It was my first day of classes since arriving in Denmark. My class was at 10 am. Fortunately, I got there early. The social science campus was huge and I had no idea what the numbers corresponding to my class meant. After wandering aimlessly I figured out that they corresponded to building-floor-room. That was easy enough. I found a map and then wandered the halls to what seemed like the right building. I got to my classroom and no one was there. I checked the schedule posted outside and my class was not listed. This was not what I had been hoping for. More aimless wandering followed. Eventually I found the information desk and they informed me that my class had been rescheduled to 2 pm and moved to a different classroom. For some reason the university had decided not to notify me.
When thinking about my exchange one of the last things on my mind was the actual academic side of things. Yes, I’d jumped through the appropriate hoops to get my courses recognized (including being on hold for almost an hour multiple times and emailing the vice-dean). I had thought loosely about what I wanted to take but ultimately I hoped it would be a vacation from the insane standards of North American universities. I tended to be that girl who disappeared into the library for the last month of school and was ready to think about exploring rather than thesis statements. It turned out that some of the biggest cultural shocks had to do with my classes and the way the university was set up.
Classes start 15 minutes after the posted time
When I did manage to show up to my class at the right time I also showed up early. By Canadian standards this meant arriving ten minutes before the scheduled time at 1:50 pm. To my surprise I was the first person there, as I tended to be. As it got closer to the hour more students trickled in but the room wasn’t even half full. In my mind I would give the prof had 15 minutes to show up and if they didn’t I got to leave. That was how it worked back home.
As students arrived at quarter past I realized that the rules here were different. For some reason all classes started at quarter past even though the time was listed at the hour. I never really managed to kick my punctuality and was always one of the first people to arrive.
One of my favourite things about the Danish university system is their fondness for coffee breaks. Every lecture of my political science class had a slide reading “Coffee Break!” My prof would excitedly announce the break as we scurried downstairs to buy inexpensive coffee from the campus snack place. Often times my other professor would make tea and coffee, and bring us snacks.
It would be unfair to say that my classes weren’t demanding in some ways, however, they were a lot less demanding than my North American classes. In my last semester of fourth-year I wrote about 150 pages worth of assignments and papers. The expectation was that assignments should take up a lot of my time. My friends and I were perpetually behind on our work. There was always something else that needed to be completed or read or studied for.
Scandinavian attitudes were very different. I spent less time in class (5 hours a week for the equivalent of 12 back home) and wrote one ten page paper. To make up for fewer hours spent in the classroom we had lots and lots of readings. It amounted to about 60 or 70 pages a week, and we were expected to be able to discuss all of them at our oral exams.
Instead of feeling like I was being throttled all the time the expectation was that relaxing and socializing were an important part of an education. I liked the more laid back pace. Life was something to be enjoyed and lived. Students were no exception to this.
In Canada your class is set at a specific time on a specific day and that is the only time a professor can expect you to be available. That is not the case in Copenhagen. My classes were rescheduled almost as often as they happened at the regular time. I would get an email ten minutes before class that it was cancelled or moved if there was any notice at all. Professors would be confused when you missed rescheduled classes because they were at inconvenient times. One week I forgot to go to my Thursday afternoon class because it had been so long since my class had actually been held on a Thursday afternoon.
I made one of my good friends on exchange because of this. We would both show up to class and when it turned out it was cancelled we would go hang out downtown instead.
After four years at a campus that was distinct and apart from the rest of my city it was weird not to have a campus in any meaningful way. Different faculties had buildings spread out throughout the city. You went to the ones that your classes were at and left when they were done.
When this was first brought up my class collectively tensed up. We had never done oral exams before. It seemed scary and a lot of pressure. Our entire mark would come down to a fifteen-minute conversation with the professor. It almost made me miss the three papers system. If you messed one up there was another one to average it out. What if we had a cold, or got asked a really hard question?
Overall it was fine. I probably over-studied. We were expected to know all 1200 pages of assigned readings well enough to discuss them. The fifteen minutes went by before I knew it. I was asked to wait outside and five minutes later I was told my mark. That was it.
Excursions, or as Ms. Frizzle would say field trip!, were commonplace in my classes. My political science class went on two separate field trips to the Danish parliament and my Danish religion class was invited to my professor’s church. My friends in the Danish architecture class went to visit several buildings instead of just talking about them. This kind of hands on learning was not a part of my Canadian university experience in any way.
All in all the differences between my exchange and the rest of my education were easy to adjust to. I liked the calmer pace, especially since it was assumed that none of us were there to spend all of our time writing papers. Most of what I learned was from living in an unfamiliar place where I didn’t speak the language or know how things worked.