Preparation is Everything.

There will be some travelling going on this year, something I will detail in a future post. What I can reveal already is that one of these trips will take me to Ireland again, but not on my own: I will teach one of my Bachelor courses in Limerick this summer, taking 17 students from our uni with me.

The course is designed to start here and then conclude in Ireland; after the first lessons, I was getting a bit worried about the bunch of students I had picked to come along, as they were rather quiet during the lessons. Very quiet. So to get to know each other a bit better and see whether they were actually able to relax (and hence survive in Ireland), I took them out to my local for a Guinness or two.

I shouldn’t have worried: We spent 5 hours at The James, emptying their supply of ciders (I am not kidding) and entertaining all the other guests with our stories. After a quick stop at a kebab shop with six of them, I decided to call it a day at 2.30 am, while they wandered on to a club to dance the night away.

Looks like Ireland is going to be fun after all.

Klootscheeten.

As mentioned before, I do some teaching at a company in the northwest from January to March, usually going up for a full day on Tuesday and half a day on Wednesdays. It is some nice extra cash on the side, although the fact that the finance authority taxes me heavily on the money, taking away roughly 50%, makes me sometimes wonder whether it is actually worth doing.

But then, I really like the people I teach (and I use the word “teach” in the widest sense here, as we mostly drink tea, eat sweets, and talk about our respective private lives); in the seven years I have been doing this course, a lot of them have become acquaintances, if not friends. So when it was time for the lab department to have their annual Klootscheeten (which is basically an excuse to first get drunk during a walk and then get drunk inside a party tent), it was a no-brainer for them that I was to be part of the team.

As I had to work until 2 pm, I was a bit late and hence “forced” to catch up on booze; even though they had just started the tour an hour earlier, some of the ladies were already dangerously imbalanced when I arrived. Give them a little metal ball to throw, and you have an almost deadly combination; it still surprises me nobody was seriously injured, although we came quite close once – thankfully, even after 5 beers Jan still had fast reflexes and managed to duck.

If there is one thing I can count on during these kind of parties is that after a while, men tend to flock towards me; the drunker they are, the more they seem to have the need to discuss private matters with me … including guys I have never met before. We hadn’t even reached our destination yet when a young bloke from another team started asking me whether he should continue studying or instead find a job to support his girlfriend who wanted to have a baby. Rather startled, I told him that given his age (he looked about 19 to me), they shouldn’t really aim to have a baby yet, to which he replied, “My girlfriend is 30”. And then, giving me a meaningful look, “I like older women”. Oh dear.

Whilst slowly backing away, I bumped into Daniel (one of “my” people) who wanted to discuss his relationship issues with me; after I had patched him up, Robin was going on about his relationship and whether I could help him make a decision (short answer: No.). I finally made it to the dance floor and just stayed there for the next couple of hours to be out of harm’s way, even though the music was mostly shite (something we all agreed on, and yet everybody was dancing. The miraculous powers of alcohol …).

I had booked a hotel room to be more independent when it came to partying the night away; it was a wise decision, as I was (as usual) one of the last to leave at about 3 am – but not after arranging another meet-up in about three weeks’ time.

Facilitating the Writing Process.

As part of my work contract, I am required to visit the occasional training day. Luckily, I am allowed to pick the topics of these workshops myself, so at least they are about something I am actually interested in.

So today, I spent a day in Dortmund, doing a workshop on how to facilitate the writing process for students, dealing with problems such as identifying research questions, helping students to develop their own writing style, offering the right amount of input without becoming too domineering.

The good news is that I am apparently already doing a lot of things right, at least in terms of structural and motivational support. The bad news is that there is not “one cure for all” when it comes to teaching students how to come up with research ideas, time management, and proper citations: What works for one person might have the opposite effect for another, and in the end you can only do a certain amount of “pushing” in the right direction – learning how to carry out (and communicate!) research is part of the individual academic learning curve, after all.

It still was a pretty good workshop, as it made me realise that I need to revise my presentations on research and academic writing; maybe I am assuming too much foreknowledge by students, which could be the reason why their research papers are not always up to the standards I am aiming for. But for students to understand and meet these standards, I have to explain them more thoroughly. Lesson learned.

Looking Beyond the Horizon.

In my Master courses and the advanced Bachelor courses, the underlying theme I torture my students with is “ethics”. When I realised a couple of years ago that our students were quite brilliant when it came to economic analyses, but often lacked the basic understanding of decent business conduct (much to my horror), I decided to make ethical practices – in research as well as in professional life – the topic of some of my courses. Students are now supposed to create a lesson based on an ethical dilemma and then pick a (sometimes unrelated) topic for their research paper. I usually leave them free reign in choosing said topic, as I believe that giving them such freedom means they go for something they are passionate about and therefore more involved in.

So over the last years, a very diverse set of research papers have been handed in; the papers were not always up to the academic standards I had hoped for, but their range in topics meant it was almost certainly an interesting read. I had the pleasure of marking, among others, the influence of James Brown on the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, the economic justifications of surrogate mothers in India, the de-manning trend on cargo ships in the European Union, the agricultural subsidies system and its consequences for German dairy farmers, the questionable trend to award major sport events to countries with a dubious human rights record, the problems of detecting plagiarism in programming assignments for IT students, the ‘greenwashing’ principles behind the latest H&M campaign, and the use of performance-enhancing substances in sports where sponsorship is only available to the top performers.

Reading those papers always reminds me that, as much as I may think I know what I am lecturing about, there are questions and perspectives which make me see things in a new light or tackle them in a different way. The value of these assignments for me is not just in the confirmation that students have understood the ethical concepts I was trying to convey, but also the realisation that concerning myself with sometimes very obscure topics helps to spark and form new ideas in my own mind.

Moves like Beyoncé.

I still don’t know how they figured out my birthday, but in the week after, every single course I taught either sang a song, did a little dance (much to my amusement), or brought cookies along. One of my courses had even baked a huge cake which we finished off together – with several second servings, as it was such a massive affair that 23 people could not eat it up in one go. As for the ‘Beyoncé’ request: That’s what you get when you tell your students that you are taking dance classes …

Birthday Madness.

When we all sat together, chatting about life while munching away at the cake and watching the stunning sunset, I was once again reminded why I love my job (and my students) so much.

Sunset.

Pay It Forward.

I generally don’t really care about money, which is probably due to the fact that I actually have some now and don’t need to worry about every single cent anymore. But there were times when my finances were very, very tight, so when friends are getting upset about amounts they need to pay because they just don’t have the money at the moment, I can certainly relate. I know where they are coming from, so I appreciate the fact that nowadays, there is enough money in my savings account that unforeseen expenditures do not throw me off track that easily.

Having some money has given me the freedom to obtain things I wanted to have; at the same time (and this sounds very cliché), the more money I have earned, the more I have come to the realisation that there actually aren’t that many things I need or even want. For example, I don’t really see the point in spending money on a huge TV, as I don’t watch that much television anyway and the current one works just fine; my dad keeps on nagging me about getting a new car, but the car I have is just 7 years old, runs smoothly, and is rarely used, so why should I get a new one?

The things I am interested in are, among others, travels, learning new things, or going out with friends. These are experiences that cannot be “bought” but have to be made, and I think these experiences are more important than buying a new flat-screen TV or the 16th pair of shoes. What I do like to spend money on, however, are things that make other people happy. Even at times when I was basically broke, I have always been quite generous with my friends, family, even people I hardly know: Sending flowers to a friend who is going through a rough time, giving small presents because I saw things in a shop and knew the other person would like them, inviting others for dinner, planning little surprise trips. It is a corny thing to say, but: I do like to see other people smile and being happy, and I like being the person who makes them happy.

So what I have been trying to do for the last couple of months (now that I have the financial means) is to make more people happy: Every month, I aim to spend money on somebody else – not only on people I actually know, but also on strangers. The easiest way would be to donate to charity organisations (which I also do), but I believe that every day, you meet people who could need a bit of cheering up. This does not only include people who live on the streets, etc., but also people who just go about their day and are not expecting anything “nice” to happen to them.

To be able to see if somebody needs some happiness, you need to walk through life with open eyes; these days, I am always on the lookout for people that could do with a smile. Back in May, Susanne and I were having dinner at a restaurant where we shared a table with a young couple in their late teens; as we were sitting so close, I started chatting to them (much to Susanne’s amusement/embarrassment; I still don’t understand why Germans are so aghast when somebody is trying to do small talk), and it turned out that they were celebrating their first anniversary. Susanne and I left a bit earlier than them and went to the counter to pay; while we were standing there, waiting for the bill, I thought back at how going to a restaurant with my boyfriend at that age was such a special occasion, as it usually meant spending a month worth of pocket money on a single meal.

So I turned to the waitress and told her I would like to pay their bill as well; the waitress as well as Susanne looked at me like I had lost my mind. The waitress confirmed about three times whether I was really sure about this, while Susanne asked me why I wanted to do it. I told her that it would make them happy, and that’s all the reason I need. The waitress then made an attempt to go over to tell the couple I had paid their meal, so I stopped her and told her that she was only allowed to say something once we had left and they were asking for the bill. That confused Susanne and the waitress even more: “But why do you not want them to know?” – “Because that’s not what this is about.” I had no interest in becoming all stalker-ish and hide somewhere in the corner to watch their reaction; I know that this was coming as a pleasant surprise for them, which is all I wanted. So much to Susanne’s chagrin, we left the restaurant while the couple was still blissfully unaware that they had just eaten for free.

A couple of weeks later, I was walking down the hallway at uni when a young lady suddenly stopped me; it took me a couple of seconds to identify her as the waitress from the restaurant. She handed me a note that the couple had given to her, in the hope I would one day come back to the restaurant; unbeknownst to them (and me), the waitress is a student at our university and managed to track me down. In the note, the couple profoundly thanked me, saying that it was the best thing that had happened to them in quite some time, ending with “… and the next time, we will pay for your meal!”. The thing is: I don’t want them to pay for my dinner; I would rather have them pay it forward and make somebody else happy, in whatever way they deem suitable.

When I give to other people, I am not interested in getting something back in return. I am as happy as any other person about presents or being attended to, but for me, the idea of giving is just a way to spread the love. I know this sounds really “leftie” (I can almost see Robert rolling his eyes reading this …), but I truly believe that this is a small, easy way of making the world a better place.

Three weeks ago, I watched a busker in Birmingham, playing her heart out on the guitar while standing at a draughty, cold corner of the city centre; I went to Starbucks and bought a hot chocolate for her. When she did a short break, I gave her the hot beverage; she was really surprised and asked me, “Why are you doing this?”, and all I could say was, “Why not?”. I am trying to put myself in the shoes of people I see and reflect on what would make me happy if I was in their position. In her case, I could not offer her a record deal, but at least something to warm up while she was trying to earn some money.

Most of the things I do are tiny and nothing worth mentioning, but maybe a bit uplifting for the people I encounter. I think it is important to give people a feeling of “Actually, life is not too bad, and there are some good people out there”, because I do believe that. The concept of paying it forward does not mean that I expect great things to happen to me in return just because I am nice to others. To me, it means making people aware that there are others out there who do care and who do watch out for them and try to be nice to them, regardless whether they know them or not. There are a lot of things going on in world politics at the moment which are utterly depressing; so why not make people believe in the good in man again?

So I spent the last weeks organising and creating Advent calendars for the people I love. On Monday, I sent off several parcels to my cousins as well as my friends abroad; …

Postal happiness.

… I bought many little surprises for my parents, who will get their first ever Advent calendar this year, …

Thinking of you.

… and I also made sure that my favourite colleagues will have something to celebrate in the days leading to Christmas.

Charlotte, Bert, et al.

I am too realistic to truly believe I can change the world; while one person can make a difference, it takes a whole society to keep the momentum going. But as one of my favourite German bands once sang, “It is not your fault that the world is like it is; it would be your fault if it stayed that way”.