Dunkelheit

Alright, it’s been a while. At first there wasn’t much going on to write about, but then entirely too many things happened in rapid succession and I didn’t have time or energy to write. I still don’t, really, but I feel like I’ll go nuts if I don’t say something about all of this.

Classes began a week ago (last Monday) at the university. The whole system is very loosey-goosey, chaotic, disorganized, and overall is the complete opposite of what I would expect a German university system to be like. Stereotypes are a crap-shoot, I guess.

So let’s start at the top. In my study abroad program I need to take 13 credits worth of classes for UMN to agree to transfer the credits back home. That’s 26 ECTS credits under the European system. There is one class I signed up for long in advance, a second one I am compelled to take by the program, leaving about two more for Uni Freiburg courses.

My first hurdle was signing up for UMN classes online at the same time as I was figuring out my schedule at Uni Freiburg. The Fall semester when I return home is supposed to be my last one before I graduate, so I want to make sure I have all my ducks in a row. Turns out that, in order to graduate as a German major, I need to take a specific Germanic/Scandinavian history course. UMN only offers this course in the Spring, which I had not been aware of until I tried to sign up for it. This means that my only hope to graduate on time is to take a course over here that is roughly equivalent and hope that it transfers back as an equivalent class. Naturally, this class is fairly specific and narrowly scoped, so there is no perfect fit, but I found one that, as far as I can tell, is the closest I’ll get.

This left one more slot for me to shop around for. One of the biggest differences between the German and American university systems is that, in Germany, you do not sign up for classes online months before the semester begins (with very specific exceptions, like programs offered through the Sprachlehrinstitut for international students). You don’t even sign up for them at all, you just show up on the first day of class and try it out. You have to actually sign a physical document requesting a grade for your work in the class. So when I say that I shopped around, I actually put 3 classes on my schedule and sat in on the first session for all of them and decided which one of them to keep after attending them all.

Second stumbling block: IES, my study abroad program, gave us a list of recommended courses to sign up for. The problem is that they accidentally put a whole bunch of Hauptseminare (advanced seminars for seniors and grad students) on the list, which they strongly, strongly recommend against taking because they are too much work for international students. All three of the classes I sat in on turned out to be Hauptseminare. So this weekend I had to scramble to find a new one because I don’t want my semester abroad to be utterly miserable.

Third obstacle: classes in Germany are worth a variable amount of credits. My Sprachkurs is worth anywhere from 4-8 ECTS credits depending on how much work you choose to do. Classes may allow, for example, for you to give a presentation, write an essay, and/or do a written exam for a couple of ECTS credits each. I actually think this is cool, but it definitely multiplies the complexity involved.

So, these are all the administrative things that I’m juggling right now. This does not even begin to touch on the experience of actually sitting in on a class meant for native German speakers as someone whose German isn’t all that great. And remember: three of the four Uni classes I’ve tried were way, *way* above my level. In one of them the professor had a very thick accent, and in the third she just spoke too fast and used too much specialized vocabulary for me to follow along.

A friend described the experience as feeling like being a spy. I think it’s more like being a lizardperson wearing human skin and trying to imitate human behavior by sight. No one knows how terrible your German is as long as you just sit and (try to) listen, but as soon as you need to speak, or do group work, or follow instructions your skin starts slipping and your tail pokes out. Time to flare your crest and slither into the nearest drain, the Germans all know you’re American.

I have to say I’m understanding much less than I hoped I would. More than I feared, but following professors and group discussions is exceptionally difficult because everyone’s going at native-speaker speed. I’m told that this will get better eventually, and at some point I’ll hit some critical mass and the understanding will come flooding in. I hope that’s true, because if this keeps up for the whole semester I’m screwed. These credits transfer back to my transcript in Minnesota, and it would really suck to get F’s and D’s on my transcript for the first time. In my major, no less.

I’ve had a couple bad days during this last couple of weeks, and one really bad day that I needed most of this weekend to recover from. As I write this I should be doing more research into alternative classes and writing an email to one of my professors. Actually two of them. This is definitely the darkest period of this trip for me so far. There are good things in there too, but right now I’m trying to keep my head above water and not panic that I wasn’t ready for all of this. I feel like the other international students are all way better at German than I am, as evidenced by how much more they pick up in conversation than I do. Is that true or am I only seeing them at their best? I dunno. It weighs down on the mind in any case.

At IES they specifically warned us about this period. There’s a “honeymoon” period in the beginning, where everything is awesome, better than back home, and where you never want to go back, but afterwards comes a massive crash as you encounter deeper issues. They’ve been ferrying students all over the globe for something like 60 years, so I trust them when they say that students typically recover from the crash. I’m not gonna lie, it’s been pretty rough lately but I’m doing my best to persevere. Better to walk than to curse the road.

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