Undercover Econ Student: What I've Learnt
Studying abroad in Brussels has been full of learning curbs and jokes lost in translation. But, one of the massive advantages of taking this year out, to improve my French by whatever means possible, includes having free reign on what subjects to take. At Durham I’m a combined honours student, this basically means I study all my favourite modules and then have to pull together a thread to justify it. Over two years I’ve become a master at taking random modules and then relating them to one another. Yet, there were a couple subjects that I struggled to slot into my timetable at Durham and have been wanting to take for years now – Philosophy and Economics.
First semester in Brussels I kept it pretty simple with modules in French language and translation. As well as, a few beginners History of Art classes to see what the level of French in lectures were and to build my confidence up. But, as I’m writing this, I’m now halfway through the second semester where I truly let my intellectual wings fly. The result? Freshers economics courses, political theory and even a psychology module - I just couldn’t help myself. Now, I learnt early on that each department has their own stereotypes but economics classes have been the most eye-opening by a mile.
Picture this: I’m waking up at 6:30 on a rainy Tuesday in January to squeeze in my morning routine before my inaugural Introduction à MacroEconomie or Macro 101. Rushing out the door I’m running a little late so I was relieved when I’d arrived before the professor. Typically, Belgian classes start 5-10 minutes late – a nice change from some of my classes that started before the hour in second year. Looking around I’m in an auditorium surrounded by over 300 rowdy students. To put this in perspective, the largest lecture in my first two years at Durham had max. 100 people. Not only is the room packed and uncomfortably hot from the number of 18 year-olds there who are really loud for the time of the day. Talking to a Belgian girl in front of me I worked out that not only is this module compulsory for those hoping to major in economics, but a lot of the business and politics courses also advise students to take it. Knowing this I was surprised the auditorium wasn’t more than half full. Laughing she assured me it had been significantly busier last semester for Micro 101 and that was probably because it had been an afternoon class. As an aside: 8am lectures should be illegal.
Long story short the lecturer didn’t turn up, which was disappointing considering my early rising. I packed up my laptop and went to sit in a café to kill time before starting work. Macro 101 has four hours of lectures in a week AKA one module has the equivalent of half of my total weekly contact hours from last year! The second lecture slot was Fridays at 12 o’clock and I suspected the attendance would be worse not better. You see, most Belgians go home at the weekend and right before the weekend campus is awash with students lugging suitcases across the pavement. Normally, with a half finished cigarette in one hand - but that’s a conversation for another day. My first official economics class started at approximately 12:12 and what followed was a 10-minute apology from the professor with an explanation about scheduling complications blah blah blah. What the poor 18 year-olds were most excited about was his apology present of hundreds of Belgian truffles – I could get used to him cancelling classes.
Starting out I'm not gonna lie it was pretty hard to follow. Beyond the expectation that everyone there had done the compulsory Micro course last semester (oops), the lecturer had a pretty thick Belgian accent that was cracking a bit from a lingering cold. He started with an explanation of the history of Economics as a subject and I'm not gonna lie it's a baby compared to something like Philosophy or History. I think my two main takeaways from the first class was how American-focused it was with la grande dépression and Wall Street being thrown around a lot - including the essential reference to Keynesian economics. The second main takeaway is what I probably should've known, but the assumption that the system is the best we can do and therefore we just need to learn how best to manage it. You're probably not surprised to hear that most of my professors in French and History are left-leaning - to say the least! I don't know if this was just the ULB lecturer but all my lectures so far have been undeniably right wing and even the lecture about public spending only mentioned social system as having a negative impact on the economy. Echoes of it's the economy stupid rung round my ears. Beyond my initial surprise, it was refreshing to have alternative perspectives on some of the 20th century politics I'd only studied through a socialist lens at Durham.
So, why have I kept going to classes? Put simply, it's nice to see how the other half lives. Yes, I still struggle to concentrate with two hours back to back. Yes, I can handle the numbers and specialist terms like agrégat, PNB and taux d'intérêt. But, it's all a bit more boring than I'm used to. Not to mention 18-year-olds economics students are really obnoxious. I can't tell you how many times the lecturer has had to stop because the chatters gotten too loud or the smell of someone's packed lunch has distracted me. Last week, someone walked in 45 minutes late. I don't know if this is generalisable across all sciences, but in my experience humanities students are pretty quiet and normally early. I guess with only having a few lectures we treasure them more? All in all, I could see myself in another life as a PPE student: crunching the numbers, complaining about the workload and inevitably going on to work in the city. I definitely am glad that I'm more well-informed about how the economy works and I think everyone could benefit from an introduction to these kind of issues. At the very least I now feel more confident when inflation comes on BBC news. That being said, what I realised quite soon on is how I've now learnt all these terms in French and so might need Google Translate next time I debate with my brother.
Above all, I think whatever subject we're studying it's important to find the fun and passion for it in what you do. I have friends that curse the day they ever chose to study History and likewise I know super over-worked STEM students who don't regret a thing. Life's too short to curse the path you've chosen. Everything considered contrary to popular opinion I believe most of my humanities friends could more than handle an economics module or two and some of the snobbery around subjects makes me sad. Student-on-student crimes have definitely been committed. I like to keep well-informed with these issues and have more business experience than the average, but unsurprisingly a lot of my humanities module have an economic element. From how the roaring twenties impacting to American art community to real wages pre-Industrial revolution. Can't we all just enjoy our degrees and stop judging one another? I know it's hard when you see me studying in bed and turning up 10 minutes late to my only lecture of the day about 19th century cultural history when you started at 9 and won't be finishing your labs until 6. But, I don't have any bad blood - truce?
All my love, Sam