Global Issues - A Yankee Engineer
in Queen Elizabeth´s Court

U.S. Educators find challenging and fulfilling teaching assignments on the other side of the Atlantic.

By Thomas K. Grose

Illustration by Jim DandyLONDON-Shortly after moving to London for a two-year-long sojourn at Imperial College, Steven Chapra, a University of Colorado environmental engineering professor, realized he needed to buy a tuxedo-a bit of wardrobe he had done very nicely without back in Boulder, where jeans and hiking boots were the fashion norm. But here, he and his wife kept getting invited to fancy black-tie do's. Like the time Chapra's boss at Imperial's civil engineering department, who plays the violin, invited his colleagues to one of his orchestra's gigs: Queen Elizabeth's 50th wedding anniversary celebration at Windsor Castle. At the party, the Chapras found themselves engaging in small talk with Her Majesty.

Yes, life in Britain can be a somewhat different experience for visiting U.S. academics. Though a professorial existence here is hardly an endless series of soirees, balls, and royal encounters, for an American, the novelty of experiencing life in a familiar-yet-foreign country like Britain can be fun. As well as a lot of work.

Last year, when Scott Fogler, a University of Michigan chemical engineering professor, needed five months to write the third edition of his seminal text, Elements of Chemical Reaction in Engineering, he chose to spend it at London's University College. "London is just a wonderful place to get away from things," Fogler says. "Every so often you need to break the mold, get out of the rut, and do something creative to sharpen the saw." Though he worked until 8 o'clock nearly every night, he and his wife still found time to take in many of the city's sites.
While there are no available statistics, it's clear that Chapra and Fogler are hardly anomalies. A sizable number of U.S. engineering educators regularly spend anywhere from a few months to a few years living and working in Old Blighty. Besides the personal gratification they enjoy, these professors also get an opportunity to compare and contrast the U.S. university system to that of the United Kingdom.

And certainly, differences abound.

Old World Charms and Challenges

Illustration by Jim DandyThose profs who are teaching or lecturing find they spend much less time with their students. The British system of higher education requires students to be self-starters. They receive little guidance or feedback from their instructors. Students here do not have GPAs, and there is no continual assessment of their work. There are no midterm exams, no spot quizzes, no homework. Instead, there is one final exam per course (and no electives) and students receive a single cumulative grade. At a U.S. university, a student typically can expect to attend about 12 lectures a week; here, he or she will go to just eight. And terms are shorter-just eight weeks in length; a U.S. semester typically lasts 14.

Many U.S. teachers like the autonomy that the British system gives to students. "Students have to learn on their own without being force-fed," Fogler contends. "There are big pluses for that system." The downside is that middling-to-weak students may not know that they're flunking until it's too late. The U.S. system of continual monitoring allows instructors to identify students who are floundering and in need of special help.

Ed Cussler, a University of Minnesota chemical engineering professor who is midway though a year teaching at Cambridge University, agrees. "The bulk of my students at Minnesota would have trouble here, [because] they're so used to having very careful supervision as they go along," Cussler explains.

Chapra notes that he had regular office hours back at Colorado, and most of his students would come in at some point during a term for a discussion. "Here, they are reluctant to do that," he says. "I had office hours and no one showed up. There is more of a hierarchy between professors and students." Cambridge and Oxford universities, however, do have a mandatory tutoring system where a teacher meets twice a week with two students at a time.

Jim Hansen is a U.S. Rhodes Scholar who last year received his Ph.D. in geophysical engineering from Oxford's Merton College. He often served as a tutor during his years at Oxford. "I loved it," Hansen says. "It was teaching rather than entertaining, which is about all a big lecture can be." In fact, big lectures are rarer here. Cussler, 58, regularly lectured 150 to 180 students at a time in Minnesota; here he talks to no more than 20 at a time.

Uniform Grading
The British equivalent of an A, the First Class Honor, means generally the same thing at Cambridge as it does at Nottingham as it does at Kent. But what constitutes A, B, or C work may vary greatly from campus to campus in the States. Chapra was impressed with the rigorous system of auditing departments here, which is supervised by the government but carried out by professors and department heads from other schools. Not only are grades reviewed, but each department is rated and awarded stars, and competition for four or five stars is stiff. "The quality control is superb," Chapra says. "And it is a very positive process. It's not punitive or negative."

Chapra, however, thinks there are inherent weaknesses in the cutthroat Anglo method of allowing only the best students to thrive. It means, for one thing, that there are fewer engineering Ph.D.s awarded here-not nearly enough to satisfy the increasing demands of industry. And while Chapra is impressed with the caliber of British students, he thinks even the best and brightest would perform better if they were pushed a bit more.

Slower Pace, Lower Status
U.S. professors find British academic life a bit laid-back. "For me, the workload is easier here," Chapra, 50, says. Of course, British profs earn much less money, too. Howell says that chemical engineering professors in Britain are at the bottom of the academic heap when it comes to remuneration, while American engineering educators earn as much or more as their private-sector colleagues. The unfortunate result, Howell says, is that top British Ph.D.s in his field often head for industrial careers, forgoing academia. Another explanation for that brain drain may be a lack of academic opportunities. In each department here it's rare to have more than one full professor-and he or she is usually the head. There are no assistant or associate professors, either. Instead, there are lecturers and readers. As Chapra notes, a department may have five good people, all doing the work of a professor, without benefit of the title.

Change of Pace
U.S. professors find, however, that they do good work here. Cussler has developed a new chemical product design course while at Cambridge and will take it back to Minnesota. He is  also coauthoring the course's textbook while here. Chapra has created a model that examines the history of the River Thames from the 1950s to now. (He calls it a real success story of water management: "Thirty years ago it was an open sewer.") He's also moonlighted as a corporate consultant on the Continent.

And their time here also makes U.S. educators appreciate just how different and foreign a country Britain can be. Because the United States and the United Kingdom share a common language and have long been allied, there's a tendency for U.S. professors to view Britain as the 51st state. "It is definitely foreign here, as foreign as living in, say, Paris," says Chapra, who admits that that finding was a revelation for him.

Certainly, many Americans jump at the opportunity to teach here. And some even decide to stay. Jim Hansen, 29, the Rhodes Scholar, who did his undergraduate work at Colorado, secured a job just as his student visa was expiring. He's at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, near Oxford, doing climate-change research. "I just love it here," the Seattle native enthuses.

Lessons and Souvenirs

Most U.S. educators, of course, return home-but even they bring a bit of Britain back with them. Chapra is tempted to do less "spoon-feeding" of his American students, but suspects the British hands-off teaching method won't work in the States. "The U.S. system is much more reward-oriented . . . Maybe that reflects the differences in our economic systems."

But Chapra has definite plans to emulate his British colleagues by relaxing more often. "British professors certainly work hard enough, but they don't seem as driven as their American counterparts," he observes. "They seem to have more balance and perspective in their professional and personal lives."

I actually think that my performance could improve if I take a little time to smell the roses now and then," Chapra adds.

Spoken like a true Brit.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in London.

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