The first time I went to France, I tried very hard to quash all American instincts and immerse myself fully into the foreign culture. At the end of the year, I left the country not knowing who I was, what I believed, or what I wanted in life.
The second time I went to France, I was determined to hold on to my American ideals and hope that they would blend with those I picked up on the way. At the end of the year, I left disgusted by their narrow-mindedness and unwillingness to look sincerely at things from a different perspective.
This year, in Germany, I had no expectations. I came only for the education, not the culture.
But culture has a habit of coming around to bite you in the ass.
I haven’t written much about school here, but possibly that is because everything has been fairly peachy. Classes were interesting, I learned many exciting new things, and I was satisfied with my choice. Until now, that is. Towards the end of last semester and the beginning of the next, the grizzly head of German education came out of the woodwork and I have again had to face a culture clash.
Perhaps it is the fact that grades are the eminent indicator of abilities in the US, and confidence in my own abilities is thus, for better or worse, dearly linked. My boyfriend John, who comes from Sweden, will tell me this is rubbish. But what can I say? University applications, job applications, even car insurance applications will ask for your GPA (yes, you will get a lower insurance quote if you are a straight-A student), and better grades make for a better response.
So I admit, I was a little emotional when, for the one final exam that I deplored at the end of last semester, I received a grade of 2.0, roughly corresponding to a B in the American system. Perhaps it was due to the time wasted scribbling on the side of my exam, “What? Are we supposed to work on this together??” when I noticed that the exam question was actually something we were given as homework, saying something like: “Now take an ontology from one of your classmates and try to..”; certainly it was the frustration of having studied the hardest for the conceptually difficult topics, which turned out to be worth one point, while inane memorization questions were worth more; possibly it was the Early algorithm, which took me 45 minutes to type out on my computer as homework, which they stuck in there among 15 other essay questions, which I was assured would be a shorter version due to time constraints during the exam, but which turned out to be the full thing with determiners and ambiguities, and which I finished till the end of the page and reasoned that, since I did it perfectly that far, the graders would realize I knew what I was doing and would give me most of the points. Right.
Well enough of the tirade. One or two people did manage, in fact, to finish the entire thing and do very well. And their success is more than well-deserved, in spite of my feelings of injustice. But apart from them, an entire class of really bright, hard-working students went down a whole grade because an exam was just thrown together on a whim and no one cares about the results.
And why should anyone care? There are no transcripts here, no registrars office. The only record of grades is the single print-out they give you at the end of each class; if the building burns down, you’re screwed. And anyway, if you don’t like your grade, you can just take the exam again. Up to three times during the period of a whole year, even if you passed the class the first time.
Not only that, but public education is free in Germany (at least until next semester), and as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. How can a student demand consistency for something he hardly pays a dime for? In the US, you pay dearly for your education, and it is normal that you expect certain things in return. Like getting your grades back within a week of the final exam, not six months down the road. Or that if a class requires twelve homeworks as coursework, you get twelve homeworks, not five plus a handout of questions and its solution set. Or that, in the end, your final grade reflects what you got out of the class.
But there are the ways that things should be done, there are the ways that things are done, and there is the cost and benefit analysis in pushing the norm. As much as I vent my frustration about the injustice I perceive, nobody else seems to mind having a 2.0 for a grade. So now I have a choice to make:
- Given the way things are and what I know now, I can work hard for the next set of exams so that I do get the grade I want;
- Or I can change tactics, work hard for the knowledge I want, and find another way for others back home to gauge my accomplishments.
In any case, I apologize to those I may have offended during my initial state of shock. I could have chosen my diatribes more judiciously had my brain been functioning properly. Culture clashes, however, are like knockouts: you don’t know you’ve been hit till you’re flat on the floor.
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