Saturday 30 April 2011

Teaching Visit to Groningen University

I have just spent a working week at the University of Groningen on a teaching, monitoring and evaluating visit. Groningen is a delightful town and the weather was uncharacteristically warm and sunny. Mind you, the best weather in the Netherlands tends to be in May and we’re not actually that far off May now.
I felt at home there. I’ve lived in the Netherlands in the past – two years just outside Amsterdam. The British and the Dutch share a love of pomp and circumstance and a sense of humour. I’m glad, however, that the Dutch do not share a habit far too prominent in the UK – that of binge-drinking. I was pleased to see my Dutch come back quite quickly. The hundreds of bikes came as no surprise. Bikes are all but holy in the Netherlands.
There can be an accommodation problem for students in Groningen. Local by-laws prevent too many student properties being created. There are no real halls of residence though there is an accommodation office that is independent of the university and which is reliable. I thought it might be best for my students to aim for the first semester, therefore, but no, I was told, the second one might be better: some students will have dropped out by then. But getting everything sorted out early is always a good option.
The students dominate the town – even in non-teaching weeks because as most of them live in private accommodation, they have to pay rent all year round and probably also have to work to support themselves. There is an odd culture of taking four years to complete what is supposed to be a three year degree, which university regulations allow. This all adds up to even more bikes than in a normal Dutch city centre and goodness, doesn’t Groningen get a boost to its economy. Pedestrians beware, however!
It must be a charming place to study. The Arts building are in the middle of this historic town. This is such a contrast to Salford and the A6. The university buildings are not all that old, but they have a sense of integrity and blend well with the older architecture. And, as a percentage of building costs in every new building in the Netherlands must be spent on art, the new buildings have their pieces of sculpture. The owls on the Harmonie building are an example of this. “The twelve golden owls in the tympanum are a mark of honour to the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. She symbolizes the Faculty of Arts. Pallas Athena is attributed with the characteristics understanding, courage, beauty and loyalty. She was worshipped as the goddess of wisdom, of war and peace and of the fine arts. The goddess is often represented by an owl. Homer even gave her the epithet ‘owl-eyed’. In Roman times Pallas Athena was equated with the goddess Minerva, the patroness of the fine arts.”
Whilst there, I gave two Creative Writing seminars – one on building characters and the other on shaping story. I also talked to Masters students about the state of publishing today and looked at some of the issues to do with digital publishing. I think all three talks were well received.
They don’t really teach Creative Writing at Groningen. Few universities on mainland Europe do and even where they do, it’s actually quite difficult to get information about them. Many students and faculty members do nevertheless write, – often in English. I did have a very mixed audience.
There is some welcome academic rigour at the university. 80% attendance is expected and even illness is not always tolerated. However, there is no PMC system like our own. The colleague I visited had sole discretion about individual cases and other tutors would know about certain students and refer them on. English proficiency 4 is very similar to our Wordscope, with an emphasis on producing well-structured language. We smut remember that for Groningen students, English is a foreign language – although most Dutch people do speak English very well. Certainly, their courses would suit our literature, language and linguistics students.
Much was familiar: I watched my colleagues chasing students who had not completed assignments, making allowances for those who had a disability statement, and worrying about cut-backs. One of the rooms I was in was double-booked.
Yet there were differences, too. Students pay a lot less in fees: €1700. Until this year, mature students had to pay a massive €7000. There is the 80% rule. There is no internal moderation or external examining, though this does not prevent a high expectation. They are facing cut-backs but not as severe as ours. Only full professors may wear robes. Both similarities and differences are sometimes, though, just between two different universities and sometimes between two systems. Either way there is much we can learn from each other – which after all is the main point of an exchange. One idea that intrigued me was the week long, 10-ECTS-credit-bearing course on Shakespeare – a residential course in Stratford – with a 3000 word essay as an outcome. A concept to be thought about.
A highlight had to be seeing the beginning of a Ph D defence. The viva takes place in a hall full of family and friends, other academics, and the Ph D committee. It is extremely rare to fail at this point – you would have to crumble to the floor in a pool of jelly – but you may be promoted to “cum laude” if your defence sparkles. And there we go again – pomp and circumstance, with the committee and the examiners(s) processing in an out of the hall- twice! Here are a couple of descriptions: and
It was a great trip. I learnt a lot. And if someone told me I had to go and work there, I would not be a bit put out.

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