Man, I Love Christmas

As a student, you tend to discover certain aspects of your surroundings which you might not notice as a salaried adult. Like the herb garden on the south side of campus, because spices and herbs are so expensive. Or the flammkuchen at Canossa, because after 8 on campus, everything else is closed. Or the silverware with no pfand attached at the Mensacafe, because you lost all your forks in the grass after several rounds of ‘schwenker’ nights.

Okay, I was only kidding about the last one 😉

In any case, the longer you spend on campus, the more you become aware of these interesting tidbits and keep them in mind when future needs arise. Still, the one thing I have always regretted, living in Saarbrücken, is not having found my ideal place to study.

Different people have different needs when it comes to studying. Some students require absolute quiet, some are lucky to have offices as part of their hiwi positions, and still others like to bring flashcards into the forest. For me, none of those options suffice. My ideal study place is in a loud, busy cafe, with a cup of coffee or tea by my side, and a fast internet connection for my laptop. It may seem strange, but the louder the chatter, clanging and banging, the more focused I am in my work, and the more work that gets done.

Nevertheless, this bizarre need is surprisingly difficult to satisfy in Saarbrücken. As I do not have my own office on campus, and the lab is full of scary linux boxes, and my own bedroom is a disaster for distractions, I have searched high and low for a spot that I might call my educational haven. I’ve tried Grandma’s, where the coffee is good, but the grumpy Grandma always comes to shoo anyone with a laptop away from the power outlet. I’ve considered Ubu Roi, the cafe downtown, but like all cafes in Germany, there is no free wifi (or any wifi at all). And in the end, I have often settled for the Mensa cafe which has an abundance of coffee, campus internet, and power outlets galore.

Which works, for the most part, except for Friday afternoons, like today, when you are kicked out at 3:00 so they can close early. Then where to go?

Luckily this holiday season has been good to me. Out of a lack of better options, I finally found myself at the AC, the foreigner’s cafe on campus, which is open until 8pm, where I can access the campus network, but which typically has no power outlets available. Except at Christmastime, where, if you look carefully, you can find a nice power strip behind the Christmas tree connected to the outlet in the ceiling.

Man, I love Christmas.

A Typical Day in Class

Semantic Theory, Thursday morning. Prof. Pinkal is up at the board explaining how linguists seek unicorns and how difficult this is for semanticians.

I sneeze. Hervé turns around and says “gesundheit.” Prof. Pinkal turns around and says, “Hmm? What was that?”.. Akira looks up, nods his head, makes a sneezing gesture and says, “Ja, ja, gesundheit. Das ist richtig..”

The class bursts into laughter as I blush, hide my face, and giggle.

It just wouldn’t be the same without Akira.

All in Stride

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.

The Algorithm is Banned in China


Last week I had to give my first presentation for a seminar in Ontologies. I worked quite a bit on it (since I really didn’t want to give something boring), but more importantly, I wanted to be able to write on my slides words like ‘modeling’, ‘labeling’, and ‘losing’ in order to point out to the Germans the wrong spellings of ‘modelling’, ‘labelling’, and worst of all, ‘loosing’. Now before I get flamed for this in the comments, just take a look at the proper spellings and see how much more elegant they are, truly.

For some reason, I can’t help but cringe when I see things like that on slides. I know I should be more understanding of non-native speakers, but it’s hard when their English is generally so good that I am already easily fooled. Some of the more memorable typos?
-[name removed to protect the unaware] well-formed linguists and lap sessions
-[name removed to protect the innocent] birectional and boostrapping (the last one sounds like a norwegian term for catching the bus..)

Presumed Guilt

My syntax teacher, Valia, is quite a hoot.
The other day, she was asking us to be more vigilant in closing the doors to the Seminarraum when forgetful professors or lecturers fail to do so. She then informed us about missing items from CoLi. “Ah, but you know, it’s a reality,” she said, in her famous Greek chanting voice, “cause, I mean, people are always going to need things. I was a student once, too.” Like a copier from the CL foyer, a projector from the Seminarraum, dishes and silverware from the Mensa cafe…

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help but reflect on the flaws of this system. At the Ausländer Cafe, they charge you a 1 euro pfand for the cup every time you buy coffee. You get it back, of course, once you return the cup. Which means you never know if someone’s going to swipe your empty cup and turn it in for your euro. On the other hand, having been unceremoniously plopped into the “poor student” status, I must admit that the idea of furnishing the kitchen cabinet in this manner had crossed my mind. After all, 1 euro is a fair price! That’s probably not what they had intended by that, but then again, I never liked laws/policies that presumed the client guilty. In the end, Ikea’s prices reigned over all, and I simply keep a wary hand over my cup when I’m there, and dutifully turn it in when I’m done.