Merel van der Wal portrait2
Merel van der Wal portrait2

Column Merel van der Wal: Are we what we say we are?

Recently, I found myself in a conversation about teaching. Instructing. Lecturing. You know, in a classroom, a lecture hall, in the educational space. And so that's what the conversation was about, because what words do we use when we talk about it?   

During a presentation, the Dutch ‘lesgeven’ (‘teaching a lesson’) and 'in the classroom' were used repeatedly. By itself, it’s not a problem in terms of general principles, but it was raised in the discussion since it was specifically about our academic context. The audience at that meeting was a collection of colleagues from all our faculties. Some had not even noticed it, others had no immediate reaction to it, and some noticed it because it deviated from their everyday language in our context. It turned out: there is a lot of variation in (preferences for) our language use. As a result of that conversation, I went on a journey of self-examination. 

In conversations, I notice that I adapt terminology to the crowd. Within our Radboud environment, I talk about lecturer, education, lecture and preparation. It doesn't even occur to me to call students pupils or talk about homework. As soon as I talk with colleagues from secondary education, teaching is a shared and recognizable term and we talk about teachers. With a colleague from primary education, we talk about teachers or teachers who teach children or pupils.    

But then, compulsory education is over, that high school diploma is in their pocket (congratulations to everyone who got that news recently. You can set new goals for yourself again!) and you get to work or study. I, in my role as a lecturer to first-year students at university, look forward to the arrival of a new cohort of students. I hope they have all thought carefully about new goals, what they want to learn and that they will come to us from that space. We offer them a program with content that leads to those expectations, goals and ambitions (at least, that's what we expect). That may not always be fun or interesting, I get that too. And that's not a bad thing, because in that case I also see it as my job. That by introducing students to my field, they can find out why they don't find something interesting.   

Ultimately, a student has more influence on the outcomes than I do as a lecturer. By choosing to participate in our program, we, or at least I, assume that the student likes to be challenged to study and reflect on this field. In addition, or perhaps even because of this, we expect a certain amount of our own input and effort. Not because we know that choice and autonomy leads to motivation, but because much of the education in terms of case or method is open to own choices so that it suits the student well. Ultimately, our goal is for students to come up with insights and views based on the material provided (and perhaps more than that), allowing us to have a collegial conversation. 

For me, that's where the connotation of the word choice comes in. We offer a course, with all kinds of opportunities for deepening. We can only encourage people to follow it and look for insights, not force them to do so. Through word choice, among other things, I try to emphasize these responsibilities and thus the role of student and lecturer. I also understand that it takes some time to relate to this when you just start as a student, with all the associated new things in that phase.   

I look forward to it again, the fresh start in September. Lecture halls with uncomfortable, prepared or unprepared students, searching for the right room. Searching for what exactly that means then, being a student and studying. And I go in search of what has driven these students to enroll at Radboud University, what they want to get out of it and what they find interesting. During lectures and tutorials, of which hopefully in a few years they will say, 'I understand why we did that'. Maybe I will see some of those students again during their thesis, where we can then have a nuanced and informed conversation about our field.   

Do you find it a problem when students talk about 'school' when they mean university? What words do you prefer when talking about education? What do those words mean to you and how you view our education? 


Contact information

Want to respond to the column? Then send Merel an email: %20merel.vanderwal [at] (merel[dot]vanderwal[at]ru[dot]nl)