VDAC Seminars: Always a treat

Two weekends ago, many German and U.S. exchange students were invited by the Tübinger VDAC club to a wonderful seminar in their beautiful city. I can’t help but think that every city I’ve visited in Germany is beautiful, but Tübingen has a special, old-German charm that made driving for six hours in a train worth it.

Before talking about this weekend’s seminar, and talking about the last one in Kassel, which was also great, I want to give a few notes about the seminars themselves.

The VDAC student-exchange program is really fantastic in what it offers roughly 50 students each year in German and the U.S. Not only do they organize studying abroad at a foreign university, often with TA positions for the German students and attractive universities for the special interests of the U.S. students (from exile studies to music conservatories), the Verband provides aid with housing, a 600 Euro stipend a month for the U.S. students and equally helpful funding for the German ones (though, admittedly, paying 300 Euro a semester is easier to help with than the 3000+ tuition at U.S. universities). But on top of this, the Verband, through the efforts of individual clubs in Germany as well as the collective support of the whole Verband, enables five to six different seminars throughout the country. When I write “enables,” I mean that students are treated to a fully-paid–including bedding, meals, events and even travel to and from the seminar with a “selbst-Beteiligung” of 20 Euros– seminar for three days, two nights during various weekends throughout the ten months of the program. When one considers that students are given the chances to visit five or six other German cities at no real costs to themselves, what the VDAC offers is truly fantastic. Such an opportunity to visit a country and get to know a vast array of its cultural, geographic, and political realities is quite rare. Of course, part of this opportunity presents itself through Germany’s small size (maybe one of the reasons German exchange students don’t have the same opportunity in the U.S.), but also due to the hugely effective organization and funding of the German VDAC clubs. They rotate turns to host the seminars in their cities and arrange the cultural programs for the students.

The first seminar, shortly after the semester orientation programs begin at the universities, is the welcoming seminar for the U.S. students as well as the club’s celebration of German Reunification Day and the awarding of the Lucius D. Clay medal for special services for German and U.S. relationship. The former German exchange students also attend to receive their honor, or “Urkunde” for promoting U.S. and German friendship through their exchange. This year, the seminar was hosted in Dresden. In my opinion, this beautiful city was the perfect city to start a year-long stay in Germany, since its iconic Alt-Stadt was historically grounded enough to make a good impression of Germany’s history and small enough to navigate without adding to the issues of the language and the jet-lag/everything-is-new feeling.

The second seminar is a culturally oriented one. This year, it was hosted in Nuernberg and coincided with St. Nikolas Tag and the famous Christmas markets in Nuernberg. The Nuernberg seminar also functioned as a feedback seminar, since the U.S. students had been in two-months now and more than a few experiences to share and ask questions about.

The third seminar, hosted in February, this year in Mainz, is the politically (charged… ha ha, nah) oriented seminar. At this seminar, students got to know Mainz while having the perhaps most seminar-ish experience. The International university near Mainz prepares multiple different lectures with a wide-spread of applicability for the different students, and while I was balancing my thesis writing, due the Thursday following this seminar, I learned a lot at this seminar that I could apply to my academic work (not to say that I haven’t learned things at each of the seminars to apply to my studies).

The fourth seminar, usually held in May, coincides with the VDAC convention that is attended by representatives of each of the clubs throughout Germany and the awardance of the “Urkunden” to the U.S. students, who by this point have spent seven months in Germany. I haven’t gotten to write about this seminar, held this year in Kassel, yet because I’ve been very busy… much busier than my first semester in Germany (even though I don’t have a thesis to write this time) I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I hope the lovely ladies of the Kassel club can forgive my short summary of what they’ve organized for us.

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First of all, you may not know that Kassel hosts the contemporary art event, documenta, every five years, but the people of Kassel won’t let you forget it. Some other claims to fame, asides from the reminders of past documentas, include hosting the brothers Grimm (known for their romantic linguistic and philosophical contributions, as well as the fairy tales), the Bergpark (absolutely gorgeous) and walk along the beautiful Fulda. Also, fun fact was that Kassel hosts one of two dead-end train stations in Germany. This is why the Hauptbahnhof of Kassel is not the actual center of Kassel, nor the one everyone wants to go to found at Wilhelmshoehe. The other dead-end station is Altona Station in Hamburg, which is why most trains throughout Germany begin or end there. The Kassel club organized the whole VDAC convention (complete with fancy gala buffet) as well as a tour of the town hall, a lecture from the Kassel treasurer (Schatzmeister, treasure master sounds so much cooler), a small private tour of the inner-city and a hiking trek + picnic in through the Bergpark.

Finally however, I come to the last seminar of the year, usually held in June so that people whose universities end earlier than the national standard in July can still attend the seminar that functions as a good-bye for the U.S. students and an orientation for the German students going to the U.S. in August. U.S. students can provide feedback of their experiences and German students have the chance to learn from the U.S. students what awaits them in the U.S.

More on the Tubingen Seminar later. 🙂

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In the meantime, a few closing words on what these seminars mean. First of all, they are a medium of orientation for the students. Despite living “normal” German student lives in respective cities, the students have the opportunity at the seminars to be U.S. Americans for a while, maybe even behave like tourists and definitely to talk and hear English for a while. Of course, I’m sure we’re all grateful to have the opportunity for complete German immersion, but hearing the English tongue (not with a British or German accent) for a while is sweet, just like the occasional hearing of the U.S. anthem, as occurred at the first seminar and the VDAC convention. Not usually patriotically sentimental, I’ll admit that hearing the “Star Spangled Banner” brought a few tears to my eyes and made me realize how much my upbringing in the U.S., where the anthem is played at many school, sport, and political events, has defined my life.

So enough of that. I really enjoy these seminars. I only wish that the same kind of possibilities were available for the German students of the U.S. The seminars make rather starkly evident how much stronger the Verband is in Germany than the U.S., and I wonder if there’s anything I can do to help facilitate a more interest in organizing such seminars on the U.S. end…

If you’re in the position (U.S. undergrad or graduate students at a participating school) to apply for a year-long study abroad program, check out this website:

A quick update on WHAT I’m taking

I realized that I spent time talking about taking classes without mentioning how the classes are structured or graded.

One can attend Vorlesungen or Seminare (lectures or seminars).

Vorlesungen are literally lectures that one could find in many larger universities in the U.S. I had little experience in lectures because I went to a small, public liberal arts college where the classes are capped at 30 and one always had some kind of discussion. By the time I made it to a larger university, I was in graduate school and the classes were structured a lot like I was used to. Basically, for a Vorlesung, the professor stands at the lectern for 1.5 hours and gives a presentation on the topic of the day, leaving some room for questions or inquiries. It’s very formal-ish and little contact occurs between the student and the teacher. It’s a one-way information transfer that takes some getting used to. Thankfully, I’m only attending one of these as an overview of German-language literatures from the 1600 to the present. I just took an oral exam (MA comprehensive) that required me to figure out this overview on my own, but I figured a little formal instruction to fill in some gaps I may have left wouldn’t hurt. Plus, I am not going to be responsible for anything except coming to class (no tests or papers), so it’s an hour and three quarters well spent every week, I think.

Seminars here are similar to those in the U.S. I don’t know how they are for the undergrads, but I’ll talk about those designed for MA students here.

The graduate course seminars in the U.S. run three hours for once a week. Here, they run 1.75 hours for once a week. Obviously, they seem incredibly short and somehow the same amount of learning has to be done. Where? At home. The seminars in the US leave a lot more room for teachers to give students contextual background of the material and to figure out a few confusions. Here, students are expected to do that on their own and come into class already prepared with things to contribute, not wait for the moments to come up with something. I haven’t actually done anything yet, but I know that I have to do a lot to prepare for my classes in the coming week.

As for how things are graded at the end, basically, here in Germany, there are three options for taking classes: full-participation and exam/paper at the end; full-participation; and simple sitting-in. To get the equivalent of three graduate credits in the U.S., one needs to earn 7 Leistungspunkten, that is, “effort points.” These 7 points are granted only if the requirements for participation are filled (i.e. missed less than three times, prepared a Referat, presentation, etc.) and a term paper or exam is written at the end. 2 Leistungspunkten are given purely for participation. I can read the texts, come into class prepared to talk about the texts and prepare one presentation and that will give me some credits. No Leistungspunkten are given if one just sits in the class and listens, but it can still appear on ones transcript.

Once grades are given, they are given for the quality of the participation, the Referat, and the paper. They are given on a 1-5 scale with 1 being the highest (an equivalent of an “A”) and 5 being the lowest (an “F”). I have heard that “A”s are more difficult to receive here, but my ambition is going to make me try!

As for course load, graduate students are generally expected to take 4-6 classes. It depends on the semester and on how much they’ve already taken.

I am taking three classes for 7 Leistungspunkten, two classes for participation credit (2 Leistungspunten) and two Russian language classes that I haven’t quite figured out how credit is given yet. Language courses in the German university are still something I need to figure out, so I’ll come back to that in the future.

Also, I’m taking one “German as  Foreign Language” course in something about academic writing, for which I needed to take an Einstufungstest, language skills classification test, and I have yet to see how that will be as well.

For now, hope these tidbits of info were interesting.