Custom Search

Friday, March 20, 2009

A supposedly fun thing

I am cleaning files from Yahoo Briefcase before they get deleted and I found this (piece that I wrrote for my non-fiction workshop back at university. It's nothing special but it was amusing be reminded of certain events that were not funny or fun at all at the time of happening but seem very funny when described.

Petnica Research Center, when I first heard of it, seemed like a place I somehow must get into. That is not an easy task--you have to deal with the usual papyrology, and to submit your IQ score in order to pass a strict selection. Petnica is a place popular among high-school students in Serbia so many people want to participate in its programs. Not everyone can succeed in that, and it makes a matter of privilege whether one is accepted or not. It seems like you have to be special to get into such a special place. So when one day I received a letter with “Dear Jelica, we are happy to inform you bla bla....,” my ego hit the ceiling. I was to spend seven days on a seminar in psychology, and simply couldn’t wait for it. I had great expectations of even greater fun. I was wrong.

Though it may not be obvious, judging by the name, Petnica Research Center is designed to be a fun place. It’s an alternative educational institution created somewhat upon the model of the famous Summerhill. The idea is simple--if there is anything you “wanted to know but was afraid to ask,” Petnica is the right place to go and look for answers. Seminars are covering areas ranging from archeology to computer science, and from medicine to linguistics. The fun is in the fact that you work on something you are really fond of (how many times does that happen in school?); you get to hear many new and interesting facts from people who are the best in the field; you do research on your own, with the help and advice if you need it. And you skip regular classes!

It never occurred to me that Petnica might not be as perfect as it looks. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about everything: program, staff, people on the seminar, food, weather?

At the beginning it was not all that bad. In the first half of an hour, that is (precisely, before facing the lunch). We were welcomed with an intelligence test-- that was the first one. In the very same afternoon, we did three more. By the end of the seminar, I stopped counting but I know for certain that we didn’t miss a single one that the world knows of: domino test, MENSA test, Catel’s test, whomsoever’s test and when we ran out of them we would do them all over again. I learned to sympathize with guinea pigs.

So, by the time of the dinner (it is still the first day) I was both starved and frustrated, but not yet devoid of all hope. After all, we hadn’t really started the REAL stuff, the things that we in fact came for. A test or two is not such an unbearable sacrifice for all the fun we were to get. Were we?

The dessert came after the dinner in the form of--surprise, surprise--another test! This time they tested our memory. We had fifteen minutes to memorize a page-long text on differences in two prominent theories of personality. It was obviously taken from a university textbook since I barely understood every second word and have never before seen sentences with that kind of structure. Afterwards we had to fill in a questionnaire testing how much we remembered, asking about each and every minute detail. I was a bit puzzled--couldn’t they have given the test in the morning when we were fresh? I was even more puzzled when the test was repeated on the last day of the seminar (only the questionnaire, without the text). The explanation was not in the least mysterious. Apparently, one of the professors-lecturers was conducting a research of his own on HOW MENTAL AND PHYSICAL EXHAUSTION AFFECTS MEMORY (sic!) We, the students were a perfect sample...

In fact, we were so perfect a sample that it was pathetic, seeing us all dead tired, barely standing on our feet, with eyes half closed and circles underneath in different shades of blue, violet, and brown. We had lectures almost from dawn and certainly after dusk. Starting at eight in the morning, we wouldn’t leave the classroom till late at night except for meals. Since we were “psychologists” we had the “privilege” of having psychological workshops after our lectures, as if we hadn’t had enough of boredom. Needless to say, they were also part of someone’s research, experiment, whim...

But at least the lectures were fun, right? A-ha. A guy almost as old as the Bible talked for nearly two and a half hours about his PhD--taken thirty years ago. All others talked about everything but what was on the program and the program was the thing which made us apply to this particular seminar.

Then the people must have been fun, at least?

The largest group of humourless persons I have ever seen concentrated in one place. One of the girls, when presenting herself, said : “I’m a misanthrope.” Only after that she said her name. An original fellow from the Police School shared with us that he liked “everything that young people like.” Two girls from a special Mathematical School did not even try to hide the contempt for us lesser mortals who were not enlightened by the profound conceptual subtleties of multivariant calculus.

I strongly suspect that the selection of people was purely experimental...