Interview with Dr Tina Harris: ‘I speak in English and he speaks in Dutch’

In this series I interview people about their views on and experiences with language(s) in Dutch higher education. Click here for more.

Tina Harris (USA) is an anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam. She co-teaches an undergraduate course with another lecturer in a combination of English and Dutch.

‘The course I co-teach with a Dutch lecturer is called Historisch-Comparatieve Sociologie, which is a bit odd, because first, it’s an anthropology course, and second, there is no adequate English-language equivalent for the course title. It’s a second-year bachelor course in a Dutch-language anthropology programme. Staff can teach in English in the second year and beyond (sometimes in the third year we get international study abroad students), but our department is hoping to switch to a more comprehensive dual-language programme later.

‘The students work on understanding key concepts and ideas in four books which deal with themes like ‘the state,’ nationalism, and capitalism – all through ethnography or comparative case studies. I co-lecture with a colleague who conducts all his lectures in Dutch, and I do all of my lectures in English. Sometimes we teach together, and I speak in English and he speaks in Dutch. The students ask questions either in Dutch or English, and he answers in Dutch and I answer in English. I can read and understand Dutch, but sometimes when I miss one word, my comprehension totally crumbles. My speaking ability is passable but not great.

‘We have hoorcolleges and werkgroepen. We have one group that is a designated English-language group, and I teach that one; everything is in English, but the examples I provide are sometimes from the Netherlands. There’s another working group I teach in English but accept assignments in Dutch. So basically I read assignments and exams in Dutch, which takes me a long time, and I comment on them in English. This arrangement must read as if it is totally chaotic, but in practice, it works fairly smoothly. It’s set up this way mainly because I can’t lecture in Dutch (it will take many more years). But all of our course literature is in English, so perhaps this isn’t such an odd arrangement, especially since I co-lecture with a native Dutch speaker. This particular colleague and I work well as a team, so after a few years, the course has become a well-oiled machine.

‘There are times when the dual-language arrangement hinders my teaching performance. For instance, if we have a guest lecturer who lectures in Dutch, I sometimes can’t quite grasp everything and I feel a bit isolated and left out. I have to do extra work during a guest lecture (I always have the Van Dale app open in front of me) to make sure I can answer any questions that come up later on. One of the things that terrifies me is when I am facing a class of 150 students and I am asked a complicated question in Dutch. I try my best to answer it (in English), but sometimes I just don’t get the nuances of the language and misinterpret what they say. In addition, correcting and commenting on Dutch papers and exams takes SO SO SO long for me. I wish I had extra time for it, or a teaching assistant, or something else that would help me stay on top of things. I can get the argument, the ideas, and the content of the papers, but I cannot confidently comment on grammar or style. Then I feel like such a bother asking a colleague to help me out or provide a second opinion. We’re all pretty overworked, so sometimes I feel like the students are not getting the feedback they need if I have to rush through all these assignments and papers.

‘The same goes for English in a different way; because it is not (most of) my students’ native language, I am not as strict about grammar and style as I would be for native speakers. I do my best to point out recurring issues, but I prioritize building up confidence in writing and presenting in English instead. I often say that I care about ideas and content more than grammar … and it tends to ease a bit of the panic that some students have, especially if this is the first course they have ever taken in English. One of the most rewarding aspects of this course is witnessing the improvement in written and spoken academic English for some of the students who were a bit less confident in their abilities at the beginning of the course. It’s only a 12-week course, but when I compare the first assignments to their final assignments, it is clear they are much better at clearly and confidently formulating a complex argument in English.

‘There are different kinds of pros and cons about the development towards English-taught programmes at every layer of higher education and society, and these must be dealt with both separately and as a whole. For example, they can create ‘transferable skills’ (e.g. being able to give confident presentations or write policy reports in English), but these may only be useful in certain kinds of markets in the Netherlands and beyond.

‘When we were first discussing the use of English in Dutch higher education, I remember being a bit defensive against some of the negative newspaper articles, thinking, “these responses are so conservative, nationalist, and inward-looking.” At the time, I was struggling to fit in at a university where you have to understand Dutch in order to sit in on most committees and bureaucratic reports (and therefore move up in your career). I felt like on the one hand, there was a lot of rhetoric about bringing in more English-language education and more international staff, but on the other hand, this was done with little support for helping non-Dutch speakers understand how the university is run, or for adequate extra time for Dutch lessons. I still feel this to some extent.

‘And then I began to talk to other staff members and soon began to realize that I had to shift my thinking a bit. It is not a battle between Dutch and English. It is entirely possible to use both; to have both languages (and the social understandings that come with them) enrich each other. While we haven’t implemented anything yet, if we were to run a dual-language bachelor, we were thinking of adding some sort of mini hands-on fieldwork component to our first-year course. This could take the form of international and Dutch students in small groups having to work collaboratively on a project or assignment on some aspect that would introduce (or in the case of Dutch students, rethink) the complexities of Dutch society. In doing this, the irony is that we are actually reintroducing course material on the anthropology of the Netherlands which we used to have years ago.’


2 thoughts on “Interview with Dr Tina Harris: ‘I speak in English and he speaks in Dutch’

    1. I know right?! I hope to go an observe one soon. I’ve had the please of observing Tina in one of her tutorials, but the mixed Dutch/English lectures would be something else …


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