From where I sit - Few Dutch treats in globalisation

September 8, 2011

When it came at us from the margins, it caught most of us lecturers in the political science department on our blind side. The first stage of the Anglo-Saxon takeover appeared innocent enough: some years ago, the University of Amsterdam appointed an employee who spoke excellent Dutch - with an unmistakably American accent - who was charged with attracting international students to study humanities and social sciences courses at the institution.

Surprisingly, many were eager to come. This doubtless had something to do with Amsterdam's fame as a "free" city of sex and drugs where it was possible to hang out with friends in coffee shops within walking distance of the university library.

So far, so good. But what quickly became clear was that those international students were generally not from Kabul or Kinshasa, but New York, Toronto and Sydney. And few of them understood Dutch.

After fruitless attempts to squeeze the overseas students into regular classes taught in the local language, lecturers were encouraged to teach in English. And actually it was fun, until one day the buzzword "internationalisation" seemed to take over, and with it came the rumour that ideally we should give all of our courses in English.

This elicited some angry responses. What about our beautiful Dutch language? Was it really sensible to force unhappy Dutch lecturers who spoke English badly to discuss difficult subject matter with equally unhappy Dutch students - all because there might be one international student in the class?

Not all Dutch-language classes have disappeared. However, the new discourse created a type of lecturer who, to use the jargon, performs in a global market of knowledge consumers.

Of course there is nothing wrong with globalisation, but where and when does globalisation turn into cultural imperialism?

Look what happened during stage two of the takeover (and this time everyone woke up).

In the feverish pursuit of "academic excellence", with its hunger for ever-higher rankings and its publish-or-perish policy, Dutch-written scholarly articles and books went down the drain, counting for little against the much higher-valued "international peer-reviewed articles" (ie, in English).

This may not be a problem if your field is engineering, but it certainly is if you want to publish about something culturally "Dutch". Whereas from an Anglo-Saxon perspective the political history of New England is assumed to be History with a capital h, the history of the Dutch province of Groningen - or even the Netherlands - is at best "local history". So we have to sell our "local" product to a world market with hidden Anglo-centrist biases, and there's a good chance that Dutch culture will end up being sent into exile.

The final stage of the process has now set in.

If you offer courses for an international market, why not recruit lecturers from an international market as well? Increasingly the colleagues I work with are of Anglo-Saxon origin or Dutch academics who have been educated abroad.

Now Dutch scholars no longer compete with the best from their own small country, but with the best from the rest of the world. And those Anglo-Saxons always have more of these damned international peer-reviewed articles in "excellent" journals!

Recently, however, the European empire has struck back. Long live the new-born journals about, yes, "local" European topics...in English, of course.

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