Simon Tans

Column Simon Tans: Anonymous sabotage

This semester, I get to teach another series of lectures for first-year law students. And for me, for the first time for this particular subject, that means full lecture halls. Indeed, last year those halls were still empty, despite the fact that covid restrictions no longer applied. In 2021, I gave these lectures entirely online because of the last lockdown.

Too bad, because otherwise these lectures would have taken place in concert hall De Vereeniging. This was the solution for our faculty to allow large numbers of first-year law students to attend lectures despite the one-and-a-half-metre distance rule. Given my total lack of any other talent, I will undoubtedly never get the chance to perform in such a venue again.

But not to worry, the large lecture halls in the Grotius building and CC1 are also very nice, and hundreds of students listening intently to your stories about Frans Timmermans shaving his beard remains magical, regardless of the hall in which it happens. Since the 'empty halls affair', I have been constantly asking myself: what can I do to give these kinds of mass lectures a function? By that I mean, how can I organise the lecture in such a way that the presence of so many students is not only efficient in terms of the time investment of the lecturer team, but also actually adds value for the students. Two answers to that question I already have. First, live entertainment for a large audience is a greater experience for the audience than for a small audience. The murmurs, mass laughter, crying all together over the loss of Great Britain, you know what it is like to experience mass emotion. Secondly, a college with hundreds of students is a valuable experience for students. It gives an idea of the size of your year, and it creates a group feeling. 'Were you there when 'he stood on one leg with those scissors between his teeth explaining how he couldn't style that beard online?' 'Yes, I was there too, so fat!'  

For me, using Mentimeter is crucial for the third added value for students, interaction with the whole room. Asking a question that allows you to adjust the structure of a lecture, or as a way of being able to explain to the room how everyone views a particular topic, and then being able to project the answers of hundreds of students in seconds, it is a very effective tool in teaching. I also use all the question variants in this, the safe multiple choice, but also the word cloud and other open-ended questions. And that means students have been given a powerful weapon that can also be misused.  

For instance, this year, in the middle of the word cloud, a certain swear word based on a disease appeared quite large. A coordinated action, because in a word cloud, whatever is mentioned the most is pictured the biggest. In other open questions, a curse word also appeared, and a desire to copulate with one of my relatives.

Of course, five hundred answers, and ninety-nine per cent of them are positive or substantive. But that one per cent. That one somehow weighs more heavily. The audience focuses on that with a chuckle, and I often find it harder to let go afterwards. Not rationally, it's obviously not personal, yet I'm sitting here writing a column about it now. It's like that single series of ones, in that wonderful mass of fours and fives.

During this lecture, I did not say a word about it. And in later lectures too, I ignored this kind of flippancy. However, I did speak to my father about it afterwards, and asked him how he would deal with this. The answer was the following anecdote. 

For years, my father gave coaching trainings to police officers. Now, the police world is not exactly a world where a soft way of communicating is the standard, and taking a quiet look at one's own behaviour with a group is not obvious for this target group either. Thus, some participants in these training sessions often showed a certain resistance beforehand. With one participant, this resistance was apparently so great beforehand that he appeared from the first lesson wearing a turban on his head in a kaftan and pontifically leaning back in the chair with his legs spread very wide. This, of course, to the great hilarity of the rest of the group. Obviously, there was no religious conviction behind this choice. My father did not say a word about it.  

The training lasted three months, and at meetings two and three too, the kaftan turban outfit was brought out. Again, no attention was paid to it at all. After this third lesson, it had become clear that the contents of the training itself did interest the participants, and kaftan turban man began to feel embarrassed. The outfit disappeared without a single word about it.  

I find that this works in my lectures too. No focus on bored negativity. As the series goes on, the hall and I get used to each other. The joke was funny for a while, or not, and meanwhile students' contributions via Mentimeter are only substantive. I am pretty sure this would have been very different if I had made a point of indecent responses during the lecture. Such a decency battle with a room of hundreds of anonymous adolescents? Bad idea.  

There is, of course, a lower limit. It has thankfully not happened to me, but what if someone hurls a gross insult on the screen directed at a recognisable fellow student in the hall? Or starts posting discriminatory texts, like recently on the Anne Frank House and the Erasmus Bridge? I fear that, as a lecturer, you will have to take action. Shut down the lecture, and indicate in a calm tone that there are limits. A good moment to let go of the linear lesson and be able to pay attention to that other valuable lesson. That Twitter shouldn't be a toilet bowl.

Contact information

Do you have ideas, suggestions, questions, or have you experienced anonymous mischief yourself? I would love to hear about it! Do you want to know what the deal is with the beard? Please attend my lectures next year, you are always welcome. Send me an email at simon.tans [at]