… and hollywood will listen

Talk
 

Actually I won’t talk—I already did so on 02 May 2006, high noon, right on Munich’s Marienplatz. Our students invited me to do so, thank you for the faith in me. But allow me to start at the beginning of the whole story.

There are some ‘structural problems’ at German universities. This problems hit all disciplines, but disciplines like sociocultural anthropology in particular. The core problems are too less money and, even more important, way too less academic personnel, plus this problems’ secondary symptoms. At my institute there currently are only four professors and two rough equivalents to assistant professors. Just ten years ago there still were six professors and five of the assistant equivalents. But bureaucracy ate away our former splendour and doesn’t show signs of stopping. According to the official plan in two years only three professors and one of the assistant equivalents will be left. And those four poor bastards—I am among them, as I am the ‘last equivalent’—will have to deal with about 1200 students. I guess there’s no need for describing what that means.

Now you ask how the hell were you little posse able to deal with this amount of students? How did you find time for research and publications, didn’t teaching and grading papers eat you up? How was it possible to guarantee quality in teaching, as it’s obvious that seminars with 100+ people attending do not make sense didactically? Well, there is an institution at German universities which made sense in its original form and concept, but since then has mutated into something obscene, the so called Lehrbeauftragte [roughly: someone assigned to teach]. The original idea behind the concept Lehrbeauftragte was to invite people with worthwhile expertise to teach a seminar at the university, in order to enrich the curriculum. Those people normally had some other job, worked in the business world, at another university or research facility, or lived on research grants, and so on. It never was intended to regularly enlist those guests-for-one-term into the ranks of university personnel, and oftentimes there was no need to fully pay them. To be invited to teach at e.g. my university was an honour for them, they could put it into their CV, it was good for networking, and the universitiy’s teaching was upgraded by high-class input from outside. Some kind of academic reciprocity. In consequence only a symbolical amount of money was paid to them by the university.

Since those times the situation has changed dramatically. First of all the employment opportunities—both the temporary and tenure ones—at the universities got less and less. That means more and more of the next generation of professional academics depend on other jobs for a living or on research grants. But research grants became less and less, too. Both in amount and number. Even the lucky uns who got a grant have to additionally work in day- or nighttime jobs. Mind: I am speaking of qualified postDocs here. Quite a deal of them indeed cope with that situation, work their asses off, and even progress with their research. Hardboiled guys’n’gals. But in order to be accepted within academia you need institutional backup, and to get a regular job at a university later on you need teaching experience to shine up within your CV. But there are virtually no postDoc employment opportunities left at the universities. What to do?

Enter the degenerated version of the concept of the Lehrbeauftragte. So you try to get invited for one of those teaching appointments. And we, that is the permanent staff of my institute, are glad to invite those people, as they not only enlarge our curriculum, but deliver input directly out of current anthropological research. They get our institutional backup, teaching experience for their CV, and the honour—we get priceless academic input. Reciprocity? No more. “Priceless” is the correct word, because the situation has dramatically changed, but the symbolical amount of money still is the same.

Currently one Lehrbeauftragter at our institute gets 250,- Euros for one seminar. We can’t pay more, as the university doesn’t give us more. Not per hour, not per week, not per month … for the whole term, for the whole package! The current term encompasses 14 weeks. That means 14 times 90mins of teaching. Plus designing the course beforehand, plus helping out and giving advice to the students outside of the weekly 90mins, plus grading the papers. Around here a course paper usually consists of 15 to 20 pages of text. Now imagine yourself teaching a course attended by 50 to 100 students. Quite frankly—although that may sound quite preposterous—I wouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning if someone offered me mere honour + 250,- Euros for the above described package of work. But our Lehrbeauftragte, having an academic career in mind, do it. Mind again: We are talking about postDocs belabouring hot research topics. Driven by the necessities of institutional backing, teaching experience, and, definitely not to neglect, by idealism, they do it. They were willing to play it the hard way. But “No mas”, as Roberto Duran said to Sugar Ray Leonard.

During the last year the Lehrbeauftragte went all the official ways through the university’s structure to make the obscene situation known and to improve it. We helped them as far as we could. No success. Now they unamimously decided to not teach this term. This term’s list of courses, complete with abstracts, is online—every course which is not held [scroll down to mid-page] I marked with WIRD BESTREIKT [on strike, doesn’t take place]. All in all 20 courses ceased to exist. Especially mind the four language courses in Bahasa Indonesia and Kiswahili.

Of course this hits the students firstplace. But our magnificent and engaged studentship perfectly understands the situation and immediately showed their solidarity with the Lehrbeauftragte. Especially because there is more on the horizon which will hit the students directly: Tuition fees are re-introduced at German universities. At our place here they think about 500,- Euros per term. With no grant-system whatsoever in existence. 500,- Euros for what? For studying at an institute where three professors plus the last of the Mohicans teach 1200 students? For courses attended by 100 students? For a library which has to cancel subscriptions to academic journals every term due to lower and lower budget?

In spite of bowing down to perfect irrationality our students shifted gears. At their blog protest.twoday.net you can follow their every step and discuss it, read every letter they write, including those of the Lehrbeauftragte, read about every action they plan and undertake, and discuss it or help.

One of their steps was organizing a rally at Munich’s central place, the Marienplatz, on 02 May 2006. They invited me to deliver the first speech and to try to explain to the public what anthropology is, and why it is relevant. Meanwhile they have put all speeches online as .mp3s. My contribution “wtf is sociocultural anthropology?” [17:14min | .mp3 | 15.8MB | in German] is there, too [top of the list]. Especially the contributions by student-speakers are very worthwhile to listen to. After my speech Magnus Treiber told me that I could have been a great catholic priest … now that I have listened to my own speech I perfectly understand what he meant. Hell, it’s my voice—not my character shining through.

That Hollywood listens is not really essential, but the public should listen, as we are talking about the public’s university.

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