Saturday, November 04, 2006

Snakes! the Library!

Forgive the melodramatic title. I know it sounds like one of those early radio serials that left you hanging by a tuft of grass on the side of a cliff wondering if rescue would ever come.

The reason for this is that my niece has just started law school in Greece at the Democritus University of Thrace. Now it sounds even more confusing but bear with me. I am visiting my Greek family this weekend and while escorting my niece, Magda, to her volleyball practice she began to tell me about her first weeks at her new university.

The law school takes an interesting approach to legal education. First, it says it is teachng legal science, then it says it is turning its students into citizens by teaching them rights and obligations, which it concludes with: "A modern system of Law Studies is trying to achieve the passage from a political adjustment of society to a social one."

I don't really know much about legal education here so I was keen to learn. Magda said she was in an entering class of around 500 students, which shocked me a bit but then I recalled wandering into a class at the Sorbonne once and seeing a packed room of several hundred students taking notes as a professor read from his textbook. By packed I mean they were sitting on the stairs, on the floor in the aisles, even on window ledges.

Magda's classes are squeezed into Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday because those are the days that the professors commute from Athens to teach. Shock number two was the number of hours she sat in class. On two of those days classes run from 9am to 7pm without a break for lunch. Or if there is a break it comes when the cafeteria is shut. On the third day two extra hours are slotted in to take it up to 9pm. This amounts to around 30 hours a week class contact. Or to be more precise "being lectured at time".

My days at law school contained about 8 or 10 lecture and seminar hours a week with the remainder of the time for our own reading. Even present day UK law schools wouldn't require 30 hours of tuition a week.

This first year of hers is basically introduction to "principles" of law and includes contract, torts, constitutional, and bizarrely, principles of tax law. Tax law--a first year course? In addition, she gets to take three options, which for her are sociology, criminology and organizations. These too are all lectures with no seminars. But these are small courses with limited enrollment of between 200 and 300 students. That's a boon.

Besides the number of hours spent in class there is the length of the lectures. According to Magda the lectures vary in length from two to four hours! No wonder she says her brain hurts at the end of the day. For a four hour stretch she makes notes out of the lecturer's reading of his textbook. I asked if there was any interaction between lecturer and students: did he ask you questions? No. If you didn't understand something you could put your hand up and ask.

Magda has 8 semesters of this in which she will "take successful exams on 36 compulsory subjects and 9 optional ones." By this time either her consciousness or society's will be transformed as the law school hopes.

Magda is finding this all very difficult to cope with after the cosseting of school. Sometimes she can't get a seat and has to sit on the floor of the lecture hall. The students smoke cigarettes and answer their cell phones. And the lecturer reads on until his alloted time is up.

I may appear over-critical, so let me counter-balance by saying that the university provides support that UK and US students wouldn't get. All textbooks are provided free to students. There's only one slight hitch: they can't decide which book to issue so none have actually been distributed yet. So the students can't read anything; they can only listen. Apparently the books will come--eventually.

On the IT front, the university is at the forefront. It provides laptops (heavily subsidised) to incoming students as well as all the expected IT accoutrements of email accounts and computer suites around the university. But there has been a slight glitch. No email accounts have been issued and no computer suites are open. And no one knows when, or if, the laptops will ever appear. The current odds are in favour of "not". So the students can't communicate with each other or the university via the internet. It will come--eventually. As will the end of term in a month's time.

Let me bring you back to the library. Magda decided she would study in the library, which is well-stocked and good for study. She noticed, however, it was unusually quiet and empty. The librarian told her she could use it. However, it would have to be at her own risk. I've never thought of law libraries as risky environments before. The only dangers are dropping a law report on your foot or falling asleep.

The Democritus University of Thrace has something extra for the enjoyment of its students. The university is located in the countryside and experiments in co-habitation with the local fauna. So in this particular case, the local snakes have taken up residence in the library. Why not? It's warm, comfortable, dry and there must be the odd mouse drifting around as well. Unfortunately, the snakes are venomous and so no one wants to go in and remove them from the library. At the moment it's one-nil to the snakes against the university. And nobody knows when, or if, they will be removed. At least the library retains its pristine character and looks good as one gazes in from the outside. Just don't venture in...

Magda kind of likes her first foray into law school. Like most students she would prefer a few changes, but then students are never satisfied.