Weeks Twelve & Thirteen

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Santa flying over the Weihnachtsmarkt.

The last couple weeks have been relatively quiet. Not much has happened outside of work and sleep (and less so the latter). I did go to the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in Saarbrücken with some friends, which was quite fun. There was a line strung up between two buildings, which allowed Santa and his reindeer to fly over the town center as the announcer told Rudolf’s story.

I also saw another movie (that makes two in two weeks, which is as much as I usually watch in a year).  “Arrival” is a movie about a linguist based on a short story called “The Story of You.” I think I prefer the short story, because I don’t think it translates that well to the movie screen… but to be honest with you, the short story is also a little odd.

The most stressful thing to have happened in the last two weeks is that my computer developed a hardware issue (which does not yet render it inoperable, thank goodness). After much discussion with the various branches of Acer, it turns out I have to send my computer to the US for repairs (on my own dime). I really cannot be without a computer during my master’s program, since our computer lab currently has no computers in it so I would have no where to work (yea, don’t ask me to explain that one because I have no idea either). So in the meantime, I have ordered a new, relatively cheap laptop. I bought the laptop off Newegg which only ships to the US, and my husband will bring the laptop to me when he comes to visit in December. This made the cost much cheaper than it would have been to order a similar quality laptop in Germany.

The stress from the computer thing has really taxed me. It doesn’t help that I’ve been very busy. Classes, programming assignments, plus my HiWi (research assistant job) have taken up my days almost completely. In terms of the department here, overall, I’m kind of disappointed with the master’s program so far. Like everything else, classes are very disorganized. The disorganization of a class manifests in one of three ways:

  1. The class is too easy/boring, particularly the linguistics classes, which so far have covered little more than what you would learn in an undergrad intro to linguistics class, but cover it in a patchier way
  2. The profs are unprepared for lecture, sometimes so much so that they use some unrelated old conference presentation as their lecture and/or tell you to go look up info on Wikipedia to fulfill your assignments
  3. The class expects you to know so much background, and the prof doesn’t break it down, so the material is nearly unapproachable for many students (some second years and/or comp sci people seem to do ok so maybe it’s just me).

This semester I would say I have only one class that strikes the right balance of difficulty, hands-on practice, and computational theory, and I really enjoy this class, although I work incredibly hard to implement the algorithms we are learning. However, even in this class, there is really no one that I can go to for help with problems except for the other students (thank goodness we are all in this together). There are office hours but they are kind of limited.

The Erasmus program further hampers my learning prospects, because it breaks whatever continuity I would have had from studying in the same uni for two years. There are HiWi jobs that don’t hire you and projects you can’t participate in because you are only here for one year.

Long story short, judging from my experience so far, I don’t think I would recommend the program at this school to someone who doesn’t already have a background in comp sci, or at the very least has taken math through linear algebra and probability theory, because you won’t be taught those necessary foundations here (at least from my experience thus far). You can still come, as I have, and I’m sure you can learn a lot from it, but if you do already have the proper background you will just get a lot more out of it.

Costs

Yep, I’m still overbudget (even not counting the laptop, but especially with it included). By the way, by the end of November I stayed right in line with my maximum allowed budget, which is the hard budget I need to stay under (per month, on average) to keep from going broke and being in financial trouble at the end of these two years. Obviously, it would be much better to stay within my ideal budget, which is the money that I make while living here only. The good news is that now that I have my HiWi, the ideal budget should be a little more relaxed starting in January (I get paid at the end of December).

  • €12 – laundry
  • €4 – feminine hygiene
  • €10 – fill up school card for lunches and printing
  • €36 – groceries
  • €32 – Weihnachtsmarkt
  • €22 – tickets to Strasbourg later
  • €95 – a snuggly sweater because it’s cold
  • €5 – medication
  • €25 – dining
  • €12 – movie tickets and snacks
  • Total: €253 + $580 USD for the laptop

Weeks Ten & Eleven

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The US went crazy the week before last, which made it very hard to focus on anything. I know I’m supposed to just ignore it all, hunker down and keep working, but it’s hard when your job is to learn, i.e. use your brain, but your brain can’t focus.

This week I did .. sort of… choose my classes. My uncertainty stems from firstly, my complete lack of understanding of the requirements set upon me. Secondly, there are a lot of interesting topics, but not a lot of time to get all the work done. Thirdly,  there are a few classes where the teachers clearly have very little actual teaching experience, and I’m trying to nail down which course I can stomach better, which is a shame. I also decided to drop Database Systems because even though I was actually enjoying it quite a bit, I don’t think it will quite fit into my requirements that well (once again, assuming I understand them correctly), which is also a shame.

Anyway, I’m going to take these classes for credit during the semester, which puts me right at 31 credits (30 is the normal amount):

  • Foundations (required course which includes a little bit of everything)
  • Computational Linguistics
  • Language Technology probably, but maybe Syntactic Theory instead
  • Question Answering in Applications seminar
  • Text-to-speech (TTS) synthesis seminar

The following are intensive seminars that are held during the semester “break” (not a break for us, basically), that are counted as even more credit hours for the Winter semester, but that will hopefully not cut into my actual Winter semester schedule too much. Taking one or two of these this is the plan, but I’ll see which one once I get there. I’m signed up for the first two already (and who knows, maybe I can manage both):

  • Machine Learning for NLP (might drop this one because it might be over my head)
  • Natural Language Generation
  • Voicebuilding (the TTS seminar is a pre-requisite)

The following are classes will be ones where I attend during the winter semester but don’t sit the final for and may have to drop if time constraints get to be too much:

  • Deutsch als Fremdsprache (German as a second language) offered through MPI
  • Deutsche Allgemeine Sprachkurse (German general speaking course)
  • Italian 1+2 (it takes place twice a week instead of once)

Unfortunately I missed out on taking Speech Recognition, which was one class I was really looking forward to. Basically, the prof assumes you know a lot of background really well, and doesn’t break things down, and so I need to learn more math before I can take a class like this. I’m hoping that with the time savings from not taking the class, I can start to learn more about probability, linear algebra, and multivariate calculus on my own and then maybe take a similar class at Trento next year. I hope they have something like it.

Finally, I also started a HiWi (research assistant job) that I will be working 8 hours a week on. The project is on co-reference resolution, and I will be in charge of annotating the corpus. Hopefully I can code a little bit to speed things up here, but in any case, the corpus will have to be manually checked over at the end. Maybe not the most exciting thing, but this will add €450 to my monthly income of €1000, which I feel will be very nice, and I’m sure to learn something anyway.

In my personal life, I went to a Tchaikovsky and Glinka concert last week. I also visited Heidelberg last weekend, including the awesome half-ruined castle there, and tasted Glühwein (hot wine with spices) for the first time. I hung out with my classmates/friends a bunch, and at one point we saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (I thought it was pretty cute). As a side note, the popcorn that you buy at the movies here is sweet, kind of like the US caramel popcorn (except a little less caked on)– I prefer the salty kind. Anyway, all of this was very fun, but I really got no work done over the last couple weeks.

Well, I guess I did implement the Viterbi algorithm, and that was cool.

Costs

The last couple weeks, I bought a ton of groceries and then ended up being too exhausted to cook and going out a bunch. That doesn’t make any sense to do… if I’m not going to cook, I shouldn’t buy vegetables! ><”

  • €27 – Italian textbook (hope I end up using it)
  • €80 – groceries
  • €5 – clothes
  • €18 – movies plus popcorn
  • €28 – dining out with friends
  • €10 – charge up the student card for printing and cafeteria lunches
  • Total: €168

Hate

refugees_welcome.jpgWe have seen the rise of terrorism and hate in the US, as neighbours, classmates, and colleagues turn against one another in fits of reprehensible rage. I am not talking about who won the election right now. I’m only talking about the daily acts of terrorism from people on all sides such as the shooting at a polling place on election day, the brutal attacks against LGBT people, blatant racism, and numerous attacks in the streets against basically anyone who is not a white cis-gendered male. Note also that this is not all one sided. People are talking about assassinations, about reaping what you sow, about seceding from the nation. Some are blaming whites for what is happening, which makes as much sense as blaming all non-whites. You can’t fight racism with racism; that just spreads more hate.

Who won the election is of little importance in comparison to the enormity of the crimes Americans are committing against one another today, on all sides of the political spectrum. This is completely heartbreaking. Look, it’s not rocket science: treat others as you would want to be treated. Stop trying to split up into an “us-vs-them.” We all live on the same little blue planet (though for how much longer, I fear to speculate). You cannot blame politics for your shitty attitude– no, that is entirely on you.

In the wake of all this terrorism and hate, I feel completely at a loss. Whatever I say here has been repeated many times before. Anyone who reads this post would have already heard it. Anyone who agrees with it, will continue to agree with it, and anyone who disagrees with it will continue to disagree with it. Most likely, anyone who is reading this is not one of the assholes that is committing these crimes anyway. My small words can’t make any difference. Even if I was home right now, I don’t know what I could do. Half a world away, I am helpless to do anything at all.

I guess we just go on with our lives, and try to be the best people we can be, despite the hate. I guess we do our best to hold each other up, particularly when we see harassment in the streets. I guess we just try to be strong, and face the hatred head on with reason, compassion, and empathy, trying to hide the fear that makes us tremble inside.

 

Weeks Eight & Nine

farmers02Two weeks ago, I participated in the intensive introductory course provided by the computational linguistics (COLI) department (formally, the Language Science & Technology department) at Universität des Saarlandes (UdS). It took up most of the day from 8:30 – 17:00 (with a 1.5 hour lunch in between). I would describe the intensive course more like an intro to linguistics course, so I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know from my bachelor’s degree. Most things are explained much better and in more detail in videos online than in this class.

Normal classes started last week, and I attended nearly ALL of them, because I still haven’t pinned down my schedule. Overall, we covered a bunch of basic background things that I either knew already, or knew once. There were just a few new topics, and for those, the videos available online were better at explaining things than my classes.

Anyway, in general, the last couple weeks covered:

Additionally, I signed up for a database systems class, which I may not be able to stick with, but I did learn about the organization of a hard drive, which was interesting.

Finally, I am taking an intermediate German class and a beginning Italian class. In German class, we introduced each other in German. In Italian class we introduced each other… in German– yea… I’m hoping the Italian class picks up a bit more, obviously, but hey, at least I am really good at introducing other people in German now!

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“Great! Now Ikea sells lifesavers too!”

Although classes have mostly started out at a basic level, there were a few seminars that really dove into the nitty gritty, without much explanation at all. My impression is that the system here seems to really support the sink-or-swim ideal. Unlike in the US, if you fall behind here it’s your problem.

In some ways this is good since you are pushed to your limits and you learn a lot on your own. In some ways it’s bad, because if your learning style doesn’t fit this kind of teaching or if you expect lots of help, it might be hard to get it. For example, when talking about the requirement to read and discuss all of the papers, one of the seminar profs literally said (this is a direct quote), “If you don’t want to, please, don’t come, I really encourage you not to.” When asked about how much does each part of the work contribute to the grading system, his response was “pffffff…” Basically, if you don’t want to learn, don’t slow down the people that do.

So in general, the focus is definitely on learning rather than grading, but at the same time, there are these finals that loom at the end of the year, that your entire grade is actually based off of… so I’m really not sure how that will go.

Outside of class, the week before last, I also discovered a few more food buying options. The first one is a permanent market in an underground passageway called the “Diskonto Passage.” For weeks, I had been walking past this underground passageway, somehow mentally associating it with a street crossing or a subway entrance (of course, Saarbrücken has no subway), and I’m not the only one. Well, it turns out it’s actually a wonderful market with lots different vendors, including a bio grocery, an Asian market, a vegetable market, a meat market, an electronics store and so on.

The second store I found is an expensive grocery store in the basement of the Karstadt department store, the main advantage of which is that it contains fresh fish (something that is mostly lacking in other stores here). Both are conveniently located in the center of town, but Edeka, though farther from me, is still the nicest place to shop overall.

Finally, I also discovered the weekly Saturday farmer’s market (picture at the top) so I can get fresh seasonal veggies each week while supporting the local community. Yay!

Tuesday was a holiday, so we went to see a documentary called “Hummus! The Movie.” It was a multilingual Hebrew/ Arabic/ English movie, with German subtitles, and there was a hummus party offered afterwards (the hummus was mediocre, but the wine was amazing). With all the stress of  planning my schedule, this was a very nice mid-week break. Unfortunately, I proceeded to get quite sick in the latter half of the week which completely killed all of my socialization plans for the rest of the week and I missed some other fun outings… so I’m quite bummed out about that.

By the way, last week, I also managed to pin down a job hiring (I have to go in and discuss the contract now) for a research assistant position, which is called a HiWi (Hilfswissenshaftler) in German. It sounds like the job will involve translating one annotation scheme to another, obviously speeding the work up by scripting wherever possible, but with some manual checking over the annotations as well. I’m not sure that it sounds particularly interesting, and I would have liked to do something farther outside my comfort zone, but the competition is fierce right now, and I am happy to start with this. If some other opportunity crops up later, hopefully I will still have a chance to jump on that, but it will depend on my contract.

The cool thing is that in these two weeks I’ve started to get to know some of the people in my program, and a few people from other departments around school as well. Everyone I have met so far has been completely awesome. I just hope I won’t be too busy with schoolwork for social activities in the near future.

Costs:

Being busy really does help keep costs down. I still spent more than I had to on food by completely spoiling myself as usual, but I cooked a lot to ensure I had lunches, so it’s to a more reasonable range now. However, there are a few larger future purchases I’m planning; I just have to figure out what the top priority is, since I only have a little bit of Amazon gift card funds left and I don’t want to go over budget now.

  • €15 – eating out
  • €10 – fill up the student card to use for printing, emergency cafeteria meals, etc.
  • €11.5 – another blanket (it’s cold now), and some small household items
  • €60 – groceries
  • €5 – movie and hummus dinner (good deal!)
  • €45 – more groceries
  • €20 – household items including a full-length mirror to satiate my vanity
  • Total: €166.5

Fulfilling course requirements

Last week I had to sign up for classes, and this has been quite an ordeal. There are certain credit point (CP) requirements I need to fulfill to graduate. The requirements for the computational linguistics department at Universität des Saarlandes (UdS COLI) are as follows (and I hope I understood this correctly):

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“Admittedly, coffee breaks were more fun earlier.”

  • 27 CPs of core courses, in which:
    • 9 CPs are the mandatory Foundations course
  • 48 CPs of other courses, in which:
    • 7 CPs are a master’s seminar with presentation and paper
    • 8 CPs min and 15 CPs max are courses through the comp sci department
    • one course (probably a seminar) contains an oral exam
  • 12 CPs of a master seminar
  • 30 CPs of a master thesis
  • 3 CPs of a master colloquium

No less important are the LCT requirements that I need to fulfill, which are completely separate from the above requirements. In short (to summarize the link above, and once again, if I’ve understood this correctly):

  • 24 CP from Language Tech
    • 6 CP from foundation courses
    • 9 CP from computational syntax/morphology
    • 9 CP from computational semantics/pragmatics
  • 24 CP from Comp Sci
    • 6 CP from data structures/data organization/processing
    • 9 CP from logic/computability/complexity
    • 9 CP from formal languages and algorithms
  • 42 CP from advanced courses
    • 4 CP from advanced comp ling (machine translation, NLP, speech recog., etc.)
    • 4 CP from advanced comp sci (machine learning, AI, neural nets, etc.)
    • 15 CP for a project (I believe this matches UdS’s master’s thesis+colloquium)
    • 19 CP from other advanced courses
  • 30 CP for a master’s thesis

By the way, course CP values generally work like this:

  • 6 CP for a core course, with exceptions for larger 9 CP courses like Foundations
  • 4/7 CP for a master seminar (4 with presentation only, 7 with paper)
  • 5/8 CP for a project seminar (5 with presentation only, 8 with software project)
  • the oral exam just has to be taken as a requirement and gives no CP

So how shall I fulfill all of these requirements? No idea.

If you read the signing up for classes  post, you will know that the “system” at UdS is “not centralized” (this is a nice way of putting it). The COLI department’s “system,” in particular, is truly a clusterfuck (I’m using this word a lot lately). For example… today is November 1st, and the semester officially started one month ago on October 1st. Deadlines for sign ups for classes in other departments, including sports, languages, and computer science were finished either last week or two weeks ago. Classes in other departments started last week, or are starting this week. Despite all of this, the COLI department only just nailed down their class schedule at the end of last week, and had sign ups open for only the span of, or in some cases half of, last week.

Because we didn’t know about when sign ups for computer science courses took place (due to the “not centralized” system at the uni), and because we didn’t know when our COLI classes would actually take place, and finally because we all had to participate in an intensive COLI course that made us unable to visit the first day of other department’s classes, most of us completely missed computer science department classes.

For those of us that are LCT students, and hence are only here for one year, particularly those of us with linguistics rather than comp sci backgrounds (such as myself), the computer science requirement for COLI is particularly hard to fulfill. This is because, for one, only master’s courses count, but we haven’t taken undergrad comp sci courses so we are missing those foundations. Second, we are generally weaker in math as well, which comp sci courses can be heavy on. Finally, most annoyingly, computer science courses taught by a COLI professor don’t count even if they are offered through the comp sci department and even if LCT would view it as a comp sci course. In addition, many CS courses are only 6 CPs, so we may need two of them (or a core course and an even more advanced level seminar).

So because we missed sign ups, we will likely have only one semester to find some way to fulfill this challenging requirement. The second year LCT students are at even worse disadvantage, because they are supposed to be working on their master’s thesis now, but instead (or rather, in addition) they now need to find some way to fulfill this requirement for COLI.

In terms of the requirements for LCT, we all have been asking for (a) the correspondences of courses to the LCT modules, (b) information about what will be offered next semester, and (c) guidance on what to do for the comp sci requirement. For (a), apparently there’s a list somewhere of correspondences, but the lady who has it has not supplied it, for (b), no one knows what courses will be offered next semester, since they barely know what they are offering this semester, and for (c), in my case at least, guidance was “do you speak German?” (I don’t speak it well enough to take a comp sci course in it).

Long story short, four weeks into the official start of the semester, I still don’t know my schedule for this semester. Let’s not even talk about what will happen once I get to Italy (although they seem more organized in that they do have some of their LCT correspondences posted, and only the CS courses will be difficult to figure out).

Week Seven

A lot happened this week, even apart from the school shenanigans, and my completed visa application.

For one, this week they replaced the kitchenbox in my bedroom with a new one. The old one only had one burner that worked but when they tried to replace it, they realized the wiring was done wrong, so they had to call in an expert. Overall, it took three days to get this done, meaning I ate out a lot.

Unfortunately… and I know it’s hard to believe that this might be possible… but the new kitchenbox is actually worse. The mini-fridge is designed in a terrible way, making it much harder to fit everything into. The burner controls are now located on the top of the stove, instead of on the side, meaning the entire left hand area of the stove top is commandeered by just two little knobs. As a result, the burners are moved over to the right a little, and this means there’s actually less “counter” space in the middle.

I don’t have a picture of my old kitchenbox but it was essentially identical to the one I had in the dorms. Here is a comparison picture… I know it doesn’t seem like much… but well, when it’s all you’ve got, those small things make a big difference:

Living here in general has been mediocre. It’s a tiny tiny room, in someone else’s house. I can’t stretch out, and I have no oven… all I have is this kitchenbox. I went with this place because it was quite cheap, the location was ideal, and because I had nothing better lined up in time. Now that I have a place I can start looking for something better. Unfortunately, many people really want you to lease for 1 year, and it looks like I will be moving to Italy probably at the end of July, meaning I only have 8 months or so (I have to give 30 day notice here as well). That, plus the competitive nature of the market here, means it’s possible I won’t be able to find anything else at this point.

On the other hand, my landlords are pretty nice (although I only understand about half of what they try to say to me). On Friday, they invited me to go with them to Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Buchmesse, one of the largest (maybe the largest) book conventions in the world. Since the husband is a book shop owner, he had a free ticket for me! Just one room of this convention was basically the size of a Barnes & Noble, and there were around 14 such rooms. Publishers from all over the world were represented there (from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe!), so it was quite interesting.

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Printing press tools at the Gutenberg Museum’s stand at the Buchmesse

I’ve always been interested in learning languages, but at this book fair I was reminded, once again, how important this really is. I was walking around the huge areas with international publishers, and there were so many books I couldn’t enjoy, because they were in a language I didn’t know. I was saddened by this. I’m lucky because at least I sort of know a small handful of languages… it must be so enlightening to know many fluently.

Costs this week:

I’m still annoyed at myself about food costs… it could be so much lower, honestly, but I am just being lazy about it, and completely spoiling myself.

On the other hand, I really managed to restrain myself at the book fair. I just don’t have room for books in my small room, and I didn’t want to buy them just to send them back to the States. Besides, since these are huge publishers, most of the books they sell can actually be ordered online.

  • €27 – warmer clothes since it’s getting cold
  • €3 – souvenir at the book fair
  • €2 – laundry
  • €170 – eating out and groceries (don’t recall how much of each now ugh)

Signing up for Classes

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Machine at the Frankfurter Buchmesse which is using hot wax to map data from an app about the transportation requests made and routes taken in Berlin

“Our system is not really centralized.”

This is the understatement of the year, spoken by the speaker at the Erasmus orientation. The orientation was largely useless, seeing as I knew most of the information presented. If anything, it was just frustrating. German bureaucracy in general has been complicated, but not impossible to get through. By contrast, the “system” at Universität des Saarlandes has been a hopeless clusterfuck. Let me explain by example.

There are at least three different departments in charge of German language. One is the Germanistik (German studies) department, which is for the German major (and I don’t know much about that one). The second is the Deutschkurse department in the International Office that provides German as a foreign language courses to the international students (such as myself). The third is the Max Planck Institute (MPI) German language department/group that provides German as a foreign language classes to Informatik (comp sci, etc.) students (such as myself). You have to take separate placement tests for the latter two. For the Deutschkurse department you have to take a new placement test each semester, even if you were already in their classes before. In addition, there is a Foreign languages department which teaches many other languages (Arabic, Russian, Italian, French, English, etc.), except German, and you need placement tests if you want to take those too.

Now in terms of your major, at the start, you have to sign some sort of student contract (I don’t know what this is yet). After that, each department has a completely different system for class registration, exam registration, and grading. If you are taking classes from multiple departments, you will be dealing with multiple systems.

In some cases, such as in the Hochschuhsport (sports) and Fremdsprache (foreign language) departments you register for classes online as soon as registration is open and places fill up fast. In other cases, like for my department, you either register much later or perhaps don’t register at all (I’m not sure). In all cases, you register for final exams separately. After you pass your finals, in some cases you get a Scheine (certificate) or Noten (grades) from the department, in other cases you get a certificate or grade from the International Office. At the end, you collect all your certificate/grades and take them to pick up your “Transcript of Records”. Depending on your department, you pick it up either at your department or at the International Office. By the way, every single department has its own webpage, which does not correspond to a common template, so finding information on all of this is very frustrating. In short, studying here, is like studying at 5 different schools at once, and having to collect grades from each of them at the end.

In regards to my department in particular… Well, there are two coordinators for my department. The first coordinator is for the “Language Science & Technology” group, which is the master’s students who will be here for two years. The second coordinator is for the “Language & Communication Technology” group, which is for the Erasmus students (such as myself), who will only be here for one year. The classes for the groups are the same… but for whatever reason, the mailing lists across these two groups are not shared. This means that as an LCT I get different information from what my friends in the LST group; however, all the information is relevant to me! Thankfully, I have a friend in the LST group and we’ve been forwarding everything to each other.

The confusing web pages and the lack of communication made it very hard to know anything about my schedule ahead of time. I knew where and when I had to show up the first day, and that was basically it. The fact that class registration for languages and sports started before I knew my schedule meant that I just had to blindly sign up for those things and hope that the schedule will work out somehow. The problem is aggravated by the fact that I don’t know when my language classes would be, since I don’t know how well I’ll do on the placement tests.

Anyway, I took all the language placement tests figuring I’ll see where they put me, and I basically gave up on sports, signing up just for a Saturday 3-session introduction to climbing. I’ll be riding my bike everywhere anyway, which will be quite good exercise. On the plus side, it looks like you can attend some courses like the language courses without signing up for the final exam, and it seems like nothing negative happens (i.e. it doesn’t go onto your transcript as a fail or anything), so hopefully I can learn a little even if the course doesn’t quite go with my schedule… I hope I’m right about this.