Thursday, June 02, 2005


The University of Boogie

I teach the Germans a lesson.

Yesterday was my European teaching debut.

I'm teaching a course to German undergraduates on the United States system of trial by jury. The class was to begin at 12:15, but by the time I arrive at noon, the room seems two-thirds full of students, many eating their lunches.

I plan to show a film today, and my graduate assistant Liane and I carry in a VCR and a projector (she calls it, without irony, a “Beamer”). For some reason, Europe uses a video format that makes American VHS tapes incompatible with European VCRs, so the University has obtained a rather ancient American VCR so visiting faculty like me can show their movies. A friendly, smiling techie named “Volker” connects up a profusion of wires and then explains to me painstakingly, in broken English, how to operate the buttons on the VCR. I want to say, “son, I’ve been operating this machine since before you were born.”

By the way, you may be wondering: "where exactly is he teaching?" Let's just say I'm at the "University of Boogie":

A poster in the student cafeteria outside my classroom. A party school, perhaps?

Liane briefly introduces me to the class. “Professor Madison has been practicing law for 12 years before he is teaching Evidence at his law school in the United States. So he is perfect for teaching this course.” She quickly exits the room, leaving the word "perfect" -- with its unrealistically high expectations -- hanging in the air.

About 40 students are staring at me, waiting. To call the students’ faces “expectant” is a misleading cliche. “Expectant” to me sounds like the expression of a restaurant patron awaiting what he hopes will be a really good meal. The faces of students on the first day of class usually seem to reflect the belief that “actually, there’s a 50% chance that this meal will really suck.”

But this is what I see at the beginning of every class. In fact, the German students look much the same as American students. There are the usual half a dozen guys wearing baseball caps nd looking disaffected. About ten people have T-shirts or sweatshirts bearing English words and phrases. I'm particularly taken with the "Minesota [sic] State University" sweatshirt.

I decide to break the ice with some mild, but affable humor. “I’m afraid I’m really not perfect, but I’ll try my best.”

Okay, not so funny. But it only gets worse from there. In the first 15 minutes, I try several other jokes, and a routine in which I make the entire class stand on the count of three and say "objection." I tell them that they now have half of the skills they need to be trial lawyers in the United States. This, like my other jokes, get titters from no more than 8 people. That doesn't qualify as even a courtesy laugh.

The classroom is the standard public school university classroom – blocky and charmless, with a bright tile floor and cheap formica tables circa 1977. The students seem a bit too big for the tables, adding to the overcrowded feeling of 40 students packed into the room. This will be a difficult room for me to move around in, let alone for the students to move their seats around for the small group discussions and role plays I like to make them do.

My classroom. Note the meager white board in the center for movie projection. The blackboards look so whitewashed that maybe I should use one of them for projection.

I like the thick, squared pieces of chalk, and quickly fill the two green blackboards, only to notice that there is nothing that I would call an eraser. I glance around and discover that there is a big, wet sponge, and I realize that the board had been messily sponged off sometime before my class, leaving dried sponge tracks for me to write on. I try the sponge to write more, but I recall from elementary school that fresh chalk doesn’t adhere well to a wet blackboard and is very similar to trying to write with paste (a substance produced by mixing chalk and water).

Love the chalk. Hate the erasers.

Here’s an oddity. There’s a sink and mirror in the front corner of the room, off to my left, and I think about saying, “You know, if I wanted to, I could stop lecturing right now and go over there and wash my hands.” In the U.S. I might be able to sell this joke, but these German kids will just think I’m totally weird.

I haven’t seen one of these in a classroom since junior high.

Here’s the other oddity. Several groups of German students are talking among themselves while I’m lecturing. This really doesn’t happen in the U.S. What’s the deal? Have I bored them senseless already? Are they translating for their friends with lesser English comprehension? (“What did he say?” “He says that he might stop the lecture and go wash his hands.” “Why would he do that? Does he have dirty hands?”) I talk louder.

I start the film. It’s an old PBS documentary called Inside the Jury Room, possibly the only instance in U.S. history in which a film crew was allowed to film a real jury deliberation. For the first 20 or 25 minutes, I'm satisfied to see that the students seem intently focused on the film. But then the real life jury deliberation starts to get a bit repetitive. The murmering and talking in the classroom start up again. One student leaves the room and returns with a bottle of Coke.

After the film we have about 15-20 minutes of passable class discussion, but at about 1:43, the murmuring picks up volume, and I decide not to fight a battle of wills for the privilege of lecturing a few extra minutes. So I say, “Okay, see you all tomorrow.”

At that point, all the students rap their knuckles on the table for about 10 seconds. After a momentary “whuuh?,” I realize that this is polite applause. I’m not foolish enough to take student applause as a sign of having done well – American students applaud at the end of the course unless you totally sucked all semester – but applause on the first day... that’s a new one. Maybe they were grateful I took the cue to end the class on time. I’ll have to see what they do tomorrow.


hey, congrats on your first German class. One thing I picked up in a recent departmental meeting about doing business with Germans (because our company recently purchased a German company), is that they are much more serious than Americans during meetings (and one could extrapolate that to classes), and the books tell us that a business meeting is a "no joke zone."
I don't recall applauding a prof in grad school, ever, but we economists are a pretty tough crowd.

I'm curious as to the second "[sic]" in "Minesota [sic] State University [sic]." is the post missing a second misspelling? There *is* a Minnesota State University system (as well as a University of Minnesota system, of course), and at least Moorhead and Mankato actually use "Minnesota State University" in their names.

Anyhow, party down at U. of Boogie, and don't let those crusty old Deans get on your case.
Oops, thanks for the correction!

Great to hear from you, Tom. BTW, I've been planning a post about German cars, in your honor.
Oy, those German students don't know what they're missing. You're perfect with the jokes. [Raps knuckles on table] More jokes!
I'm an Ami but with a German mother and have spent a few years working in Germany and I also studied at The University of Vienna. Knocking is standard after every class. When they don't knock, be worried.
Student behavior definitely more rude (also have a propensity to cheat much more than Amis). Berlin is a great city and the Germans are nice when you get used to them. I hope you continue to enjoy yourself. I don't know if I can overlook the Mets statement up there, but maybe should be quiet considering the Royals just swept the Yankees this past week. Good Luck, Tania
Wow, I'm surprised you've never had students talk in your classes in the US. Talking in class is a fairly typical occurence in the classes I'm in. Sometimes the professors object to it and sometime it just gets ignored.
I Googled the "University of Boogie" and found a listing for D.J. Larry Law. Is that the name you go by when teaching in Germany?
Did you ask them to close their eyes and play the werewolf game yet? That would make them laugh, or stop chatting at least. Danke
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