While in class, a professor asks, “What did you think when you read this poem by Coleridge, did you like it?” a student replies, “I don’t know what he was smoking, but he should keep it up!” (Coleridge was famous for his opium addiction). Everybody laughs at this response. Some other people in the class crack jokes about Coleridge and his drugs.
WHOA! This is just one example, I could give you so many from my classes of people just start throwing jokes at each other, laughing, with the professors joining in, etc. You might think, so what? For a German this is different. I’m not saying we don’t have fun in class over there, but in comparison we don’t.
I feel curiously protective of my country and its education system in writing this. I want to assure you that it’s not bad, that you learn a lot, that you can be at ease in class and participate, but it’s certainly different. It starts with some Canadian professors saying that we can use their first names. Usually nobody does, but I consider the offer genuine. That is unthinkable in Germany, where of course you have to use the respectful “Sir” when addressing professors. Also, a lot of people at UNBSJ simply speak up in class without first raising their hand. I can’t bring myself to do this as hard as I might try. I considered this a rather rude habit at first. It sometimes deprives others who might want to contribute of the opportunity to do so. Also, the professor is no longer in charge of deciding who should speak first.
Eventually, I realized that Canadians just play the game differently. Sometimes, the class takes over. Students interact more with each other, and more voluntarily. Classes are livelier. Joking takes a lot of pressure away and often it links what we study with our life and world and language. (“Where’s God in this play?” – “Yeah, let’s talk about the Big Guy!”) I wish it was possible in my country. People would find it harder to doze off. But sometimes the joke-cracking mode remains disturbing to me.
I have been brought up by the German education system to treat certain personalities, subjects, etc. with a lot of respect and reverence. At home, I need scholarly show-off terms to talk about literary topics. I think it’s considered part of our training as academics to communicate in that special language. Here I feel like a spoilsport when I speak up in class in my serious register that I can’t switch off, try as I might. I admire what’s going on here, at the same time I’m condemned to watch from the sidelines while others throw the ball. I want you to know that this casual attitude towards academic subjects is something special and really helpful that you should guard and cherish – but also that with regards to other cultural sensitivities, that it’s easy to cross lines. If you decide to study in Germany for a while you’ll quickly know what I mean.