The Hungarian University

I began teaching on Tuesday at the University of Szeged. I am teaching, for the American Studies Department, an undergraduate lecture course (on American Holidays) with about 24 students, and a graduate seminar (on American Material Culture) with 4 students. The students, thus far, do not strike me as all that different from American university students. Although I’ve been told they are less likely to talk and more deferential, I asked questions in the lecture and got responses, so I haven’t noticed this so far. One difference in going to teach is that the classrooms are kept locked, and the professor must sign out the key from the front security desk before each class. My classes are in very nice “smart rooms” with computer, projector, etc., similar to those at Fredonia.

There are some profound and interesting differences between American and Hungarian course structure, teaching styles, and examinations and assignments. Some background: a bachelor’s degree here is a three-year degree, with 180 credit hours, as opposed to the 120-hour standard four-year program in the U.S.  (A masters’ degree requires another 60 credits, compared to generally 30 in the U.S.) So their credit hour system is a bit different than ours, and the students take far more classes per semester than American students do. Classes meet just once a week, for 90 minutes total, and the semester is 14 weeks long. Given that, on a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule at Fredonia each class is 80 minutes, you can see that there is much less teaching time over the course of the semester here. This makes sense, considering the higher number of classes and credits the students take, although it has required me to reorganize and cut parts of my courses.

Aside from the scheduling and time of courses, there are strict definitions of the types of courses. There are two basic types: lecture and seminar. Lecture classes are to consist pretty much solely of lectures. Attendance at lectures is not mandatory. You assign the students readings, and can certainly try to have them discuss them, but you cannot grade them on this. In fact, their sole grade in the class comes from a final examination, which may be oral or written. Of course, you test them on the readings and your lectures.

The examination system is worth its own paragraph. Students are allowed to take an examination up to three times to improve their grades. So rather than one examination week, as at Fredonia, there are weeks of examinations. Classes end on Dec. 5, and the exam period runs from Dec. 7-23, and from Jan. 4-22. Then there is a “repeat exam period” from Jan. 25-29. You may choose to give your students oral examinations (about 15 minutes) or written examinations (I am not sure of the length of these). The professor is supposed to have set times each week during the exam period when she will give examinations. Believe me, I am thoroughly confused by all of this, but Réka, my wonderful department chair and friend, has assured me she will guide me through these unfamiliar waters. I have chosen, upon Réka’s advice, to give oral examinations. This should prove interesting, as my only previous experience with this type of exam is my oral exams in graduate school. Distilling an entire course to a 15-minute exam seems challenging, to say the least!  Oh, and you must tell the student his/her grade immediately afterward.

You might be thinking that such a system puts a great deal of stress on students, and I am told that it does, but here’s the thing:  This system is also what the students want. Believe me, professors would not have dreamed up such a system. Professors are not allowed to have other assignments or midterms for grading; or, more accurately, they may do so but the students can refuse to do them or file a complaint. I guess the stress of the all-powerful final exam is relieved by the potential to spread it over many weeks, and retake and retake to improve one’s grade. This, too, is at the students’ insistence, I am told. Far be it from me to criticize another system, but this system seems to be a difficult one for students and professors alike. This exam system is one reason I am staying until the end of January. Many Fulbright profs cannot do so, as they must teach in January. In this case, someone else must give their exams (written) and scan and send them on for grading. As you may imagine, neither the students nor the professors like that much.

There are lecture courses at both the undergrad and graduate level, by the way. The other type of course, also available at both the undergraduate and graduate level, is the seminar. My graduate course is a seminar. Seminars are run pretty much like seminars at U.S. universities. You are required to have at least three grading components (e.g., discussion, papers, presentations) and the classes are discussion-based rather than lecture. You do not have a final examination, but the papers must be due by the last week of class and you must turn in your grades that week. In other words, I will be done with that class by the first week in December.

So there it is, your introduction to the Hungarian university system. As I always say, when in Rome . . . Part of the adventure of the Fulbright is encountering very different systems, and being reminded  that American norms and ideas about pedagogy are norms in the United States only! I believe that the Hungarian system is more along typical European lines, but I don’t have enough familiarity with other European universities to be sure. Given that they are part of the Erasmus system, which allows students from European universities to take courses at universities in other countries, I would assume that Hungary’s system cannot be too different than other European universities, at any rate.

I met a couple of American study-abroad students the other day (from Wisconsin), and I cannot help but wonder how they will adjust to this system! In any case, I have embarked on my Hungarian teaching adventure, and I will keep you posted of any new and interesting developments.

Dugonics Ter
U-Szeged Main Admin. bldg, Dugonics Ter

2 thoughts on “The Hungarian University”

  1. Hey Ellen!

    I’m VERY late to the game here, but have been preoccupied with home renovations and manuscript research & writing. I also, for some reason, thought the emails you were sending about the immigration situation were blogs!

    Anyways, I thought I’d respond to this post since I can certainly comment on comparing university systems in Europe. What you described is EXACTLY what I encountered at the University of Graz (formerly the Karl-Franzens Uni) in Austria (an Erasmus campus) as an exchange student in 1998. I took six courses and they were divided equally between lectures and seminars (although I remember something called a “Proseminar” which was different than a “Seminar” … I can’t recall the difference between the two).

    As a Canadian student who had to write papers, participate in discussions, and take midterms and final exams in ALL my classes, I was totally baffled by the Lecture course where I only had to show up once a week and take a 15 min oral exam in January! Unfortunately, it made me quite lazy. It felt like an extended vacation! I never had so much fun as spending time with all the exchange students going hiking, walking around Graz, drinking, and planning trips to eastern and southeastern Europe! The Seminar classes were more difficult, but this is because they were conducted in German, so it was mostly me struggling to follow along as best I could. The profs were also lenient with my written work and spoken contributions given the language barrier. I can remember my Austrian politics course professor quizzing me on Canadian contributions to world culture instead of Austrian political parties and systems!

    All in all, however, my semester in Graz remains one of the happiest periods of my life!

    1. Hey Steve, I didn’t know you had spent a semester abroad. It sounds fun. Looking at the kids here, I certainly wish I’d done it when I was in college. But hey, I’m doing it now. Yeah, the system is very strange for these lectures; odd to boil everything down to a 15 minute oral exam. I have been surprised that as many students come to lecture as do, since attendance isn’t required. Strange system. I am hoping I can get most of them to do the exam in December, so I don’t have too many in January. The extended exam period is crazy, in my view, and really hard on profs!

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