Leiden International Studies Blog

Joost Augusteijn's reflections on International Studies as former Chair of the Programme

Joost Augusteijn's reflections on International Studies as former Chair of the Programme

When I became Chair of the International Studies programme in February 2016, I already knew it as a lecturer, who had taught History Europe from its inception, and as Director of Education of the Institute for History with responsibility for staffing many courses in the programme.

In some ways International Studies was thus well-known to me, including the challenges it was facing, which were highlighted in the rather critical report of the mid-term review committee that had then just been published. Developing an answer to this was actually one of the main reasons why I was asked to take on the responsibility for the programme, so I knew there was something to be done.

Having been involved in the discussions on how the programme was to be given shape from the beginning, I was aware of some of its features. It started as an innovative concept, combining a multidisciplinary approach with regional knowledge including a local language to analyse global developments, there were bound to be some problems. Many of these centred around the question what the programme really was about. Finding the right balance between the various aspects of the programme; disciplinary training, area knowledge and research skills, took some time. To some extent the discussion about the question whether the essence of our programme is the discipline or the area, in practical terms whether the thesis should have a disciplinary or an area angle, is still ongoing. The unexpectedly large number of students constituted its own challenges. To ensure direct contact with the students our distinct teaching style with tutorials was developed, which has become the core of our approach. While the necessity to ensure equity in the treatment of the students also meant the programme became characterised by quite rigid rules and regulations. Staffing the courses with Leiden based academics who often felt international Studies was not part of their core business, combined to the growing work pressures in times of ever reducing budgets for universities, sometimes resulted in a lack of involvement in the programme.

So in some way I was prepared for a complicated situation, facing some problems that had to be and were generally solved quickly by a revision of the programme. Apart from the above, many other issues only gradually became apparent. Managing a programme with about 1600 students, more than 200 lecturers and about 15 support staff meant that every day brought new concerns that had to be addressed. Never a dull moment. A major, still unresolved, issue I encountered was to convince all students that we are actually there to help them, and that we take pride in providing them with a worthwhile degree. It was always rewarding to see how students generally appreciated our student centred approach better if we really got to talk with each other. Unfortunately that is impossible with so many of them. To some extent this thus also applied to the lecturing staff, who sometimes saw International Studies as a threat to their own programmes, while our success in reality ensured that the faculty could hire more interesting colleagues, creating a more interesting research community, and that we could also maintain the existing expertise. Gradually this became clear to most of my colleagues, particularly those who teach in programmes with relatively small numbers of students, even if some occasionally needed a direct appeal from the chair to remind them of their responsibilities in the programme.

Some of the more demanding issues that came along related to the diversity of the programme, both in its make-up of staff and of students. Most of you will remember the tensions that arose around the Zwarte Piet incidents in 2018. Maintaining a position that was both morally right and would keep us together as a community was among my greatest tests. Mobilising the needed support at all levels was probably the major problem. Even if everyone was of good will, they often argued from their own perspective. Getting those responsible to speak out has been an issue I struggled with, as someone who believes it is best to be open about thorny issues.

Despite these challenges I really enjoyed my time as chair ….. most of the time. Working with nice and interesting people that have the common interest of the programme at heart on a day to day basis has been the foundation of my job satisfaction. Besides that, I do enjoy a challenge, finding the road of little resistance uninteresting in all aspects of my life. Although some issues were hard to resolve or took more time than I would have liked, in the end I also always received the support from all involved to get done what was needed.

I also learned a lot. For instance regarding the importance of identity to many people, and how good intentions are not always sufficient in dealing with feelings surrounding that. People can be justifiably hurt by what others say and do regardless of the intentions behind it. Although maybe not always clear to everyone, I also became more aware of the importance of being tactical and strategic in what I said and did. Having always believed in the simple power of good arguments and persuasion, or as some would say the power of wearing down people’s resistance until what I wanted was done, I learned that sometimes it is good to be quiet and patient (did anyone notice?), while at other times to be pushy and loud (my regular persona as manager). I realised that sometimes one can create new realities on the ground without fighting the principle, at other times it is good to ensure the structures, as laid down in formal objectives or rules, are changed first and then the superstructure will conform to this by itself in time. Always assuming that there is a way where there is a will, there were sensible people around me who made clear that there are also limitations to what students and staff can do, and that I should take that into account.

I will miss the intensive days at International Studies, but after four years as chair one should move on. In many ways I have made my contribution, witnessed in our successful reaccreditation, and it is time for a new person who will bring in new energy and ideas. I am glad I can hand over the reins to the capable hands of my colleague Giles Scott-Smith. For the time being I am going back, after about twelve years as administrator in different capacities, to full-time teaching, in International Studies and History, and to research. That will be a challenge. So far, it is rewarding to have the time again to innovate my teaching, and a challenge to find the ability to spend a whole day on writing a book. I am taking my experiences with me in the hope I will have become a better academic, administrator and even a more understanding human. In reverse, all I can hope for is that the programme will continue to put students central in its policy making and always treat them as individuals, and that students will learn to realise this is what we ultimately all stand for. If so, my motto when facing problems will again come true: Everything always works out … in the end.