Swiss Summer School on Democracy Studies (s3ds) 2014

One of the plenary sessions, hence the many heads.
One of the plenary sessions, hence the many heads.

In the mad rush of end-of-school-year activities, I nearly forgot to write about my time in Lucerne at the 1st Swiss Summer School on Democracy Studies (s3ds). The summer school was the first of its kind, the brainchild of ‘beer by the lake’ as fondly narrated by the organizers, and the theme this inaugural year was “Democracy and Globalization”. The participants were from a whole variety of fields, from political science to comparative literature, and while most of us were early-stage researchers, there were a few graduate students along with the invited experts so you can imagine the sheer diversity of the discussions.

The whole summer school was done in a week: four two-day workshops making up the bulk of it with Friday designated as consolidation and ‘Boat Trip to Küssnacht’ day. The four workshops were the following:

  1. Democratic Inclusion in a Transnationalizing World (WP I)
  2. Varieties of Democracy Beyond the State (WP II)
  3. Democratization and its Enemies (WP III)
  4. Democratic Deliberation and Negotiation (WP IV)

I listened during WP I (great for the globalization aspect of my research) and presented in WP III (makes sense, as my research is on norm diffusion theory of all norms, even those ‘non-democratic’). Philippe Schmitter reacted to my presentation, and I am now in possession of a much-marked print-out with comments and reading suggestions inked around the margins. We also got a full two days with Prof. Schmitter and I need to write things down before I forget the context of everything!

There were many other interesting papers presented in the parallel sessions though and I quite regret not being able to listen to everything. I know, it’s impossible to do everything. Another thing I didn’t quite appreciate was that once again we faced the divide between ‘philosophy’ and ‘science’ with people who self-identified as either self-segregating into sessions by the end. By Wednesday we had one group that was all political scientists (huge) and one group that was all political philosophers (tiny). This segregation was our fault however as the organizers had previously assigned us to our workshops with the aim of equalizing groups from the beginning—I believe all sessions were originally comprised of around 12 people— but doctoral students are like cats and it’s hard to keep us in any one place at one time.

NCCR 2014 2

What I appreciated beyond the outstanding academic setting was that the program organizers made a supreme effort to make it an ‘experience’, even going so far as to organize a Lucerne walking tour, a dinner with the experts, and the aforementioned boat ride on the last day. We were also well fed throughout the conference, daily lunch was hosted by the Universität Luzern and because we were in Switzerland, Swiss chocolates were scattered on the tables throughout the week!

Furthermore, the Swiss have the most efficient train system I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing in my life. This is not an exaggeration, the entire structure is simply beautiful. My sense of wonder at such things as trains may be amusing for people more familiar with Switzerland (or to the Swiss themselves)— but I was a first-timer in Zürich and the efficiency of getting train tickets (half price for students, printable from ticket machines) and the timeliness (when it says it leaves at 11:06, it leaves at 11:06) and cleanliness (no pee!) of the trains was astounding. And there were enough seats for everybody! And there were no pickpockets, at least none that I saw! Neither Rome nor Manila and not even Canberra have rail systems that can compare.

I admit at first I was completely lost, I had bought a one-way ticket from the airport to Zürich Hauptbahnhof but didn’t realize that the ticket was ‘open’ for any train at any time. So there I was, looking for “my train” which of course I never found! Thankfully, a kind lady helped me out and informed me that I could take any train that had “Zürich HB” as one of its stops, and since that moment of enlightenment there were no problems— I took the train from Zurich HB to Luzern the next day and then the one from Luzern straight back to Flughafen Zürich on the last day, all departed and arrived perfectly on time.

As I wasn’t funded by my home university, the University of Zurich went above and beyond and granted me a reduced fee of 250 CHF as well as refunded my travel expenses and set me up in shared accommodation at the nearby student lodge. Other students in the same situation were given the same grant, and we ended up together at the Lucerne Backpackers Hostel. The triple-share was interesting as I ended up sleeping precariously on a cozy yet difficult-to-navigate bunk on a co-ed floor where men, women, and children were walking around half-naked and shaving and doing laundry and things. The bunk was hard to navigate at first (we had to put on our own sheets, which was a challenge to do for the bunk) but then a person left so it became a twin-share and as for nudity, it was a very amicable kind of towel-wrapped nudity so all good.

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The coordinator, Dr. Doreen Spörer-Wagner, was extremely helpful during the application process and beyond— she even helped me with choosing the best flights from Rome. Everyone at the s3ds went out of their way to be helpful, our welcome packs were well-stocked with information and goodies, when I lost my last meal stub they got me a replacement immediately, and again, the Swiss chocolates during break time. I must admit after living in Italy for so long I did miss ‘real’ coffee, but it was survivable.

A final detail that made my stay in the Swiss Summer School all the more special were the people. Yes there were philosophy-versus-science divides during the day, but those ended after hours. I don’t know if it was the structure of the program or the beauty of Lucerne, but it’s not often you meet people for such a short period of time and become fast friends and that was wonderful.

Special mention goes out to Lucerne itself, it seems that nearly every building (and bridge) in the city has caught fire at some point or another, and it’s still standing and beautifully so. Much respect there.

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The Swiss Summer School on Democracy Studies 2015 will take place from the 22nd to the 66th of June on the theme of “Democratic Innovations”. More information will be available on the NCCR website soon.

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