Sunday, June 12, 2005


Knuckles update

Week 2 of teaching in Germany.

(What are "knuckles"? See here and here.)

On Wednesday, I showed the first half of the movie A Civil Action, and then wrapped up for about 20 minutes explaining how the movie dramatically illustrates some key features of the American civil justice system. I went over the time for the end of class by about, maybe, one minute. No knuckles.

Then on Thursday, I showed the second half of A Civil Action, asked a few desultory questions, realized no one was going to say anything, and ended class early. Knuckles!

This suggested two theories: (1) You get knuckles if the students feel you ended class for the day in a timely fashion. (2) You get knuckles every other day. I received knuckles after my first, third and fifth classes, and no knuckles after my second and fourth.

Obviously, the European system of higher education differs from that in the U.S. in many ways, but one is the behavior of students during lectures. In the U.S., if students are bored in a lecture, they will engage, more-or-less covertly, in quiet pursuits such as crossword puzzles, reading for other courses, or – in today’s classrooms with laptops and internet access – solitaire, IMing friends and web-surfing.

Many years ago, I spent a year studying at Cambridge University in England, and was surprised by the scene in the lecture hall at this hallowed institution. The lecturing professors were uniformly terrible – a droning mumble directed down into the podium in monotone, the actual text lacking in literary flair – but the student behavior shocked me: students wandered in and out of the room, in which half the seats were empty, ostentatiously engaged in non-listening behaviors like reading big unfolded newspapers. And they kept up a steady buzz of conversation. It put me in mind of the U.N. General Assembly on a slow day.

There are no laptops or internet access in U of Boogie classrooms, but no clandestine crossword puzzles either: my German students seem to think nothing having conversations while I’m talking. They don’t talk loud, but they don’t whisper either, and if more of these conversations start up, the volume of each conversation seems to increase, as in a progressively busier café. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive, but when this happens (and it’s never happened to me in the U.S.) I quickly start to feel like a bad lounge act.

Turns out this is not unusual behavior. I mentioned it to my faculty hosts, who replied, "Hmm. Well German students are different from what you are used to." They told me I should ask the students not to talk. I did that. I also tried silence: I would stop talking until the buzz died away. This worked to a degree, but not always – perhaps they started talking about “why he isn’t saying anything up there.”

Anyway, yesterday we had a great class. No movie, but a highly interactive, participatory analysis of how to present a bank robbery case to a jury. I know it was a great class because no one talked while I was talking. Well, a bit of brief whispered conversations, but I had the impression that people were translating into German for their friends.

It was a big day for knuckles. I broke the class into groups of four and gave them 20 minutes to develop either a direct or a cross examination of a witness to the robbery. They really got into this task, and were reluctant to stop when I tried to call them back to order. I knuckled the table to get their attention. Bad idea: maybe they thought I was applauding their intensive preparations, and my knuckles are still sore two days later. I wish I had a gavel.

Next, two teams of students role-played a short direct and cross examination of the witness, and the role players were knuckled by their classmates as they finished. (I mean knuckles on the table, not noogies on the forehead.) Nice gesture!

Then I concluded with a rousing sum up lecture -- and got knuckles. Second day in a row for knuckles, and the fourth time in six classes.

I’m not sure there’s a pattern. If I had a psychotherapist, he would tell me I shouldn’t care so much about knuckles.


[raps knuckles on the coffee table]
I wonder if your student's knuckling has any correlation (other than complete coincidence) with the quality of Star Trek films: Only the even-numbered Star Trek flims are good, and you've recieved knuckles in even-numbered lectures. Hmm...
Wendy, does that mean ST: Nemesis (which I actually haven't seen) is good, or have I just lost count?
You realize that when you return home your new nickname will be "knuckles." It's almost as if you're just begging for it.
Tom, I don't think Star Trek films that do not include William Shatner count in that whole even/odd thing, or the rule needs to be re-written as "Only the even-numbered Star Trek films are good, except for Nemesis"
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