Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Klausur in Göttingen

[ Testing in Göttingen ]

And so a one week pause turned into two... but it has been a time a big changes once again in Germany. My semester at the university was wrapping up, and that left me with about two weeks of different final assignments and tests to prepare for and turn in. In between some lecture-note skimming, I tried my best to provide my friend Galina, visiting before her semester abroad in Paris, an enjoyable visit in Göttingen and Niedersachsen. Somehow I was also running around town still taking care of paperwork for UofM [ I am all for "taking the road less traveled by", but you never exactly free, especially with UofM financial aid offices running after you not understanding that I am still a student and therefor don't have to pay my university debt yet. ]

All the while Inge and Andreas were preparing for their big excursion to visit friends in New Zealand - a trip that have had planned for months - and the house has calendars and travel guides scattered around as little reminders to them as they count down the days. While they enjoy summer in the southern hemisphere I am moving in by a friends house who I met through Moritz, Hans and the Deinzer family, who are also good friends of the Sebode's. Everything feels less stressful when you write it down [hence my desk here in Germany scattered with multiple checklists...], but I must admit that the past few weeks did take a toll on me, but it is good to be back now to string together the loose ends that occurred in the past few days [there were still fun moments! many of them]. I am moving into phase three of this year, and ultimately I feel like the "real" experience of this year in Germany is just beginning.

[ Central campus at Georg-August - Göttingerplatz 7]

Backtracking a bit, there were many interesting observations I made while going through testing at the University. For better or for worse, the testing is not in one big-bang "finals week" like it generally is in the US, with students filling the Ugli at UofM until 3 am, downing espressos like marathon water-cups. The semester ended in early February, and then there is now just a large period [ extremely large I must say - the "semester" goes until the end of March]. This means that the testing could go until that time. Fortunately for me, my tests were early on [ and I have found the later dates to be final graduation based examinations that students find a few weeks to study - or take a break - before their hours long examinations].

As I have noted throughout the semester, many of my classes were graded based on large presentations or papers. Most of them were a large portion, if not my entire grade, for the semester course. This was one of the largest differences from my education in the US. One example that opened my eyes to this was in my European Union course. This course had a very diverse student body from many different countries [ many through the "EuroCulture" program] and at the end of the semester the professor asked us what could be done better next time since it was still a new course offering. Some German students and other European students requested the extra reading to be distributed before the lectures to be more in-tune with the topic in comparison to reading more after the fact. Others commented on more input from the professor during student speeches to note the most vital points. All valid opinions that I agreed with. Then, another American girl rose her hand. I don't know if I had already become used to the European system this deep into the semester, but her question even shocked me:

"Um, well, I would really find it beneficial if we had, like, 5 question quizzes at the beginning of every class. That way we would know that we read the assigned reading thoroughly enough..."

...or something along those lines. I am not shy to say that some of the European students in the room were outright scoffing and laughing in the background. I was even amused. I guess after the fact, I understood her reasoning - readjusting to my "American perspective" - that from the views of an American student, whereas it may seem tedious, small steps, be it tests, reading guides or homework assignments to self asses our progress is something that we find very natural in an educational setting. For many Europeans - and as I have become very quickly accustomed to experiencing it here at Georg-August Göttingen - this concepts is very rudimentary and "high school" and university level education, especially higher level, like this course was, depends heavily on the students personal drive to learn the subject as in-depth as they could. [ to make this debate a little more even, observing this EU class as an example, since our grade depended on a paper and presentation - both on the same topic we chose from the syllabus - essentially our grade was only on one week's worth of material in the coursework, and the rest was dependent on our own interest, no grading or pressure at all in terms of our transcripts ].

To put this in another perspective, one of my politics courses was led by a professor that had studied and assistant-taught in Michigan, coincidentally, for an entire year. She actually had a very comforting north-US accent highlighting her speech which I found very neat. After class one day we were talking about some of the interesting events that I noticed in the course over the semester. It was a small class, so keep that in mind, and imagine the professor at the board discussing how the US Declaration of Independence is set up philosophically to create a broad statement by the people of the US colonies, and then back it up with specific points, to return to a broad statement of declaring independence - I am not a philosophy person, but she connected this somehow to Plato, and then one student just blasted out "Das ist falsch!" - right in the middle of the lecture - "that's incorrect!". I would say that in the US, in a lecture setting where the professor definitely expects a certain level of respect, this situation would have been very confrontational, and probably not received well. I won't say that the professor in Germany wasn't at first taken aback, but she gladly received the criticism and talked through the discrepancy, even though the student blatantly called out her interpretation as blasphemy before the entire lecture.

Another situation, in the same course, was equally eye-opening to me. The professor was in the heart of a concept she was explaining - admittedly about 5-7 minutes over the time of the class - and one student grabbed his backpack, walked right passed her and the blackboard [ the only path in this particular classroom] and left the room - essentially punctuating the professor mid sentence. The situation didn't seem to phase others, but for me I was confused- I can understand sneaking out of a 200 person lecture hall - but if I were sitting again in English 125 with my GSI Helen Ho in our small 20 person class, and just walked out on her mid sentence, I probably could say Tschüβ to any redeemable student/prof relationship in the future.

I talked to professor Rosenhagen after class that day mentioning my surprise as an American of these German student traits that I had heard about [acceptance to argue with a professor during a lecture, or feeling a bit more independence in the classroom ] but was more surprised to actually witness. She had her own ideas, especially after having experience from teaching in the states. She said that the University system in Germany, costing individuals much less money than an American institution of the same caliber [ 500 Euro tuition vs several thousands for a semester in the US] does have an impact on the respect seen around campus and to education in general. In defense of Germany, I do find the confidence to truly debate with a professor and therefor learn more by opening new arguments very admirable. There are times in the US [ especially in, say, the PoliSci department... ] where the professor/GSI says it and it is it, no if ands or buts, which could evolve into robotic essay writing rather than analytical critique on issues.

Naturally there are Germans I have met that love their University system [ and throw in some despise for the American system since it is "modernizing" the European Union system in current politics, changing some major organization in terms or receiving credit, diplomas etc. ] and I also love Ann Arbor and my system back home as well, but each system has its faults, and its positive aspects, some of which I have noted in the situations above.

Another issue that has dumbfounded me in my attempts to stay organized this semester is the concept of the "Schein". This system, altering now with the EU changes, is the traditional German University credit system where a student takes a class, then must sign up for the test [ it wasn't just de-facto that a student must take an exam?! I guess not, in some cases you can take a class for say 3 credits, and then take the exam for a potential 3 more...], and once the class was completed, it was signed and stamped by the professor with a grade. The student collects these, turns them in to registrar counselors, and the transcripts are then tabulated together. I was very lucky to have my Uni-tutor, a very friendly girl named Katherina, help me through the process registering for exams much like she helped me get through the paperwork for initial registration. I remember one of my first days in DC at my pre-departure seminar, where we were informed to collect "die Teilnahmebescheinigungen" [ it already looked like the longest word I had ever seen...] which essentially was certificates of participation that I had to collect to prove my attendance at the university. All these steps were good learning processes for me, and a very different [ very bureaucratic ] system to get to understand.

My exams went well and the semester seemed to come to an end just as fast as it started. Even though it felt fast, skimming the last few weeks of blog throughout the semester, there were plenty of stressful moments making speeches auf Deutsch, writing papers, becoming upset at heated debates and so forth. I have made some great friends at the univeristy, and of course it is a central part of Göttingen, so I will be passing it a lot, but I must say I will probably miss the feeling of being a student there. I enjoyed reading on the third floor of die SUB [ The library - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek ] looking out the window over Göttingerplatz 7, or passing by friends in the computer labs to share a quick hello. My daily schedule will be changing again - no more late night Japanese or handball in the mix or running from one lecture to the next - but it was definitely all a very good experience for me. This observational post was long, but it is surely only a small portion of the many situations I witnessed around the "Uni" during my time there - many events missing, like my visits to the English workshop sessions or other seminars around the campus. I probably will even miss knocking our knuckles on the desks [ substitute for clapping ] after a lecture was finished and everyone filed out of the ridiculously narrow desk rows that only had enough room to wedge your knees into. All in all, after my many adventures already abroad, I can now officially say that I just completed my first semester as an official exchange student.