Wild-eyed and crazy-haired

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht

In the library, you can always tell the undergrads and PhD students apart. Undergrads have a neat stack of prescribed textbooks and pretty coloured highlighters, diligently taking notes from the assigned chapters for some well-defined assignment. PhD students, meanwhile, tend to be buried under a pile of obscure books in vastly different fields, desperately seeking some dubious link between, say, the present economic crisis and Spartan military history, French thinking of the Enlightenment or 18th century romantic poetry. Or they have no books at all, and just sit, wild-eyed and crazy-haired, staring manically into space as though the answers are out there, somewhere. There is hope, though. As my supervisor likes to say, after four years, you’ll definitely, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, understand the question a lot better. The answer, of course, is something else entirely.

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Is this seat taken?

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht

Giving a presentation is not the scariest part of an academic conference. Far more frightening is deciding where to sit at the conference banquet. Either you want to climb the professional ladder by manoeuvring yourself next to the keynote speakers, or – if you can’t navigate a plate of wonton noodles with chopsticks (because ‘conference dinner’ is inevitably synonymous with ‘Chinese banquet’) while maintaining intelligent conversation – you want to avoid them like the plague. At my first ever conference I landed unwittingly next to the keynote speaker, his name tag hidden unluckily beneath his tie. I babbled on happily for an hour about penguins (my favourite animal) and three-ring binders (my favourite paper-storage solution) before asking if he were presenting that week. To which he replied, “Actually I’m giving the plenary tomorrow”, and I crawled under the table to die.

“Krom Engels” ain’t so bad

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht

“It’s time to face the truth and stop this strange English”, wrote Rik Smits, a Dutch linguist and publicist, in last week’s Volkskrant. English in the Netherlands is “onverstaanbaar Dutchglish”, he says, and Dutch universities would better serve foreign students with good Dutch rather than cruddy English. What Smits doesn’t mention is the worldwide trend of students consciously opting for countries where English is not the native but a strong second language (the Philippines for south-east Asians, or Holland for other Europeans). This is due not just to cheaper tuition fees than in the UK and US, as Smits claims, but also to an English variety that is easier than in, say, Birmingham or Baltimore. Indeed, the English used here is not native – but perhaps this should be embraced as a draw card in its own right.