Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Custom Worth Importing

Today was my introduction to the Abi-Scherz.

When I arrived at work this morning, all of the school’s entrances had been blocked off by people in white isolation suits and face masks, the kind health workers wear during outbreaks of epidemics. Several hundred students waited in line to have their bags searched, be frisked, and get spritzed with bottles of “disinfectant.” Someone gave orders through a megaphone. “You in the red shirt! Get to the back of the line. Pointing at the health inspectors and laughing will not be tolerated. This is a serious matter.”

The school, it seemed, had been exposed to a dangerous virus. Actually, several. In addition to bird flu, we had cases of swine flu and acute abiturientitis on our hands.

The health inspectors made me spin around in a circle a couple of times, rifled through my purse (“Kleenex? Have you been exhibiting cold symptoms?”), and sprayed my pants with water.

Although I wasn’t expecting this scene, I wasn’t too concerned. The white isolation suits appeared to be made of porous cotton gauze, and the “health inspectors’” poor posture and excessive eye make-up indicated that they were only 18 or 19 years old. This was a joke—an Abi-Scherz. The graduating 13th-graders had simply come up with a very creative way to delay the start of the school day.

Today is the last week of lessons for our Abiturienten—graduating 13th graders. After this they have several weeks to prepare for the Abitur. The Abitur is required for all students who attend a Gymnasium (college-preparatory school), and functions something like the American SAT: it’s a grueling multi-hour final exam that determines both whether the students qualify for a high school diploma and the right to attend university.

Traditionally, during the last week of school, the Abiturienten come up with creative ways to interrupt or delay lessons—hence the epidemic idea. Which I thought was great—it was certainly very creative, amused everyone (and hence put people in a good mood), and didn’t hurt anybody. To me, this seems like a custom that Americans might want to consider importing.

The Abi-Scherz idea strikes me as greatly preferable to the equivalent from my old high school. I attended Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, a multi-building school on steroids (when I was there, there were 4,700 students) located in the sprawling, faceless, and morbidly conformist unincorporated township of Canton, Michigan. Traditionally, on the last day of school graduating seniors would spray underclassmen with shaving cream, which hurts like a bitch if it gets in your eyes, ruins your clothes, and can eat the paint off your car. Some people also used whipped cream (not as damaging, though it does attract bees). One kid even brought in a spray bottle of Nair, a hair-removal product! Unimaginative and frankly, brutal. Even dangerous.

Where were the health inspectors???

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Also, She's FREE!!!

I just forgot to mention in my last post that, in case you hadn't heard, they let Jill Carroll go (daughter of my high school English teacher, Mary Beth Carroll)!!! And it sounds like she's unharmed.

This must be such a relief for her family.

Breaking the Silence

OK, I know I haven't written in a really really long time. As usual, my excuse is just that I've simply been too busy. Here's the update:

-I got into all three graduate programs I applied to. All offered me funding, but the amounts vary (of course). However, while that will be playing a role in my decision, it isn't everything.

-Two weeks ago I spent five days in the US visiting one of those three programs. On Friday I'm flying out again to visit another one. (They're paying for my travel expenses. Otherwise, there's no way I could go!) I hope to make my final decision while I'm out there. Since the deadline is April 15th, that will be cutting it a bit close!

Now I suppose I should (briefly) explain the American grad school application process, since there is nothing like it in Germany:

'Graduate school' refers to anything about a Bachelor's degree (the degree that most US college graduates earn-- for us it takes 4 years). In my case it refers to a Ph.D. program. However, since I do not yet have a Master's degree, I'll have to earn one of those first. Doing the coursework for the Master's degree will take 2 years. After that, I will have two years of coursework for the Ph.D., followed by about 2 years of writing my dissertation. Grand total: 6 years. A difference between the US and German systems: since graduate study takes longer in the US, you are not required to know your dissertation topic upon entering. I'll have about 3-4 years to figure that out. However, you do need to know what subject you want to study: you apply directly to the department or program, not to the university.

Applying to grad school is a lot like applying for a job. Unlike in Germany, where you just need a decent grade point average (from the Master's/Magister level) and the support of a sponsoring professor (Doktormutter/Doktorvater) to earn a Ph.D., in the US it is quite difficult to be accepted to grad school. Also, it is considered 'normal' to do your undergraduate and graduate work at two different universities.

The graduate school application process includes:

-Taking a 3-hour (or so) standardized test called the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), which tests knowledge in writing, mathematics, and English. Depending on what you want to study, you may also have to complete additional GRE subject tests. (I took care of the GRE back when I was in the US.)

-Writing a resume/curriculum vitae-- it's expected that you should have won scholarships and awards or presented research as an undergraduate, and you need to document that.

-You need three letters of recommendation from professors who worked with you as an undergraduate.

-You also need to write a Statement of Purpose: basically, an essay describing not only why you are well-suited to attend graduate school, but also why you think that the particular program you're applying to is right for you.

The programs pick and choose which applicants they want to accept-- they aren't required to accept all candidates who meet certain minimum qualifications. In addition, there is the question of funding: Not everyone who is accepted is offered financial support. Without an offer of financial support, you have to pay for tuition yourself (easily $20,000 a year). If you are offered financial support, you are exempt from paying tuition and also receive a small stipend (about $8-$18,000 a year) on which to support yourself. In return, you usually teach undergraduates or serve as a research assistant for a professor.

The point of visiting the programs is to see whether you fit into the department and get along with the people you want to work with. In general, American students have a LOT more contact with their professors than German students do, so it's important to make sure there wouldn't be major personality conflicts.

So, that's what applying to grad school is about, and why it's been eating up all my time and prevented me from blogging for the past two months!

In other news, I'm going to see Brokeback Mountain with my roommates today. Dubbed into German, which will be really weird. Especially since I read the original short story by Annie Proulx (in English, of course-- it's quite good, incidentally) so I have expectations about what Jack and Ennis are supposed to sound like. Hopefully they at least did a decent job translating the dialogue. I dislike dubbing. Why can't the Germans just use subtitles, the way the Dutch do? And might this extra exposure to English have something to do with the fact that the average Dutch person speaks better English than the average German does?

I'll try to write again soon. But probably not til I'm back from the Midwest.