Traveling Companions

Coming back by train from Magdeburg I was looking forward to a quiet trip. It was quite late - 10 pm - and the train was thankfully empty. Unfortunately, my laptop had not reloaded during my talk, so I didn't have much juice. But I had a table to myself and lots of other stuff to read.

Then we pulled into Werder. There were masses of humanity on the platform.
Oh oh, the Fruit Tree Bloom Festival, a yearly piss-up.

I braced myself, as the hoards approached. The singing guys luckily went upstairs (and no, they were not singing the Divine Office). A mass of American Students from Michigan descended on the downstairs, with one woman sitting at my table. An older German gentleman joined us.

I was deep in reading internship reports when I realized the German man was trying to speak with the girl from Michigan. He was trying to figure out where she was from, but was speaking with a very, very thick accent. "Breetish? Australia? Polski?" The girl realized what he was asking and said "USA".

Oh my, that unleashed a long string of names of things he could think of! "Germantown, there are Germantowns in the US, and people used to speak German". "The Amish and the Mormons, do you know them?" (he was, of course, speaking German). He went on and on, listing names of things and associations he had, until he finally hit "Obama". And she and her companions repeated the name and giggled. He smiled and continued on ranting about how he had learned only Russian in school.

I took pity and asked the girl where they were from. Turned out to be a group of students studying landscape architecture that had been touring Europe together. I translated for the German man, but that just made him more talkative.

I tried to hide in my report, but no, he kept on, talking up a storm. In Potsdam the American students left, so he focused his attention on me. I finally gave up, put the report in my bag, and closed my eyes for a nap.

A sharp rap of the head of the guy sitting behind me banging on the back of my seat shook me awake. And I realized my stockings were getting wet, as he was in the process of throwing up. I gathered my belonging, but one direction was blocked by a girl riding her scooter. So I went the other direction - bad choice. I landed in a group of singers.

They sang many sexually offensive songs, very loud and very off key. They spoke very loudly of their supposed sexual conquests. And then Barfo and his buddy got up (their seats were now rather uncomfortable) and lurched in my direction. Barfo's friend had a Hertha scarf on, so the singers started to sing nasty songs about Hertha losing the soccer game and having to go down to the minor leagues. As I tried to disappear into the corner, the wine bottles in my bag clanked. "Alcohol, alcohol, we need more alcohol," the singers chanted. No, I don't think so.

I prayed for the next station, asap.

We made it without Barfo doing his thing again, and I got away as fast as I could. There is something to be said for traveling by car.


I couldn't find the homework!

Oh dear.

In addition to my beginners, I also have a Master's Seminar this semester. It's a shocker, only 2 hours meeting a week, but 5 credits, so this means slogging on at home for another 6-7 hours a week. Slogging as in "reading some stuff in English" and "working through a problem" and "writing a report in complete sentences".

There are a few people who graduated from our school. They know I mean business, and submit lovely reports on time. From the rest I got bullet lists, half-pages, and then the kicker today: "I couldn't find the homework!"

Let's see. We have a syllabus that was presented the first day of class. There is a schedule there, linked to all the homework and reading. This is linked from my homepage. There is a link from here to our Moodle room. But oh my, there is no link back to the syllabus from Moodle! And I had given the link in the first week's exercise, as an added help. The exercise was called: Lab1.html. Can you guess what the second exercise is called?

Guess I'd better get the Moodle room updated...


I can't find my class!

A translation of an email I received last night (a Wednesday):

Dear Mrs. MisspelledAssociateDean,
I have a question about my schedule. I registered for English with Mrs. B last week, it is Wednesdays at 11.30. There is supposed to be a section with Mrs. K in the afternoon, but I can't find it on my schedule. Can you please help me?
Uh, no. We have this thing called a computerized schedule. When I look back through our long correspondence that you kindly attached to the email, I find one bizarre letter after another.

She tried to call the guidance counselor to figure out her schedule. They only provide guidance, not schedules. She asked me if I could please make a pdf of her schedule and send it to her. I requested that she look at the online schedule system. She couldn't deal with following the instructions. She has to work (during her first semester) and needs that schedule RIGHT NOW. But she is not sure which program she was admitted to.

I have patiently tried to explain that this is her job to find out. Attending orientation will be a big help. Oh, and each study program has people who help the beginners learn to tie their shoelaces and blow their noses. The dean's office is responsible for other problems, like no electricity or missing toilet brushes or finding teachers.

Next time, dear, I'm afraid I won't be so polite.


The First Exercise in Programming

Wading through the grading for the first exercise in Programming 1, I have some suggestions for my froshers:

  1. Putting your name on your report will help get you the credit for your work. Adding the name of the class and the date are also good ideas.
  2. Using a spelling checker is a very good idea. You can check the spelling of names with the Wikipedia.
  3. Proofreading what you submit might be helpful.
  4. Bullet lists do not count as complete sentences.
  5. Constantly referring to the teacher by name does not get you extra points.
  6. Yes, a screen shot or two is nice. No, a report that consists only of screen shots is not okay.

Hippie Clothes

Teenage Girl called this afternoon. They are having "Hippie Day" this week at school. Her parents are throw-away types, so there is just nothing to be had at home.

Well. I never seem to part with anything, and I did pack down all my rather strange clothes I brought over to Germany with me in the mid 70s. I thought: someday I will have a daughter and she will want to see my strange clothes, just like I loved looking at (and wearing) my Mom's 50s close. Except we had a boy, who was just not into dresses.

She biked over, and came in wearing a fake mustache and goatee. Because it is project week, and they are doing "dressing", and they are supposed to cross-dress tomorrow. She was planning on wearing a coat of her Dad's. [German schools seem to be getting quite Americanized anymore...]

Well. Back in the late 70s I had this thing about wearing men's coats (lots of pockets!) so I do rather have a collection. And I have a bow-tie and cummerbund (in purple), a wing-tip shirt with cufflinks, and some pants that need suspenders to stay up (when I could get them on, it seems I have added a few inches around the waist and nothing fits any more). And of course my satin lapel suit jacket.

We dressed her up in the whole thing (I forgot that I have a fedora, I'll have to have her come back tomorrow) and had a good laugh at how she looks. She decided that it was too much, however. She'll stick with her Dad's coat, but took the suspenders and pants.

We dug through the attic until we found the boxes of clothing memories. Good Lord, I need to trash most of this. But there were my flowered wrap-around pants; the blue-stripey crush shirt; the crocheted poncho (with fringe!); and lots of other goodies. She added some beads and my TWA travel bag, but just wouldn't think of wearing the silly hat (I used to wear crocheted hats) and there she was - the picture of me, some 35 years ago.... She screamed at the purple, orange, and green mini-dress, and the psychedelic black and white, nausea-inducing shirt. She liked the buttons and the T-Shirt "Never underestimate the power of a women", but decided that was too much, she'd just stick to stripes and flowers.

So see, WiseMan, good thing I didn't throw all that away, or she would have gone home empty! Somehow this will not save the rest from the threatened cleaning out he will be doing during his sabbatical this summer....


Death of a Student

A parent called the office last week to report that their son had died and that he was a student at our school and in our department. Uff - how does one react to such a news? They wanted us to find a student for which they only knew the first name. Their son had often talked about this person.

I muffed the major task: getting the telephone number of the parents. But our administration is actually up to such a task - two parties, researching independently and using only the data they had at hand, were able to locate the student in question, even though the first name is quite common. And they unearthed the parent's telephone number.

I contacted the student and we spoke on the phone for a while. But now what? I didn't think that we needed to inform people, but the more we are talking about it, the more need to know: the semester group; the professors; the department chair; the vice president for students.

Googling around I found that many universities in English-speaking countries have online, detailed instructions for what to do in such a situation. Really detailed - down to who writes a condolence letter and who sends flowers. And I found an interesting point: check if a posthumous degree is to be awarded.

It seems that this is a common case - if a student is almost finished with their degree, a posthumous degree can be issued as a small comfort to the family. I really like the idea as a symbol of our involvement in the lives of our students. And they did earn almost all of the credits necessary.

I'm discussing this with people and getting our legal department to look into it. I suppose it is also a bit of actionism, as how do you respond to a death that appears to be a suicide, so shortly before finishing a degree?

Personally, we included him in our intercession prayers at church on Sunday. But I feel that the university needs to acknowledge that we are a community.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
-- John Donne (1572 – 1631)


Ethically questionable research

[Sorry for the light blogging, there have been Real World (tm) issues.]

I've just had a student ask me if I would advise him on some research on a topic that I find morally distasteful: customer profiling. I suppose that I would like to know more about how companies do this, but on the other hand, I feel a bit "unclean" about even touching something like this. What if s/he finds a great new way to get customers to sign on the dotted line or to focus advertising?

I mean, okay, this is not making guns and stuff, but I am really unsure whether to be involved with such questions.


Why can't they just teach us what we need?

We had a family spend the weekend with us this past weekend. He is an old friend from college days, she is his young wife with two young girls. She is studying to be a grade school teacher and he is teaching high school physics. So of course we were talking a lot about teaching.

She was complaining about her university - what a disorganized bunch! Some professors have seminar lists on the board, some keep online lists and accept email registrations, some have secretaries that keep the lists. You have to figure out who does what, and some have very specific times at which you have to be there in order to sign in for courses. Getting the credits you need to graduate is an exercise in frustration. Well, our students need to know that, bitching about minor stuff like not finding the exams (RTF notice on the FIRST PAGE with the box around it telling you where they are) or not getting the class they wanted. They have everything online, even if it is difficult to make work.

But she was so irritated at her professors, just droning on and on with all this nonsense, and what she wanted was: what do I have to do to teach this subject to grade school kids? That is, she expects to have practical stuff told to her. Both WiseMan and I pontificated on the meaning and purpose of university studies, noting that few of our graduates would do what they were expecting when they started. We teach (or try to teach) people to think, to understand the culture of our fields.

I think that we need to be very explicit with our beginning students, what they can expect from studying at university. Not a ticket to a particular job, but learning how to learn, and how to be conversant in a specific field. And hopefully, how to read and write and think.


The College Fear Factor

Just read Rebecca D. Cox's "The College Fear Factor - how students and professors misunderstand one another". The book focuses on junior college students and writing courses, but much of what she says is definitely applicable to other schools and programs.

  1. Students are scared. Scared not to understand, scared not to be able to do the work. Will do anything that seems to work, without understanding what it is that they are doing.
  2. Students have strange expectations - the person standing at the front is supposed to be an authority spouting truth and beauty. They are confused when we don't tell them what the "right" answer is. They don't want to hear the "opinions" of others, they want to know what answer to check on a test.
  3. Critical thinking is something not taught in high schools, especially in the teach-to-the-test schools.
  4. Teachers who use non-standard ways of teaching are considered to be "bad" teachers.
  5. They tend to be there for the credits, not for learning. And in the US, they want their money's worth.
  6. Universities hire professors on the basis of their research, then expect them to be teachers without giving them didaktical courses.
There are no easy answers, but it seems to me that we really need to take the first-year students and make things clear to them: what they can expect of us, what we expect of them. Studying is work - work they have to do, work we cannot do for them. But we need to be very detailed and clear on our assignments.