In Germany, University Profs Line Up Against Online Teaching

In an open letter, more than 2,000 academics made the case recently for bringing students back into real, brick-and-mortar lecture halls.

At the Martin Luther University Halle/Wittenberg, Dr. Jüerg Schilling gives an online video lecture on experimental physics.
Antonia Thiele

BERLIN — This past March, German universities were forced, from one day to the next, to move all their teaching online. Before the pandemic, many institutions were organized around face-to-face teaching, and virtual learning was the exception rather than the rule.

The switch wasn't something the universities sought out, in other words. It was the result of unexpected circumstances. And yet, online teaching has worked surprisingly well, challenging the widely held view that these institutions aren't suited to functioning in a virtual environment.

Still, not everyone is pleased with the new reality, and in recent days, more than 2,100 lecturers signed an open letter calling for face-to-face teaching to be protected. They want to return to the traditional teaching model "cautiously, incrementally and responsibly," following the example of schools, which in Germany have been trying out new virus-safe teaching methods for a few weeks already.

The letter was co-written by Professor Johannes F. Lehmann from the University of Bonn and Professor Roland Borgards from the University of Frankfurt. Lehmann told Die Welt that face-to-face teaching is at the heart of universities. He argues that when physical buildings are closed, social inequality rises.

More than 2,100 lecturers signed an open letter calling for face-to-face teaching to be protected.

"We are losing students who don't have the necessary resources to engage with exclusively online teaching," he said.

The letter, published on Monday, was signed by professors and lecturers from numerous universities and research institutes across German-speaking countries. It also has backing frm the umbrella organization that represents German students.

Like other industries and organizations, universities were blindsided by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Within a few days, lecturers had to establish online platforms that students could access from home. Now, some gatherings of smaller groups are starting to be allowed again in Germany. But it's unclear still what university teaching will look like when lectures resume after the summer break.

Due to the pandemic, students in Germany will follow lectures from many institutes online. — Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch/DPA/ZUMA​

At the moment it seems likely that there will be a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching. That's, at least, what Berlin's universities announced on Monday. The lecturers who signed the open letter expressed concern that online courses would take over.

Although the move online was necessitated by the pandemic rather than adopted as a free choice, it has been welcomed by some institutions elsewhere in the world. The University of Cambridge recently announced that it plans to keep all its lectures exclusively online until 2021.

When physical buildings are closed, social inequality rises.

German universities clearly don't see this model working in the long term. In the letter, the authors argue that face-to-face teaching is a "basic tenet of university life." And although they acknowledge that online resources are valuable in the current situation, they worry that the foundation of university life — the university as a "meeting-place, a place of encounters' — could be under threat.

Online courses may be able to convey specific content and information, but they can't provide students with the experience of "discursive, critical, independent learning and communication," the letter argues. The lecturers are also concerned that the social aspects traditionally associated with university life — networking, friendships and discussions — could suffer. The signatories all agree that these aspects lose something when you try to move them online.

"Universities cannot just play dead during this crisis," says Lehmann. "If they do they'll lose all relevance." He fears that the crisis may call into question values that have previously been taken for granted, including the right for students to have face-to-face teaching and discussion.

"I have no doubt there will be cuts," Lehmann adds. "And that poses a grave danger."

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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