Academic Exchanges and Cultural Perceptions
I remember watching the famous British comedy television series “Mind Your Language” when I was about eight-years-old. It was broadcast in Pakistan during the 1990s. The show was set in an adult education college in London and focused on ‘English’ as a foreign language. The classes were taught by Mr Jeremy Brown, a role played by Barry Evans, who had to deal with a motley crew of foreign students. The student body ranged from an Italian chef to an unemployed Pakistani. There was also a stereotypical German, Anna Schmidt, who was so proud of her physical strength and was not afraid to punch her fellows. She was hard working and always bragged about ‘German efficiency’, but had a rigid personality. Anna was the only German that I knew till I was fortunate enough to get selected for a summer school on political communication at the University of Erfurt, Thuringia, Germany.
This summer school aimed at assessing the ‘Changing Role of Social Media in Muslim Countries’. It was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service — DAAD. It was a consequence of mutual cooperation with two Pakistani universities (University of the Punjab and University of Peshawar). This project is a brainchild of the Chair of Muslim Culture and Religious History, University of Erfurt and was initiated in 2012. Apart from its core aim, this academic tour provided a platform for interaction between students of different nationalities (the prime ones being German and Pakistani). I already knew that majority of the Germans do not hold a positive opinion about Pakistanis. Going there along with the scattered media representations of a character in an old sitcom was not rational at all. However, the childhood perception still prevailed. On the other hand, it was just a matter of days after reaching there to dispel the rigidity associated with Germans. During the period of 12 days, I realised that students belonging to other countries also knew little about my country. They were not reluctant to use the terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘conservative’ while describing their perceptions about Pakistanis before participating in the summer school. In addition to this, Pakistanis were of the view that bars and pub culture comprises of under-dressed drunkards as seen in movies. As for the Germans, they were not happy with the students who remained at distance from the bars at night. Misunderstandings on both the ends strengthened the case of academic exchanges that give a chance for person-to-person to communication.
Among the long list of inspirational aspects, the tranquil and serene environment of Erfurt was one. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the University of Erfurt provided the ideal ambiance, conducive for studying. Personally, I envied the German transport system and its rejection of automobile slavery. Even most of the professors used bicycles for short trips. With regards to the preservation of cultural heritage, Germany provides an unprecedented example. The visit to the German parliament (Bundestag) and Goethe House was audio guided. One did not have to rely on a tour guide for a very long time and was free to explore parts of the building by himself/herself. The respect for time and punctual behaviour of Germans was also laudable.
On our very first day we received a warm welcome and some goody bags containing pamphlets and other written material about the University of Erfurt. I flipped through some of the material and came across a glossy card that had the following words on it ‘I love Uni Erfurt’. After staring at the card for a while I gathered that students loving their educational institutions might be playing a decisive role in ensuring high literacy rates at Germany. The summer school participants did not get a chance to meet away from the university and discuss their aspirations in life. Luckily, Petersburg (a historical citadel at Erfurt) turned out to be an adequate venue to gain inspiration from each other. After two and a half hours of patient hearing, our bonding with each other had strengthened. During the conversation, I was startled to see how every single person was absorbed while listening to another participant. That was a much-needed activity to establish our association with each other. A visit to MDR television, FREI radio station and Deutsche Welle gave a clear picture of German media systems. Moreover, a visit to the headquarters of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) gave insights about political culture in Germany. With elections around the corner, I could hardly see any political advertising except for A3 size posters on poles in the streets.
Books or Internet was the only source through which I got to learn about Berlin before August 14, 2013. Fortunately, the summer school included a two-day tour of the capital city of Germany. This happened to be the second formal excursion trip of the summer school. Being the capital city, Berlin was quite different from Erfurt. Contrasts between the East and the West (before unification) also made it historically significant.
This summer school reiterated the need for academic exchanges that level the insurmountable cultural barriers. Not only do the students enhance their knowledge and discover new horizons of learning, but the stimulation of dialogue also aids in understanding each other. At least, they do not let us dwell on images like Anna Schmidt constructed by the media.
The writer is a student of Communication Studies at University of the Punjab. She blogs at www.fakihahassanrizvi.wordpress.com and tweets at @Fakiha_Rizvi