‘A university is as rich as its student population’

Professor Berteke Waaldijk, foto Ivar Pel

“It’s important to me that teachers dare to acknowledge the differences between students in a classroom,” Berteke Waaldijk says. “One research intern of mine used the term credibility. Students need to feel that they’ve got some credit with the teacher. That means not having their input dismissed immediately as being wrong, or not good enough, if it doesn’t fit with the way of asking and answering questions that we’re used to at our university.”

If more teachers were to work in this way, that could contribute to having more diverse groups of students in the classrooms, says Waaldijk, a historian who has specialized in gender studies. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Utrecht University is a white university.”

Waaldijk mostly sees students of whom the parents also went to college. She says this could lead to an atmosphere in which students with a different background don’t feel at home. “The most crucial thing is to have a learning environment in which people of different backgrounds, with different questions and different opinions, all feel at home, and all talk to each other.”

And that’s not how things are now?
Often it’s a kind of reluctance or shyness to act among teachers. They don’t start difficult talks about differences, because they don’t know how to do so. Or they’ll make the mistake of asking individual students to contribute to a discussion from the perspective of their ‘otherness’ – meaning they’re only addressed due to the way they look. That’s what I call outsourcing diversity.”

How can teachers improve?
“Teachers could create assignments in which the experiences and input of all students is utilized. Ask about experiences with migration in any student’s family. Some may say: we don’t have any in our family. But after two classes on colonial and labor migration, everyone has a story: ‘my grandma went from Limburg to Rotterdam to work as a maid, is that migration too?’ That’s different from just asking a student with darker skin what it’s like to be an immigrant in the Netherlands.”

How do your colleagues react to this story?
“For a teacher, it’s often easier to base your story on the course material: what are the students supposed to learn? If your starting point is your students’ input, the class may start in a more chaotic way. That can definitely be tricky. And talking about differences between students isn’t simple in the slightest. It includes things like being aware of the language you use. What do you do when students ask you not to use the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘his’ and ‘her’?

“Teachers often justifiably struggle when someone else starts to interfere with the way they teach or the way they communicate. On the topic of diversity, this interference feels as if it’s a personal reproach. ‘Do you think I’m racist or sexist?’ they’ll exclaim. But I’d say: let’s look at language as a professional thing. A university should take the responsibility of using decent language to talk about differences, inequality and privileges.”

What do students think about discussions on differences among themselves? They may be more interested in what their teacher has to say than in opinions and experiences of fellow students…
“Those who are only interested in a teacher’s knowledge, can watch unlimited Ted Talks on YouTube. University can make a difference by facilitating real meetings, between people who are trying to understand each other and want to be convinced by their arguments. I think students are in fact eager to experience true connections with each other and with teachers. They want a university that’s alive. And there’s much left to achieve in that area.”

“Only students who feel at home in a classroom will dare to speak their mind. That’s why a teacher should be worried when, for example, male students speak up significantly more than female students. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, and someone doesn’t feel blindsided at all, but if someone doesn’t speak throughout ten classes, you should ask yourself whether students in this group have learned to communicate critically. Because that’s what we want, isn’t it: educating creative, critical minds.

“That doesn’t mean you should address female students who remain quiet as women, specifically. That’s not a wise course of action. Think of educational tools in which everyone gets the chance, and the task, to express themselves orally. It’s part of your professional responsibility as a teacher to know that men and women sometimes express themselves differently.”

You’ve said that the teaching staff should become more diverse, and that that means thoroughly examining the recruitment policy for teachers.
“Selection committees should be going after a varied composition of our teaching staff. I’d say quotas could fit in a policy like that, but it should at least include diverse selection committees and explicit goals.”

But shouldn’t the UU just hire the best teachers, no matter what race, sex, or country of origin?
“The winner of the Erasmus prize, sociologist Michèle Lamont, warns against one-dimensional criteria for quality. A university needs many different kinds of qualities, which might not all be combined in one person: conducting high quality research, governing, inspiring freshmen, etcetera. If you make the criteria for ‘best teacher or researcher’ too narrow, there’s a chance you’re excluding people who might be extremely valuable to a good university. I completely agree with this view. It’s incredibly important to provide space for other voices, and new perspectives.”

In how much is the growing attention to diversity within the university a fad of political correctness? Whoever thinks that, will not find an ally in Waaldijk. She sees an analogy with her own discipline, which started to bloom in Utrecht in the 1980s: Gender studies. “It became a success, mostly thanks to female students who used their voices for the first time. ‘Why isn’t science about us?’ they wondered.”

“When I was a student, it was ‘unscientific’ if you were a historian talking about differences between men and women. It was not considered legitimate, academically, you’d be a feminist instead of a scientist. That’s changed completely, partly thanks to those students. A university is as rich as its student population. Research questions aren’t exclusively brought forth by books or peer-reviewed articles, but also by experiences, and the anger and joy of people who want to progress in science.” 

Berteke Waaldijk and Merel van Goch are the chairwomen of the organization of the Education Fair 2018. This year’s theme is interdisciplinarity. Waaldijk says new ‘critical’ studies and research disciplines flourish in an environment in which scientists are used to working together.

“Interdisciplinarity is an important exercise in talking about differences. Students who are doing a broad bachelor’s program, an honors program, a multidisciplinary master’s or are just choosing to take courses in other disciplines, know that one single question can be answered in multiple ways depending on what discipline is looking at the question. They see that one course of action isn’t necessarily better or worse than another, and that every perspective can be valuable. This way of thinking multiplies the perspective: because you have to immerse yourself in someone else, your own point of view, and you have to look at what your shared presuppositions are.”

“If you can put yourself in the shoes of a representative of another discipline, you may also be able to put yourself in the shoes of someone with a different position in society. If you’re a teacher who didn’t come to the Netherlands after adoption from a different continent, and you’ve never been discriminated against because of the color of your skin, it’s not something you’ll think of to research. Based on student questions, colleagues of mine took on this research project and conducted it with students.”

Students bring experiences, questions, and curiosity with them, which can lead to new research questions and new research careers. The trick is to try to imagine the curiosity of others. I hope we’ll be able to integrate this skill more and more in our academic education.”

 Translation: Indra Spronk