Russ

Russ is here! It’s the time of year, when to quote Buzzfeed, “Norwegian teenagers lose their fucking minds, wreak havoc across the country and EVERYONE IS TOTALLY FINE WITH IT.” If you want a colorful overview of russ definitely check out this Buzzfeed article, otherwise I’m going to go ahead and explain it, but without all of the GIFs and Instagram pictures.

Now because russ is not well documented in English, most of my knowledge comes from my co-teachers, English language blogs, and Wikipedia, so apologies if any of this is incorrect.

When is russ?

Russefeiring, more commonly known as russ, is a tradition that started in 1905. Students who are in their last year of upper secondary school participate in what is essentially a month long graduation celebration. The start date for this celebration seems to depend on where you’re located and the school that you attend, but I’ve been told that it can start as early as the end of Easter break (around April 6). For my students, they have decided to start on the official russ day, May 1. But regardless of what day russ starts, it always ends May 17, Constitution Day, the Norwegian national day.

To make matters more interesting, students have their national exams in the weeks right after russ ends. Now you might wonder why on earth you would ever have russ before your national exams instead of after them. According to one of my co-teachers, things used to be organized this way, but the timeline was changed in the hopes that it would make things less crazy. From what I’ve heard, I don’t think that this has been a successful strategy and there is talk of moving russ to after the national exams.

How can you tell if someone is participating in russ?

Students are traditionally supposed to wear special russ overalls, or russebukse, which cost around 599 NOK (78 USD). The color of your russebukse depends on what you are studying:

  • Red for higher education (the most common color)
  • Blue for business (also higher education in economics and management)
  • White for medical and social studies
  • Black for engineering (such as mechanics or electrics)
  • Green for agriculture

and these overalls are worn for the entire duration of russ (at least two weeks straight).

There are also russ hats, russelue, that are given to each student. The idea behind them is similar to the idea of a graduation cap, they are a symbol of completion. The hats also have a nickname written on their brim which is suppose to characterize either the student’s normal behavior or their russ behavior.

What happens during russ?

Now you’re probably wondering what these students actually do during russ. Well one element of russ comprises of students trying to earn russ knots for their caps, or russeknuter. These pranks usually have to be witnessed by either members of the Russeboard, or videotaped (Yes, there is a governing student body to this month long celebration). When a prank or dare has been verified, the student earns a knot in their cap. Out of curiosity, I went on this year’s russ website (Yes, there is even a website) and looked at a few of this year’s challenges. According to Google Translate, some choice dares are:

  • Buy a pack of condoms using only body language
  • Go through a whole lesson wearing only underwear
  • Pretend you are an animal for an entire school day
  • Act as a tour guide on public transportation for at least five stops
  • Drink a bottle of wine in 20 minutes, minimum 75cl.
  • Go through an entire school day with your arms and legs tied or taped to another russ
  • Have safe sex with a statue
  • Have sex with two people with the same first name on the same evening.

To my relief, there is a range in how risqué the dares are. Here are a few of the nicer ones:

  • Visit a retirement home and make the residents’ day brighter
  • Give a hug to a police officer. Remember to ask nicely
  • Take a picture with the Russeboard and post on Instagram
  • Be at school every day during school (for smart individuals)

Additionally, many students participate in different parties and even fundraise for these parties. My students put on a play that I was invited to (they assured me that it would be PG-13), but I was unable to attend. The ticket proceeds went to an afterparty.

If you take a look at the Buzzfeed article above, you’ll even see that some students manage to buy buses that they transform into russ party buses. They essentially drive around the country going to different parties, or simply set up shop in a parking lot and drink there. When I asked my students if they had a bus their response was “…No. That’s for the rich kids in Oslo. Why would you even want to party in a parking lot?” Clearly there are some regional russ differences.

Reactions to russ

In short, russ involves a lot of drinking, partying, and (unprotected) sex. My students had to go to an assembly where they talked to a police officer and the school nurse. When I asked them what they learned, they said they learned about safe sex (this was paired with an eye roll), “how to not get raped,” and where to get tested for STDs. When I asked if they learned about safe drinking, their answer was confused silence. After waiting for about a minute, someone ventured to say, “They told us to drink water?” I tried very hard not to cringe this entire time.

I’ve had a number of people ask me what Norwegians generally think about this tradition, and the answer is that many of them don’t mind it. Many older people look back fondly on this time, while younger kids think that it is something to look forward to. One thing that gets children really excited about russ is russ business cards, a fake business card that each students makes. The typical card has a silly picture paired with an inappropriate phrase, and children go around and try and collect as many of these russ cards as they can. This is also why one of this year’s russ challenges is to run through an elementary school during recess without giving away a single card.

As for me, as a teaching assistant I’m in an ideal spot to watch all of this. I’m not responsible for how well students do on their national exams, nor am I really in a position to discipline any of my students. I’m interested to see how the next few weeks play out, and rest assured I will report if I notice anything russ related happening in class.

British Parliament

I was back at Byåsen this week and helping with my favorite British social studies class. I talked to my co-teacher Maria earlier this week and she enthusiastically told me that our students were learning more about British Parliament and how the political system works. She asked me if I’d be willing to pull small groups of students out during class and talk to them about Britain’s Parliament. This sounded like a good idea to me…until I got to some of the discussion questions she had proposed. While some of the questions were on the easier side (What is a coalition government? What are the pros and cons of Norway’s system of proportional representation? What do students think about a two party system?) some of the others stumped me (Compare and contrast the House of Commons and the House of Lords. How are laws passed?). I began to feel a bit embarrassed for a number of reasons:

  1. I’m British on my dad’s side so I should in fact know how the British government works
  2. I did my undergrad on British history

In my defense, I never actually learned very much about the structure of the British political system when doing my undergraduate degree. I’m much more competent when it comes to talking about the rise and fall of political parties or certain noteworthy prime ministers than I am at actually talking about how these people and political parties passed laws.

Anyways, it was clear that I need to bulk up on my knowledge of British politics and clear away some of my ignorance. I duly set to work and played “God Save the Queen” in the background to make me feel slightly better about myself (this also means that I now know some of the lyrics beyond “God save the Queen”). So, here are the more important bits of what I learned:

What is the House of Commons?

The House of Commons is the lower house of Parliament and consists of 650 elected members, or Members of Parliament (MPs). Each constituency in the UK is allowed to have one MP and each MP wins their election by having the most votes, not by having the majority of the vote. So an MP could win with say 25% of the vote as long as the MP still had more votes than any other candidate. This voting system is known as first past the post.

What is the House of Lords?

The House of Lords currently has 760 members and is composed of hereditary members, archbishops and bishops, and life peers. The House of Lords Act 1999 ended the right of most hereditary members to sit in the House of Lords and there are currently only 92 hereditary members. Archbishops and bishops are senior members of the Church of England, and then there are life peers. Life peers represent the majority of the House of Lords at around 700 members. Life peers are, as the title implies, people who are elected to the House of Lords for life. They are nominated to the House of Lords and are oftentimes experts in their fields. The reason why so many of the current members are experts is so that its members can contribute relevant information on the topics being debated and discussed. The modern day concept of the House of Lords is that it should act as an independent advisory body of government. The composition of the House of Lords is also supposed to keep it less political. There are a significant number of peers who do not support a political party.

How are laws made?

If you prefer the written version of the video essentially what happens is this:

  1. A proposal for a law, or a green paper, is published.
  2. The green paper is open for discussion and consultation from interested parties and groups.
  3. A white paper is published which puts together the feedback that the green paper has received and gives a better outline of a proposed law or policy.
  4. Cabinet ministers vote on whether or not the proposal should continue.
  5. The bill is presented to one of the Houses of Parliament.
  6. If the bill is looked upon favorably, a committee of knowledgeable members is formed to read through the bill line by line and edit the bill. It then goes through several stages of debate and editing.
  7. Once the bill is approved it goes to the other House of Parliament where the same process is repeated (introduced, discussed and debated, looked at in detail, potentially amended, voted upon).
  8. The bill goes back and forth between the two Houses until both Houses agree upon the final language of the bill.
  9. If the Houses are unable to come to an agreement, the House of Commons can still pass the bill without the House of Lords. Usually both Houses come to an agreement.
  10. The monarch gives royal assent and the bill officially becomes a law.

So, having beefed up my knowledge with the help of Parliament’s website, YouTube, and Google I strode into class on Thursday confident that I would be able to actually have an intelligent discussion about Britain’s political system.

I spent about half of my time asking my students if they could explain how Britain’s Parliament worked, and then had a more informal discussion after that. Here are the questions I asked my groups and their most common responses:

What are your thoughts on the House of Lords?

Most of my students were not huge fans of the House of Lords. They preferred the House of Commons because its members were democratically elected. Even for the students that did like the modern idea of the House of Lords, those students still disliked the hereditary peers and peers from the Church of England.

What political party would you be a member of/vote for?

Most of my students said that they would be Liberal Democrats, thinking that it offered the best of the Conservatives and the Labour Party. I did have one brave student who said that he would probably be a member of the Pirate Party, so kudos to him. Yes, the Pirate Party is a real thing.

Most of my students dislike the fact that there are only three major political parties in the UK. In Norway, the number of sizable political parties is closer to eight, thus many different parties have seats in Parliament.

Would you prefer to vote for a political party or for an individual?

I realize that this may seem like a silly question, but in Norway people vote for a political party as opposed to a particular politician. Many of my students prefer this system, thinking that the party has better knowledge as to who would make the best MPs. They also thought that systems in which you vote for a particular individual are more likely to allow for that individual to abuse their power or break their campaign promises.

Why do you think more people vote in Norway as opposed to places like the UK and the US?

I got a variety of answers to this question but there were four answers that I got repeatedly

  1. Norway is a small country; therefore, people feel as though their vote matters much more.
  2. Norway is a small country; therefore, people are more likely to actually know or be acquainted with their MP and are thus more invested in politics and voting.
  3. Norway’s system of proportional representation encourages voting. Essentially, the number of votes each party gets determines the number of seats each party has in Parliament, thus people feel as though their vote actually matters.
  4. There are more political parties to choose from; therefore, it is easier to find a political party that you agree or identify with

I personally had a lot of fun on Thursday and really enjoyed the lesson and getting to learn a bit more about both British and Norwegian politics. Looking forward to the next class!