What Foreign Students in the Netherlands should know about Dutch professors and Dutch students. (2011)

I have been asked to tell you what it is like to study in the Netherlands, the things you should take into account, the opportunities, the challenges, the do’s and don’t,  the possible sources of unwanted deceptions and how to avoid them.

I am a sociologist, but I work in a department where I meet every day with cultural anthropologists, ethnologists. I learned a lot from them. They go to distant parts of the world, they study people living under very different social and cultural conditions. And they tell me that, yes, sometimes the people whose societies they study are so different, so strange, so exotic, that staying with them over a longer stretch of time may be a disorienting, disconcerting, alienating, sometimes even scary experience. Here you are, eating those frightening things, and everything you do seems to be wrong in one way or another and the people around you do not forgive you for being clumsy, they do not consider you an interesting stranger, they believe that you are just a kind of idiot, who does not master the simple practices that every child considers too common to pay attention to. Let me reassure you: this is not the experience you will undergo in the Netherlands.

My anthropological friends tell me that this kind of research is easy: ‘this is the  job we were trained to do’, they say. Things get complicated when you study people that appear to be at first sight just like you. A Dutch sociologist studying the French, an American anthropologist studying the Dutch, a Japanese ethnologist studying the Spanish may come to the conclusion: those guys are just like us. You can sit down with them and discuss what Jaylo does to the Lambada in her hit-song On the Floor: is it a sample, is it a hommage, is it a case of punishable plagiarism? Everybody knows exactly what they are talking about. They like their Starbucks frappucino, they love Lady Gaga, they hate Pepsi, they are just like us. But appearances may deceive you.

This summer I spent my free weeks, like so many Dutch people do, in Southern France, the Languedoc Rousillon region. In France I always have this feeling: French people are just like us, the Dutch. Fifty years ago they may have been a bit exotic, but today young French people and young Dutch people share musical preferences, dressing styles, political opinions and even culinary fashions: you can have your sushi in Amsterdam or in Perpignan. My wife is French, my family in law is French, I understand the family jokes, and let me tell you, those folks are not different from us. In my wife’s family it is not common to drink red wine, but everybody loves coca cola and the only person who wants to have breakfast with a grand crème and a croissant is the Dutch son in law. And is it any wonder? The high speed train carries you in less than four hours from Amsterdam into the heart of Paris. We have become closer to each other, because of the trains and planes, email, smartphones, twitter and facebook.

When I was in the beautiful city of Béziers, I downloaded every morning the Dutch newspaper on my iPhone and one morning interesting news from my home country appeared on the screen. There had been an incident with trouts, the beautifull river fish, la truite, die Forelle, Schubert wrote a song about those happy little animals. Some Dutch people had been giving a party during which there was a kind of contest in clubbing the living fish to death, before eating them. This was considered to be a case of serious and punishable animal torture and the police  conducted a criminal investigation. This is what I read in Béziers, where the Feria was taking place. The Spanish may have abolished bull fighting in Catalunya or in Barcelona, but in Southern France the Corrida is still the high point of the festive year. The newspapers of Béziers were filled with articles about the smart tactics and athletic performances of matadors that I have never heard of, world famous heroes in Madrid and Mexico… and Southern France. Everybody was chanting and partying and having fun and the center of all the happiness was the local arena, built in the nineteenth century for the purpose of showing operas, where some six bulls were slaughtered day after day in a way that Hemingway adored, but that I, being very Dutch, consider a form of prolonged animal torture. I spoke about this with the inhabitants of Béziers and nobody really quite understood what I was talking about. My point here is not to decry bull fights. What struck me was the fact that there is this cleavage between the French and the Dutch that becomes evident only when you begin to discuss the treatment of animals. The Dutch parliament is the only parliament in the world where there is one small political party that is defending animal rights, de dierenpartij. For me this is something to be a little bit proud of, but even my French family members cannot stop laughing when I tell them about our animal party. All of a sudden I realize that although we seem to be similar in many respects, there are also important differences and they run deep.

This is my first piece of advice to you: do not fall into the trap of believing that your Dutch professors, your Dutch fellow students, the Dutch people of the administration of UvA, your Dutch friends, are just like you. They may appear to be very similar in the beginning, but they are in many ways also very exotic, but that comes to light only later and maybe you will find out when it is too late. It is more difficult to notice the subtle differences than the evident similarities, but in some ways the differences may be more fundamental and in time may become a source of problems.

Let me give you the example of authoritarianism, the way higher ranking people and lower ranking people, like professors and students, interact. One of the most striking things in the Netherlands is that as a student you may at first receive the impression that the professors are not at all authoritarian in their attitudes, compared to French, Belgian or German professors. They are relaxed and egalitarian, like Danish or Swedish or Norwegian professors. They will easily reveal their first name to you and invite you to address them in that way, (Dutzen, tutoyer, you can call me Al). Sometimes after class they walk with the students to a nearby bar and they will continue to discuss the literature over a glass of Heineken beer. You may get the feeling that the professor is your friend and if you confront them with a personal problem, they may even be willing to give you some helpful personal advice.

But here is the difference: Dutch students understand exactly what it all means. In fact it does not mean much. Let’s imagine that your professor has given you a B+ for an important paper and you really need this A, or at least an A-minus, so after class you follow her to her office and you explain that your assignment really deserves this very important A-minus. All of a sudden the conviviality is gone. With an angry face the professor tells you that her grades are not negociable, that she is very precise and thoughtful when it comes to grading and that this is a university and not a market place where you can bargain in order to receive a better price. You’d better get used to it or else leave the university. Sorry? What has happened to your friend in the bar? She is gone, disappeared. It’s a vanishing trick. She was never your friend in the first place.

It has become my personal rule to never go to a bar with foreign students, because some of them get the wrong impression. They believe that I am their friend, when I am having drinks with them and asking them to call me Bart. The Scandinavian students know exactly what is going on, they make no mistake, but even the Belgian or German students may harbour the wrong impression. I do not say that you should not have drinks with your professor, on the contrary, it is an excellent way of networking, of weaving informal webs in the Dutch University. But do not take their informality as an indication of a kind of personal relationship. You may be in for a traumatizing disappointment.

In Dutch academic life the everyday interaction is extremely relaxed, detached, informal, casual. This is why you may receive the mistaken impression that Dutch students are lazy. Or at least they convey the impression that they never study, that they are just hanging out with their friends and listening to music all day long. But that is not true, as becomes apparent when the grades are distributed. They have been working very hard, but they kept it a secret, they did not want their fellow students to know how many hours they devoted to hard work. Do not copy what appeared to be their behavior, because they were misleading you. What is going on here, why did they do that?

In Dutch society it is considered a sign of very bad taste if you try to be better than the other guy, to stand above the crowd. In a class with twenty-five students the Germans or the Americans or the Israeli’s or the students from the Philippines are always trying to outdo each other in the group discussions, trying to appear the smartest student in the class, but the Dutch students often don’t even enter that contest. They make a show of being only mildly interested in the material, they look a bit bored at their laptops, they are not eager to engage in the group discussions. But they do pay attention. They just dislike people who in their eyes are trying to show off. That is a sign of bad taste. So they convey the impression that they do not devote much time to studying the books, writing the papers, doing the research. In general, it is my impression that Dutch students work hard, but they feel that it should not show. For foreign students this may be very misleading. You may believe that not much is expected from you as a student, because you are in the Netherlands and the students from the home country appear to be relaxed and easy going. But wait till the end of the semester when those silent Dutch and Swedish girls walk away with the A plusses that can only have been acquired by working very, very hard.

This is an element of Dutch culture with deep religious and political roots: don’t show off, don’t pretend to be better than thy neighbour. There is a deep seated memory of the common cultural heritage of Calvinism here. The psalmist tells you that he who tries to rise above his neighbour shall be humiliated, wer sichselbst erhöht, der soll erniedrigt werden, to quote from a beautiful Bach cantata. It is the fundamental sense of egalitarianism in classical protestantism that gives rise to this habitus: in the eye of God all men are equal and to pretend that you are a bit better than your fellow-man is a kind of blasphemy.

Although many Dutch people that you meet will tell you that they are not church-going christians, the protestant elements of thought can still be detected in Dutch attitudes, ways of thinking, feeling and acting. It is no accident that we are meeting today in a building that used to be a church and that tomorrow I will address another group of foreign students, again in a beautiful church.

But there is another reason for this radical egalitarianism and that is something that the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville described in his famous book about the American people, published in the first half of the nineteenth century, De la démocratie en Amérique. What he wrote about the American spirit can still be used to better understand the Dutch mentality. He says that Americans are democratic to the bone and that a sense of egalitarianism permeates American society. In a democratic society, he says, you are frowned upon when you try to distinguish yourself from the rest, when you try to reach a certain level of excellence. In a democratic society excellence in the sciences and in the arts is rarely rewarded, because it runs counter to the implicit political and cultural norm that we all are equal, that nobody is better than the next person. There is some truth to this observation, even in the Netherlands of this day and age. Things are beginning to change a bit, but still it is difficult for a Dutch student who tries to be excellent, tries to be just a little bit better than the other students. She will have to put up with a lot of criticism: she will be considered arrogant, the professor’s pet, she is superior, vain, immodest, a smart-ass, a show-off.

The combination of Calvinistic elements and cultural-political democratic elements make for a strong atmosphere of egalitarianism. Even the teachers sometimes take pride in stressing that they are not superior to the students. A very famous professor, a household name in the international scientific community, may tell you that he considers himself a student, and even not a very bright student, he is just a few years older than the other students, that’s the only difference there is, and yes, he can learn so much from his younger fellow students. This is a case of false modesty, verging on hypocrisy. He does not mean a word of it, he is very well aware of and proud of his strong international reputation, but this is the Dutch way to express it. It will take you some time to get used to it.

One of the ways in which this comes to light is when the professors have to grade the students. If they were really that humble about their own achievements, they might give their students easily an A. But that is not the case. Dutch professors tend to award B’s and even C’s when they are quite happy with the work of the student. For them a B-plus is a high grade. Asked why he never gave a student an A-plus a Dutch professor answered in the Calvinistic style: the A+ should be reserved for God. Calvinists are known to be frugal, even stingy at times, they are not exhuberant, outgoing, expressive. When a Dutch professor awards you an A-plus, you should consider that an enormous honour.

This sense of egalitarianism also leads to something else that foreign students often are very surprised about. The professors here are known to be extremely critical and sometimes even rude in the way they comment on the student’s performances. Let me give you an example. A student has to give a presentation in the classroom. The student has devoted a lot of attention to the presentation, the power points are well chosen, but the student is very nervous, the show is not flawless, there are a few errors, but generally everything seems to work out fine. When the student has uttered his last phrases and sits down with a sigh of relief, it is possible that the professor will immediately take the floor and crush the whole performance in scathing language. He may say things like: the beauty of the power points could not hide the fact that you really did not quite know what you are talking about. He may say: the great thing about this presentation is that all the other students now know exactly how they should not do this. The student sits in the corner of the room and is wondering whether he should become a waiter in a restaurant. After class, they have drinks in the nearby bar and the professor says to the student: ‘I hope you did not mind what I said, I guess I went down a bit heavy, but then again, I really liked what you did, and I loved your power points, and I could see how well you had prepared it, and it was a pity that you were a bit nervous, but I think a B+ is well deserved here, but I had to stress the errors in order to keep the standards high for the other students, who are not as clever as you are. But don’t take it personal, I like the way you do things, you are a very promising student.’ After this roller coaster ride the student may be completely dizzy. But it is true: the professor was not dissatisfied with the presentation and the student should not take it personal, it was not meant to be a personal attack at all. Dutch students know this, foreign student may be bewildered.

We, the Dutch, can be pretty rude, we like to criticize, we love the polemical tone of voice and we are rarely inclined to give a compliment. In aristocratic societies the noble art of flattery, of constructing intricate compliments, is hold in esteem, but we consider that hollow and insincere. In democratic societies the parliamentary polemics are the point of orientation in discourse: here the artistry is in humiliating and crushing your political enemy in front of all the other members of parliament and to have drinks afterwards. When a student says to the professor that he did not like the way his assignment was cut to pieces in front of the other students, the professor may say: don’t get into the kitchen if you cannot stand the heat, implying that academia is a place where you have to be prepared for that kind of suffocating temperature.

Rudeness is also an element in the informal interactions between the students amongst one another. In the classroom the Dutch students may sometimes be so very critical of  each other’s papers, that the professor has to intervene. When you ask a Dutch fellow-student to give some advice on a paper you wrote, be prepared to be butchered. Your friendly Dutch roommate may take a seemingly sadistic pleasure in criticizing almost every sentence. Don’t take it personal, it is her way of showing appreciation and if you do only a quarter of what she told you to do, your paper may become better or at least less vulnerable for the criticisms of the professor who will grade it.

Professors in the Netherland always encourage you to do this, to read each others papers, to talk about the stuff in an informal setting. Their dream is that when you guys are together in a bar or a restaurant, you are incessantly engaged in a lively discussion about the great and important ideas the professor has been so kind to share with you. And yes, it is a very good idea to organize a kind of informal student networks in which you discuss your assignments and papers and theses amongst each other. But there is a pitch black aspect to this.

When students work together on papers it may happen that some sentences or even paragraphes of student A are identical to or nearly identical to sentences or paragraphs in the paper of student B. After all, they did this together, just the way the professor wanted them to do it. So it comes as no surprise that a chapter in one paper may be virtually identical to the chapter in another paper. Right? No, wrong, wrong, very, very wrong! When the teacher discovers this – and they use anti-plagiarism software that makes it a one hundred percent certainty that it will be discovered – the penalties are extremely severe. One of the most lenient measures is that you are kicked out of the class, the most severe measure is that you are kicked out of the university. Copying parts of another students paper, copying a few paragraphs from wikipedia, pasting in some sentences from an unknown paper or article that you found floating around on the internet is considered plagiarism, it is considered criminal behaviour and it is punished accordingly. Dutch students know this and they are extremely careful in this regard. Some foreign students are sometimes very surprised when they discover how their friendly professor turns into a brutal policeman as soon as the suspicion of plagiarism is in the air. I will not go into the reasons why we are extremely severe when it come to plagiarism, tomorrow you will hear more about it, but I completely agree with this policy. But sometimes it should be better communicated to the students from the start on.

So far I may have scared you a bit. But after some time, when you have found out about the limits and the dangers, you may really begin to like this kind of informal, casual, rude, honest culture. You are privileged to have a world famous professor who not only teaches his class during two hours, but who also continues to discuss the subtler aspects of his theories after class with you from behind a glass of jenever. He may not be your best friend  but who cares, he seems to live for his discipline, his greatest pleasure is to instruct you, even behind the scenes, you should relish it, profit from it. In a way this whole atmosphere of non-authoritarian interaction can be extremely stimulating, especially in a university setting. You do not have to worry whether you show enough formal respect, whether you are dressed the way you should be, nobody cares, all the attention is devoted to the stuff, the academic material, the theories, the methodology, the research, the break-throughs, the state of the art in the discipline, the new frontiers. The formalities are not important, what matters is the content, everything is content, nothing but content. That is great, that is, I feel, as it should be at a real university.

And then, one day, you may discover something stunning. Your professor may turn out to be more similar to you than you think. Not because she takes her students to the bar, not because you speak on a first name base, but because she begins to show a sincere interest in the ideas that you develop in your Ph. D-thesis. And you know that this is not a fake display of interest, because you know by now that this professor does not weigh her words when she does not like what you do. But now, the scathing criticism is gone, she is fascinated with your Ph.D-work. You begin to exchange thoughts as if you were two equals, two scientists trying to discover something about that wonderful, strange, strubbornly elusive universe out there. And then you discover that those rude, aggressive, closed Dutch people do after all have the capacity to be interested and sincerely friendly and loving. They did everything they could to hide it, they did not want you to find out. But after a long period of time, they had to give in. And then it comes to light, thanks to you: yes, after all, there is no denying it: we, the Dutch, are human.

‘What foreign students in the Netherlands should know about Dutch professors and Dutch students.’ Lecture for the foreign MA-students, De Rode Hoed, Amsterdam. August 23, 2011.