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Change and Tradition in the English Department

with Rolf Bremmer

Rolf Bremmer teaches English Philology and Old Frisian at Leiden University. He previously taught at Nijmegen University and came to Leiden University in 1986.

You have been teaching here for almost 30 years now. Have you seen a lot of change in that time?
“I have defi nitely seen a lot of change, that’s right. I think an important change came about when the system changed from a 5-year programme, which was usually concluded with the “doctoraal examen” and entitled you to the title of “doctorandus,” to the bachelor and master system we have now. I think when the programme was 5 years long, students did more than they can do in 4 years and therefore it was difficult to decide what must be chopped. In the beginning of the new system, we were too demanding perhaps, because for teachers it was difficult to let go of certain subjects. It resulted in having to do more in less time, or the same in less time. Gradually though, by trial and error, you discover what is best for students and subjects, and there is always a certain ideal of what our students should know and be able to do when they have finished their degrees. Change is not always easy, so at first there were teachers, maybe me included, that resisted. We don’t want this change, and why should we? The department decided to go along though, as it was a European system. The faculty then asked us whether we wanted to be the pilot for the faculty, because they supposed that we, as teachers of English, were familiar with the bachelor-master system. Being the pilot for a year meant we were ahead of every other department.”

So would you say the new system was an improvement?
“It depends, I think, from what angle you look at it. It improved less and that’s a gain in terms of economy. Academic wise, however, we also lost, because students with their new diploma didn’t know as much and weren’t as well prepared as under the old system. However, the old system was also very old; it had been around for about a century.”

How about your own classes? Do you change them up every year or do they stay more or less the same?
“No, they change, and sometimes I regret this. Every year I have to learn new names and new faces. So when there is a new group, there are maybe 3 or 4 students that I’ve seen before. From that point of view it’s not nice perhaps, but for students it’s better that they come to different teachers all the time. Each teacher has his or her good points and bad points, of course. You are exposed to a diversity of teachers and I think that’s a good thing.”

Do the staff members of the English department have any traditions?
“I’m not aware of any traditions at the moment, unfortunately. We used to have a Christmas lunch. This was a very good thing, but then the staff got bigger and bigger. The group became too large and there were some changes in the office, so they abandoned this tradition. We do have our occasional drinks at 5, once or twice a semester, but that’s about it. I regret it a little to be honest. Talking about traditions and changes, there used to be a special budget for staff activities, which allowed us to have dinner together or have a tour along the canals, that was paid for by the faculty, but unfortunately this was discontinued. Such events, I think, help to create a spirit of community. Before I came to Leiden, I worked at the University of Nijmegen, and there we would have a rally every year, and sometimes a treasure hunt or some kind of bike tour. Such things are very diffcult to organise, because not everyone lives close by and everyone has their own schedule. Traditions need to start somewhere and there always have to be people that continue the tradition.”

Do you feel that there was more of a sense of community in Nijmegen then?
“There was more sense of socialising, perhaps. When I first came here, there were actually some social events at the homes of colleagues. Also, on a smaller level, the philology colleagues do things together. We’ve been rowing and eating together occasionally, but that’s not with the entire staff . What I do think is a good tradition is the diploma ceremony in the academy building, where parents and friends are there and one of the colleagues delivers a kind of popular lecture for everyone to understand, and the staff walks in as a group.”

Did you have any traditions when you were a student?
“I studied in Groningen, where we had a very active student life. We had a magazine, we organised a play every year, and a poetry or song festival. Those were nice traditions we usually had in the early summer. An academic tradition was that there were still many oral exams. Your final exam was 1,5 hours long, in which you were ‘interrogated’ by 3 teachers. Many of the exams were oral, so you were the only one that was examined and there weren’t people around to have drinks with afterwards. Certainly after the “doctoraal examen” though, we would go to a pub or café, with our parents joining as well.”

Do you have any final comments?
“On the whole, I think we do have some nice traditions here at Leiden University. There is occasional drama, organised by the Leiden English Freshers. You also organise high teas and there are book sales, which are both very good traditions. The Albion trips are also a very good thing, I think. That reminds me that, in Nijmegen, one of my teachers of Old English took us on a walking trip through a part of England during the Easter holidays. I learned a lot from that, because you come to places you normally wouldn't come. It's a great thing, such activities."

By Linda Boutellier