Sunday, July 7, 2013

Professor for one year (week 13): Teaching since 19 weeks and it goes on and on

Last week was my 19th week of teaching without a break and I have two more weeks to go.  How is that possible, as terms in Europe are 14 or 15 weeks?

In February, I started teaching at the University of Basel.  Spring term in Switzerland starts mid-February and ends in early June (week 8 to 22).  Fall term starts in September and ends the week before Christmas (week 38 to 51).  After lectures end there is a three-week period for exams (for Fall term this period starts in the first week of January).  This schedule has been in place since 2005.  Before that, we had Winter and Summer terms, starting and ending ca. 5 weeks later than today's Fall term and Spring term.

Why did Switzerland change term schedules?  Well, that's easy, the Swiss wanted to be "compliant with the European term schedules."  And rumor goes that the then Rektor of the University of Zurich (UZH) was the main figure causing this change -- he simply stated that UZH would switch to this schedule anyway, so all the other members of the CRUS (Rectors' Conference of the Swiss Universities) had to follow.

The idea was to have similar times for starting and ending terms, to make it easier for students in Europe to switch universities.  Sounds reasonable, right?  Except: The surrounding countries still stick to their original term schedules of Summer and Winter terms.  

For a lecturer like me, one effect is extreme long teaching periods.  When teaching in Basel ended, I had 7 more weeks in Konstanz.  And I already feel exhausted, but I still have two more weeks.

For students it means extremely short breaks when coming from a non-Swiss university to a Swiss university, or extremely long breaks when going from a Swiss university to a non-Swiss university  -- OK, there are far more worse things than long breaks.

For the scientific community and the role of Swiss universities as conference organizers, the impact is worse: A perfect month for conferences in Europe is September -- everybody had their summer vacation and the next term will start mid October.  However, Swiss universities start teaching mid September, making it impossible to find a reasonable large room for a whole day (or even a week!) that is not needed as lecture hall.

In general, I like the concept of Spring and Fall terms better than the Summer and Winter terms -- which is what was in place when I studied.  In June and July it can be pretty hot in Europe (and also in Switzerland), so everybody would prefer to be at the lake -- and most of the students (except when forced to attend a lecture) will simply go there.  The most annoying term, however, is the Winter term.  You have to start teaching (or learning) again after the Christmas/New Year break.  It is OK to have exams after New Year, or as lecturer it is OK to assess exams and seminar papers in January.  But motivation to teach another 4 weeks after the Christmas/New Year break is really low.

If there is a proper place to call for changing German term schedules, please let me know.

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