Monday, June 21, 2010

The ashes of memory

In the late spring of 1945, a group of resistance fighters watch the Brenner Pass, hidden in the forest, on the steep mountain range dividing occupied Northern Italy from annexed Austria. A long column of military convoys is heading north: a defeated army on the run, a heavy march of infantry, armored vehicles, artillery. A human mass in disarray, the tentacles of conquer hastily retreating, the invincible army that terrorized Europe finally crushed. Hour after hour, they watch the German army go by, the mass of tired soldiers, the acrid smell of defeat, the metal rattling of tanks, the shouting. They watch for an endless time, until the human river begins to dry out. Fewer soldiers now pass and the noise dies out in a shower of faint echoes bouncing around the mountain tops. It is cold at this altitude in the Alps, even that late into the spring. Silence. The partisans keep watch. The Brenner Pass is empty and silent, as if all that immense retreat had been but a passing dream in the much larger river of history. Then silence is broken once more. A single military vehicle advances on the same road. A different color, a different flag. American. The end of World War II.

One of those partisans was my father. He was fifteen at the time. During those five years of war he saw the sealed trains heading slowly north along that same route, that cut through the majestic wall of dolomitic rock. The trains carrying their human cargo to the furnaces of Birkenau. They fought a guerrilla war, barely more than children at the time, against the most powerful and technologically advanced army of Europe. They fought in the name of that Socialist future they were hoping to create... "to conquer our red spring, where the sun of our radiant future rises". Songs, memories, words transmitted and repeated. My father passed away some ten days ago. With his ashes we bury a part of our memories, of our connection to the defining moments of European history.

Memory is the most precious possession of human civilization. We keep historical records, we create literature and art, to the purpose of maintaining a link to our collective and individual past, preserving human history near and far, recording, whenever possible, not only the facts, but a sense of the feelings that went with them. Memory fades away slowly, until it passes suddenly into nothingness, in that transition of substance from alive to inanimate. What stays behind are not the improbable afterlives depicted by religions, but the gestures that enriched the lives of others, and a few scattered thoughts, collected in writings and in whatever other forms of artistic expression we leave behind when we depart. Ultimately, all human acts are transitive and impermanent, but the larger texture of history, to which they all contribute their part of the thread, grows on and transforms.

There will be still, one day, young guerrilla fighters watching powerful invading armies from the mountaintops. They will not be the same men and women who fought the resistance war against the Nazi back in 1945, as my parents did. Whoever and wherever they will be, they will share similar songs and similar thoughts, and will pass on their memories to their next generation. Meanwhile, we, the descendants of those partisans, who knew the postwar Europe they helped to create, will continue their fight in whichever way our time permits.

... Con lo stesso impegno che si chiama, ora e sempre, Resistenza
(Piero Calamandrei)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The filth and the fury

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked ...
(Allen Ginsberg - Howl)

In the academic year 2007-2008 I used to work for a research institute in Germany, trying to take care of eight graduate students, along with my own research, which was just about to hit full speed against a wall (of which too much has already been said in this blog). That was the time when I first reached that breaking point I have by now permanently sunk into. I owe madness in equal parts to my former friends and collaborators of many years (enough said on that) and the other half to the German University.
Here comes their share!

... who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull ...

If you've never fallen through the rabbit hole into the world of Alice in Wonderland, and you've never really seen what absurd means, you should take a quick tour of the graduation procedure for students of the German University. Here's a quick comparative anthropological analysis of the same procedure in the Californian Institute and in the German University. Student A is a graduate student of, say, mathematics, in the Californian Institute, while student B is also a graduate student in the same subject, and with the same supervisor, but in the German University.

... with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares ...

Around October-November of the year X, both students, having nearly completed their PhD thesis, apply for postdoctoral jobs. Typically a postdoctoral job that starts in July, August, or September of the year X+1 is advertised in the fall of the year X, with a deadline usually around December. Offers are made out during the spring of the year X+1. Since students typically defend their PhD thesis around May or June of the year X+1, the offers come a few months before graduation. At the time when offers are made and the student signs the job contract, the student's advisor more or less formally guarantees to the postdoctoral employer that the student will defend the thesis and complete the PhD by the starting date of the postdoctoral job. Should the student not finish by the established date, not only the student risk losing the job, but, since postdoctoral jobs in mathematics typically come with teaching duties, the employers will find themselves with a missing instructor and classes that need to be covered and with the enormous difficulty of finding a last minute replacement. Thus, for the whole system of postdoctoral jobs to function smoothly, it is necessary that the assurance the PhD supervisor gives at the time when job offers are made out, that the student will graduate in time, is considered reliable and dependable. PhD supervisors put their reputation on the line when they give assurance to postdoctoral employer regarding the predicted graduation dates of their students.

... who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts ...

Coming back to student A and student B, they both go through the job application procedure and both secure a good postdoctoral employment, for which their supervisor promises that graduation will take place in time. What does graduation consist of? Well, to begin with, the final manuscript of the PhD thesis has to be submitted to the appropriate office of the university. This is what is required:

- Items required in order to submit a PhD thesis to the Californian Institute:

(1) - The electronic file of the PhD thesis.

- Items required in order to submit a PhD thesis to the German University:

(1)- Five typed and printed copies of the PhD thesis, including a CV of the student, signed by the PhD supervisor.

(2)- A separate copy of the student's CV.

(3)- A notarized copy of the student's passport and birth certificate.

(4)- Five copies of any published paper authored by the student, related to the thesis content.

(5)- A police clearance report.

(6)- A signed application formula with one passport photograph.

(7)- A separate abstract of the thesis.

(8)- Official proof of enrollment for two terms at the German University...

and so on.

Assuming that student B can promptly and timely produce all these documents and takes no more time than student A to submit the thesis, we come to the next step.

... who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts ...

After the thesis is submitted one needs a thesis committee.

- In the Californian Institute a thesis committee consists of at least four faculty members:

(1)- Any of the Institute faculty including postdocs can serve on the committee.

(2)-The committee can be formed, its members changed or new members added at any time until the moment when the thesis defense takes place.

(3)- The only thing thesis committee members have to do is be present at the student's talk on the days of the thesis defense.

(4)-Only one week of time is needed between thesis submission and thesis defense.

- In the German University the thesis committee consists of four faculty members with the following regulations:

(1)- The first member of the committee is the thesis supervisor who has to write a thesis report, and give a numerical grade to the thesis.

(2)- The second member of the committee has to be a permanent professor in the Pure Mathematics Department of the German University. There are only six or so of those and if all of them say no, everything stalls.

(3)- The second member of the committee also has to read the thesis, write a report, and assign a numerical grade.

(4)- If the numerical grade of the second member differs from that of the first member the graduation SIMPLY CANNOT PROCEED, until the committee reconvenes and agrees on a common grade.

(5)- The third and fourth member of the committee have to be permanent professors in the Applied Mathematics and Physics Departments of the German University, respectively. Again, if all the eligible candidates decline, the graduation cannot take place.

(6)- The appointed third and fourth members of the committee have to read the thesis and the reports of the first two members and transmit their approval to the university.

(7)- A period of FOUR WEEKS has to pass between the time when both reviews (with matching grades) AND the approvals of the remaining two members of the thesis committee are transmitted to the university and the time when the actual thesis defense talk can take place.

... who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism & were left with their insanity & their hands & a hung jury ...

Student A at the Californian Institute goes through the process of submitting the thesis, appointing the thesis committee, scheduling the thesis defense talk and completing his thesis defense in less than ten days, with no foreseeable obstacle and with no need of any particular intervention from the PhD supervisor. Here is, instead, what typically happens to student B at the German university. (I say typically because, in the period between 2006, when my first PhD student graduated from the German University, up until now the experience I am about to describe happened NINE TIMES.)

... who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks oh the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion ...

After having submitted the thesis well ahead of the graduation deadline agreed with the postdoctoral employer, student B goes through the list of all the faculty members of the German University eligible to be second member of the thesis committee, showing them the thesis and the thesis report written by the advisor and already submitted to the university. All of the eligible members say NO, on the ground that they have better things to do. (Being in a thesis committee evidently does not seem to be a normal part of their academic duties: one wonders whether they apply the same conscientious attitude to, say, their teaching duties.) At that point the process stalls. Time passes and the graduation deadline approaches. The advisor intervenes and begins to contact the faculty members, begging, threatening, teasing, shouting, until someone agrees to be the second member and write the second report. Time keeps passing and the second report does not materialize. Again the advisor sends several reminders, pointing out clearly the fact that the student will lose the postdoctoral job if not graduating in time by the agreed date. Finally, after a humiliating process of many requests in increasingly desperate tone, the second report is submitted to the university. Time passes and nothing happens. A few days later, when inquiring on why things are not moving forward, the advisor finds out that there is a discrepancy between the grades assigned to the thesis in the two reports. Typically, the second report intentionally gives a grade that is about one decimal point below the grade assigned by the supervisor, so as to be sure to stall everything. A long discussion begins between the supervisor and the second referee, until an agreement is reached on a common grade. Meantime several more days have passed. At this point, with the thesis and both reports, student B starts to go through the list of all the eligible faculty of the German University who can be third and fourth member of the committee. Once again the same pathetic scene repeats itself, with people refusing to be on the committee, or formally accepting and then not sending in their reports. Time passes and the agreed graduation date approaches even more. When finally, after repeated interventions from the supervisor resulting in very stressful confrontations with the faculty members of the German University, all the members of the thesis committee have been appointed and the reports and approvals have all been transmitted to the university, one STILL NEEDS TO WAIT FOUR WEEKS before the thesis defense can finally take place! SEVEN TIMES over the past years this process resulted in the student being able to defend AT THE VERY LAST POSSIBLE MOMENT BEFORE LOSING THE JOB! Each time, this was possible only at the cost of an immense amount of stress on both the student and the supervisor. The remaining two cases of student-B-type experience are still ongoing.

... with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.

Of course, someone may ask at this point, yes but why, knowing that the graduation procedure is so hazardous and unpredictable, the students don't submit their thesis several months ahead of the graduation? After all, at the time when they apply for jobs they already have the results of their thesis, and one can surely speed up the writing process to leave a safe margin of time before graduation. Ah, no! Because the German University has thought of this possibility as well, and they included an additional regulation stating that, if the thesis defense does not take place within three months of the time of the thesis submission, then THE THESIS EXPIRES! This is a very interesting concept in itself: the idea of scientific results that are no longer valid after a period of three months challenges even the most relativist of postmodern philosophers. In other words, the graduation procedure of the German University has been explicitly and carefully designed to be a no-win situation and a byzantine maze with no exit route.

Ground where mere survival
a desperate struggle,
where without
a desperate struggle
we perish,
that is
Death ground.

(Sun-Tsu, The Art of War)

In the fall of 2007 I realized that I was breaking down completely, partly due to the traumatic experience of having to ram several PhD students through the graduation procedure of the German University and partly due to the stress of trying to take care of one of the students who suffered from a severe psychiatric condition, for which the German University (unlike its overseas counterparts) provides no support structures (psychological counseling, student health insurance covering psychiatric care), so that the full burden falls entirely on the advisor's shoulders to do damage control and try to prevent the worst from happening. So I decided to escape and seek refuge in the Californian Institute. I thought I managed to escape barely in time to avoid a major collapse and breakdown. Unfortunately, precisely at that time my dear former friends and collaborators decided to deliver their blow and, even more unfortunately, the ghosts of the past came back and the remaining students who still need to finish their PhD with the German University forced me to a continued exposure to the same impossible nightmares, magnified by the additional difficulties of dealing with them at a distance.

On death ground,

(Sun-Tsu, The Art of War)

Postscriptum: When it comes to the point where a student, after finishing his PhD thesis two months ahead of the deadline required by his postdoctoral employer, faced with the impossible task of getting it through the graduation procedure of the fucked up German University in time not to lose his job, is brought to the point of attempting to take his own life, the grotesque obtuse stupidity of the German bureaucratic establishment acquires much more monstrous proportions, and begins to echo of that same stench of rotten authoritarian fascism that has been lingering on everywhere in its academic establishment. When it comes to the point where, knowing that the student in question is still in critical conditions in hospital, and nonetheless asks to be allowed to complete his thesis defense by a videoconference link (which would be a completely standard procedure in any overseas university), the dean of the German University does not even bother to speak in person to the head of the thesis committee who is asking for the official permission to proceed with the thesis defense by videoconferencing, and finally refuses to proceed on the ground of "maintaining their standards", then the medieval barbaric and idiotic procedure devised for the promotion of graduate students begins to stink of that same horrid stench of the rotting corpse of fascism that permeates the environment of German Universities... and someone had the guts to call this sewer a "center of excellence"?