And now, ladies and gentleman, for your amusement I will unveil the mysteries of the Danish university examination system. Shrouded in mystery, the fruit of effort of many long-dead scholars who moulder in the graves, looking on in mute approval as their unholy art is unleashed upon the innocent minds of students and non-native professors...
One of the results of working for a university that is over five-hundred years old (founded in 1479 by royal decree, so take that, you Ivy-League elitists) is that the tradition is not simply preserved, it is worshiped. Practices abound in the contemporary university that have no apparent logic, and I find myself wondering if they aren't traces of historical origins that have long since been forgotten, stuck in the administrative institutions like bugs in amber. No practice reveals the reality of this more than our examination system, which is very much on my mind as students begin to prepare for the semester's end. Batten down the hatches, because I feel a rant comin' on.
To begin with, realize that students at the University of Copenhagen do not register for courses, they register for examinations. Regardless of what I am teaching in any particular semester, a student can ask to register for an examination in any topic I may be able to administer. Even students who "sign up" for a particular class I am teaching are freed of any obligation to the lectures or material I present, as long as I am willing to approve their reading list, or "pensum" in preparation for their exam. In practical terms what this means is that I have no way of insuring that students will do any of the reading for the course, since they, in defining their pensum, can avoid any particular text they're not interested in. For that matter, they are free to miss every lecture I ever give and do their own independent study, coming in at the end of semester for the examination, based on a reading list that they define themselves. While this kind of freedom certainly appeals to some students, it's a bit like letting the lunatics run the asylum, as the students are by definition unqualified to decide what they need to know within the field they are studying. If they don't want to study a particularly necessary but perhaps uninteresting topic like say, 18th century British poetry, well, they just don't sign up for an exam in that topic.
A prevailing theory on the origins of the pensum is that it dates back to the late medieval era, when books were scarce and a professor had to not only preserve the sanctity of the library but also had to insure that students weren't all squabbling over the only copy of a particular book.
But wait, the situation gets worse. Students choose the method by which they are examined from a list of 4-5 options, ranging from a take home, self-defined paper to a 30-minute oral exam based on several questions I write based on their pensum (keep in mind, they design the pensum; all I get to do is say yes or no). The students then have up until the actual day of the exam to change their minds. Technically, they are supposed to notify of cancellation sometime in advance, but they are also allowed to "call in sick" for an indefinite period.
Bear in mind that professors submit their course proposals months in advance, and a committee with only a small number of professors on it then chooses what will be taught. Up until very recently, within this committee student representatives had veto power over courses that they thought were unimportant or uninteresting. Again, lunatics running the asylum. So to sum up, students are examined on courses they approve to be taught, on reading lists that may or may not have much to do with the lectures delivered by the professor, and according to the method of their choosing, with the freedom to drop out of the exam pretty much at their leisure.
After the exams are turned in, a censor is appointed to the exams and he and I negotiate the grade each exam receives. Normally, I think this is a good thing, and usually, the censor is another member of the faculty. But occasionally, the censor is from another university or a member of a "censor board" that is comprised of retired high school teachers, journalists, etc. So it's entirely possible that a professor will be put in the position of defending his judgment of how a student has performed on an exam written specifically for his approval, and defending that position to a person who knows very little about what was discussed in lectures or anything about the topic in question.
In addition to the medieval origins of this system, I think we can thank the events of the summer of 1968, when youth rebellions in Europe focused on the education system, not having their own government's interventions in Southeast Asia to otherwise occupy their thoughts. Danish students demanded a larger role in the running of the university system, and my theory is that rather than duplicating what had happened in Paris in May (riots, building occupations, a general strike that shut the city down for a couple of weeks), the Danish government capitulated.
Which means that almost forty years later, I'm still dealing with their lack of backbone. Bastards.