Tag Archives: University

My “Tirade Against Exams”

I try to keep an eye on how people get to this blog, using WordPress and Google tools, and I especially take note of old posts that are still getting traffic.

Apparently the most popular of my old posts is one I wrote almost two years ago about university exams.

I’ve edited the post a little, and if you didn’t read it yet, you might want to check it out:

A Tirade Against Exams

[…]

So why are exams a bad idea when you want to check whether a bunch of science undergrads understood what you taught them? Well, one part of the problem should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of science:exams are not very good experiments. There is no way to control for interference of irrelevant, extraneous factors. When scientists conduct a study, in any field and with any methodology, they seek to control for irrelevant interferences. For example, when psychologists test hand-eye coordination, they’ll do something like only taking right-handed people with healthy hands and eyes, in order to make sure that the results aren’t skewed by irrelevant differences between individuals.

You can’t do anything like that in exams.

Continue reading »

I’ve also changed the blogs settings so that comments are now open on old posts, too (they used to close automatically after two months). Feel free to rekindle the discussion on the Tirade, or on any other old post.

Semi-electives: a university paradox

For the BA degree in linguistics, me and my classmates are required to choose some courses from outside of the core linguistics curriculum. This is, in theory, a good thing – it gives undergraduate students a chance to see what’s going on in other departments, and particularly gets us acquainted with some fields related to our own. However, these semi-electives are simply the introductory modules that students in other programs take in their first semesters; this can cause a lot of frustration.

Over the past days, I spent several frustrating hours doing homework in such a course. I remember seeing what must have been the same frustration in students from outside of linguistics in the introductory courses I’ve taken and the one in which I tutored. I think this frustration is an indirect result of the Bologna Process, which creates a basis on which courses from different departments, universities, and countries, across Europe, are evaluated for accreditation. The problem, I think, is that it’s very hard to evaluate a course and the effort that goes into it outside of context. Continue reading Semi-electives: a university paradox

Tales of sun and cloud cover

Leipzig in summer.

Whew. Over a month without a post. And what a month it has been!

Summer is finally here. Summer in Germany is something altogether different from summer in Israel, as I learn anew every year. Winter in Germany is something altogether different from Israel’s so-called “winters”, too. And it all comes down to sunlight, for me.

In Israel, the sun is omnipresent and a real health hazard. It is just too fracking hot most of the year. Here, on the other hand, I desperately miss the sun all winter, and as soon as it’s out I feel like I have to jump on the opportunity and expose my skin to its incredible warmth, the warmth that reminds me that it’s not so bad, the light that reminds me that the world isn’t all that grey after all.

Now, summer here isn’t as reliable as it is in Israel. In Israel, summer is summer. Sunlight, nonstop, every day, all day. Here we get summer rains (an oxymoron to me) and even full cloud cover – in June!! Very strange. But this makes me appreciate the sunlight even more. After waiting for it all winter, summer can be coy, making me wait again. I get suspicious. Has global climate change hit us so hard already? Did the BP oil spill knock out the jet stream like I read it might? I watch the skies. Like a Stark, I know winter will come again, sooner or later. I dread it. Then the sun comes out again and everything looks different.

I have an Egyptian friend and (language-learning) tandem partner – he wants to know Hebrew and I want to know Arabic. He always says he doesn’t want to talk about the conflict, but we end up on that topic every time we meet. Last time we had lunch, the sun was shining bright, and I noted that when the sun shines, I think the Middle East is headed towards peace and prosperity like never before; when the sky is grey, I’m sure Israel is on the brink of fascism or civil war and dread what might become of all the people I love.

Well, we had grey skies and rain for the past few days, and I’m still getting over the accompanying sense of impending doom, but today the sun is shining. The StuTS is behind me, but busy times are still ahead. This weekend two very good friends of mine are getting married (congrats, F&B!); I’m trying to finish an old term paper, practice for Spanish class, and get preliminary reading done for my degree thesis; and, of course, I have to prepare the EUDEC Assembly for this summer.

Time flies when you’re too busy to check what time it is. I might try to write more this month, but maybe not such heavy long posts, and likely little or nothing about Israel/Palestine. The situation there is getting more complicated by the hour and I haven’t been following closely enough to make informed comments lately. Fortunately, there are plenty of other, less despair-inducing topics out there…

Extra-curricular activities…

Me and Sabine have both been itching to travel, and so we’ve been kicking around ideas for where we want to go after we finish our degrees. This morning we came up with a really exciting idea: a world tour of learning.

Basically, each station on our way around the world would be a place where we want to learn something. We were already discussing getting a driver’s license in Massachusetts, USA (because I have family there and it’s much easier than it is here or in Israel), and we have also been thinking of spending some time in Israel in which I could learn Arabic and Sabine could learn Hebrew. We might also, for example, go to learn how to cook a proper curry somewhere in India, learn to tango in Argentina… Who knows what else we might come up with.

Of course, we’ll also have to work somehow at most stations on the way, to fund the next leg of the trip… But every job would be a learning opportunity.

We’re thinking of what we can make out of this idea… It might also be something we want to blog about and publicize, to attract attention to all the non-traditional ways a person can learn in today’s world. It’ll be a while before we can start (we each have at least a year left for our degree) but I imagine I’ll be posting more as our plans develop.

Hobby and Career, Academia and Activism

For a while now I have been very conflicted about what I want to do after my BA. The two main options on my mind have been on the one hand to (somehow) become a full-time activist for democratic education (or perhaps for human rights), possibly along with some translation and writing to make ends meet; on the other hand, I could continue with my studies and move towards an academic career in linguistics.

For a very long time I’ve wanted to be an academic, but when I decided to start studying it was important for me not to think too far ahead and take things one at a time. I wanted to stay open to other options, some of which, I knew, could not have even occurred to me at the time. As the degree gets closer and closer I know I have to at least decide what the next step will be. There have been times when it was clear to me that a BA was not enough, that I’d need at least an MA to satisfy my curiosity. At other times (in particular when I get annoyed at the university’s structure) I’ve wished to just be done with it as soon as possible and go do something else.

What makes the whole thing more difficult is that I find both fields absolutely fascinating, and both engage me in a way that makes use of my skills. Activism stands out to me as a particularly worthy way of spending one’s time, because activism means working for the greater good (or one’s vision thereof) and would have a clear goal. The goal in linguistics is less clear to me, and I know that the best one can do is create, or help improve, a model that is useful for understanding the phenomena of language — hoping to achieve total understanding would only be a recipe for disappointment. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking and speaking about democratic education since I was thirteen, and I don’t think it’s much good to advocate it as a graduate who hasn’t spent much of their adult life outside the movement.

In the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one way of seeing things, a way that had occurred to me when I started to study but I somehow forgot about in the meantime. The idea is essentially to make a hobby into a career, and work on something you believe in in your free time. In my case, the hobby-career would be linguistics — a pursuit that is valuable to me simply because it’s fascinating and fun. I could be an activist on my free time, as time allows.

I’m far from done figuring this out, but this approach seems like a good one. Going into a career without any lofty expectations would allow me to spend time on something challenging and enjoyable, while pursuing more lofty goals on my free time would let me continue being part of something I consider really important, something that seems to make a real difference in people’s lives (which, outside of academia, linguistics rarely does).

I’m writing this just because it is on my mind and I feel like writing. I should actually be doing my computer science homework. I’d appreciate thoughts on all this, especially if they come quickly enough to distract me from my homework!

Connection and Ideas

This is a bit of a followup on my previous post. After ranting about the degree requirements, I realized I had entirely neglected one of the worst things about how this semester is structured: I hardly see my classmates anymore. In previous semesters, thanks to the abundance of linguistics courses, we all saw one another regularly, developed cliques and friendships, and always had people to talk to about school and about linguistics.

Unfortunately, none of my classmates are taking the same classes that I am, so I also end up sitting in classes where I know nobody, feeling disoriented and isolated like in the first weeks of my first semester. We’re all still more-or-less in touch… But everyone’s very busy, and although I still regularly see some of my classmates, it’s not nearly as often as it used to be.

I think this might be more than just a bit of a discomfort for us third-years. It seems like a deeper design flaw in the program. It just so happens I saw a TED talk last night where Steven Johnson talks about where good ideas come from. A big point is that they tend to come from informal interaction in which different people’s thoughts meet and mix. Thinking back on the most excited ideas me and my friends have come upon during our studies, most of them truly seem to have come up either at bars or in living rooms. And this semester? We’re not all working on the same things anymore and we don’t see each other all that often. Studying isn’t only less fun this way, it’s also less creative and produces less interesting thoughts and insights.

I also saw another TED talk last night which seems vaguely relevant to all this, and I felt was very worth watching: Dr. Brené Brown on Connection. (Hat tip to Don Berg.) It’s a curious talk in that Dr. Brown starts by talking about how “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” and ends with advice that could have almost come from a New Age mystic. But coming from a serious researcher who has been examining the issue for years, it makes quite a different impression.

I can only recommend watching it. I’ll leave you with that for the time being.

A rant about degree requirements

University of Leipzig, in 2009 partly occupied...
Image via Wikipedia

Lately I’ve been having a very hard time accepting the structure of the university program I am in. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I certainly have not been happy with the requirements this semester.

Over the four semesters I completed so far, I mostly took courses in linguistics. They were not all exactly my cup of tea (only about half of them) and I don’t have to repeat what I think about being tested at the end of every semester, but for the most part I was happy to jump through the hoops, knowing it was progressing my understanding of the discipline and domain of research that I had chosen. My fascination with linguistics and language grew over time as I learned more, understood more, and appreciated new ways of approaching the subject matter. I could accept the expectation that all of us learn a little of all of it, even the approaches we are not interested in pursuing.

However, the way this BA program is designed is a little strange. After the 4th semester, there are no linguistics courses anymore. For the last year of our studies — the year in which we are expected to write our BA thesis in linguistics, mind you — the plan is to take courses from the three different lists of more-or-less elective courses. In total, the program requires 180 ECTS credits throughout the six semesters of study, corresponding to the unrealistic total of 900 hours of class and self-study time per semester. (Hardly anyone at the university, student or instructor, takes this requirement seriously. It seems like something the Bologna process dictates and the universities do their best to fulfill, mostly on paper.)

90 credits — half of the program — are to be obtained in linguistics courses, including 10 credits for the thesis. The other half is composed of:

  • 30 credits: courses you get by lottery (from your first few choices) from other departments, university-wide, usually limited to introductory offerings
  • 30 credits worth of courses from an “obligatory electives” list, which lets you choose from exactly 70 credits worth of courses from other departments — introductory computer science (20), inter-cultural communication for Russian (10), philosophy of language (10), the languages of Africa (10), the system and history of German (10), or basic Hausa (10)
  • 30 credits worth of “key qualifications” courses, being a strange mixed bag of courses offered by different parts of the university on a basis which is not quite interdisciplinary as much as it is simply unrelated to any of the disciplines of those who might take the courses. Luckily, 10 of these credits have to be taken in a language course and the other 20 can be semi-officially replaced by language courses.

I have a feeling this is a case of good intentions gone amiss. There is apparently a social norm of going straight from highschool into university if you were in the academic “gymnasium” highschool system — which you are selected for at the age of 10. As a result, most beginning students have no clue what they’re getting into. So it’s probably doing many students a favor to force them to get a taste of other disciplines before giving them a degree, and indeed the majority changes to another program, or quits, by the second year of studies. But perhaps it’s just cruel, seeing as those of us without wealthy parents have two semesters of grace in which to switch majors, after which financial aid is no longer available.

But I digress. The point is that the structure of this program — not the content — is crushing my interest and desire to complete it. I can’t emphasize enough how this is not a matter of content. I feel like those 80 credits worth of linguistics courses both gave me an excellent, broad understanding of the discipline (and sub-disciplines) of linguistics, as well as giving me a chance to develop real interest in research.

The problem is that the structure of the program makes it entirely impractical to continue pursuing that interest. It’s not just that I have to take some other courses. It’s that a student like me, who is engaged in extra-curricular activity and dependent on financial support, can’t realistically do much besides the required work.

Right now I feel trapped. I am working as a tutor in the introduction to linguistics, and as a research assistant in a language documentation project. I decided to take these jobs both in order to stay involved in linguistics and to work towards more financial independence. I’m very glad I made that choice, and I think it is entirely in line with what engaged and serious students are supposed to do (faculty seems to agree entirely). Yet with all of the time and effort my work requires, I’m struggling to keep up with the computer science coursework, and just desperate to devote more time to reading linguistics literature and perhaps work on some research of my own. (With theoretical grammar as my primary interest, research is thankfully something I can do without any special equipment.)

It makes me furious that in order to receive my BA in linguistics, I am expected to now more or less put my interest in linguistics aside and focus on hoop-jumping.

A note

As some of you may know, as of last Thursday I’m taking time off from my work on EUDEC Council, until the end of 2010. This makes some much-needed room in my schedule for dealing with these requirements. Hopefully it will also give me more time to blog.

I do not expect to make a habit of personal, emotional posts like this one, lacking a clear and general point. It’s just something I had to write about today. At any rate, comments are open and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on all of this.