Rob Cobb

A Long Post with Classes and Skiing and Gangs

Feb 21, 2013

This post is from Feb 21, 2013. My views have probably changed since then. If it's about technology, any code is probably broken by this point.

Hi Everyone!

Long time no post, huh? I have been busy, so I will maybe try to skip some parts of time, or sum up, in order to catch up to the present all at once. That way this blog thing can be journaling instead of recollecting, and maybe I will post more than once a month! This post is pretty long, because I have been neglecting the blog, so I had to cover a lot. I decided to break it up with some headings, because blogger has that functionality, and I might as well use it.

So when I last left off, I had gone through orientation and taken a very pretty walk. I have now had several weeks of class, the first few of which I spent figuring out which classes I was really taking, gone on a ski trip to Oppdal, and joined a student gang at the Samfundet. Lots more too, but you probably don’t care too much about the eating and sleeping and reading, so I’ll stick to those three topics so we have some plot points to grab hold of. They also get into the three environments that I spend my time navigating, so I can use them to suss out my ideas about the relation between the three. Hey!

Classes at NTNU

Classes. I am now taking four, but back when this blog was last updated, I didn’t know how many I would take, or which ones. At NTNU, students register for courses online, and their choices are not locked in until a few weeks into the semester - this semester, the cutoff was February 15. For the students of this university, that flexibility is just a convenience, but it does not end up mattering too much. Most of their courses are determined by the course of study; a Computer Science major takes the same courses as all of the other CS majors in his year, for the most part, and this way, courses only have to be offered every other semester, or in some cases, every other year.

I do not fit into this system. For one, there is no Computer Engineering major or department here, so from the get-go, I know that my course list will be an amalgam of courses from the departments of related fields. I expected this, I knew it would work, it was fine. I knew that mostly I would be taking courses in the IT Faculty, which is essentially the computing department, but different in ways that I don’t understand well enough to explain. As an exchange student, I was free to register for any course I wanted, provided the professor felt I met the prerequisites. On my semester card, where a standard NTNU student would have their Programme of Study, I have “Miscellaneous Courses in Science,” which is every kid’s dream, right?

The picking and choosing of courses began long ago, before even applying to study here - I had to make sure that they had enough courses in English that fit my plan of study back at UMD to justify studying here (to the UMD advisors, that is — to me, being here needs no justification). In that process, I pre-approved eight courses, essentially ensuring that the credit would transfer back to UMD. It turned out that, in part due to my misreading of the course information on NTNU’s site, and in part due to that site’s flexible definition of what semester and in which langage a course would be offered, many of the courses that I pre-approved were not offered in English this semester.

So, I did what any curious, somewhat helpless student would in the circumstances: floundered my way into success. I met with advisors from several departments and the international office, attended different lectures, and spent lots of time reading and rereading course descriptions and past course websites. I, at one time, was registered for eight courses, three of which survived the winnowing process that took me to where I am presently. Advisors were somewhat unprepared for the freedom that I had, and the varying degree to which my background prepared me for classes here. For some tracks of courses, I am far ahead of the students here in the same year. In other areas, I am far behind.

The advisors did not really know how to respond to the open ended questions of mine, “Which classes that I am prepared for are the most interesting?” “Which professors should I try to meet with, who are really great?” The numeral prefixes on my registrations are correspondingly out of sync. I have an 8, two 4’s, and a 3, matching courses at three levels of education, across a range of five or so years.

I ended up with four classes that I like and am mostly prepared for, that are offered in english and will hopefully transfer credit back to Maryland. Compiler Theory, Software Architecture, Computer Architecture 2, and Philosophy of Neuroscience. The philosophy class won’t fit with my major, but it is cool enough to make it worth taking. We read dense and interesting things, and then discuss things about the brain, the mind, the nature of vision and memory, and the process and patterns by which philosophers and scientists go about furthering our understanding of these. The computer classes are interesting to me, because I want to know about that stuff, but what we actually do in those classes might be less interesting to you, so I won’t go into it.

So yeah, that’s one corner of my life here; going to class, reading for hours and hours and more. Learning doesn’t stop outside of the country, and it is mostly reading. I can’t copy here all the things I’ve been reading and learning, and I won’t try, since you’re probably eager to here about the skiing and the gang. Shall we?

Ski Trip to Oppdal

The ski trip was arranged by one of the international student groups - there are several, and most of the international students are somewhat active in multiple. Fifteen of us went by train from Trondheim to Oppdal early on a Sunday morning, the first weekend in February. I have mentioned before that the circles that people run in here are divided very clearly - this trip was for international students. We were four from Germany, four from France, one Spanish, one Mexican, one Armenian, one Chinese, one Bangladesh, and me, an American. That doesn’t add up to fifteen, so maybe there were five Germans? I have been struggling to tally people in my mind for a few minutes and I can’t get it straight, so… Ah! I remember, there were indeed five Germans! I am unreasonably proud of myself for counting to five, but nonetheless.

For some reason, early February was too early for the proper ski season at Oppdal, so some of the lifts were closed. However, as it was too early for the season, the fifteen of us had all of skiing to ourselves. We stayed within walking distance of the slopes, although the walk was a half an hour each way. The living arrangements were cozy, with four to a room, but each had their own bed or bunk, and the deal was spectacular, without even considering Norway’s extravagant prices. We put our packs in our rooms and were skiing by noon that first Sunday. If you haven’t skied before, or didn’t like it because you fell on your ass lots, I don’t know if I have the facility with words to adequately describe the experience of skiing, with the whole mountain to yourself, in a foreign place, on a cold and sunny day.

I sometimes dream of flying, and occasionally I think that skiing might be as close as people come to the sensation that flying might be like. For one, it is fast and effortless. By doing nothing, you accelerate. By moving your weight, by leaning, you zoom to the side. High up on the mountain, and facing out, everything and everyone is below you, and you are looking out over it, moving through it. There is a wonderful aloneness. At once, you feel as powerful as you ever can, and far smaller than you usually do. Looking across the valley, you see other mountains in the distance, more bleak and enormous and desolate. You see the town, so small, crawling along the valley floor. You are a flying, speck, totally in control of yourself, and totally dominated by the landscape.

I liked skiing.

We skied each of the five days, and hung out and lived together and ate and drank and slept when we were not skiing. Oppdal is a little town, and in the strange, midwinter offseason that we arrived in, there was not much else to do except ski. We went bowling one night and visited a pub another - interestingly, there was a crowd at bowling, but the pub was empty, save for us. I don’t know what to make of that, more than it is interesting. We amused ourselves.

I am particularly proud of the game we played one night, as it is my own invention and was a rollicking success, and I now have a forum to share it, so maybe it will spread. The game is called rules. There are none. Or at least, there are none when the game starts. The game is drastically different every time it is played, and I don’t want to prejudice your possible future invocations of the game, but I will offer some details so that you get a fuller sense of how play typically proceeds.

Rules

The game has no rules, so it is up to the players to decide what those rules are. How to make them, how to enforce them, the object of the game, the duration - all of these are up to the players to decide. Of course, like all games, the rules end up being what people agree to abide by. In our game, we proceeded around the circle, each submitting a new rule to the group. If a majority liked the idea, it would become a new rule.

We played for a few hours, and the list of rules grew long and convoluted. For instance: music was playing from someone’s laptop, and whenever the song changed, everyone was required to dance. Julien, in particular, had to stand on his chair. After the dancing was done, whoever’s turn it had been when the song changed was required to make a toast. If they forgot, they had to sing a song. And so on, with many rules governing the creation and maintenance of the rules themselves.

It feels quite good to come up with a particularly clever rule, or to find a particularly drastic flaw or consequence to someone else’s rule. As you might imagine, playing also results in some terribly hilarious situations. The game is also rich with metaphor for the way other games work, the way we deal with other people, how society is built, etc. As I said, I am quite proud of it.

I will look back at the ski trip with many fond memories for years to come. I remember thinking on the first day that I would remember this forever, and that it was in many ways, a collective dream fulfilled. For many upper-middle class, educated Americans, this ‘skiing in Europe with young people’ is a fantasy, an image that we conjure up of what college and youth are supposed to look like, if you have the money and the time and the opportunity, and everything works out. And then I was there, in the dream! I lived it, the thing that many people want to live! It was as good as it is pictured, although much more of the details filled in, and slower. Not the exultant rush, but the measured, built up satisfaction of ‘I am where I am supposed to be and everything is alright.’

Anyway, it was certainly a dream of mine, and I am glad to have done it. Check.

Boy, I get verbose! I start writing, and then I don’t stop myself, and I hardly even edit! At least not for content, I try to keep the spelling and grammar in line. Sorry for the essay if you just wanted to see what I was up to! Anyhow, number 3,

Mom, I joined a gang

So yeah, I am a gang member now. It’s pretty cool, I guess. I like to think that I am some kinda cool punk, and I really like that the gang is called a gang, but it’s a student group, and almost, but not quite, the very opposite of the common notion of ‘gang.’  DG, Diverse Gjengen, Miscellaneous Gang - we do the maintenance and construction work that needs doing down at Studenter Samfundet, NTNU’s member-owned, volunteer-run Student Society.

The Samfundet is an awfully cool organization, and as a member of DG, I am at the beating heart of it. The Society puts on concerts, lectures, festivals, and all kinds of Various Events that they come up with. In the Round Red House, our building, there are several venues for concerts, a full restaurant, three bars, and countless rooms for the volunteers who make the place run. For all you Terps, this place is like the Stamp and Route One, Frat Row and SGA and the Diamondback, SEE and CSPAC rolled into one massive, student run operation. I like it. It doesn’t do student housing or sports, and there are academic societies and some groups that operate outside of it. But with nearly 10,000 members in a city of 170,000, it dominates the social scene. You can look it up, it is pretty neat.

DG takes new members at the beginning of each calendar year, and I was fortunate enough to find out about the Samfundet and the gang in time to apply. I had an interview, which was terribly intimidating, as there were about 10 Norwegians sitting around me, and me, an American with not too much experience building things, bravely answering the questions. They let me in!

On Mondays and Fridays, we work for several hours, fixing doors, building tables and benches, changing lightbulbs, repairing blinds, fixing circuits - it is the wrong way to go about it to list all of the things we do. We fix things that break, remodel things that need remodeling, build things that need building. We are super cool. I am learning tons of very practical things to complement my book-learnin, such as how to use a table saw and other power tools, how cabinet hinges work, taking measurements and carrying things, planning for small projects and big projects, and a smattering of Norwegian.

I am slacking in learning the native tongue. Everyone speaks English, mostly very well. I speak no Norwegian, so when we communicate, conversation naturally falls into English. Still, hanging out with Norwegians, I pick up phrases, and hopefully by the time I’m done, I can at least introduce myself and beg forgiveness for my lack of grammar, vocabulary, and accent.

I thought I would have more to say about what it is like being in DG, but describing a group’s dynamics seems difficult, almost like I am sharing someone else’s secrets. It is enough for you, reader, to know that we get along well, that it is like a family, that although the active term within the group is officially two years, there is almost never a time when alumni, called pangs, are not around on a work day. We have our own space, our hybel, on the lowest level of the Samfundet, where we hang our coats and lounge and have our workshop. We have relations with other groups, in particular with Regi, which is something like the stagehand group - they do the lights and production work for the shows and concerts. I have fun, the people are new and have a group culture, a history, a purpose, a place. I am still a partial outsider, because I will only serve a quarter of the active period, and I miss lots of in-jokes and meeting dynamics because I do not speak the language. It is a good thing, a time-structure, a recurring activity that I can lean on to shape my weeks. It is important, and I am glad I found it here.

The Balance

Balance is to weigh evenly, but it is also the result, what remains after you put things together and take things away. While these three spheres - Class, the International Community, and the Norwegian Community at the Samfundet -  do not cover everything, and I did not nearly do justice to covering all of any of them, they do seem to have a nice way of fitting together. It always comes back to that question of Why Norway? What Am I Here To Do? And if the answer is to learn and grow and develop, well, I am expanding in all directions. I am studying brains and computers in lecture, teaching my hands and head how to fix things and build new things with DG, and getting a good dose of culture from meeting people from so many different places, and seeing how they interact, how they deal with situations. If the goal is to enjoy myself, then I think I am doing an alright job of that as well. To ‘make the most’ of the experience, to ‘live it up,’ to ‘broaden my perspective.’

I inevitably make comparisons, between different circles of life here, and between my life here and at home. I still owe the blog a good bit about Norwegian culture, and probably some more about the unique and strange situations of all us aliens together in Moholt, but I feel pretty good about this post now, so I will leave it alone. It catches us up to the present, which was the idea in the first place.

I miss you dearly, and if I haven’t been great at keeping up with you while I am abroad, it’s because I am busy living here, not because I don’t love you. Now you’ve read all this way, go ahead and send me a message! Having a conversation usually feels very good, and offline I can share all the things that I can’t get to in the blog, me only posting so often. Also, mention that you messaged me because of the blog; otherwise, I have no clue whether this is a good way of soliciting news from home!

In the effort to be better at maintaining a blog,

Next week, a picture post with things from skiing and more!

Hope you are doing great, and thanks for reading - else, what am I writing this for?

Rob




The bus stop near Moholt where I catch the bus to take me to class or downtown.



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