Setting Expectations

The assortment of professors at the University of Amsterdam is well, interesting, to say the least. Having only studied for almost four semesters now, I don’t think I can give an account of every professor I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of running into at the UvA, but let me paint a picture of the experiences I’ve made: from white profs saying the N-word in a lecture, over name-dropping Black Lives Matter in an exam, to the questionable premises of an Honours course. I will try to illustrate this series of experiences, left with tired competence and wondering how we are to continue, or if some things are better burned down and built anew.

Year One

Listen, I had no idea what university was gonna be like. I was 18, had a gap year behind me after excruciating years of highschool, more than glad that this time of my life was over. Over the years, I have played with the idea of becoming a professor at some point. A romanticised idea of the academic had been deeply ingrained in me, although I’m not so sure about that anymore. Regardless, it was my first year, this was exciting, an adventure. I was ready to soak up knowledge like a sponge, eagerly raising my hand in the first seminars, still a bit wet behind the ears. I can’t say my expectations were too high, especially given the acclaim the UvA maintains on university rankings. Further, sociology is the discipline for the study of society and social structures, an entire branch of it is dedicated to conflict theory; how bad could it be? Certain that everyone would be informed about at the very least the basics of oppression and its expressions, I was quickly disillusioned when in Week 4 our white professor said the N-word (with the hard ‘r’) in a lecture on white spaces and Black people’s experience navigating them. Now, I wasn’t foolish enough to think that the university would be devoid of racism, this is Europe after all. But after four weeks? This? Damn. That had to be addressed. So, a few students and I banded together, sent him an email, and a week after had a meeting with him to talk about how instances like this one can be prevented. This little group of Black students and students of colour marching through campus to educate a white man on racism. The conversation lasted an hour, in which we were shocked to find out that the incident was premeditated. See, because what had happened was, Elijah Anderson (who we were reading at the time) had introduced the concept of the ‘nigger moment’, and that prof then had sat on the train thinking about whether or not he should say it. Somehow, the answer turned out to be ‘Yes.’. In the meeting, he was taking notes, and I pray that he took them to heart – in hindsight this was exemplary of the course the rest of my time at this university was about to take. Then again, all flags are red if you’re looking at them through rose-coloured glasses.

Fast forward a few months, we started noticing the overwhelmingly unnecessary use of gendered language by our lecturers, only ever speaking of men and women in hypothetical examples, worsened by the infamous ‘he or she’. First of all, I love the implications, namely that all of sociology simply does not apply to people using they/them pronouns (just like the law if they use gendered language, imagine the possibilities). And secondly, as James Acaster put it best when he said that “’he or she’ is only ever said by men, who are fully intended on just saying ‘he’ and at the very last second remember that ‘she’ exists (1) .” Once more, we decided to send out an email. The response had us questioning how he got his degree. Not only did he open one paragraph with “I am not a scholar of gender but”, which is never a good start, but he – in all seriousness – asked whether gender-neutral pronouns aren’t actually less inclusive and questioned how we could be so certain in saying that. A tenured professor. We were baffled. Then again, in the next lecture he went on to draw a comparison between the Gay Liberation Movement and the Ku Klux Klan. That was over a year ago, so don’t quote me on the details of it, but – needless to say – even putting these two next to each other seems mildly questionable. We didn’t follow up on our initial attempt at communication, deciding that it would’ve been a fruitless drain of our energy. Slowly but surely, I started to see the university for what it was, rather than what I wanted it to be. And I did not like what I was seeing.

The new year rolled around, and The Decolonization Club started to take roots, just a few sociology students meeting up every week over zoom, complaining, bonding, and learning from each other. We started contextualising our lived experience in theory and becoming more rigorous in our analysis of and approach to our condition. Our courses were, well, mediocre, but we made do. One of them stood out to me though, the assigned readings for the first week should’ve been a warning sign, as the authors compared fascism to communism under the vague and ill-defined umbrella of ‘authoritarianism’ with little to no critical interrogation of the concepts they were working with and applying them at whim. At some point in the curriculum, they peppered in a text about institutionalised racism, almost as if they remembered that it also existed, and they had to mention it somewhere. After a year of academic shenanigans, the exam just left us shaking our heads – we were asked to apply a theory of social movements arising from rational action theory and presenting particular dilemmas of collective action to Black Lives Matter. The year prior, the movement had gained global attention, so it was still at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Yet the course had made no effort of exploring institutional racism in any meaningful way, or any social liberation movements for that matter, and writing the exam had found it appropriate to namedrop BLM. At that point, I was simply exhausted. How did this keep happening? Shouldn’t they know better? I wasn’t surprised, but steadily growing more and more disappointed. This was the reality of the UvA.


Year Two

The seasons changed once more; the cool autumn sun spoke its last words before giving away to the usual rainy grey of this city. Maybe we’d have better luck this year, although most of us had given up hope after the debacles of the last one. One can dream, I suppose. A new semester and the courses seemed pretty good, at first glance, but UvA has a talent for giving courses interesting names and descriptions – if they end up translating into good content is a wholly different question. The courses came and went, and with that the ever-fading hope that we could affect some internal change. Time and time again, we were explicitly shown that our criticisms are void, constructive or not. Professors, sometimes even fully aware of the issues within their curriculum, dismissed us – one even proposing that it was the students’ obligation to educate themselves beyond the assigned readings, which I don’t fully disagree with. But when the presented readings are outdated and the lectures and seminars show a persistent refusal to critically engage with anything at all, what are students to do? As they were trying to tackle modernisation theories in one course, I brought up to the lecturer that this would’ve been a good time to have brought in decoloniality. What I didn’t expect was having to then explain decolonial theory to a professor teaching about modernisation. Modernity/coloniality forms the axis of decolonial thought, laid out by Quijano (2000) in Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America. It states that modernity and colonialism are inextricably linked, presenting different manifestations of the same processes. In The Structures of Westernized Universities, Grosfoguel (2013) furthers how the ways in which modern universities produce and interact with knowledge is deeply rooted in colonial thought, leading to knowledge being decontextualised and abstracted from its original situatedness. And while this may not be a prerequisite for other courses, deconstructing modernity as such becomes deeply relevant. At last, it was noted down ‘for next year’, although precedent seems to show that this has little to no meaning. The university stays colonial.

Which brings me to my most recent experience in an Honours course. One would’ve hoped for quality, after all, they are meant to go beyond the bounds of your particular programme, taking a more interdisciplinary approach to social sciences. The description sounded interesting, a course about community and loneliness, something I believe most of us have been deeply affected by, especially over the last few years. The first assignment asked us for our expectations of the course, for the lecturers to have an idea who they will be teaching, they were trying to connect with us. It seemed exciting at first, an interactive course, openly structured. Maybe a bit naively, I had hope. Opening the assignment, this last gleam vanished, they were asking the students for “his/her expectations”. A few hours prior I had been contacted by the lecturer asking about my assignment, as I hadn’t handed it in yet, and was addressed as ‘Mr. Ziel’. I wanted to be forgiving at first, the message was well-intentioned, yet in combination with the prompt, it left a bitter taste on my tongue. Would this course despite its premises be as cisheteronormative as possible? I decided to do a little digging, looking through each module for the ten weeks of class. Many of the topics seemed interesting by themselves, yet there was a suspicious lack of mention of oppression and how that affects community and loneliness. What I did find were two modules on connection with non-human forms of life, which – while important – seemed to conveniently ignore issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability. As a Black queer student this was almost laughable. How could they feign wanting to connect with us, yet fail to do so at every step of the way? Especially given the tendency of white people to extend their undivided empathy and sympathy to non-human animals or even inanimate objects, over Black and Brown people. How are we expected to be in community, when their conception of the human doesn’t expand to include me in its reach. Submitting these criticisms, I received back an apologetic email by the professor, hoping to make amends. I supposed awareness had been brought to the importance of language when writing about my experience of being nonbinary. Sitting in class a few days later, I didn’t have the energy to be angry or disappointed once he went on to address me and misgendered me several times. Apathy set in. I wasn’t being seen, wasn’t heard, nor experienced in my fullness, my embodied experience something to be put onto a page for a grade, never to transcend into action. The next assignment must’ve been satire, asking for how European integration has contributed to connection. When I then ridiculed that in my writing, the professor was kind enough to leave a comment reading “Ridicule is not respect”.


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And he is right, ridicule isn’t respect. But it was the truth. The truth, that at this university students are rendered more competent than their teachers, not by virtue of the quality of education, but because we had to scratch together each little piece of knowledge that we could, to make sense of our experiences. We had to come to realise that this university wasn’t going to save us, so we created the conditions for our survival on our own. But constant competence leaves me tired, between startled professors, visibly thinking themselves unshakable and infallible, with antiquated methods and pedagogy. Throughout these four semesters, I had to lower my expectations each and every time, and now I am at a point where if I lower them further, I will have to deny myself, my own existence as a living breathing being. I had started this programme excited and eager, and was left a husk of myself, trying to find peace amongst a world raising hell against me every day. The connections I have made with students and tutors are invaluable to me, yet how much longer until we can finally thrive? Decoloniality has taught us that the structure of the university as an institution is rooted in colonial ideals of supremacy. Assimilating into it will only perpetuate said structures, sites of knowledge becoming tokenised and decontextualised in their rapture. The university necessitates ‘rationality’ as a precondition of knowledge production and its subsequent validation (Grosfoguel, 2013). Additionally, ‘bodylessness’ as theorised by Oyewumi in her seminal work The Invention Of Women (1997) has become a precondition of rational thought in the Western imagination, illustrating the chasm between body and mind that plagues this epistemology. Women, BIPOC, queer people, disabled people, and especially people lying at intersections of this non-exhaustive list, are relegated to be ‘embodied’, while only white men are afforded the prestige of ‘pure’ rational thought. I am not that. The conditions of knowledge production underlying the modern university are inherently based on my exclusion and the appropriation of my humanity. To assimilate into the academe, would mean to relinquish myself, to deny myself my physicality, to become bodiless. So when beneath kerosine rains the foundations of the universal are set ablaze, I will dance in the flames by which we freed ourselves. The university must be destroyed.


References:

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zt5qJC1xQ8A&t=54s

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