Academic differences between UoM and UvA

Before coming to study at the University of Amsterdam I had heard that there were many differences when it came to academia, some of which I learnt before I even arrived…however I would say that it is more different that I expected and it  resulted in me struggling a little at the start. Therefore I thought it would be a good idea to write a blog post about it to prepare other students who want to study here.

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My whirlwind romance with Amsterdam

Abigail Herd (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

The 17th September marked a month of my time in Amsterdam, a city which I am now proud to call home. Within a month of being here I have completely fallen in love with the city, country and people.

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10 of my Favourite Things about Amsterdam

A lot have people have asked me why I decided to study abroad in Europe. Admittedly, I am incredibly jealous of everyone who has been able to experience life in an exotic far-off land, especially from the @uomgoabroad Instagram page. However, coming towards my time here in Europe I have never been so glad I picked Amsterdam, and I thought you all deserved to know why..

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Amstel Canal, Amsterdam.

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Academic Differences in Amsterdam

The way the grading system works in Amsterdam, takes some getting used to compared to back in Manchester. Exam period has just been here in Amsterdam. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to note the main differences I have experienced in my time here.

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Zwarte Piet/ Black Pete

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By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Hi, so I’ve written a short journalistic styled opinion article on a hot topic in the Netherlands. The issue is around a tradition which involves white people black facing. Any comments or feedback is more than welcome, let me know what you think.

Over the last few decades there has been the rise in what can be described as unintentional racism and even ‘hipster racism’. Unintentional racism is exactly that, racism that is both unintentionally racist and unintended to cause offence. Hipster racism is the idea that we are so far past blatant outbursts of racism and racist attitudes, that we can now use it again as a means of satire. You know when an British-Asian comedian does a rib-tickling impression of a typical Asian accent, that’s hipster racism. In my opinion neither should really be accepted in today’s society and we should strive to eradicate both, yet both are omnipresent in Western Europe.

So what is the problem? Hipster racism is often ‘just a joke’. Aside from this it actually reinforces the negative stereo-types associated with racism. I mean who can really suggest that hipster racist anecdotes are always interpreted as satirical, there will undoubtedly be some recognition of negative differences between race consciously or not. In addition laughing about how we, the then white supremacy ‘used’ to be racist, while still these hierarchies exist, is detrimental to the minority.

A more complex issue to overcome in my mind is unintentional or accidental racism. How do you stop something from happening that was not meant? The first step in my mind is acknowledgement. Take the Dutch example of ‘Zwarte Piet’ or ‘Black Pete’. Zwarte Piet is part of the traditional Christmas celebration, started Centuries ago, where Saint Nicholas is accompanied by black faced helpers. It is supposed that the helpers face became blackened by the soot coming through the chimney to deliver presents and that Zwarte Piet’s skin was all ready quite dark as he originated from Spain. Despite this likeable fairy tale, Zwarte Piet is presented as having a black face and large red lips, big gold earrings and curly black hair. It is therefore hard to deny that Zwarte Piet is actually a descendant of Europe’s colonial past in the slavery of black Africans. Additionally Zwarte Piet is traditionally foolish and silly, unmistakably tying in with white perception of the barbaric and simple Africans who were colonised.

Since the millennium Zwarte Piet has been met with much more protest and controversy. White Dutch in large parts seem to want to neglect the idea that it is racist. Many as kids enjoyed the celebration and never considered racist; something typical of neo-racism and of course unintentional racism. They think that by banning the tradition they are admitting it is racist and that they are racist. However I would like to point out that you are not necessarily a racist for having committed a racist act and that the two should be viewed separately from one another.

Other support for the tradition comes from those who feel a ban is a threat to their own culture and tradition. If these native dutch (mostly white) feel their culture is under threat from non native (black people) who disagree with Zwarte Piet, then there naivety is beyond me. It is not an attempt to destroy tradition, only to alleviate and prevent the reminder of a colonial order and white supremacy which conversely is being carried on in the reinforced in the tradition and in the whites majority to neglect the desires (the banning of the black face) of the minority. This essence of white dominance, is what comedian Russell Brand tarnished “a colonial hangover”, and is particularly evident in the recent court ruling of the discussion of ‘Black Pete’. An Amsterdam judge in 2014 ruled that Zwarte Piet “is a negative stereotype of black people and the city must rethink its involvement in holiday celebrations involving him.” However the festivity continues, as does the black-facing.

Both these objections to the ban of the tradition are typical with neo-racist ideologies and the Dutch who are known for tolerance and relatively liberalism in Western Europe,are not exemplified from this form of racism on an institutional and regional level. In my mind it is about time we put and end to Zwarte Piet, not by removing the holiday all together but by changing it so that perhaps none of Saint Nicholas helpers are white people pretending to be black. This should hopefully pave the way towards a post neo-racist era.

The example of Zwarte Piet a hard example to compare with. There are few instances if any in Western Europe, where apparent racial stereotyping, is embedded in such an old tradition. Therefore when we look at solving the problem you may think that a particularly complex solution is needed. However like many slurs of untended racism or hipster jokes, the solution is quite simple. Realise that what is being done or is being said is in itself a racist act. This does not mean you are a racist, but what you are doing is reinforcing negative stereotypes. This is turn will help to reduce those who are offended by accidental racism and help to bring equality for minorities in an social environment where white privilege is dominant.

I will conclude by reiterating what has just been said. Like the Dutch with the case of Zwarte Piet we need to look at our society and the more subtle forms of racism, intended or not. Initially by realising how our actions can affect minorities and how they can reinforce negative stereotypes can we hope to achieve a society with less racist actions and of course a less ethnically segregated society.

Assessment and teaching style at the UvA

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

In general, assessment at the University of Amsterdam is more constant with midterms and then finals with the ability to do a compensation exam. A compensation exam is like a retake of the course, but includes everything from the course; something you want to avoid. Having exams more frequently but less intense is, of course, beneficial in the sense that there is less to prepare for. However, it also means that you have to cope with having a lot on your plate more often, which can be stressful. At Manchester there is a more gradual build-up to the intense stress of exams, where as here it seems to come around the corner every 4/5 weeks, without much time for preparation. Similarly, because midterms are often worth 50% of the course, you put yourself under as much stress as you would the final exams.

A more specific criticism of the University of Amsterdam is that each individual lecturer chooses how the class is assessed. Whilst for the majority this means a varied form of assessment ranging from opinion style articles which encourage a journalistic style and creativeness, that make for an exciting break from the academic rhetoric, to the ever tedious group project and presentation. There is one particular assessment format I detest, this is the ‘take home exam’. The format is that between a certain a time you have anywhere between two and twelve hours in the comfort of your own home to answer several questions once they appear online. The problem is you never nearly have enough time, and because you are ‘at home’ you are expected to answer the questions as though you were writing an essay with proper referencing and complex structure. However, under the timed pressure, this for me and many others who I have spoken to, is sometimes quite impossible.

All of this is not to say I don’t like the assessment at the UvA, and being a student I could probably find holes in any assessment format. There have been some that I have liked, such as the opinion articles and essays that are pretty much identical to the Manchester ones, but there have been ones I don’t, particularly the take home exams, much like I how I don’t particularly like Manchester handwritten exams, when I only write by hand for these occasions. However, both at the UvA and Manchester, the exams in my mind justify the means.

Something I have really enjoyed is the teaching style. For me I have been lucky that all my classes have been in classrooms. No more hiding away in large lecture halls. Classrooms for me have meant that concentrating for three hours is a lot easier, not just because you feel less distant from the teacher, but also because classrooms breed more discussions, making it easier to ask questions, and I have found that debates break out between students much more. This could also be part of the Dutch mentality or due to the teachers I have been fortunate enough to have, but debate in class and discussion-based learning is for me much more engaging. I would point out that there have been one or two classes where this doesn’t exist and lecturers talk at you for three hours, in a far less engaging manner.

This brings me onto my next point, lecture length. Here at the UvA most of my lectures are three hours long and some extend to four. These of course can test concentration, but if you have an interesting lecturer then in some ways it is beneficial to have all your teaching at one point in the week, leaving you with the freedom of deciding when you want to work outside of these hours.

A hitchhikers guide to Berlin

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

This isn’t so much as a guide but an interesting story for me nevertheless.

Our journey (me and my flatmate) to Berlin started at a bleak 6am by Amsterdam South Station. Here we met with the organisers (International Student Network) whose instructions consisted of the direction of Berlin and a mere “Good luck”…

Boycotting our initial attempts to get picked up in the pitch-black, we took to the train in order to make some headway. Not getting very far, the hitch-hiking began.

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This is Zwarte Piet, a Dutch Christmas tradition. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, is a helper of Santa Claus, but is swarmed in racial controversy, with many but not the majority protesting against it.

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Suffice it to say, hitch hiking is no easy feat and darkness had again crept up on us by the time we finally got to Germany. It had taken a train, two cars and a lorry to get here, and when we arrived we were dropped by petrol station stocked with all your essentials; knives, air guns, CS spray, axes… you get the idea. It wasn’t until 11pm that we arrived in Berlin, thanks to array of strangers.

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Berlin is an amazing city, both for street art and, of course, history. We were guided around some of West Berlin (the former Soviet side) where independent shops now rule the roost and corporate companies struggle. On our tour, we saw much of the famous illegal street art as well as the commissioned work on the Berlin Wall.

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Of course, Berlin is famous for its nightlife as well, and we didn’t pass up the opportunity to experience it. Initially having being rejected for being English by some rather pretentious Berliners, we moved to another spot, quickly forgetting the earlier rejection.

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Not in the best of shapes the next morning we took to the streets again and visited the Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial, completing an amazing 48 hours in a must-see city.

My first few weeks in Amsterdam

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

So I’ve bought my bike, a must-have living in Amsterdam. It took me a week to find, scouting about the many markets for a cheap bike that still had both wheels. So when I found mine, a golden shambles of a bike, I snapped it up for just €40, a bargain! However, on cycling my bike home the pedal broke off and I discovered the brakes didn’t work. Next time I think I’ll be test riding it…

As far as the university is concerned, it has taken me a while to get used to locations of the many different buildings that are embedded within the centre of the city. That’s not to say that I’m irritated by this at all, walking and cycling around the city is a real joy, and getting lost normally just means a walk along what have been sunny canals. Although, being a tourist or somewhat not used to this city can be frantic, with trams, buses, cars, hundreds of people, thousands of bikes all waiting to ring their bells and shout at you if you get in their way. I thought the Dutch weren’t meant to be liberal, but when it comes to transport there far from it.

I have all ready taken the opportunity to travel out of Amsterdam, travelling to Zandvoort Beach just 25 minutes away to make the most of the uncharacteristically hot weather. Whilst the water was freezing, the imported sand made for a comfortable spot to relax and reflect. We were also lucky enough to see more of the amazing art that the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, has to offer, through the medium of sand:

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Two weeks have passed now and I’m starting to relax in my apartment, but I am still filled with enthusiasm for what’s to come. My flatmate and I have planned to run a 10k race and I am genuinely excited to see what the city and university have to offer.