Look at me, all sliding into the final hours of 2017 with one last post. Don’t get too excited, despite the name this isn’t going to be any cool introspective recap of 2017. That can be found by reading all of 2017’s posts (all 21 of them). 😛
Instead I’m just going to talk about two primary things. First – Part 1, what I’ve been up to, and second – Part 2, some thoughts on school now that the first semester is in the books. So let’s get started with Part 1!
First off, if you’re wondering what the weather has been like lately, well, mostly crap to be honest. 😀
A lot of that has been due to the wind (see above, that’s a photo from Reykjavík), but there’s also just the cold in general, plus the lack of daylight. But, life must go on, so despite the changed conditions I still get up and around for the gym in the mornings.
In case you were wondering, yes that’s the gym I go to. It’s pretty small (and old), but its only a 6 minute walk from me and since it’s through the university it’s actually quite affordable for Iceland.
Also, despite what it might look like, those photos were taken in the morning, not at night. As you can see from the clock on the wall if you are eagle-eyed, it’s 7:15 – meaning that “sunlight” is still over 4 hours away at that point. I put sunlight in scare quotes because the sun doesn’t really come “up” it just sort of stays below the horizon and moves sideways. Indeed, most mornings in the apartment look like this..
It doesn’t always mean you can fully enjoy them though, for instance this nice sunrise was taken right before a final exam, so I was a bit distracted – though not so much that I didn’t stop to take a photo of it!
Of course the bad news is that by the time the sun “rises” it’s already starting to set. For instance, this next photo is basically right after sunrise, yet the sun is already going down over Pigsten’s construction site.
They are simultaneously working on two buildings, and it’s taken them since we’ve moved here to finalize the earthworks. The contractors have also changed over, and now they’ve installed barricades all around the pit. Which I guess makes sense since the wind kept pwning the chain-link fence.
Yes, a cat (or “rat” as Tristen calls them) was waiting for me on the stairs. An enemy deep in King Tristen’s domain. I don’t think it was the dreaded Yule Cat, as this was a bit too early for it, plus this cat was especially non-ferocious. Or maybe that was just a guise? Tristen always says there are two things you don’t trust: cats and raptors. Either way, it followed me around but clearly did not want to go outside into the cold.
Can’t say I blame it – though when I got back someone had shooed it outside (probably Tristen). Speaking of the Yule Cat, the boys started reading their Yule Lad book just as the first Yule Lad came into town.
They diligently kept up with the book as the days progressed, even getting treats from each Yule Lad. For instance one left them a Christmas candle that they then used while reading about the next Yule Lad!
They also left the Yule Lads plenty of treats to entice them, such as some yummy Laufabrauð.
But, in addition to all the Yule Lad fun we had to do some much more mundane things, such prepare for an take final exams. I’ll discuss the exams more in a bit, but they were definitely a less-than-fun part of December.
We’ve also tried the ubiquitous Malt og Appelsín (Jólabland), which you know, actually turned out to be pretty good. I really, really did not think I would like it, but it is something I’d certainly drink again. Now, mind you, it’s not something I’d drink a lot of, but as a seasonal thing, definitely (it also apparently comes back around during Easter, just under a different name).
On the whole I’d say the stores are much less plastic and gaudy here insofar as Christmas goes. Yet, don’t mistake that for a lack of stuff – there is plenty of that, from the Jólabókaflóð, to all the delicious food (and booze), to metric tons worth of lakkrís – there is plenty of holiday to be had. There was also a massive surge of coloring books, complete with… toothpaste. Yes, toothpaste.
But, we passed on the toothpaste accented coloring books and instead opted for cookies. Oh lawds, so many kinds of cookies. One really interesting variety was these delicacies:
I don’t remember what they were called in Icelandic, but they tasted EXACTLY like Oreos, except with magical sparkles and a star shape. I’m talking, these were more like Oreos than any non-Oreo (even fake Oreo wannabes) I’ve ever had. They were nummy.
We’ve also had lots of gingerbread stuff (in addition to the rolls above), including gingerbread cake and classic gingerbread cookies, such as the free ones from Háskólabúðin!
Another fun thing is that we received our first care package. Yay!
I mean, sure it took 1 day short of an entire month to arrive, and Tollstjóri (customs) took some stuff out of it due to their really opaque (and seemingly ever-changing) rules, but it did arrive! Thanks Meem!
Yes, between the weather, the Yule Lads, and the pressies, the holidays were definitely in the air. The city has definitely shifted into the season as well.
Heck, even Perlan has changed colors!
It’s kinda hard to see, since my old phone’s camera is pretty abhorrent absent 1 octillion candle-watt conditions, but Perlan has acquired new red accenting. In fact, it even changes between red and green! It’s really cool. Here is another shot, complete with Pigsten’s construction site in action. This was probably around 5pm or so.
In addition to red and green, they even had Perlan lit up like the Icelandic Flag for a bit, in addition to other random patterns consisting of white, blue, green, and red. Right now it’s all lit up red, except for one light which is blue and which cycles between that and white.
Other fun additions include wreathes around Tjörnin, which I’ve mentioned before but are always pretty.
Beyond decorations, the environment itself feels very holiday-like, or perhaps more accurately I could just say it feels extremely cold. As in, the geothermal-heat-of-the-earth-itself-creates-steam-cold.
Besides, the holidays require holiday shopping, and in Iceland online shopping really isn’t a thing, so we’ve braved the conditions on several occasions to go to some non-standard stores. One trip took us back down to the harbor area. There were a couple of vessels there which I thought was part of Iceland’s Coast Guard (which commands a whopping armada of 4 ships), but I found out they were actually ships from the Royal Danish Navy.
We also did some Christmas-pressie shopping on Laugavegur, where one shop had a nice side-by-side of Iceland’s two most famous birds.
Our shopping also allowed us to experience a bit of the pre-holiday festivities, such as this skating rink we stumbled upon.
Even the university itself, which is generally pretty brutalist, has gotten into the holiday spirit.
As have SB and I of course! This has been a very different holiday season, in that we aren’t going to see family at for the first time ever – a step further from last year where we had to leave before New Year’s. I’d say we weren’t going “home” but I’ve come to realize that home is a very transient thing for me, so it’s easier to say that we just stayed here. Of course we weren’t actually here for Christmas, but that’s for another post. 🙂
Despite being away from family and elsewhere over Christmas, we’ve been keeping in the holiday spirit now that we are back in Iceland. One really cool (literally and figuratively) thing we did just a couple of days ago was walk on Tjörnin for the first time. In fact, we’re pretty sure it was our first time walking over a frozen lake in each of our lives (sans Valentino of course).
The ice was crazy thick. It’s hard to tell from the photo because you’ve lost the three dimensional aspects of it, but if you look closely at the crack running vertically(ish) in this photo you can see how deep the ice is. My guess was that the ice was a solid 8+ inches thick, if not more. It made zero noise while walking on it, and I legitimately believe you could have driven across the lake in a car.
We’ve also been taking in a lot of fireworks over the past several days. In fact, I dare say the Icelanders are more obsessed with fireworks around New Year’s than even the Murkans. It’s not unusual to have 10-15 spontaneous firework displays (in random spots) starting anywhere from like 2pm until late.
While some are just a few big’uns, others are a bonafide several minute-long bonanza. All this starting days before New Year’s – it’s been going since at least the 28th (when we got back from our Christmas trip).
But, that kind of brings us up to the present! New Year’s Eve, woo! Which I suppose means it’s time to segue into Part 2 of the post: school.
If you’ve followed along since August or so you’ll have noticed that I didn’t really talk much about school. I discussed it a bit in this post (which I recommend reading as background to this next section, at least the school portion) but outside of that I’ve been a bit mum about it, especially in contrast to my incessant whining while at HLS. A lot of that has to do with the reasons mentioned in that post – school just isn’t a huge part of my life here. I mean, yes, it is, but it’s not a big part of my ideological reasoning for being here, nor is a big part of my personal journey right now. So, when I sit down to blog, I’d rather talk about other things, such as the Westfjords. This is not to say that school doesn’t eat a lot of my time, oh it does. Indeed, it kind of annoys me with the amount of time that it requires for things that I really couldn’t care less about.
Now that I’ve got a semester behind me, I have to say that holistically I’m not a big fan of my program. A big, big part of that is that I just feel like it’s so disorganized towards international students. Though in fairness, Iceland as whole doesn’t seem to care much for people being anything other than a short-term tourist. I’m not getting into a discussion of that, but my point is that there is very, very little assistance to be found for people who are not Icelandic or who are not from the EEA (not to be confused with the EU, which Iceland wants no part of). As a result, I frequently find myself having to fight tooth and nail just to accomplish very basic administrative tasks. This of course is compounded by the very “Meh, meeeeeeeeeh, maybe at some point” culture that is pervasive here. That would be great if they weren’t also paradoxically obsessed with really early deadlines for ferners’. The result is that you often have little time to do something and no avenue for help in doing it, either because they outright don’t know (the rules are so complex that even Icelanders don’t understand them), or they don’t care enough due to the aforementioned meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh. It’s really pretty awesome, in the smash your face into a concrete block sort of a way.
The catalyst of this disorganization is the fact that my program is not the length I thought it was. I’m not going to type the entire story here, but they REALLY need to work on how they describe the program in the English language (which should be a priority, since the program is one of their few ones in English), because as it stands, they are grossly misrepresenting the timeline (I’m talking upwards of 6 months misrepresentation). I really don’t think it’s intentional, and I’ve brought this to their attention, but I also legitimately think they just don’t care. Not out of malice, but just because, well, peeps are different here, lol. My high strung, gotta be on the move, obese Amerifat DNA doesn’t mesh well with it. Though in my defense it wouldn’t as much of an issue if they didn’t hold us to oddly strict standards in spite of themselves.
So, despite the fact that I was able to somewhat fix the timeline issue (though I’m still about 2-3 months out of whack), that got me off on the wrong foot. Then I found out that despite being an ultra-specialized post-doc program, the majority of my classes are just bull-crap I don’t care about. For instance, over the course of the program I will take 10 classes (it’s mostly a research program, but I still have to take classes). I came here for environmental law – in a life that now seems quiet distant to me I’m actually a barred lawyer person – and I like environmental law. Thus, post-doc. However, and this is so dumb it’s just sad, of those 10 classes only 4, yes 4 out of 10, are strictly environmental law. There is one that you could argue is in the realm of environmental law, but even if you are generous and add that one in, that’s only 5 out of 10 classes focused on environmental law. Yes, an environmental law post-doc that is only FIFTY PERCENT environmental law, and that’s being generous. W.T.F. I did not come here to retake some fluffy pants Human Rights course I had 3 years ago in 1L, I came here to take extremely-high-level environmental law courses, and on that front, I got one, one single course, that I’d call “high level” environmental law.
Then, to make matters even worse, the classes like “Public International Law” and “International Economic Law,” are just general law classes, meaning that there are people in them who don’t even have a Masters yet (I could write an entire post about why I don’t think the two legal education systems [U.S. v. European] mesh well and why that’s negatively impacting my experience, but those are unnecessary details for this post – just know that I’m objectively more educated than my classmates – NOTE: I said more educated, not more intelligent 🙂 ). And while I’m far from a pretentious academic, the result is that you get a course aimed a people who have far less legal education than I do – and while I’m definitely no legal guru, and always appreciate learning more, it also means that the classes get boring as heck. There’s also the fact that a lot of the students are extremely unengaged. Or, in the instance of the Icelandic students, they just don’t show up to class – ever (and the exam, some of them just skip that too). Now, I’m not one to talk about being unengaged, that’s sort of defined me in the classroom environment for a few years now (see one of my many posts about what I actually like doing in the lawls – hint: it’s not sitting in a classroom). But the fact of the matter is that the students in my program, which is very small, are mixed into the general body of students as opposed to having their own schtick. Indeed, on many levels the super small size of my program seems to be more of a hindrance than a benefit, but there isn’t much I can do about that. All I can really do is enjoy the sporadic things that are more focused on the students at my level, though the director of the program cancelled half of those things last semester. Yep, dat meh.
However, while I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not overly enthused about my classes (or the majority of my professors), I did have one professor who I actually liked – and that professor is now going to be my primary thesis advisor. So that’s pretty cool. The additional good news on that front is that despite it taking 1.5 months to get a single page completed (yes one page), my thesis topic has also supposedly been approved. I say supposedly because nothing is ever certain here. So that’s a big relief. Really my thesis is the only thing about this entire affair that still really excites me. In a lot of ways I think this program should just be the thesis, with none of the fluff classes, but (fortunately as some would say) I have no say in the matter.
“Yes, that’s nice” you say, “but what about your grades!” I hear you. After all, our entire existence is defined by grades amirite? Dere is nufin but gradez! Yes, because establishing someone’s worth based on a small slice of time is such a good system. But it is what it is, and after all that bitching you might expect me to say I got bad gradez, and then you’ll laugh “ha ha, look out how bitter he is!” Nah my grades are fine. I scored all “First Class” which I still don’t fully understand, but I’ve been told it means I got all As. Basically the system at the University of Iceland is thus:
I have no idea how big that will be, but you get the idea. You don’t want to be red. You want to be as far away from red as possible. I also don’t think they use a forced curve, or if they do it is NO WHERE near as severe as HLS’s. I’m quite far from red, but not in the “With Distinction” (A+) tier, and I have no goal (or motivation) to get there. I’m safely within in the realm of “First Class” – much closer to A+ than to B – and that’s more than good enough for me. But, though I generally care very little for gradez, one aspect of how I got muh gradez is worth discussing. The oral exam.
Yes, like Murka’, IDIOTIC group projects, pointless papers, and time-wasting readings abound here in Icelandia. But one thing that I’ve found in the lawls realm is that the oral exam is favored over the written exam, and now that I’d taken several of these oral exams I feel like I can comfortably comment on them. Basically they are a good deal easier than the written exams I took at HLS (though keep in mean this doesn’t mean they are “easy,” just “easier”). I don’t know if that is a format thing, or a institutional thing (my guess is more on the latter, honestly). Now, in order to explain why I think they are easier, I need to explain the format – and since self depredation is always fun, I’ll just go ahead and say that I did not “ace” any of my exams (at least not in the traditional usage of the word “ace” meaning to “pwn” – though I did get As).
First, it’s important to note that the exams are scheduled early in the day (not early in the semester, you only learn your time less than a week in advance, meh), so in the fall semester at least you are dealing with the tired (thanks again neighbors for making noise until 3am), the dark, and the cold. This photo isn’t so dark, but it does capture the cold.
So, while you are tired and it’s dark and cold, you get to engage in a legal conversation where anywhere from 2 to 5 people are asking you questions. That’s the essential format of the oral exam. You talk, rather than write. Makes sense I suppose! It’s also worth noting, if it wasn’t obvious, but that you are alone. You don’t take the exam as a class, it’s one-by-one. Now, if the thought of being randomly asked questions from an entire semester’s worth of material and being expected to respond in real time makes you nervous, then perhaps being a lawyer isn’t the best field for you. I kid, but really instantaneous information recall is half the job in my experience. The good news for ye’ of timid presence, is that it’s not entirely random. Here’s why. When entering the judgment room, you pull a question out of a bowl (literally in some cases) and then you have anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to prepare your answer to that question. During those 5 to 15 minutes, you can access ALL your notes (so long as they are printed, because f*ck trees amirite????). You can’t use your already-made notes in the exam, but you can use the notes you took from your notes during that 5 to 15 minute window (it makes sense just think about it for a second). This is why I don’t think the format is especially difficult. Unlike a written exam where you have between 3 and 12 hours and are expected to provide the most minuscule and precise of details (as well as discuss 8000 different applications of 12000 different rules), here you have somewhere around 10-15 minutes of discussion, and that’s it. As such, the expectations for microscopic detail aren’t as high.
So, here’s what I did, and it worked well. I just made an outline like I normally would. These outlines were generally quite large (I’m talking hundreds of pages in some cases) because a semester of law is a shit-ton of information. However, you then cabbage them down and use some lolzy formatting to get that outline down to less than 30 pages. You then make a table of contents for the outline, with large thematic areas divided into more specific sub-topics. Then you’re done. See, unlike the bulk of my classmates who seemed extremely stressed out, I didn’t even try to memorize any of that shit. Learning 350 pages of material, only to be asked about something which comprises 5 pages seemed like a massive waste of my time. Couple that with the fact that 60% of my classes are about crap I don’t care about, and yeah, you get the picture. In fact, outside of making the outline, I didn’t study for any of my exams. SB can vouch for this, people FUH-REAK out about studying for exams here (and by here I don’t just mean the Icelanders, I mean all the European students). Yet I didn’t study at all aside from the process of making/formatting the outline – and also for the record I never bought any of my textbooks and thus did none of the reading for the entire semester either.
If you’re getting tired of what might seem like gloating, bear with me. This isn’t leading up to an “I so smart” epiphany. I’m just a proponent of studying smart, not hard. So, here’s what I did. I used my categorized outline, and when I got the question, I used my 5 to 15 minutes to basically regurgitate that small section of the outline onto the page of notes I was allowed to bring into the exam – and, when the additional questions came, they were invariably also from that same section. So, if it was dealing with Directive 2000/60/EC, I’d know that the specific questions were going to be something like explaining the effects of a major Article of the directive, in that case probably Article 14, which effectively assimilated the public access requirements of the Aarhus Convention. That might sound obtuse without any topical knowledge, but once you’re familiar with the area and have your handy-dandy micro-outline, it’s not unexpected or particularly challenging. This is in contrast to the extremely long written exam, where even 12 hours isn’t enough time to go from “no studying” to “good grade” within the confines of the test.
The big caveat here is that you have to be very comfortable with the oral exam format, that is, real time legal conversations where you are outnumbered and where you truly have no idea what base question you’re going to get until you pull it out of the proverbial/literal hat. I’m fortunate in that such interactions don’t bother me, and that’s probably the only area of the entire process where I’d risk saying I’m above average. The fact that I was one of the top, or near the top grades in each of my classes had nothing to do with knowledge or devotion (of which I’d say I have less than most than my classmates), but instead to what I’d call a capitalizing “study” process and the fact that Ivory Tower Academics and fancy board-room tables don’t intimate me in the least. There’s also the fact that I could score 0.0000001 point above failing in all my classes and it would legitimately make no difference since my J.D. is my core degree anyway.
Thus, I’d say most of the difficulty in the format comes from the fact that you can’t prepare for a specific question, and that you need to be ok with verbal exchanges (that your grade depends on, and the exams are normally 50% of the grade – which is about 50% less than what I am used to, lol). The funny thing here, is that “cheating” is rampant. You might have already thought about the glaring issue, but if not, I’ll explain. As I mentioned, the exam takes place one-by-one, they can’t really drill a whole class at once, so there is a time-table, and you go in the judgement room one at a time, in set order. See the issue? While the questions are random to the individual, the questions are NOT infinite. In fact, some classes have as few as 4-5 questions – though others have as many as 20 (depending on the professor, obviously the more questions, the more complicated grading is for them). Now, you only get to see one question, but since that one question becomes the basis for your entire discussion, you don’t forget it, despite having to immediately return the question to the pile. So, naturally, as soon as you are done and leave the room, you either willing or unwillingly converse with your fellow students who have yet to take the exam, and tell them the question. I saw unwillingly because the culture is to wait right outside the exam room and relentlessly and somewhat aggressively pester the student who is leaving the room (regardless of how upset they might be) even if you never spoke to them outside of that moment. Yes, the culture is practically built around this kind of “cheating” – so much so that to not divulge your question is seen as being an asshole. I can safely say that I didn’t ask anyone about their question, because I didn’t care enough – and also didn’t want to you know, actually study, however I did tell people about my question, also because I didn’t care enough. However, if you were of the type that didn’t want to break the rules, or just didn’t want to help people get a better grade, then you’d have some serious peer pressure to deal with. The end result, is that as the day goes on, people who have yet to take the exam have built up a library of the questions, and if there are only 4-5 questions, this means that they’ve effectively seen the exam in advance.
But it doesn’t stop there. Ever industrious, the students will divide up the questions, and draft answers to the potential questions, and then copy them for themselves. Thus, a pool of 10 students might be able to generate 10 full answers, and then they just trade them. Of course this naturally means that the people early in the day have a much harder exam than the people latter in the day who may have “cheated” their way to a 50% chance at answering the question using materials they didn’t even make. Of course, I use scare quotes around “cheating” because even if you do use crowd-sourcing to obtain an answer to a question you end up getting, you’re left with an answer that isn’t your own and the hope that your attempts to memorize an entire textbook (or textbooks) are enough to answer the secondary questions, which are likely to be generated in real time. Still, the fact is that this behavior is extremely rampant, and I’d surmise causes a lot of people to pass where they would have otherwise probably failed. The cheating in and of itself doesn’t really bother me, it’s the fact that the first students are realistically being tested at a far different level than the later students, and that the professors – who are aware this goes on, or are stupid (not ignorant, stupid) – don’t seem to care. That is what bothers me. If everyone could, if they wished, cheat at the same level, then I really don’t care – but this cheating is objectively slanted towards groups later in the day.
But in the end I still did better than most, and I didn’t cheat, or read the books, or really study, I just made a really organized table of contents and pasted that on the front of a 30 page, double-sided, 8 point font, .01 margins, legal monstrosity. Yay autismz. 😀
Anyways, that’s my thoughts on school. It’s weird, and while I’m not a big fan of my program as a whole, I am looking forward to the thesis, which will be entirely my own and on a topic I am very much interested in. Unfortunately I’m going to be quite pressed for time on it (due to the aforementioned timeline snafu), but I’m still excited to give the whole thesis thing a second go, though this one is going to be 2.5 times as long as my first one and is going to be published (and thus subjected to far more scrutiny). But I’m still excited in my good ole’ masochistic way – and, lest it seem otherwise, I have no regrets about where I’m at or what I’m doing, even if the road has been much rockier than expected.
If you thought this post featured a little bit too much complaining or bragging about school, have no fear, I’ll probably go right back to not talking very much about it for awhile. 🙂
With that, I should probably wrap this up. I had originally just wanted to just talk about school, but then I decided to add in some other things, and now look at that, this post is over 5700 words. I am nothing if not hopelessly verbose. I promise I can actually be concise when I need to be! Apparently that writing style just doesn’t crop up in my blogging, it, after all, it is mah’ hot blog, I do wut I wahnt!
If it wasn’t obvious, this will be the final post of 2017 for Dinosaur Bear. I hope you’ve enjoyed another year worth of my rambling – and boy what a year it has been. I already have another post conceptualized, though I’m not sure when I’ll get around to writing it. In the meantime, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas (or various holiday of your choosing) and that you have a Wonderful New Year.
Here’s Uglan (the mascot of Háskóli Íslands), with a Holiday (Christmas + New Year’s) send-off!