Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sans Bio- you are left with Geo-. And it's not funny

Apologies for longish absence here.
Now for the question of Bio- in The Institute for Geo and Bio-Archaeology. The short answer is: the bioarchaeology component is, effectively, non-existent. You might be hoping that you will be able to find your own field project and, hey, things will work out somehow in the end. DO NOT harbor such innocent views. Neither will you have an opportunity to learn about micromorphology or organic residue analysis in a taught course. There is little to no interest amongst the teaching staff in the organic archaeological materials.
Do not expect constructive advice. Do not expect interest in your ideas.
If you are passionate about bioarchaeology do not waste your valuable time by becoming a graduate student at the VU.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

right to privacy: a postscript

I fleetingly thought that doing things like announcing grades in public is just the Dutch way, just how they do things here. There are plenty of customs that differ widely between American and Dutch schools, so maybe this is just one of them. So I asked some Dutch students whether it was normal for professors to announce everyone's grades.

"Oh, sure," they said.

"Really!?" Cultural differences or not, I was pretty surprised.

"Oh yeah," they continued. "They don't usually say them out loud in class, but professors always post lists of student numbers and grades on their office doors for people to check."

"Student numbers... and names?"

"No, just the numbers. Otherwise everybody would know what grade you got!"

So, according to my sources, it's not just a cultural thing.

And then a recent experience at the student office further emphasized how Henk Kars's behavior was not the norm, even among the blunt Dutch. I needed transcripts for various applications, which the woman at the student desk was happy to print out for me. It was when I asked for them to be stamped, sealed, and signed that she began to frown.

"I cannot do that," she said.

"You can't stamp the transcript as official?" I was confused; this was the official transcript office, after all.

"No, I cannot seal it in an envelope," she explained.

I stared at her, confusedly.

"We are not allowed to send out a student's private information on the student's behalf," she told me.

"But I'm giving you permission to send the information. And anyway, I don't want you to send it out. I'm going to send it, in a package along with the rest of my application."

"But if I give you it in an envelope, you could put it in the mail and send it on its own."

"But... then it would still be me sending it on my own behalf, not you."

"If our signature is on it, it would seem like it was coming from us," she insisted.

This back-and-forth continued for a while, with me trying to explain that no American institution would accept a transcript that isn't in an envelope sealed by the school, that the application details specify that only official, signed and sealed transcripts will be sufficient. She claimed never to have heard of this requirement before, and stuck with her position of not being able to allow me to potentially send out my own information on the University's letterhead.

Finally, we struck a deal. She would put my transcript in envelopes, but write "NOT FOR POST" accross the front. My grades are now on their way to various institutions, but with this disclaimer, because God forbid anyone think that the stamped, official printout of my transcript actually came directly from my school.

not even in elementary school

One of the mandatory classes for all the first-year students in our program is the fall Excursion course, which consists of two three-day field trips and a presentation. I wasn't especially perturbed by the lack of any sort of release form or insurance paperwork—maybe the Netherlands is just refreshingly non-litigious, I figured. It wasn't especially surprising that we were running a half-hour late by the time we started the vans each day, or that the lag had become a matter of a few hours by each afternoon—running behind schedule is a regular feature of field trips anywhere in the world. And it didn't even really register that one of the vans was driven by a student for the duration of one trip.

The actual problems lay in other directions. Despite the class being mandatory for the English-language master's program, we shared the trip with bachelor students who were more comfortable speaking Dutch. So surely they were pleased to find out that the guides at the majority of our stops gave their presentations in Dutch, allowing one of our professors to give a brief translation every few minutes. Also in Dutch was the majority of our field manual. Which we were supposed to read before each of our stops. We got this manual the first morning of each trip.

Even all that would have constituted mildly interesting challenges, if it weren't for the dismal standard of organization and communication among the professors. We were told at the outset that we could pick partners for our project, and submit a ranked list of the sites we would most like to present on. While we couldn't count on getting our first choice—there were two or three sites that were far and away the most interesting, and everyone would try to nab them—but presumably we'd get something in our top five or six choices. This made sense, so we all took notes accordingly (i. e., we spaced out on the especially boring locations, and took careful notes and lots of photos at the ones that struck our interest).

Immediately after the last site tour, the head professor, Henk Kars, gathered us together, and proceeded to flout the prior arrangement. Not only did he hand out assignments without asking us about our preferences, but he also paired us up with no input from us. And he paired us such that the Dutch students were working together and the international students working together. Which meant that half the groups could read the background information about each site, and the other half couldn't. And at least two of the assignments included areas that we hadn't actually visited, so they would require extra research.

I had one of those sites, a peat area that was being restored to its old conditions and held no interest for me at all. Henk wanted us to add information about a Neolithic trackway that we hadn't seen, and for which little information was available online. From the department administrator we managed to get some materials, all but one paper in Dutch, and I translated them as best I could. Dominik and Ricardo were assigned an area for which essentially no information existed in English, and asked the Henk what they should do. He altered their assignment to be something much vaguer but potentially more do-able, then penalized them during the presentation for deviating from their original topic.

The reason I know about Henk's criticism of another group's presentation isn't becuase they told me about it. It's because Henk told the entire class.

After all of the presentations had finished, he and the other two professors asked us to wait in the hallway while they discussed grades. We weren't sure what we were waiting for—surely they could discuss after we had all left, and email the grades to us later?—but milled about until we were called back in.

The next ten minutes were straight out some bizarro, archaeology-themed reality show. Group by group, Henk laid out the strengths and weaknesses (mostly the latter) of the presentations, and announced that group's grade. He did this with a jovial, almost gleeful attitude, as if we should be considering this performance a real treat.

We did not.

I was shocked at first—why did he think it was appropriate to discuss students' grades in front of the rest of the class? Then, as his criticisms became more and more off the mark ("the background of your slides made them too hard to read" could be valid feedback, but generally isn't used as a criterion for deducting points) and it became clear that he was running through the list from highest grade to lowest, I stopped being shocked and started getting mad. Not only was he taking away students' right to privacy about their grades, he was also singling out certain students for what amounted to an uncalled-for scolding. Some of the students in the class were 18 or 19, true, but none of us had any reason to expect to be disrespected publicly.

I was not angry because I got graded harshly; I actually didn't get much criticism at all. I was angry because the head of my program was doing something utterly inappropriate, and clearly had no concept of how unprofessional he was being. If this was the standard he set for his department, I hoped the other professors would have enough class not to follow it.

Coming up on Lowered Expectations: Henk Kars sinks to new lows of unacceptable scholastic behavior.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

confusion as a lifestyle

My first impressions of the VU were confusing (a feeling that stayed with me for several months). The information/orientation sessions though strangely uninformative did not curb my enthusiasm much. The meetings with the graduate adviser/department head (the department has not seen anything like a, *gasp!*, administrative coordinator/secretary in living memory), on the other hand, increased the confusion to worrying levels*.
In the coming months I was going to find that the VU as an institution of higher learning is not so much 'cutting-edge' as it is a place where your academic and professional future is balanced on the edge of the unknown.

Stay tuned for the structure of the academic year, grading system(s), professionalism of the professors, and the amazing story of the quest for the 'Bio' in the Insitute for Geo&Bio-Archaeology.


*Tip: if that happens, go to life-plan B, hanging around and hoping that the situation will be straightened out and your sleep pattern will return to normal are not the recommended activities.

Friday, January 25, 2008

welcome, new students

First, some introductions: we are four (at the moment) graduate students, all from different countries and educational backgrounds, who found the Geo-Bioarchaeology program at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and were intrigued. The web copy on the VU website was promising: this would be a two-year English-language master program with an interdisciplinary approach that combines geology and archaeology. It's a fairly new program in an expanding field, and at the end of two years jobs would be falling into our laps, we were told. Each of us, for our own reasons, tied up the loose ends of our lives and moved to Amsterdam to start the program.

Skipping ahead to now, halfway through the first year of the program, we're all a little wiser and considerably more frustrated. Part of it is that the Dutch education system is different—in myriad ways—from what each of us has been used to. Another part of it is the Dutch attitude toward organization and information distribution. And another part of it is the increasing realization that very little about this program is as it was advertised.

We're not here to rant, or to complain, or to rail against the people who are making our experience more frustrating than it should reasonably be. We may do a bit of that—sometimes it's hard to hold back—but the main purpose is to lay out, as objectively as possible, some of the stories that illustrate what it's like to be an international student at the Institute for Geo and Bioarchaeology under the direction of Henk Kars.

We weren't told the whole story when we decided to come here; since the IGBA isn't going to disclose everything to prospective students, we will.