Friday, July 03, 2009

Lost in Translation

I have finally stumbled out of the swamp of good beer and fine food and marketplaces ringed with cafes, ur-old churches and city gates, and beautiful weather, and have sat myself at a computer. Albeit, one with a keyboard that has the 'y' and 'z' interchanged, and a number of slightly less annoying permutations.

I had intended to try to find someone at University of Köln to interview about the Bologna process, but that's not going to happen. We're going to the city today, but to meet friends and shop. So I'm afraid I'm not going to have much useful to say about assessment in Germany.

If you haven't been to Aachen, I recommend it. This was my third visit to the Charlemagne's Dome, but somehow I'd never really seen it the way I did this time. The designs on the ceiling seem like something out of the twentieth century to me, despite being 1200 or so years old. I'm certainly not an art historian, so take this for what it's worth, but the detailed mosaics seem different from anything I've seen anywhere else. In particular, there is an attempt to create patterns that evoke 3-D images when seen from a distance. My pictures aren't very good, but the one below gives you a sense of what I'm talking about.
Some of these illusions are very effective, and I had to walk around and look from different angles to convince myself that there were not in fact pieces sticking out from the ceiling.

Design seems to be a big deal here in the 21st century too. Below is a photo of a house a block from where I'm staying. I find it striking. My reading list includes Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead, which I bought both in English and German so I could read both simultaneously. I've found that approach not to work particularly well, however. It's too easy to cheat. One of the more interesting vingettes from that work is an account of prisoners during transport to a transit prison exchanging their identities in order to swap prison sentences. A relatively rich prisoner might pay a poor one to take his 20 year hard labor sentence in Siberia in exchange for a lighter one. These swaps were public to the rest of the prisoners and enforced by them--an interesting example of rules emerging that we might call evolutionary stabilities, from game theory and evolution theory (see Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene for more).

For my non-cheatable German assignment I picked up Henning Mankell's Kennedys Hirn (Kennedy's Brain), which is a translation from Swedish to German. (Reading translations I have found to be much easier than literature written originally in German.) I'm on page 58 and having fun reading it. My German vocabulary is pretty poor at this point, so I keep a dictionary handy. This one is Langensheidt's German dictionary as a foreign language, meaning that it's all in German, but using simpler words and concepts for the definitions. So when I come across a word I don't know, like 'verteidigten' I find a definition like this:
etwas gegen einen (feindlichen) Angriff schützen, indem man zu kämpfen beginnt
I can almost figure it out: something against an enemy attack ???, where a battle begins. But I've forgotten what schützen means. There's a 'Schützenfest' going on down the street this week--some kind of party, but that doesn't help. So I have to look up that word too:
verhindern, dass eine Person verletzt wird oder in Gefahr kommt
That I can almost get--prevent a person from being in danger or being harmed. But the example sentence clenches it: Er schützte seine Augen mit einer dunklen Brille = He ??? his eyes with dark glasses. Clearly schützen is to protect.

What's interesting about this excercise is that the definitions by themselves often convey too little information alone to be able to make sense of. The richer and more complex sense conveyed by the examples make all the difference. I think this is a consequence of problems of inherent in data reduction I'm always going on about. Namely we often assume that abbreviations are enough, but more often they are not enough to convey, measure, communicate, and otherwise be as useful as we imagine. A word is its useage in the language, not its sterile skeleton as laid bare in a dictionary. Learning outcomes work the same way.

Update: Verteidigten means to defend--I forgot to close the loop on that one. And schützen also (bizarrely) means to shoot as well as protect. The astrological sign Saggitarus--the one with the bow and arrow--is der Schützer. It must say something about the history of the word that shooting and defending are so closely linked.

As it turned out I actually did get to have an informative discussion about the Bologna process. One of my wife's friends from the University of Köln, whom we spent the morning with, has a doctorate in German and Philosophy and now teaches those subjects in Gymnasium (like high school plus some college). He was quite aware of how it worked, and on the whole didn't have much positive to say about it. On the plus side the process will make it easier to transfer from one university to another. There are a lot of minuses, in his opinion. First, the creation of a Bachelor's degree seemed like a dead end to him unless the whole system is changed. But worse in my judgment was his comment about the effect of this standardization on the curricula. It is wiping out individual emphases in different regions. Currently some emphasize rote learning, for example. Here in Nordland-Westphalia, he described the approach as more dialogue-based, with less emphasis on memorization. I would contrast these as deductive versus inductive/creative types of thinking. I'm speculating at this point, but it seems that standardization would generally favor the deductive style, since it's much easier to write down in protocols and test with standardized tests.

I forgot to mention earlier that Peggy Maki has edited a book to be released soon on the Bologna process. I just squeaked under the deadline my chapter submission for her book about assessment from the faculty perspective from Stylus, and she told me about the other book in an email.

We spent a most wonderful day chatting, trying out the local Turkish diner, and later on shopping in the city center. The Dom (cathedral) is simply huge. It's impressive in a unique way, entirely different from St. Peters or Notre Dame. One of the long streets stretching out from the plaza is for foot traffic only, and we spent several hours dodging a few rain drops and finding gifts, sampling the pastries, and shopping. I found a wonderful German language book for non-native speakers. It's a picture book with at different theme on each two pages. One has a drawing of some thing, event, or subject, like say a submarine, with the parts numbered. On the facing page are the names for all the bits that make up said submarine. It's far too heavy, and an indulgence, but (shrug) I bought it anyway.

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