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the important stuff

September 7, 2021

This week, teaching begins again. My colleagues and I all seem to be running on a mixture of enthusiasm about teaching in person again, and concerns that, against the advice they were given, the Dutch government have chosen to open up higher education completely: no masks mandate, no vaccination, no distancing required. Our universities have more or less taken these guidelines over, and left it up to departments and individual teachers and students to create a safe(-feeling) learning environment. I still don’t know how to represent these decisions to the students.

In what feels like an almost untold luxury, I got a full 90 minutes to get acquainted with the group of first-year students to whom I am tutor. After last year, it seems both normal and surreal at the same time. Last year, we first-year tutors had 45 minutes to introduce ourselves to our tutor group, and pass on some basic information, which I was pretty sure they were not going to retain. So I tried to distill what I really wanted students to know about their time at the university into something compact and, ideally, memorable, because what I wanted to say are things that are not really written anywhere. Most of the other information I was meant to impart was just that: information that they could find for themselves online. As I was telling them this, I realised that I wanted them to take this as a deal. It is what the university, and their degree course, should be for them. and if it isn’t, then there is a problem we need to solve.

I will say now that starting the year by stating this is as much – if not more – a reminder for myself as it is for the students. This was the mission and set of priorities that kept me going last year. I also happened to be blessed with an amazing group of funny, engaged, curious, forgiving, caring, and resilient first-year students to tutor. I’m pretty sure that when I am 80, I will still talk about the first-year Taal en Cultuurstudies students of 2020-21.

So, in the spirit of trying to learn the lessons of this last gruelling year and take them forward: this is it. This is what I want students to remember:

1. We are interested in you (yes, you)

I mean this both in the sense of invested in you (we have committed time, effort and care to you), but also curious about who you are. Combining these two senses means, quite frankly that your background, experience, interests, quirks, desires, and well-being matter. We are glad you are here.

We believe that your unique (and shared) experiences enrich our degree course and the university as a whole

We want and expect to learn from you, too. I do, every year.

2. We want you to learn

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have Caroline Nevejan agree to come and guest lecture to my class, and she talked to them among other things about motivation, and asked them if they could guess what university teachers said motivates them. Neither they nor I could, but she pointed to a (then) recent study that showed it was students learning. And its true: there is nothing that gives us more joy in our jobs than being part of the learning process with you.

We neither want nor expect you to learn alone. Study after study has shown that students learn better with and from each other. Seek each other out. Collaborate (though please give credit where it is due). Academia is a collaborative effort; learning at a university should be, too.

We don’t just want or expect you to learn the course material. Some days you will have other shit happening. The world happens to be on fire. Your relationships will be buidling up, and sometimes breaking down. On those days, you have something else to learn. Give yourself the time and mental space to learn those lessons, too.

Learning is not the same thing as getting (good) grades or passing classes. To the extent that these will help you on your way, I hope your marks will reflect your abilities and achievements, but otherwise, I don’t care. I can say with some assurance every last one of your teachers here fucking hates marks and marking, or at the very least see them – alongside university bureaucracy – as the least interesting part of the job. We’re in this amazing and wonderful process of sharing knowledge and seeing you grow, and we have to stop and put a goddamn number on it. We hope that our assignments will allow us to assess how you’ve learned, and show you how to learn more or better. It doesn’t always work (that’s another reason why some of us hate marking: it’s being confronted with our own mistakes and shortcomings). With reference to point 1 above: remember that when we put a mark on an assignment, we are marking the assignment not you.

3. We want you to be well

We mean this both mentally and physically. We are in the middle of a situration where we are asked to balance your physical health – in this case exposure to a potentially very harmful infectious disease – with your mental health, and the feelings of exhaustion and isolation that come with online teaching. While this is extreme (and unpleasant) this is the kind of balancing act that you will often be performing as a student. You are at an age where you are developing rapidly and pushing and re-setting your limits. It’s our job and our desire to challenge you intellectually (see point 2), but nobody wants to break you. Pushing your limits is expected, but recognizing them when you hit them is also a necessary art. It is absolutely OK to stop at your limits.

We want you to feel safe and that you belong here at the university, and this means also feeling free to take steps to make you feel safe and welcome. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you need more distance, take it. This also means caring for each other and being supportive of each other’s needs. It is absolutely OK to set your boundaries and expect to have them respected.

Above all, please keep in contact. If you even hesitate to be in contact, please remind yourself of all of the above, and reach out.

Post-script: as it turns out, the presentation hardware in the classroom failed, so I ended up giving my whole talk using a white board and markers. Rather than take this as a harbinger of things to come, I take solace from the fact that a few years ago, I might have panicked, but the selective acceptance of crapness that we have learned this year almost made it fun. I will be curious whether this will make it easier or harder to remember for students.

Post-post-script: This entry has grown and changed since I published it. Most of mine do, especially, once I start noticing the typos, but also because, well, thinking about a topic doesn’t stop with publication. Just like learning doesn’t stop when assignments are handed in or grades are given.

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