By Aristotle Vossos, from our partners at The Sundial Press, the student newspaper of the Reims campus.
Most Sciences Po students have felt a crippling workload, been hit by three presentations in the same week, and faced 2000-word essays due a day before finals. But does that make Sciences Po academically challenging? We are overloaded with too many classes and too many readings, which make our academic experience challenging simply in terms of volume. But that isn’t what makes an institution truly academically challenging.
How academically challenging a university or program is depends on the quality (i.e. content) of what is being studied rather than the quantity. In Sciences Po’s case, it portrays itself as academically challenging by assigning hundreds of pages of readings each week. But what would make it truly academically rigorous would be requiring students to engage with the texts they’re reading and critically analyze them. The problem at Sciences Po is that in theory, this is what students are doing. In practice, students are overloaded with countless readings that often do little to further their understanding of a topic. Students fall into the routine of chugging through readings, and ultimately learn little.
I am not here to speak up against giving students too much work. When assigned so much work students tend to simply chug through it, doing one reading after another, retaining little information, and most importantly, ending up with little to no free time left to deepen their knowledge or critically engage with the subject. Students learn little when reading through hundreds of pages each day, their minds set only on finishing one reading to move on to the next.
Education should change students. You should not be the same person when you leave a class as when you entered it. This involves exposing students to texts and ideas that they disagree with and otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. Most importantly, students should engage with this material and discuss it. Again, this is something that we attempt to do at Sciences Po but fail to accomplish for two main reasons. The first is that we do not have the time to truly reflect on what we’re studying and the second is that what we’re reading is not always conducive to reflection. I would argue that many of the assigned readings actually offer little in terms of added knowledge to the student. One could obviously argue that the teachers know best, and though we may not see it, the readings do serve a purpose – from personal experience, I disagree.
In my first semester at Sciences Po, I did few of my readings. In my second semester, I pushed myself and overall, I would say that I completed 70% of the reading material. In my third semester, I read over 90% of the required material for my classes. Yet my grades were the highest in the second semester, and I also felt the most prepared for my exams in that same semester. There are several factors that could have influenced this – my teachers, the classes I took, the difficulty of the final exams, etc. I would argue that by not overloading myself with too many readings, I was able to actually process what I was reading and learn from it. Furthermore, by not doing all the readings, I was able to focus only on the ones that mattered.
I would summarize the workload at Sciences Po best by saying that it doesn’t make you think. We read through hundreds of pages each week yet retain little of what we’ve read. And ultimately, most readings are of little use to us. Few exam questions center specifically on the readings, and the teacher tends to review them in class anyway, allowing the students to pick up on the important points. So, what would a better system look like? First of all, we should have a lighter workload to be able to spend more time actually learning the material in each class. Secondly, the readings should always add to the student’s understanding of the class and allow them to reflect on the main topics discussed. This goes hand in hand with the reduced workload: by only assigning readings that matter, professors can avoid having students spend hours reading pointless material. Overall, such an approach would allow for a truly academically challenging environment, as students would have to fully understand what they were studying rather than memorizing a few key points.
Aristotle Vossos is a second year students who likes to criticize Sciences Po and anything Sciences Po related. When not doing that he likes to criticize France. And when not doing that he’s either drinking or sleeping.