Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Part Where Claire Loses her Cool (aka Rant About the German University System)

Yesterday I lost my cool while teaching. This is a rare event as I usually try to remain composed in front of the class even when I am tired, bored, or really have to go to the bathroom. But the students finally got a taste of the "real Claire."

My usual 30 minute communte turned into an hour because of the highway road construction. I must now travel around the city to get where I want and take a different exit. After a large BMW cut me off, I finally made it to the university 5 minutes before my class was to begin. I covered some organizational points and began the lecture. Immediately two students began chatting in the back. It is true, professors truly can see and hear everything from the front of the class. After about 5 minutes I had had enough.

Claire (in best, haughty German): I did no get up at 5:15am after 5 hours of sleep and spend an hour in traffic only to get paid __ Euros an hour to teach while other people are speaking. If you are not interested in what I have to say, you are more than welcome to leave.

Dead Silence. After a moment I moved on and finished my lecture. The class was pretty quite the rest of the time.

I regret loosing my cool, but man . . . the uni really pisses me off sometimes.

There are several problems with the German university system. First, there is no registration for classes. You pretty much show up to the classes you like. This makes the class difficult to organize on many levels. I am never sure how large my classes are going to be. Sometimes it results in classes being too large for the small room they are assigned. For example, last semester my class was held in a small room. During the first few weeks, I had people sitting on the windowsill and hanging out of the door. At about week 4 several people started to loose interest and stopped showing up.

A second problem is evaluating the students. Often, if you want to get credit for a class (a "Schein") then you have to either take the final exam or do an oral presentation (which includes a write up of the presentation of about 15 pages). I do not believe that a final exam or oral presentation (one or the other, not both!), is an adequate way to test whether or not someone has actually learned anything from the class. Often students make really long presentations that have nothing to do with the class. This happened a lot when I was a student in Kassel in 1997/1998. I tried to do different things in my class this semester. I was told that this is not okay. Talk about destroying any attempt at creativity in the classroom!

A third problem is money. Simply put, German universities do not have any. This has led to a decline in the number of jobs in different departments, libraries in need of books, and overcrowded classrooms. Money is a problem for students and teachers. To explain this, I need to make a point about getting tenure in Germany.

After finishing your PhD in Germany, you usually get a "Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter" (associate teacher) position at a university. These jobs typically last about 3 to 6 years. During this time you are expected to teach, publish and write a "Habilitation," essentially a second thesis or dissertation. If you are lucky, at the end of this time, you may be offered tenure at the university you are at. Most often, you go to another university and another associate position. You can do this round robin search for a permanent position for YEARS. I recently heard that it took one woman almost 10 years to get a tenure track position, and she has published a ton.

There are currently fewer and fewer "Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter" positions in Germany. Instead, to cut costs, universities are allowing tenured professors to retire without filling their positions and hiring "Lehrbeauftrage" (adjuncts). A "Lehrauftrag" is for one class and one semester, but usually renewable. "Lehrauftrage" are paid by the classroom hour. If I get sick and cannot teach one week, I do not get paid. I only get paid for the hours I teach. I am not paid for office hours, preparation time, or extra meetings to help students through their exams. And I am not paid well. How can universities get away with this? They know that people such as myself need the teaching experience in order to get tenure. So we have no choice but to work under less than optimal conditions to get that allusive job. I actually started teaching English only because I was not making enough money at the uni.

German students currently do not pay for their education. However, next semester tuition fees are being introduced to the tune of about 1000 Euro per semester. This has made a lot of students angry and led to many student protests. Graffiti seen at the Uni: Rich Parents for Everyone.

I am actually in favor of a small tuition fee. When you have to pay for your education, then you have a vested interest in doing the best you can and actually finishing in a reasonable amount of time. Who wants to waste their own money? I do not want to hear about rich parents and having to work. I do not have rich parents. I am still paying for my education. Working? My senior year I worked two jobs, took 18 hours of classes per semester, held positions in two different clubs, had an active social life and still maintained my "A" average. And I am not the only person who did this. The majority of my friends had the same life style. If "lazy Americans" can do it, certainly German "Wunderkinder" can do it too.

My students complain about paying for crappy service. I said that perhaps the service would get better if people were actually paid. Students do have a good point about tuition though. In the US, I sent my checks directly to the university. Here, the student will first pay the state, which will then distribute the money based on need. Yeah, that won't lead to inequality at all (dripping sarcasm inserted here).

Is is any wonder that I have decided that I have had enough of all this scheisse. Next semester I will teach a class, and it will be my last. I am overseeing a few students' masters thesis and then I will call it a day. I do not like to loose my cool, and it is just not worth it.


christina said...

Right on Claire-dude!! I can't imagine you losing your cool, but I'm glad that you did. :-) The fourth graders I teach English to are the same way, except that they don't shut up when I yell. What does a person have to do to get a little respect around here, huh?

Sounds like you're making the right decision to quit lecturing. They're just not treating you right.

And hey, I was serious about wanting to do translation work if you ever feel like throwing any my way. Also...I've warned Mr. M about possible visitors on the 16th and he didn't freak out so you guys are welcome to drop by any time before the game. I'd be happy to fee you. :-)

Mike B said...

You didn't seem to lose too much cool there.

But you confirmed a few things I suspected during my working days. First, I would sit in on press conferences and analyst interviews to brief my boss on suggested answers, and usually what was supposed to be a question took on the character of a 5 to 7 minute discourse. I remember whispering in his ear one time that the first part of the answer should be "I'm sorry, was that a question or a political statement?"

Then, in the course of interviewing some of these stellar students for internships or even full time jobs, they expected to be running the place if hired. I can see that no one really instilled a sense of fear or gratitude in these kids and that they do expect it all to simply be handed to them.

Mikey said...

You have every right to go postal Claire. I would too!!!

Anonymous said...

So is it wrong that I don't think you actually lost your cool? I'd describe it more as laying down the law. Rudeness, in any language, should never be tolerated.

In a way, it is sad that you won't be teaching anymore. I always thought that you had the right personality for the job. Still, after reading about the university system-what an eye opener!- I'm impressed that you lasted as long as you did.

Lisa said...

I don't regret you losing your cool. Bravo! I say. Do you know how many times I've sat in a class I paid for only to hear some airhead talk on and on endlessly over the instructor about how much they had to drink the previous night? I bet half the people in there wanted to applaud you. Well done.

As for the rest, I was considering going to University here but now I'm not so sure. Doesn't sound like a good idea.

It's a shame you put all that energy into such a noble career and now you won't be able to follow through with your plans. :( Sadly, I've heard that same story again and again (insert infinity loop here).

Carrie said...

Well said sista! Now you know why I don't teach anymore...of course, I wouldn't say you lost control. You should have seen the day that I decided enough was enough...I'm not sure that parent has gotten over it. But he really shouldn't have cornered me in the book room!

You are right about tuition! Paying for it makes you appreciate it.

You always have a job with Aaron and I. 6 figure salary would be nice, right?


hexe said...

Your timing was interesting as there was a story on NPR yesterday about the declining birth rate in Germany and how unsupportive the government was towards educated women in the workplace. Although your situation is different, it is interesting and sad to hear first hand how someone who has earned their education is treated. Unfortunately a career in education is rarely given the respect it so deserves. It sound like it is even less so in your situation.

Haddock said...

You weren't really losing your cool. You were just showing the students who is the boss :) That is correct and is needed sometimes.
I agree that students should have to pay something for their education. If you have to pay you appreciate what you get and don't waste it.
Sounds to me that this is all part of the downfall of Germany that we are currently witnessing. Good education is the conerstone and foundation on which everything else is built.

Expat Traveler said...

Wow - this is very interesting to know. But what gets me is why does a masters or phd level class cost so much more than undergrad courses in canada or the US,..... Can't complain about my education but teachers salaries was why I didn't teach in a school, so what happens, I do it anyhow....

Sebastian said...

See the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, esp. Article 13,2(c). An introduction of general tuition fees violates international law...

James said...

That's too bad that the teaching profession is losing such talent....We need to rethink our priorities in this world, especially the US. If we could spend on education what we spend on "defense" or now OFFENSE, we could have some well-educated minds making this world a better place, but instead, we have presidents like Bush in office....

EuroTrippen said...

As one half of a couple who happen to STILL be paying off student loans in the U.S., I can safely say that when you know you're going to be paying (and paying... and paying) for your education, you tend to shut up & pay attention.

If things come too easily, you just never learn to appreciate them.

Anonymous said...

Well said Claire, although I would have thought losing your temper would at least involve a few expletives, and some questioning of the offenders parentage. Sounds like the general trend in Germany reflects that of many western countries, i.e. education is underfunded. Do the German folks have to pay for years which have to be repeated? That's one way of motivating students here in Ireland - you get free-ish education - as long as you keep passing! Fail to prepare, Prepare to pay!

B & E