotiable. A “senior” may take a “freshman” course—to complete the obligations required of “a major”;  “pudding before soup.”

Egalitarianism shows in dress codes. Professors dress like their students. Law and Business schools do not make this mistake.

Students are customers. They are interested in the quality of a professor, but go “down-market” if the price of quality (in likely grade) is high. Reputation is de-coupled from gravitas, and, among the cynics, a function of expected grade.  Students assess a course in a questionnaire administered just before semester’s end, i.e. before they have digested the meal. This evaluation is the primary means through which deans or chairs know how their colleagues’ teaching is experienced. 

The GPA system incentivizes students to take courses at which they will be good. One adverse evaluation becomes a death sentence.  So, not many students are willing to “test” their limits.  The elite are not so brave in the Ivy League. Ergo, students taking a particular course will be rather like one another—another egalitarian outcome.

Fear of adverse grading is so strong that, astonishingly to a Hibritannia newcomer, students want to be evaluated early so that they can drop the course if strategic interest requires it.  Students take too many courses at the start of any semester, before making  GPA-screened final “choices.” Ergo, courses may not get demanding until after the “drop-period.”

The pre-tenured professor has incentives to be generous, accommodating, supportive, nurturing, and available. The student finds such teachers helpful. The tenured professor, by contrast, has some incentives to be more rigorous, tougher on laziness and foolishness, and less accommodative of spoiled behavior. Students find such teachers less helpful—which may be so.

Potential pathologies have been emphasized in this sketch. The positive virtues are prizes, and, less frequent  “distinguished” titles for outstanding teaching. These are rarely based on physical inspection, but rather on positive feedback from customers.  The virtues also include student enthusiasm.


Hibritannia is disappearing,  collapsing under the twin pressures of state planning and market forces—“turning diamonds into glass” say the critics, “enhancing professionalism and customer sensitivity” say the “globalizers” (a.k.a. “Americanizers”). So this is a stereotype that may become a fossil.

A professional hierarchy of five grades existed  in Hibritannia—in which only the top-rank was labeled “professor.” In the past, one started as a “Junior Lecturer,” which put the arrogant in their place. The hierarchy was pyramidical. Until the 1960s, there was often only one professor per department (“the chair”),  a lord. By contrast,  a US chair is a Dutch prime minister, or a human postbox.

The longer hierarchy mattered: passage to Senior Lecturer required proven capacities in teaching, with reports from peer witnesses.  There was no freedom of “course design.” Each new proposal, syllabus, or reading list was submitted to review by a departmental meeting. Passage was no formality. Evaluation produced bracing conversations. I witnessed a junior feminist political theorist’s book selections being questioned by a senior conservative professor, who objected to her characterization of dead white male philosophers as “the patriarchs”, and described her proposed texts as “airport lounge literature.” Such opinions, just or bullying, would not be uttered in an American departmental meeting, where public debates over the content of one another’s courses  signal civil war.

Course design was collectivist, not just hierarchical. Senior colleagues  had their proposals evaluated, admittedly with delicate propriety by careerist juniors. Senior colleagues would pose tough questions on student-numbers, and consultation with other departments. “Allocating” students mattered, not “choice.” Inspection went further. There was genuine peer review: peers co-taught, co-chaired, co-examined. A young colleague, normally co-taught with a senior, i.e. was tacitly mentored. A “house-style” was imparted by presence, not by osmosis.

Hibritannia assumed students were educational inferiors,  too ignorant to have informed choices; that’s why they were at university. Customers were found in shops, not classes. Students would be guided on degree choices,  course “choices” would be strongly steered.

Students were expected to be mature enough to  select their choices of topics in each course, and their reading—individualism. Taking a degree was “reading”; a good student was in the library, and expected to deviate from (as well as use) a reading list. Contact-time was much less than in the US. Perhaps because  in Hibritannia the domestic students were not paying. They were the free students of the welfare state taught by publicly funded academics.

There was egalitarian equality of opportunity: the meritocratic final examinations,  blind, double-marked and impersonal. “Blind,” because  one did not know the questions in advance; “double-marked,” because papers were separately (and anonymously) examined by two examiners under a professional obligation to mark separately from  one another—they would meet to resolve differences;  “impersonal,” because students had an examination number, not a name, and their papers might be randomly  inspected by an external examiner (from another university, appointed for a limited term), whose task was “quality assurance.”

There was no GPA. The degree hierarchy mirrored the academic hierarchy. There  were five classes,  “firsts,” two types of “seconds,” “thirds,” and mere “passes” (as rare as Yorkshire wine), determined, normally, by having a certain number of examination papers graded at that class, with some support from the class below. Students could take some courses in which they did badly, without affecting their final degree classification—so late-developers and experimenters were rewarded.

Hibritannia is disappearing, under super-hierarchical bureaucratic regulations  to make teachers perform to planners’ objectives, presumably  “softening-up operations”—aversion therapy to accelerate privatization and marketization, which will lead to the US model.

What difference do these stereotypes make? By hypothesis,  US students are taking courses they want to take (by mid-semester), and are incentivized to get on well with their teacher—their sole final grader, barring semi-judicial appeals. They are partially graded for participation, so they participate. Too much, sometimes. They may not know their ignorance, and do not know so in the manner of Socrates, but  know they need to be noticed. They are easier to teach, provided they get what they shopped for.

In Hibritannia, students were more passive, recipients rather than participants. They could afford to be. They knew what mattered was performance at the end-of-year, especially final examinations. They could skip classes—attendance did not affect degree classifications. They could relax for their second year, and have fun. They were legally entitled to drink, but determining whether by contrast with their peers in the US that increased their alcoholic consumption, or their intellectuality, would require a generous research grant.

Brendan O’Leary is the Lauder Professor of Political Science; he is a graduate of Oxford and the London School of Economics (LSE).

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of theCollege of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 21, February 7, 2006


February 7, 2006
Volume 52 Number 21


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