Posted by: Ken Brown | September 15, 2011

Taking Notes in the Library

Many people seem to feel a strong taboo against writing in books. Maybe they don’t want to ruin the aesthetic of a clean printed page. Maybe they don’t want to disrupt the author’s train of thought. Maybe they just can’t bear to stop reading and pick up a pen. All very noble ideals, no doubt, but not very practical for serious research. In my opinion a book is a tool, and as much as we all wish we were Will Hunting, most of us need to do more than just read if we hope to remember the details later, and marking up a book is probably the quickest way of facilitating later recall. Besides that, no book is entirely correct or in all parts equally insightful or useful, and I see no problem at all with indicating your judgments on such matters directly in the book itself.

Personally, the only times I bother restraining myself from underlining and adding marginal notes are: 1. when I’m reading fiction purely for pleasure, 2. when the book is so lousy that nothing seems worthy of underlining, but not so outrageous as to demand vigorous rebuttal, or 3. when I do not own the book. And there’s the rub, since as a poor graduate student I simply cannot afford to buy most of the books I must use.

If I do own the book, or have a photocopy of it, I mark it up like crazy, underlining everything significant or interesting, starring anything especially important to remember, and even writing little notes and comments in the margins. I always do this in pencil, in part because I find the grey less obtrusive than a pen or (worse) a highlighter, but most of all so that I can make adjustments if I change my mind about what was important, or realize a particular marginal note has misunderstood some key point (which of course, never happens to me!). When I can underline in this way, I generally do not take external notes on first reading, except when I am struck by some novel thought that requires fuller discussion than is possible in the margin.

This approach makes for a messy book but not only does it take far less time to underline than it does to summarize the key points in a separate document. It also facilitates finding the information I’m looking for later in a way that even detailed notes do not necessarily improve upon. Not only do you have the key information already marked on the page, but the simple act of underlining requires you to read the line at least twice, and stopping to add a marginal note only further solidifies the idea in your head. Both require you to pay fairly close attention to the position of the text on the page, and I often find that even months later I can remember approximately where on the page the information I underlined will be, if only I can find the proper page.

Even more valuable is that marking up a book or article in this way allows one to reread it by skipping from underline to underline, which takes a fraction of the time of rereading the whole book, while still capturing the main points. I find that if I do this immediately after finishing the full work for the first time, I can not only quickly take fuller external notes (in a notebook or on my computer, depending on my mood), but I am also in a much better position to evaluate the value and validity of the author’s statements than I was upon first reading (and I can always reread the larger context around the underlining, if necessary later). By contrast, when I have not been able to mark the most important lines in a work, a second reading takes virtually as long as the first, and is only feasible for the most important resources.

In short, I find that by marking up my books and articles, and only afterwards taking fuller notes from the underlining, I can read both more quickly and more effectively than trying to both read and take notes at the same time. The trouble, of course, is that I cannot do this with library books. Well, I have done it with library books, but I’m older and wiser and hopefully a lot more considerate than that now. And in any case, I have a feeling Göttingen’s libraries would be far less forgiving of that sort of thing that my old liberal arts college.

What to do then? So far none of the solutions I have found are ideal: Either I photocopy or scan all the key parts of the book (as I always do for articles) and mark up the photocopies as usual, or I take detailed notes while reading, combined with the use of sticky notes or page flags.

The problem with the first, aside from the little legal and ethical issue of copyright violation, is that it really isn’t practical to photocopy the whole of any but the shortest books, and it is often difficult to predict in advance how much of the book will actually be worth reading in detail. I’ve often found that many of the sections I photocopied either prove unnecessary, or else depend on some other section that I had not photocopied. There is also the expense of the photocopies themselves, and though I am currently blessed with a virtually unlimited budget for that sort of thing (I sure wasn’t while writing my M.A. thesis!), there is still the environmental issue and even the practical problem of having piles of photocopies everywhere.

Using digital scans on the computer or similar device could alleviate some of these concerns, but I’ve yet to find a digital technology that allows all that I would want to do with a book, from smoothly flipping through, to naturally taking notes in context, all while sitting back in a chair rather than leaning over a desk. I also find that I write better when I can lay out my sources and notes side-by-side while I am writing, and even having a second screen for the computer is not sufficient to replicate that experience. As much as I still long for the day when I could carry all my books and notes around in my pocket–if not as a replacement, at least as a supplement–I don’t see that happening any time soon.

As for skipping the copies and just taking full notes as I read, this is feasible if the book is only tangentially relevant to my interests, such that I only need to keep track of a few of the points it makes, but if it is a monograph devoted directly to the question I am currently researching, this method is way too time consuming to be practical. It takes long enough to read a 300 page book without taking notes, but it takes 10 times as long if I try to type or write out summaries or quotations of all the key points as I go. Unfortunately, failing to do so makes it far less likely that I will be able to remember or find the required information later, even if searchable online versions have made that somewhat easier.

If I know that I can keep the book for a while, I can take less detailed notes if I combine them with sticky flags stuck to the pages of the book themselves. This is still less precise and more time consuming than underlining, but for longer and more important books that cannot simply be purchased or photocopied, it is better than nothing, at least until I have to remove all the flags and return the book. My main problem with this, though, is that unless you use a whole lot of them, such flags can only point out the general part of the page and not specific sentences. I also find that the more flags I use, the more difficult it becomes to flip through the book, and the less useful they are as a means of quickly finding an important section later.

My latest method, which I like quite a bit better, uses little strips cut from sticky-notes, not to hang off the page as flags, but simply stuck in the margins in place of underlining (pictured at the top and in close-up here). It is no substitute for underlining when I can do that, but it needn’t take any longer and can be nearly as precise, without disrupting page-turning like too many flags do.

I simply cut a very thin strip of sticky-note and put it directly next to the sentences that I wish to highlight, cutting it down or adding additional depending on how long a section I need to emphasize. For important details, I use a brighter color like pink, and for especially important points, I can still hang a flag off the edge of the page like normal. Full size sticky-notes can also be used in place of marginal notes, so long as one does not go overboard with them.

Using this method, I can then go back through the book a second time to take fuller notes nearly as well as I could with an underlined copy, without having to do any damage to the book itself. It also saves greatly on the number of sticky-notes I need to use, and should I need to return the book, I can always scan the marked pages before doing so and keep the digital copy for context, without needing to print it off (since it is already marked up), nor needing to determine in advance how much of the book I’ll need.

So that’s my current approach. I’m sure it could use improvement  (one trouble I anticipate is the little strips falling out too easily), but in the mean time I’m curious what methods other people use to keep track of what they read. Do you aim for speed and efficiency, or do you have a more detailed and methodical approach? Either way, what tips and tricks have you found?

Posted by: Ken Brown | July 13, 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Harry Potter und die Heiligtümer des TodesImages copyright Warner Brothers.

Love is stronger than death. – Unknown

The power of love over death has been a major theme of Harry Potter ever since his mother’s self-sacrifice first saved Harry’s life and caused Voldemort’s initial downfall. Throughout the series, Harry’s love for and trust in his friends were also critical in many of their narrow escapes and victories, though cruelly exploited in the Order of the Phoenix. In fact, the whole thrust of the series can be seen as a profound meditation on what it means to truly overcome death, and this theme comes to a head in the Deathly Hallows (or die Heiligtümer des Todes, since I watched it in German).

Without giving any Part 2 spoilers for the sake of the one or two people left in the world who haven’t read the book, the film admirably emphasizes the power of self-sacrificial love. This is seen not only in the resolution of various love-interests (and I’m convinced that showing that love wins out is one of the major purposes of the infamous epilogue), but most especially in the climactic scenes involving Harry, Voldemort and a professor who will go unnamed. No, the film does not quite live up to the book in the latter case, but it comes close enough.

That love is stronger than death does not, in this story, mean that no one dies, but that love wins out through death, indeed that love is most perfectly expressed through bravely facing death for the sake of one’s friends, not cowardly killing to preserve one’s own life. This is, of course, one of the many ways that Harry Potter reflects the Christian story, and it is embodied not only in the climax of the the Deathly Hallows but also in the scene from Part 1 involving the Slytherine Horcrux and the cross-shaped Sword of Gryffindore. Closely mirroring a baptism, here it is only by diving to the depths of the deathly cold pool that the sword can be retrieved and evil destroyed. Harry cannot save himself in this instance, but must be saved by another, as he so often was before, just as he also does for others. One could hardly find a better image of the communal nature of salvation.

Thus it was especially satisfying to see both halves of the film back to back (our theater played them as a double-feature, with the second half beginning at midnight). I haven’t been in as full and enthusiastic a theater since The Return of the King, and the audience clapped and cheered and laughed out loud on numerous occasions. Between the two halves, they fit in most everything important from the book, with just a handful of explicit changes, many intended (it seems) simply to limit the amount of time the characters spent under the Cloak of Invisibility or disguised with Polyjuice Potion. Logically, this strains the credibility of the plot a bit, but emotionally you really want to be able to see your character’s faces, so I don’t begrudge them the change. That they expanded many of the duels is also understandable, though somewhat unbelievable in a world in which one unblockable curse can end any fight in a second (though the same complaint could be raised about the books as well).

A few of the other changes were less necessary and therefore puzzling (for instance, why move the Voldemort-Snape scene from the Shrieking Shack to the boathouse?), but all around they were much more faithful to the book than any other adaptation I’ve seen. The main thing to get cut down was the material about Dumbledore’s past and Harry’s resulting doubts, which left the King’s Cross scene less moving than it should have been, but it didn’t overly detract from the story. The only change that really bothered me involved Voldemort’s use of the Elder Wand in the final battle, but now I’m getting too close to spoilers, so I’d better move on to more technical aspects of the film (feel free to discuss spoilers in the comments though!).

The acting was all around very good, as was clear even through the excellent German translation. Germans are quite proud of their dubbing, and rightly so. The voice actors all fit and did an outstanding job, and the only time I even noticed the dubbing was in the opening scene of Part 1 with its extreme close-up of the Minister of Magic giving a speech. There were a couple of scenes where I found the German difficult to follow, but I’m sure that says more about me than the film. There were also a couple of one-liners that I could understand in German, but would rather have heard in the original English. For instance, Molly Weasley’s last line (if you’ve read the book, you know which one I’m talking about) always seemed more deliciously startling in a series that almost everywhere else avoided profanity. It just doesn’t have the same punch in a foreign language.

Finally, as this was my first experience with modern 3D I should say a word about that as well. All around the 3D conversion seemed to be very well done, certainly better than I had been lead to expect of the genre. This was true not only of the full-blown action scenes but also of more mundane settings. The Gringotts sequence was particularly impressive in 3D, though sitting one row from the back of the theater significantly diminished the effect, since I could easily see the edges of the screen. I sat that far away intentionally, as did not want to risk a headache, but next time I would sit closer to the middle of the theater.

Whether because of this or despite it, I found the 3D overall more distracting than immersive, and it did not feel any more realistic than 2D. But neither did it feel boxy, and unlike some forms of 3D, I was able to look anywhere on the screen at any time, without finding it blurred or hard on the eyes. Our theater used Real-D 3D (without even charging extra for it!), and the glasses fit just fine over my normal ones. Certainly the 3D did not ruin the movie for me, nor was the picture too dark, but I wouldn’t have paid extra for it. Indeed with 3D or without, the special effects where phenomenal, and the action and magical warfare were every bit as exciting and imaginative as you could hope.

In short, it deserves every bit of the 97% it is currently getting on Rotten Tomatoes. It is exciting, moving, thrilling and at times hilarious,  and as brilliant and fitting a conclusion to the franchise as anyone could hope for, surpassed only by the book itself in scope and depth.

Posted by: Ken Brown | July 7, 2011

Is the Old Testament “Monotheistic”?

To such a question it seems that most scholars today would give a short answer of “No” and a slightly longer answer of “Absolutely not!” The problem is not just that the “Old Testament” is no uniform thing to which we can attribute any one theological viewpoint, monotheistic or otherwise, but that “monotheism” itself is a highly problematic term in its own right.  As the papers in the “Monotheism” sessions at International SBL this week have reemphasized, the definition and applicability of “monotheism” as a category are always controversial and often rejected. “Monotheism” is not an ancient term at all, but a modern one, burdened with ideological baggage that limits its usefulness as a description of any part of the Hebrew Bible, much less the whole taken together.

For instance, Isaiah 40-55 is often considered the preeminent example of “monotheism” in the Hebrew Bible, even forming the climax of many treatments of the subject (as Nathan MacDonald argued, though not without some vigorous protestations from the audience!). This is, after all, one of the few places in the Old Testament to claim “there is no other” besides YHWH. Yet even here it is doubtful that Isaiah can be fit entirely comfortably into modern definitions of “monotheism,” particularly if that term is linked to the traditional divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and omnibenevolence, or the absolute exclusion of all other divine beings.

In one paper this week, Saul Olyan argued that even Isaiah is willing to set its denials of other gods as incomparable to YHWH alongside explicit and implicit references to just such deities. So where 45:5 claims “I am the LORD, there is no other; beside me there is no God,” 40:26 also admits that YHWH knows the heavenly hosts “by name,” and 51:9 refers to YHWH’s defeat of the divine monster Rahab. This is not, Olyan insists, a “monotheistic” text, at least in the sense in which that term is normally used. Indeed, he claims that even the most exclusive claims are not unprecedented in the ancient near eastern world, with similar things being said of other national deities by people who clearly accepted a wider pantheon. “Apart from me there is no god” is rhetoric, not philosophical description. That this is the preeminent example of “monotheism” in the Old Testament leaves it doubtful, for Olyan and others, that any of the Old Testament can be helpfully described as “monotheistic,” however we define that term.

Certainly we must be careful not to distort these texts, either by reading later conceptions of Christian belief about God into them, or by comparing them negatively to such beliefs. To most people today, “monotheism” carries a variety of associations that are simply irrelevant and inappropriate in an ancient near eastern context, no matter how we understand the Old Testament. Ancient Jewish religion was extremely diverse, but as other papers insisted, always far more concerned with how one acts towards God and others (ethically and ritually) than with what one thinks about the existence of other divine beings. Even at its most monotheistic-sounding, the emphasis remains on who you trust, not whether your conceptual universe includes one rather than two deities. On that score, the Old Testament is not so far from its “polytheistic” neighbors as we sometimes imagine.

All of these are important cautions, and leave the area of research extremely difficult to navigate, as we not only must seek in a sense to examine and even get behind the more direct interests of the texts in light of their ancient contexts, but also to keep in hand difficult modern controversies that cloud the issues when using terms like monotheism, polytheism, monolatry, and so on.

And yet, the conversation can at times seem to be pressing too hard in the other direction, no doubt in reaction, underrecognizing the distinctiveness of the Old Testament in its final form. A couple of papers (by Mark S. Smith among others) rightly stressed that while perhaps no text in the Hebrew Bible exactly expresses “monotheism” as someone on the street today would tend to define it (would the average person on the street be able to define “monotheism”?), there is something new and distinctive in texts like Isaiah that we must seek to understand, even if we lack a term to precisely define it.

In fact, I wonder if this point could even be expanded. To be sure, the Old Testament preserves many “relics” of non-monotheistic religion, but the text as we have it still never approaches the kinds of depictions of the divine pantheon that we find in so many “polytheistic” ancient near eastern texts of a variety of genres. Everywhere in the ANE we find lists of deities identified by name, sometimes as characters in a narrative, sometimes as recipients of praise, blame or sacrifice, sometimes to reinforce blessings and curses in treaties, other times as the resident deities of various temples, and so on and so forth. This is an extremely important way of speaking about the divine that recurs constantly, yet as far as I know we lack a single real parallel to it in the Old Testament.

To give just one example: This week I had the great privilege of visiting the British Museum, where I spent the bulk of my time in their collection of Assyrian wall reliefs (I think I took about 400 pictures, including the one above). One of those is the so-called “Standard Inscription” of Ashurnasirpal pictured above (produced around 865-860 BCE), which decorated his palace. Now Ashurnasirpal clearly worshipped one deity above all others–Ashur, whose name is reflected in his own–and the text singles out Ashur in particular for praise, as the one who supported his rise to kingship. Yet the same text is also generous in its praise of many other deities, beginning:

“Palace of Ashurnasirpal, priest of Ashur, favorite of Ehlil and Nimurta, beloved of Anu and Dagon, the weapon of the great gods, the mighty king.”

He later goes on:

“When Ashur, the lord who called me by my name and has made my kingdom great, entrusted his merciless weapon to my lordly arms, I overthrew the widespread troops of the land of Lullume in battle. With the assistance of Shamash and Adad, the gods who help me, I thundered like Adad the destroyer over the troops of the Nairi lands, Habhi, Shubaru, and Nirib.”

There is simply no parallel to this kind of thing in the Old Testament, where even texts that clearly accept the existence of other deities besides YHWH tend to only mention one or two, and virtually always in polemical contexts. True, only a small handful of texts explicitly claim that YHWH is the only god, and even those can easily be read as exalted rhetoric in praise of one’s primary, national deity, but a great many other texts reflect an implicit but equally powerful assumption that only one god, YHWH, needs or even ought to be invoked, while other divine beings, if they exist at all, stand somewhere on the outside or fade from view entirely.

No, the Old Testament as a whole is not “monotheistic,” and given its frequent polemics against other gods, the ancient Israelite culture from which it grew certainly was not “monotheistic.” But the term does at least get at a real and important tendency seen across much of the Old Testament (not just Isaiah 40-55). Therefore however much we need to nuance our definitions to avoid imposing later categories onto the text, we should not let that danger blind us to the distancing developments that are to be found there. Indeed, as James McGrath and Mark Smith both noted, many of the terms we must use–religion, culture, gender, Bible–are later and difficult to define precisely, but should not therefore be abandoned.

Then again, maybe the more important point is simply this: Any attempt to reduce so complex a reality as our beliefs about ultimate reality to a single term is bound to end in failure. This is as true of our various names and terms for “god” as for our attempts to categorize them.

Posted by: Ken Brown | July 2, 2011

London Biblioblogger Dinner

For all bibliobloggers [and bibliotweeps! Is that a word?] and those interested in biblioblogs who will be attending SBL in London, I propose that we meet for dinner at 6:30 on the 6th at The Samford Arms, a pub just down the street from the conference (Menu). The Address is:

62 Stamford Street, London SE1 9LX

If you would like to attend, please leave a comment, send me an email (see the About page) or simply show up. If I get enough RSVPs I’ll make a reservation, but otherwise we’ll just go informally. And obviously feel free to spread the word on your own blogs [translation from the German: Please do!}.

I hope to see you there!

Posted by: Ken Brown | June 28, 2011

Bibliobloggers at SBL International?

Having emerged from my German-learning cave, I’m wondering who is planning to attend the International Meeting in London next week, and whether we can schedule a meal together? If you plan to attend, please leave a comment, and mention any papers you might be giving as well. Also if anyone familiar with London can suggest a restaurant, all the better. If not, I’ll poke around a bit and see if I can come up with something.


Posted by: Ken Brown | June 28, 2011

Ich Habe Bestanden!

That means “I passed!” for you poor benighted non-German speakers. 😛 I passed the written test on the 17th without too much trouble, and then today I just barely passed with DSH 2 on the oral exam. I can’t tell you how glad I am to have that behind me, although this comes close:


Posted by: Ken Brown | June 8, 2011

DSH German Test

Image by bark on Flickr, by Creative Commons.

For the better part of the last nine months, I have spent most of my waking hours studying, practicing or using German in one way or another. All of that has been leading up to next Friday, when I will take what I expect to be the most difficult exam of my life. Called DSH, this stands for “die Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang ausländischer Studienbewerber” and is designed to assess non-native speakers who wish to study at a German university. As such, it falls somewhere between the SAT and an AP German exam in terms of scope, except that unlike those tests, there are no multiple choice sections, nor any English at all to guide me.

In other words, this is not a translation test, but rather an assessment of one’s overall suitability to succeed in a German university, including one’s ability to follow lectures, read and interact with texts, compose texts with a clear structure and argument, and communicate in spoken German. Grammar, breadth of vocabulary and broader academic preparedness are also measured along the way. You are permitted use of a German to German dictionary, though if you have to look up more than a few words in it, you will not finish the test in time.

DSH is always composed of the same five major sections, though each university creates its own exam on this model: Hörverständnis (listening), Leserverständnis (reading), Grammatik (grammar), and Textproduction (writing) make up the written exam, followed by the mündliche Prüfung (oral exam). By all accounts, Göttingen’s is among the most rigorous in Germany, and runs as follows:

Hörverständnis: First is a listening comprehension test lasting approximately one hour, which requires you to listen to and take good notes on a lecture in German of approximately 10 to 15 minutes. You then receive a set of questions pertaining to the lecture and are given ten minutes to familiarize yourself with them (at some other universities, you are given the questions before the first reading). The lecture is then read a second time and you attempt to take further notes focused on those particular questions. Thereafter you have 40 minutes to answer the questions. The text should be at the difficulty level of a public lecture rather than a advanced seminar, but could cover virtually any area of academic study or contemporary culture.

Leserverständnis/Grammatik: Second and third are the reading comprehension and grammar sections, which are given together. You are given a text to read of somewhere between one to two pages, with a difficulty level comparable to a major newspaper (for instance ZEIT), which could again pertain to just about any area of academic study, current events, contemporary culture or politics, and so on. This is followed by several pages of questions, first pertaining to the content of the passage, then to its grammar. You have 90 minutes to complete both sections, of which they recommend you spend no more than 30 minutes on the grammar section.

Although it appears last, a good bit of advice I’ve heard is to begin with the grammar section, which can generally be completed just as well without having read the accompanying text, as it consists of reforming sentences so that they have the same meaning with a different structure. This is, to my mind, the easiest section of the exam (though for students whose training in German has been less formal, it can be among the hardest), and I can often finish it in 20 to 25 minutes.

The reading comprehension section is considerably more difficult, demanding not only broad-scale understanding of the passage and its structure, but also attention to small details, the ability to summarize and rephrase, and grammatically correct use of language. The questions generally demand either “Stichworten” (in outline) or full sentences. The first generally means you must find and rephrase information from the text into a nominal phrase with no verbs but the same meaning. The second means you must use different words than those found in the text to express the same meaning in a grammatically correct sentence. There are usually also a few true/false questions, but far from being easy, these tend to hang on very fine details, require you to cite from which line in the text your answer comes, and demand an explicit reason be given if you select false.

Textproduction: The text production section lasts 60 minutes and in Göttingen generally requires you to read a table or diagram of some kind, describe its contents (usually a set of statistics relevant to contemporary life, culture, politics and so on), and hand-write a brief text arguing for a particular position relevant to three or four leading questions. The essay is to be a minimum of 200 words and must accurately present and analyse the most important information given in the table (but in your own words), make a clear argument with examples, and answer the questions. You are evaluated for the contents of the essay, as well as for its style and grammar, the latter of which includes varying your sentence structure and word-choice.

The most difficult aspect of this section, for me, is time management. You essentially have 10 minutes to figure out what information is being presented and what the most important trends within it seem to be (this is not generally explicit, but must be inferred or even calculated–this is one of the places they sneak in a test of basic mathematic comprehension, for which there is no separate section), and come up with reasons and examples to explain the data. If you then take 30 to 40 minutes to write the essay itself, that gives you about 10 minutes to answer each question in its own paragraph, then maybe 5-10 minutes to edit the whole. You must save the last 4 or 5 minutes to count the exact number of words your essay contains, as this must be written down at the end of the essay. If this number is wrong, or under 200, you lose points, and if you repeat yourself or make grammatical errors within the essay, these are deducted from the word total (and point total), and if this drops it below 200, you lose additional points.

Schriftliche Prüfung: Together, these four sections compose the written exam, and must all be completed together. They are then submitted and marked, with 57% being a passing grade (DSH 1), and a minimum of 67% (DSH 2) required for most disciplines (including theology). A few faculties are yet more stringent, requiring at least 82% (DSH 3). At some universities, each section is graded individually and you must get the required percentage in each and every one, while at others all the written sections are taken together and it is the overall score that matters. Thankfully Göttingen takes the latter approach, which somewhat makes up for the generally higher difficulty of its exam questions themselves.

Mündliche Prüfung: If, and only if, you pass the written exam, you will be scheduled to take an oral exam a couple of days later. This is evaluated separately from the written exam and essentially holds veto power over it. That is, while you cannot improve your score by doing well on the spoken exam, doing poorly nullifies the written score itself. For instance, if you passed the written exam at the DSH 3 level, but only received DSH 1 for the oral exam, your final mark will be DSH 1, not 2 or 3. If you fail the spoken test, you have to retake the whole thing, regardless of how well you did on the written portion.

The exam runs as follows: You are given 20 minutes to prepare a 3 minute speech on a particular topic. Some schools give you a table or diagram to work with, some a short text, some both, followed by a couple of leading questions. At Göttingen, they generally give you a text about half as long as the reading comprehension example, but of comparable difficulty. Here however, they will generally choose an example that relates to your intended area of study, though how closely it relates I do not know.

After your twenty minutes of prep time, you go before the examiners, who will ask you a few questions about yourself, your background, education, goals, home country, current events or whatever else they feel. You then must give your three minute presentation, summarizing (in your own words!) the main points of the passage and answering the supplied questions. You may or may not be interrupted with further questions during this mini-lecture, but in any case it will be followed by yet more questions as the examiners wish. The exam lasts 15 to 20 minutes, and (as I understand it) is marked based on how well you understand and respond to the text and questions, the grammatical correctness of everything you say from the initial introductions onward, your use of diverse vocabulary (you lose points for (over-)using terms drawn from the text or repeating yourself), and the fluency of your speech (e.g. responding quickly, not struggling for words, not having to correct yourself too often–though apparently it is better to correct yourself when you do make mistakes than to ignore them).

This is the section that keeps me up at night, it part because it is far less predictable, and therefore more difficult to practice for, and in part because speaking ability remains my biggest struggle. The fact that this could potentially nullify my written score also adds to the pressure, and in any case, I suspect I would struggle to speak perfectly fluently in English in such an exam, much less in German, where my knowledge of the language is far higher than my facility with actually using it. Hopefully I’m not alone in that situation, and the examiners have some grace!

Part of me wants to rebel against the test and complain (as I did, perhaps unfairly, about the GRE) that it is a frustrating and unnecessary hoop to jump though. After all, I’m in Göttingen to work on an English-language research team, and will be writing my dissertation in English. But the truth is, however difficult the exam is, the things it tests really are foundational to success in a German university context. Being able to follow a lecture, read an article, write a short text and communicate in an unpredictable and interactive setting are all essential skills to develop, and the fact that they are difficult only stresses the importance of ensuring that students can in fact do them.

Having now spent nine months here, I appreciate all the more how important such abilities are, and only wish I were better prepared for them than I am. As nerve-wracking as it is to anticipate an oral exam auf Deutsch, I face similar situations all the time here in Germany, some of which have been just as important to my future here as any test. I may not have been graded for my grammar in those contexts, but my ability to understand and be understood without recourse to English has and will continue to to be vital to success both in the university and outside it. Besides that, it should give me a tremendous advantage in reading academic German going forward (which seems relatively easy now, compared to following a lecture or answering oral questions!).

I say all this now, so that if I don’t pass next week and start complaining that I have to spend another three months preparing for the next exam (offered in September), you can all remind me that this is still true, even if I don’t want it to be!

Posted by: Ken Brown | May 3, 2011

Creed or Chaos

For a long while now, I’ve done most of my linking on Twitter rather than here, but relatively few people actually click through on Twitter links (not too surprising given how fast most people’s feeds scroll through with new tweets), and it has left the blog rather neglected of late. The following is worth a fuller quotation than Twitter allows, so I’m posting it here, and will try to do more of this in the future.

In an excellent op-ed responding to the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” David Brooks makes the following observations, echoing Dorothy Sayer’s classic book Creed or Chaos? (HT: a comment at ThinkChristian):

Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own….

Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.

Read the whole thing here. One might also note Christopher Lane’s response, which does rightly emphasize the opposite danger of vying creeds themselves leading to chaos, but rather badly overreaches (in my opinion). As usual, wisdom lies somewhere in the balance.

Posted by: Ken Brown | May 2, 2011

Celebrating an Enemy’s Death?

“If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!” Psalm 139:19

“As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” Ezekiel 33:11

I was living in Canada on 9/11. I was 18 and had just moved there to begin university–the first time I’d ever lived outside of the US–and I felt so cut off from the world I knew. I spent the whole day glued to CNN, desperate for every detail I could learn about the attacks and the efforts to rescue survivors. It all seemed so far away, and I wanted so badly to be home, to mourn with friends and family. I don’t recall feeling any desire for vengeance, but I was proud of how my country reacted to the tragedy. I also supported “the War on Terror” when we sought to fight back in the coming weeks. I cheered when Bush vowed to “fight and defeat the forces of evil wherever they are,” and I followed the search for bin Laden with great interest.

In the ten years since then, however, I’ve lost whatever confidence I had in our ability to pinpoint the “wicked” and destroy them. For every terrorist we were told had been killed, how many hundreds of others lost their lives? Is the Middle East safer now than it was in 2001? Maybe, maybe not. We killed a dictator, and since then a number of others have seen their regimes weakened or toppled. The US has not been attacked again, and things in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be more stable than they were a few years ago. Perhaps–hopefully–the situation will continue to improve and in the end the Middle East really will be a more peaceful place thanks, in part, to America’s intervention. I hope that is the case, but I do not know that it is, and I do not know if it was worth the cost.

I am living in Germany now, where just last week three men suspected of being members of al Qaeda were arrested for plotting high-profile bombings. The thwarting of such attacks is indeed a reason to celebrate, so how much more the downfall of the leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden? This morning I woke to find Twitter buzzing with news of his death, but also with the news of celebrations in D.C. and New York. Once again I feel very far from home, but this time I have no wish to join in the reaction. I understand the desire to rejoice that evil has, in some small way, been defeated, but I cannot join in. Did bin Laden deserve death? Probably. Are we safer because of it? Possibly. But we should not celebrate the man’s death. A letter posted on Brian McLaren’s blog expresses my feeling better than I can:

Perhaps everyone is right. Perhaps the death of Osama Bin Laden has made this world more safe. I do not believe, however, that his death has made this world more beautiful.

By all means, celebrate the rescue of the innocent, even if it required the defeat of an enemy, but don’t cheer the death itself. Don’t celebrate that an evil man was killed; lament that he could not be saved as well.

Posted by: Ken Brown | May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden Is Dead

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago:

If it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

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