Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Swiss Universities

The first days of GPP have been a whirlwind. We visited Uni Zurich, ETH, and the Uni of Basel. I'll divide this post into observations about the universities followed by some personal remarks.

The most incredible feature of these world-class schools are there incredibly low fees and tuition. For example, the universitiy of Zurich charges €480 per semester, total. I know STEM majors at Virginia Tech who pay that much for textbooks. This allows students to pursue education without fear or massive debt. This creates opportunities for risk-taking insofar as students are free to study their passions. While this certainly enhances overall quality of life, it also allows for innovative research. Students can pursue grand ideas and test uncharted hypotheses. Their intellectual possiblilties are not constrained by compounding interest on their student-loans.

Another distinctive feature of the Swiss system is the specialization of the respective schools. The University of Basel does social sciences and humanities scholarship. It is the only school to clearly claim a philosophy faculty (department), for example. Likewise, only U Zurich has abstract STEM disciplines such as Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. The University of Swiss-Italy (Usi) applies these topics to human health and well-being.
I take this feature of the the Swiss system to be a mixed-blessing. On the one hand, it promotes specialization which concentrates the best minds in any given field together, at one university. It is no accident that U Zurich claims 21 Nobel Prize winners and 3 Fields Medalists. One the other hand, this method deprives whole regions and universities of entire disciplines. In effect, it is a hyper-siloing. Elite faculty in one uni do not have any need to be able to communicate their theoretical understanding to others. It deters interdisciplinary work. I speculate that some of the tangible benefits of the research being done in Switzerland are lost in this way. A mathematician may be doing cutting-edge work which could solve current problems,  but only 15 other people in the world can understand that work, much less apply it.

On a personal note, I arrived in Switzerland mentally scattered. Managing my own travels and business while traveling across three countries left me a bit burnt-out. Since starting the program I have lost my pants (don't ask me how) and my cell-phone. In both cases, Swiss people were incredibly accommodating. I young man waited for 15 mins at the train station for me to return my phone. He refused money when I tried to offer it to him as a reward. After getting 8 hours of sleep, I am collecting myself. I dont intend to lose anything else. We are traveling to Strasbourg in France today. I won't lose my passport!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Arrival and Initial Impressions - Switzerland

Having arrived in Zurich two days ago, I made many observations pertaining to the universities in the city without a formal introduction to the university system. Public policy and city infrastructure are very conducive to a lively intellectual culture.

Foremost, the city's infrastructure contributes to social activity and overall quality of life. First, the many pathways, parks and staircases provide innumerable areas where people gather to talk and enjoy their evenings. Students gather in the evenings to enjoy drinks and talk. Their attention is directed towards each other rather than screens. Second, fountains offer beautification, hydration and temperature regulation. I saw many people dip to drink a gulp of water, wash their face and otherwise enjoy fresh mountain wayer. This makes for healthier, happier students. The contrast case of New York City  standouts,  as students I know there  must pack water and strategically remember where  bathrooms are  hidden throughout the city. These which, I believe, contributes to the vitality of the city and it's universities. Third, the mass transit systems facilitate cheap and efficient transportation, negating the dangers and costs of driving. Zurich makes navigating a pleasant break from work rather than a stressful bookends to work. The city provides the background conditions for academic success.

I'm sure the actual universities do so as well.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Eve of Departure - GPPVT18

In the week before departing for the Global Perspectives Program (GPP), I graduated, interviewed for a full-time academic position, and attempted to sublet my apartment. I prepared for a month-long trip and graded the final papers of ~120 students. I allowed myself little time to anticipate or appreciate the experience to come. Nonetheless, a number of surprising considerations arose in anticipation of GPP and traveling. My considerations were largely pragmatic considerations about what to pack.

First, prioritizing and managing attire proved challenging. My clothing for the trip consists of either formal attire, or - for lack of a better  phrase - casual-gym attire. Given the professional context of GPP, the latter are obviously not useful during business hours. This led to two considerations. First, I realized that I should consider comfort and utility in my professional attire. After all, we will spend a fair amount of time outside in the summer during our travel and campus-visits. Presumably, I will be expected to wear business-casual attire in most future professional contexts. While this may seem like a somewhat trivial point, it is an important one. GPP provides the opportunity to begin this process. Much like the advice often given with regard to selecting quality shoes and a good mattress, it also holds that we will spend a lot of time in business clothing. I aspire to be comfortable and professional. Achieving the former will contribute to the latter, I predict.

 The second broad consideration I noted is an interesting asymmetry between gender-normed professional. Men usually wear many more pieces of clothing and layers to be professional. Personally, I am envious of the summer-dresses and sleeve-less tops which are deemed appropriate for women. An analogous outfit for men would be akin to Fred Flintstone. My point is not one about the relative burdens of benefits of living in a gendered society. Sweating in a suit-jacket does not atone for history.  Rather, my point is simple and liberatory.  I am confident that the vast majority of men who wear professional clothing would be eager to buy and wear lighter, summer-friendly business attire. There is an interesting inertial problem. No one wants to be the first to take that initial risk of attending a business-meeting dressed like Mr. Flintstone. As future professioriate, one minor way to make the university more inviting is to consider ways of accommodating people comfortably.
Maybe there is social-space for post-gender professional attire. My next post will be about my initial impressions of Germany and Switzerland. Stay tuned!