Culture Clashes

The first thing I was asked to do for my job as a lecturer/assistant Professor at Lund University was to schedule my course.

This was in March, I was still doing my post-doc in South Bend, and the course was scheduled for November and December. I had never scheduled a class before. I was used to classes being centrally scheduled, published in a catalog, with times and locations for the lectures and section being the same throughout the entire semester.

Luckily, and I no longer recall how this happened, I was given the schedule for the prior year, and told I could use that as a pattern. Which I did. It looked quite different from what I was used to, with 3 hour lectures just about every day, some labs and sections. One of the people that I would teach with ended up talking to me on the phone, but I could not quite understand him. It is weird planning a course that you have never held in a country where you have never taught, but I did it.

Once I had moved here, more surprises came up. I did get a lot of help from one of my co-workers who had taught the class before, and who was a new hire just like me. He gave me the syllabus and some background information.

There would be just one exam, consisting of 9 questions, covering 12 introductory chapters. The questions were essay questions. At least that was how they had looked like before, and I figured I’d better follow that pattern. Other co-teachers kindly let me have their material for the laboratory sections when I asked. Mostly I was left to devise my course as best I could.

My first surprise was the demand for power-points, which annoyed me for multiple reasons. I did not want to spend time copying handouts, I had no easy way of putting them on the net at the time, and I really question the pedagogical value of giving people notes instead of asking them to take them.

Another surprise was the evaluation. They were done by the teachers, who created the forms, handed them out, and evidently also should tally them. On the day of evaluations I was lucky enough to find someone who had a form for it. I had just expected that it would work like in the US, where this is handled by the admins, and the teachers cannot look at them until grades are set.

The grades at the time had three levels, Pass with distinction, Pass, Fail. I got no particular instructions on how to set these or what was expected from grading, but I did have experience in creating and grading exams from the US – just different formats. I figured I’d set distinction at roughly 85%. That was lower than the A level I was used to in the US, but I figured that distinction should encompass both A and B, and that this was reasonable. I found out later that most set this at 75%, whenever they used some kind of quantification of the scoring, but that this was also something that was at the discretion of the teacher.

For sheer self-defense, wanting to make sure I could defend my grading, I created something of a Rubrik, where, for each question, I wrote down what I expected, and how many points I would give for it. For this first exam, each of the nine questions earned vastly different amounts of points, since I did this after I had written the questions, but at least I was sure I awarded the students the same amount of points for similar answers.

It turned out that a lot of them did not make the 50% points level, which is fairly strongly the level all teachers decide is the minimum for passing. I did have those that passed the 85% level though.

Once people got their papers back, a couple asked if they could do extra tasks to get a better grade. This is actually not allowed at all by law, but I didn’t know that. I just said no, in a kind of self-protective way.

A lot of things were different than what I was used to. I was handed students to supervise for final thesis, which I did, because, well, research and writing papers is something I know how to do. There came no other information with this task. Just advise them. Slowly I found out about students doing defense of their thesis, and particular requirement of writing, in excruciating detail, null results, rather than just writing down that it was not significant. Hmmm.

Several years in I realized there was a handbook, and all sorts of things on the net surrounding this, which nobody thought of giving me, and I never thought of looking for, and the advising seemed to more or less work, and nobody complained.

In fact, the first several years consisted of working to change my model of university teaching and research from the US one to the Swedish one. Like, for doctoral students, you are accepted at thesis level, and you have to have figured out more or less exactly what you are going to before you are even admitted. Would have been nice to know, before I failed at helping recruiting the student I wanted as my doctoral student (he landed at another university though).

I didn’t realize that exams are public records once they are given. Students have the right to access all the past exams. So, if you reuse the questions, the next batch will have practiced on those, and do a lot better. No possibility then to work out questions that are good assessment.

This was rather frustrating for me many times, because there were all these things that nobody bothered to tell me, and I didn’t know to ask, so I did a lot of mistakes, and violated a lot of assumptions.

So why did they not bother to tell me? Because they are selfish, thoughtless people, or incompetent, careless people? No, of course not.

You have to look at it from their point of view. My colleagues, who were wonderful and helpful when I asked them about things, have mostly been at Lund. They did their undergrad at Lund, they did their doctoral thesis at Lund. Now they teach at Lund. How you do assessments, and evaluations, and essays, and exams are deeply implicit in their knowledge. As much as I didn’t know to ask, they didn’t know I needed to be informed.

This is the beauty and the Achilles heel of a culture. So much becomes tacit knowledge (some people would feel insulted being explicitly told how to advise), which saves so much energy on trying to be explicit and clear and figuring things out, because everybody knows, and everybody does it this way, and there are no questions and it is wonderful.

Except for those who come in from the outside and don’t share these assumptions and then things can go so wrong.

No worries, though. I think I have done well for myself, and I’m contributing to the culture.

But, this becomes salient now, when Lund is working on becoming more international.

There’s always been exchange students, but now we have created an international masters, all taught in English. Also, because I don’t care whether I teach in English or Swedish, my new Evolutionary Psychology course is in English, so I get the exchange students at the bachelors level also.

The tacit assumptions are like underwater rocks, and you will dash yourself upon them.

For example, I had the Japanese student who did not turn up to my obligatory seminars, because he was struggling with the text and had not finished reading it. In Japan, he claimed, the teacher would have thrown him out of the seminar. For us, we would rather have you here, talking.

I also worry about how we do exams. I’m sure that for some of the exchange students it may take a couple of passes before they get how you answer exam questions right. Fortunately, in Sweden you can take your examinations again so if they miss it the first time, they have the opportunity to do better next time, and now they have an idea of what we look for. Unfortunately, if you don’t pass the exams the first two passes, and you go back to your home-land before the summer pass, we have no secure and feasible way to allow you to take the re-examination in your home-country. You just have to return to Sweden.

There is also this informal rule about lectures and exams. The examination is on the literature. We cover some of the literature in the lectures, but the lectures are not obligatory. But, if we go outside the literature in the lecture, we really shouldn’t examine that. Students should be able to sit home and just read the book and pass the exam. I have no idea how this informal rule came about.

And, then we have grades. Grading systems are really like monetary systems. They have their internal logic, and if you are in that system you know what they are worth. They also inflate, as most of us know.

But, across systems, it becomes much more difficult to understand what the grades signify, especially when they seem, on the surface, to be the same thing.

So, here we have now implemented a system of grading where the passing grades ranges from A to E. The non-passing grade is U for Underkänd which means that you did not pass. (And, now my addled brain imagines Gandalf and the Balrog).An E is a passing grade. The cut-off is the same as we used previously in our 3 level system. A C is a good grade. It hovers on the cusp between the old G and VG. A’s are hard to get, but you can. This is hard to convey to people who may think that C is not a good grade, or are used to getting A’s and B’s, but in another system. In addition, not everyone here agrees on whether we should give these kinds of grades, which makes it even harder, although god knows we spent a couple of years discussing them.

Then we have the fall semester ending in mid-January, and the lure of travel, and wish to go home, and the hope that missed obligatories or examinations can somehow be fixed or overlooked or re-taken from the other side of the planet, not realizing how much time and logistics this would take for teachers and administrative personnel, and how to secure that examinations are fair and not vulnerable to cheating.

I love teaching international students. I like mixes. But, it takes so much more time to do so because we do not have a foundation of shared assumptions that we can rest on. I spent so much time talking with various coordinators prior to the winter break in order to sort out some of the issues that I barely got any research done. And, they are questions that cannot be ignored. I am planning to teach these classes again, with a fair share of international students, and I need to be able to chart at least some of the shoals and flag them for the new batch of students, so I know that they know that I know and so on.


About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
This entry was posted in Cultural Learning, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Culture Clashes

  1. Now it sounds like the students need a handbook too. And maybe a class that isn’t significant if it is failed so that they can learn all of the failure modes.

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