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INSIDE BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY

Class offers connection with Germany

By : Eric Coker

Binghamton and German students are collaborating inside and outside of the classroom in the first course to take advantage of new videoconferencing equipment in Academic Building A.

Ubermen and Underlings, a German, philosophy and comparative literature course taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Harald Zils, features class discussions and presentations in conjunction with the University of Freiburg in Germany. The class includes 32 mostly undergraduate Binghamton students and
11 philosophy graduate students from Freiburg.

“Part of why it’s so exciting is that it’s two different groups, but they are not homogeneous,” said Zils, who received his doctorate from Freiburg. “They have particular strengths and particular interests, so they can help each other out. … It’s interesting for both sides to see how the other people tick.”

The course, which is conducted in English, examines the aesthetics of ubermen and underlings and how they apply to topics such as art, music, architecture, fashion, nature and social movements. For example, the rock band Queen is an example of the uberman aesthetic, in which concerts are bombastic and everything seems “larger than life,” Zils said. Folk singers, such as the acoustic Bob Dylan of the early 1960s, represent an underling aesthetic.

The Freiburg students have taken part in Tuesday classes since mid-October. The room on the ground floor of Academic Building A features a large video screen, an overhead camera and two microphones hanging from the ceiling. Zils uses the videoconferencing system to connect with Freiburg (“Good morning,” he said at the start of a recent class.

“Good afternoon!” was the Freiburg response.) and each set of students is able to view the corresponding class or presentation. If a Binghamton student has a question or comment, Zils can use a remote to change the angle of the camera for Freiburg’s benefit.

A recent class offered student presentations about whether musical genres such as pop, rap, metal and indie were uberman, underling or both. Some Binghamton students connected iPods for musical examples, while others presented videos from the Internet.

A discussion followed. With the exception of Zils occasionally urging students to stand closer to the microphone and speak up, the class went smoothly.

“We are working out the glitches and it’s getting better every session,” Zils said. “Given that we’re the first class, I think it’s working out excellent.

“Some (students) have to overcome a certain shyness,” he said. “It seems to be harder to talk to 11 people when they’re on a screen across the ocean. I think after two or three sessions, the students are accepting this and not trying to wiggle out of the picture anymore.”

Senior Jennifer Fuller agreed that the technology took a little time to get used to.

“I think it’s not quite intuitive for students,” she said. “The first couple of sessions were awkward, but I think it’s becoming more and more natural. Even though the (Freiburg) class members aren’t physically present, we can still participate with them as if they were. It’s almost like the classroom extends into the screen and the other half happens to be in Freiburg, Germany.”

Jim Wolf, director of Academic Computer Services, is pleased with the technology so far.

“The class went well,” he said. “Even though the technology is pretty mature, it still can have some hitches. … I think technology is not the problem. The problem is finding collaborators and getting time synchronized.”

Wolf said possibilities for changes in the room include new placements for overhead microphones and the use of a wireless, lapel microphone for presenters who want or need to move around the class.

Binghamton and Freiburg students also connect outside the classroom, thanks to a class website that features a blog and a Wiki. This enables students to work together to prepare presentations, write and post term papers, display relevant material and discuss what is happening in the course, said Zils, who worked as an Internet consultant from 2000-2004.

“It’s a lot more interactive than most classes I’ve taken,” Fuller said. “The blog gives us a chance to think more deeply about the topics we’ve discussed.”

Zils hopes the website aspect of the class helps students realize that “you cannot turn off critical thinking.” It’s just one of the larger lessons of the course.

“This isn’t just a joint venture that teaches them about aesthetical or philosophical questions,” he said. “This is an intercultural experience that provides them with the skills, no matter what they do, to talk to the world.

“Whether they are communicating with China, Japan, Russia or South Africa, they’ll be able to use these skills to approach other cultures, ask the right questions and learn not to have the wrong expectations.”

Zils will return in the spring to the videoconferencing room for a course that earned him a grant from the Lois B. DeFleur International Innovation Fund. Scholars and doctoral candidates from places ranging from Vanderbilt University to Armenia will discuss their projects in Current Trends in German Studies.

“We’ll get insight into many, many fields,” Zils said. “It’s like a puzzle of German culture and then we connect the dots.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08