‘Awesome!’ The last word of a long thank-you email from a student. Heartwarming, all the love letters for our work over the past year. In departmental WhatsApp groups and on Twitter, I’ve seen all forms of expressions of appreciation for teachers – handwritten letters, drawings, videos. The solidarity was palpable. The recognition of our commitment helps fire up the energy to keep going in the new year.
Switching to 100 per cent online education sure did require an excess of energy. Creating digital alternatives to practicals and field trips, recording lectures, arranging new internships for students who were supposed to go abroad… The urgency of these sudden changes brought stress, but also gave freedom. We could let go of the administrative micro-management for a bit. The focus lay squarely on the primary task: collaboratively providing good education.
Normally, I run practicals on ecological analyses in a computer room, where I can easily tell how students are doing based on their body language. In the digital academic universe, you are blind. In Brightspace, all you see is lists of names. No faces, no expressions. So we decided to do the computer practicals on the gaming platform Discord. Gamers don’t tolerate friction, they switch between groups readily, and it’s all about smooth interaction. During a course I try, at least once, to talk to every student one-to-one. When I see them on the screen, a name on a list suddenly becomes a person with particular academic interests, worries and ideas.
‘I check my emails. A series of corrective administrative messages’
After yet another intense long day with overtime, I am tired but satisfied with what the students are learning. I quickly check my emails. A series of corrective administrative messages, most of them automated. ‘You have listed too many hours in myprojects’, ‘Expense claims rejected due to digital signature’. Suddenly I feel like a name on a list.
How do you keep creative scientists in academia? Not with bureaucratic chains. At the university, we can’t compete with the business world in monetary terms, but we can attract people with academic ideals such as intellectual freedom and scope for curiosity.
Fortunately, WUR recognizes the problem and aims to reduce the administrative workload. My advice for any reform committee: assume trust and solidarity. You’ll get some awesomeness in return.
Lisa Becking is an assistant professor at the Marine Animal Ecology Group, a researcher at Wageningen Marine Research and a board member of the national Young Academy, part under the auspices of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences. She has an eye for art above and below sea level.