|Husserl Archive at the Institute of Philosophy at the KU Leuven|
Some of my students have lived through reading several pages of Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. I was teaching a class on Postmodernism, and decided to draw from my studies for my MA in Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.
Edmund Husserl was the father of Phenomenology, a philosophical movement, which had several streams. Husserl used to complain that he was a “Fuehrer ohne Gefolge”, a leader with no following.” His inheritors took his ideas in many directions.
Because it’s nearly final exam time here at Tyndale, I keep thinking of stories about taking exams in Leuven and writing papers in place of an oral exam. (Almost all exams were oral.) I was advised to write as many papers in place of an oral exam as I could. So, I wrote a paper about Husserl.
I was taking a class with a well-known scholar of Husserl, a German professor. He wanted us to read Husserl in the original. We were reading the Fifth Logical Investigation from one of Husserl’s earlier books, The Logical Investigations.
I decided to write a paper in place of exam for this course, an MA seminar course. I found an article by my professor, a German, and a book by a Dutch professor. I found a few other sources. I wrote my paper. I had written lots of papers in my BA in Russian Language and Literature at Penn State and in my Master of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. So, I thought I knew how to write a paper.
I was unsure about the paper, though. Husserl is hard stuff. So, I asked the professor for an appointment to get help with the paper.
I met him in his spacious office. He was the director of the Husserl Archive. Part of Edmund Husserl’s papers and books ended up in Leuven in the Institute of Philosophy.
We sat and had a chat in the comfortable armchairs in his office. We talked about twenty minutes. Then he said, “No, you don’t understand. You failed.” I didn’t even know this was an oral exam! I had just come for help.
I was gutted. I have not failed anything since, well ever. I was a very good high school student in the National Honor Society. OK I wasn’t a valedictorian, but I got 18 semester credits from my high school career when I went into college. I finished my BA in three years and a summer, and was on the Dean’s List the last two years. I finished a Master of Divinity and hadn’t failed anything, and had a B+ average. Failed!
So, I threw the first draft of the Husserl paper out. I started again. I took the English edition of the Logical Investigations and the German edition and I did a depth charge of exegesis, as if it was a Greek New Testament Exegesis paper. I didn’t look at any secondary sources. (The professor had said that no secondary sources were worth discussing.) I compared the 1900-01 edition with the 1913 edition. I wrote nearly thirty pages.
When I got to the oral exam, the same German professor looked at my paper and said, “You rewrote the whole thing! Why did you not use the first paper as a basis?” “Professor, you told me I failed, and so I threw it out and started again.” He was incredulous, but pleased. He hadn’t expected me to start again.
In any event. I then got a 16 for the oral exam/ paper. I hadn’t understood that he was just being “German”. German professors are blunt. They don’t mean to be unkind. They just assess you frankly and speak in a straightforward way. I had not understood Husserl in the first paper and I couldn’t explain him correctly orally. The second time I had understood Husserl and showed by my oral exam that I understood him.
Our cultures play havoc with us when we study abroad. It takes adjustment. US professors were always kind and avoided upsetting people. Belgian professors were very polite, but also pretty direct about criticism: “No, you failed.” could have been said by a Flemish professor or a German professor. The German was loud and friendly, but blunt. The Flemish professor would have spoken very softly and been kind, but just as frank.
The European academic culture, and especially the Flemish and German systems, are blunt, even “adversarial”. Failure is not a disaster, as it is in the US. Failure is, well, one failure. You study again and re-sit the exam or rewrite the paper. Education isn’t seen so much as a competition between students or an issue of prestige and angst. If you fail, and everyone does at some point, you don’t fall to bits (or if you do you’re done). You pick yourself up and do what it takes to learn what you need to learn. Taking an exam for the second time is not a shame. Nor is it a shame to have rewrite a paper. It’s part of learning how academics and life works.