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, November 03, 2005

Another Kind of Culture Shock

It's funny how after you've lived abroad for a while, things that used to make you stare (dogs in restaurants, naked people in political advertisements, etc.) become normal, and you think that culture shock is a thing of the past... but then you're suddenly thrust into a new situation, and your host country seems foreign again.

Something like this happened to me last week when I started taking classes at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universitat Münster.

I'm signed up for a seminar on German-Speaking Minorities Abroad. I figured there would be about 25-30 people in the course. There are at least 60. Which is to say, it is around 400% bigger than the German classes I took in the US (average class size: 15), and 600% bigger than my linguistics classes (average class size: about 10.) And, again, I want to emphasize that this is a seminar, not a lecture class (Vorlesung) in which you might reasonably expect to find 100 students or so. In a seminar, people are (supposedly) expected to participate in discussions, ask questions, create presentations, etc. How is this going to be possible with 60 people in the room? If I want to ask something, I won't even be able to get the professor's attention!

Which brings me to my next point. Expectations about participation are totally different. Basically, by American standards, German students are not expected to participate much. They come to class, sit quietly, and maybe ask for clarification. But my impression is that there isn't much emphasis placed on discussion, debating issues and so forth. The professors don't even randomly call on people to see whether the students are mastering the material.

Another weird thing: there is basically no homework. My professors in the US always at least assigned reading: 'please read pages 45-150, inclusive, and be prepared to discuss varieties of language contact on Monday.' Then, on Monday they would ask questions about pages 45-150 (inclusive), and if you couldn't answer them you'd lose paricipation points and end up with a C in the class. Here, they don't assign reading, they make reading suggestions. Sort of. (My impression is that the reading is only suggested for people who plan to their presentations on particular topics. But if I can, I want to do all of it anyway, because I like to be informed.) And there is no collected homework of any kind. The only assignments are either a 30-minute presentation or a 20-page paper, due at the end of the course. Really. That's it. (In the US, we have assignments like that, too-- but also lots of smaller assignments to go with them!)

My impression so far is that this is child's play.

This is very different, but I think I can get used to it.

But something else, which I don't like at all, is the amount of distance between students and faculty here. At my home university, professors were always encouraging us to go to their office hours-- to talk about the course topics, or sometimes just to chat. After a while we got to know each other, and I could ask things like 'How's your daughter doing?' or 'Did you have a nice time in Argentina?' In short, we treated each other like people. Academics in Germany seem to put themselves on a sort of pedestal. I can't imagine them attending their students' graduation parties, or even just chatting about the weather.

Another thing-- back in the US, I called all of my professors by their first names. Most of them insisted on it. For example, one guy, Dan, would actually correct you if you tried to call him Dr. S! He was a full professor, and nationally known in his field, but as far as I can tell he only used his title at conferences. Here, you have to call professors by multiple titles. 'Herr Doktor Professor S.' 'Mister Doctor Professor S.' This is their way of stressing that they are more important than you are.

Pompousity is the order of the day.

Things are different in my foreign language classes, because the instructors are 1. not tenured faculty and 2. not German. One of my Italian teachers isn't much older than I am. We call her by her first name, and she calls us 'ragazzi.' ('Guys' in Italian.) And the Dutch lady is, well, Dutch. It seems that the Dutch restrict formal forms of address to complete strangers and people they dislike.

But back to Italian. Last year, a German told me that Germans think Italian is an ugly or comical language, which I thought was really weird, since Americans consider it beautiful. But now I get it: as spoken by Germans, Italian is an ugly and comical language. I have a hard time understanding my classmates. I have to ask them to repeat themselves two or three times, so I've taken to feigning a mild hearing impairment. I figure that's more polite than saying 'I'm sorry, but I can't understand you because your accent is so bad.' The problem is that most of them can't produce an Italian R (a trilled or 'rolled' R produced on the back of your teeth). So instead they use a German R, which is basically a gargling sound. This sounds awful, and renders certain words unintelligible. (--Not that Americans learning Italian always have such great accents, either. Italian with an American R is just as unattractive, but it's easier for me to understand because I'm used to it.)

But it's doing good things for my self-esteem. After Italian class, I feel much better about my problems with German consonant clusters.


Blogger Anne said...

imagine how I felt having given up a semester at my nice little private college in the states to go to Uni Muenster...
Courses are about the same here in Munich, except class sizes are smaller. I think Muenster is just overcrowded. But being in a small class with German students who don't say a word doesn't improve matters much! Although it may be enough motivation for me to work up the courage to actually say something in class in German this time around!
Teaching in Munich has been really great, I like my schools and the other teachers. It's not hard to fall in love with Bavaria! You should make it down here sometime :)

10:54 PM  
Blogger Ada said...

Hi Anne-

I'm glad you're enjoying Bayern and TA-ing. I'll let you know if I head to Süddeutschland :)

Overcrowded is an understatement. A nice girl in one of my classes says that she actually has another seminar with over 100 participants! Yikes!

I'm looking forward to grad school in the States. One of the criteria I'm looking at is definitely program size!

9:40 PM  
Blogger nietzschenstein said...

well... this is definitely a german problem. in many of the bigger "Studiengänge" you are simply trying to get through somehow, without ever having any real contact with your profs...
but to be fair, it´s not that way everywhere. i got lucky with my philosophy and ancient history stuff in göttingen - the classes were comparatively small. but media studies on the other hand was terribly overcrowded.
but you have it better at most of your us-universities: i do my exchange year in the us at the university of california, santa barbara and still marvel at the great study conditions and the relaxed behavior of the faculty members towards their students...

this awful german professoral superstition nevertheless in my eyes is some kind of generation problem. the young scientists are more down to earth, although some of them during the years lose ground the same way as their mentors... and it is, sad but true, a good means to keep the hundreds of students in the courses at distance. no human being would be able to handle so many people AND doing research AND doing "akademische Selbstverwaltung" AND have something like a private life...


8:55 AM  
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