Life of a Gastprofessor

THE little things are the strangest. When visiting another country one expects the buildings, clothing, and shops to look different, but it is a surprise when the doorknobs and milk containers, the little everyday gestures and the windows, are foreign too. Two years ago, after 15 years of teaching at American universities, I spent a term at the University of Mainz in the Federal Republic of Germany. I was lecturing on Nazi propaganda and conducting seminars on anti-Semitism and the press. At 1 p.m. (or 13:00 as the Germans have it), the scheduled time for my first course, I stood before my mostly empty lecture hall, wondering what had happened to German diligence. My German teaching assistant, rescuing me for the first of many times, hurriedly informed me that the German academic hour begins at 15 minutes past and runs to the top of the hour, rather than conforming to the American habit of starting at the top of the hour and finishing after 50 minutes.

I found that students read, knitted, or chatted through my lectures, something I took personally despite regular assurances that such was ordinary behavior (as one of my students wrote on the evaluation I conducted, ``Professor Bytwerk will simply have to get used to disorder in the classroom''). I found that professors not infrequently took months to submit grades, that students kept their own grade records (the loss of which could be most distressing), that students were never asked to evaluate their professors, all these and many more little things were more convincing evidence that I was abroad than the elegant old army buildings that made up much of the campus.

GERMAN universities are theoretically equal, though as in ``Animal Farm,'' in practice some are more equal than others. I was astounded to read an interview with the university's president, a distinguished chemist with long experience teaching in the United States, in which he confessed he considered his institution an average university that he hoped to make better. Few American university presidents would make such a statement; I recall with amusement the claim by a high administrator of Southern Illinois University that the place could stand favorable comparison to Harvard. Curiously, the president of Harvard never called his institution the SIU of the East.

In the 19th century, German universities set the world standard. No longer. After the war, the Federal Republic democratized its university system, taking the worst of the American system as the model, not the best. German universities were opened up to far more students; although even today less than half as many Germans as Americans attend institutions of higher education, the result was a vast increase in the number of students. But there was no vast increase in professors. The department for which I taught, with more than 800 students, had a complement of four professors. Most of the teaching was handled by graduate assistants. Classes were large. Even seminars often had 35 students enrolled.

As a result, contact between students and professors, encouraged in theory (and often in practice) at American institutions, is infrequent. Despite my regular efforts to persuade students to drop by to talk, few did.

One visits a German professor only in dire necessity. The gap between students and professors was great, and neither side seemed bothered by the fact. German professors seem to take little effort to win the attention of their students; lectures are often deadly. My students regularly commented that, despite my curious German, I actually tried to make my lectures lively and interesting, something they were not accustomed to. Not that the professors were bad at what they did - quite the opposite. They were capable and hardworking; teaching simply wasn't a major part of their perceived duty. Research was. The style of an American liberal arts college, indeed of many American universities, in which students have regular and close contact with their professors, is simply foreign to the German system.

THE students were good, far better prepared after attending a Gymnasium than US students. They simply knew more than my American students. A solid knowledge of English, for example, was an entrance requirement of the department for which I taught. The students who chose to produced superb work.

But they were the minority. There are three reasons for students, indeed anyone, to work hard at a task. The first is fear of failure; since students keep their own grade records, since they don't have to complete courses they find uninteresting, and since grades are on the whole less important than in the US, that is not critical. Second is the relationship with someone, in the case of students, a professor. Since those relationships for most students are thin, students typically don't work to please. Last is self-motivation. I did find students on the whole less motivated than my American students, a little more certain that, because they were elite university students, the world owed them sustenance.

And they had less fun than my American students. American-style dormitories are not widespread, forcing most students to live off campus. The campus is not a social arena; there are no intercollegiate athletics and fewer student clubs. Many had a pessimism that finds things bad and getting worse (they, of course, find American optimism equally unsettling).

Did I like it? Yes. Surely I learned more than my students; when I thanked them at the end of the term for accepting the regular indignities I inflicted on their language and for the stimulation they had given me, I meant it. Would I want to teach permanently in such a system? Certainly not. The US system is on the whole more humane, I think. But I've got an informal invitation to take up the life of a guest professor in Vienna for a term. Will I accept? You bet.

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