Humanities Going Digital

The celebrations of the School of Humanities Lustrum at Tilburg University were not merely entertaining. They painted a picture of achievements, but also challenges that the discipline currently faces.  What does the future hold for the humanities?

Impossible made possible

Imagine a set of millions books written in the course of centuries.  Reading only English language books from the year 2000 alone without interruptions for food or sleep would take you 80 years. But a computer can read and analyze them much quicker. Using computers and internet as tools in humanities research opens up previously unthinkable opportunities. So called e-Humanities, also known as digital humanities, combines methods from traditional disciplines, such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies with tools provided by computer science. What does this digitalization mean for the future of the humanities in general?

This question was tackled during one of the lectures on e-Humanities organized by the lustrum committee. For Rens Bod, professor of Computational and Digital Humanities at the University of Amsterdam, the development of e-Humanities gives a chance for scholars to increase their cooperation with private companies. According to him, such collaboration shows that the humanities studies do not merely train critical minds, but also contribute greatly to the economy and industry. “E-Humanities is a next big step in Information Technology. Companies are increasingly interested in using data from the humanities for their investments, for example mobile applications or digital maps,” says Bod. Thus, the process of digitalization brings the humanities outside of the confines of the university and connects the scholars with private companies. Also, thanks to digital data visualization programs, research results can be made publically available in a more comprehensible, almost entertaining form.

But are digital methods just a way to sell the results of traditional research? According to Jan Scholtes, professor of Text Mining at Maastricht University, digital methods allow for much more than previously thought, for they help to discover previously unknown, or hidden, phenomena in culture. For example, they have a potential to show new patterns in language use, visualize sentiments and opinions in society, structure the unstructured data and map complicated social relationships.

Therefore, e-Humanities discipline is not only concerned with studying the internet but the society and culture as a whole. As prof. Richard Rogers, a Web epistemologist form the University of Amsterdam writes in his book The End of the Virtual. Digital Methods, “the Internet is employed as a site of research for far more than just online culture. The issue no longer is how much of society and culture is online, but rather how to diagnose cultural change and societal conditions using the Internet. The conceptual point of departure for the research program is the recognition that the Internet is not only an object of study, but also a source.” However, viewing internet as a source of data about society is not without problems.

A Drop in the Ocean

Rens Bod speaking during the e-Humanities lecture seemed to be overly enthusiastic about e-Humanities as an emerging discipline: “Humanists can be proud about their impact and valorization, but they could sell it better. They should make as many digital researches as possible, and send press releases one after the other. We should promote e-Humanities more!” The internet is not, however, the alpha and omega. Why is that? Because humanities scholars rely heavily on records, whether they are newspapers, photographs, letters, diaries, books, articles and other records of human experiences. If they start using digital methods for their research, they encounter a problem of the availability of cultural objects online. The majority of books, articles in printed journals and newspapers published throughout centuries can be found only in library catalogues and archives. Only about 15 million books have been digitized, which makes for 12% of all books ever published. It is true that there are many digitalizing projects, but they have a hard time translating materials being printed currently and those printed in the past. Unless we believe that in the nearest future the publishing industry will go entirely online, the digitalization process might never catch up.

We also have to keep in mind that books that have been translated from print to the online sphere are, to a big extent, only the canonical works representing just a tiny part of culture that was considered significant enough by our cultural institutions. According to Richard Rogers, if the researchers want to understand the changes and developments in society, they cannot just analyze “cultural sentences spoken by a few ‘great man’ but the patterns in all cultural sentences spoken by everybody else.”

With the Speed of Internet

The speed in which the news websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook are updated and refreshed is definitely an advantage for users, but not for researchers. Humanities scholars are facing the problem of how to capture instable and ever-changing online data so that it becomes permanent and possible to analyze. It is a challenge to not only track changes online but to record them. Much of the content online, once it disappears or changes, leaves no trace and is not archived anywhere. Researchers looking into online communities or social media are also faced with changing rules, privacy setting, and interfaces. A relevant research can be made irrelevant only by an online platform changing its settings or design. It is also difficult to get online data from the past. For example, if you’re late with gathering public opinion data for your research on the American elections, you might never get tweets older than one month.

Is Virtual Reality Real?

While online data is undoubtedly useful for research of online communities and behavior of internet users, does it also reflect changes in society off-line? Can a research done entirely online make claims about social changes in the real life dimension, not only in the virtual one? Some scholars are still skeptic about online data, claiming that the internet is often a source of ungrounded claims, gossips and amateur research. They distrust any user-generated content such as Wikipedia and any data that is provided, and can be altered, by ordinary users. Humanities scholars have to now face the question whether the Web can be a source of solid, researchable data and if it adequately reflects dynamics in society.

Perspectives on the Future

So what does the future hold for the humanities at Tilburg University and for the discipline in general? The movement towards more modern, digitized and computerized research is a fact, but what will happen to more traditional aspects of the humanities? Judging from the nature of the lustrum events, the Schools of Humanities at the university struggles with the same question. The committee clearly tried to combine the traditional with the modern. The Asko|Schönberg music concert was a wonderful performance of classical instruments, yet combined with the more contemporary, minimal, and innovative music composed by Steve Reich. While this combination seemed to work just fine during the concert, it was not that successful during the masque ball.  What was expected as an elegant gala with long dresses and tuxedos turned out to be a party with party music, wine served in plastic cups and beer on the floor.  What should then be the balance between tradition and innovation?

Published: Univers no 5, 22 November 2012



Internship: the new risks

Your studies are coming to an end and it’s high time to think about the future. Will you gain some experience in a field related to your studies or go abroad and do something more exotic? Internships pave the way for your future career, but what if your studies get delayed due to your new responsibilities?

The most romanticized type of internship is definitely the one abroad. Mette Buiting found her perfect internship through AIESEC and spent seven weeks in Kenya during the summer, participating in a project
devoted to women with HIV/AIDS. Even though the internship is not related to her studies, she still found it very enriching. “I did it mainly for my personal development. Going on holiday to Africa wouldn’t be the same, and working at a local organization makes the experience more real,” says Mette. The most valuable thing she learnt, was that changing the world shouldn’t be the volunteers’ goal. “You can help people by showing them that you care, but you can’t change the whole situation. We can only tell people in Kenya what we think but it’s still their country,” she says.

Contrary to Mette, Pim Geurts’ priority was to stay in Tilburg for his internship. He is working at Interselling for six months. Managing and expanding the company’s social media strategy and improving its search engine operations. He was connected to the company through Integrand, a foundation that mediates in internships for university students. And even though some tasks are not tightly related to his International Business program, “it is good to learn something new that doesn’t correspond so closely
to your degree. It also provides for a more practical experience than the studies at the university,” says the intern.

Not serving coffee
Students need internships to gain experience and launch their careers. But do companies need interns just as much? Louis van Stralendorff is a director at Interselling, a company which is specialized in commercial training and consultancy. He sees student interns as a valuable source of new energy in the company: “Companies should be obliged to hire interns! The big ones usually recognize the advantages of hiring interns, but midsized companies tend to stick to their old agendas and therefore develop much slower. They should lose their egos and listen to young people more.” The owner admits that despite his experience he is always open to new impulses and ideas, especially as young people often prove to be more efficient in getting the company’s message across. This is why he delegated the task of managing social media to his intern, Pim. And it turns out that the image of an intern merely serving coffee is not accurate. “Other employers actually get me coffee more often than I do for them!” Pim laughs.

Long study fine
With the recently introduced long study fine, some students fear a delay in their studies and have their doubts about doing an internship. Van Stralendorff recognizes a long study fine as a threat to companies. “I was expecting about fifteen students to take an interest in doing an internship, but I only received three replies.” The reason might be that they fear lagging behind with their curriculum. Van Stralendorff thinks that the company should therefore be flexible enough to enable students to keep up with their studies. “Student interns should not be seen as a replacement for a vacancy, but as an extra employee. This
ensures that the company provides them with time to focus on their studies. Education is a priority and the internship should not conflict with it,” says the director. Pim doesn’t think that a long study fine is a problem, if one is ambitious enough. “You don’t have to do an internship during your studies at the university! It is not obligatory, and you can always do it after your graduation.” He also ensures us that doing an internship alongside your studies is possible. “It doesn’t necessarily make your study any longer. I am able to combine working three days a week with my two courses and writing a thesis. I know myself and I am confident that I will pass all the courses,” says Pim. Cathy de Waele, a student adviser at the Tilburg School of Humanities, also thinks that a long study fine doesn’t have a discouraging effect. “Students who are doing a voluntary internship are of a different category than the students whose studies get delayed. They seem more ambitious and make better plans, so they don’t fear the fine,” says De Waele.

But does this apply to all students? A long study fine might be quite problematic for those planning to do an internship abroad. Although a long study fine wasn’t decided upon at the moment Mette Buiting was looking for her internship, she had her doubts about her decision and didn’t want to do an extra semester. “That is why I decided to go during the summer. And I’m glad I did, because I managed to avoid the fine,” she says. She already has run up a delay in her studies, as she started studying in Leiden but moved to Tilburg after a year, so an extra semester would cost her €3000. She says that if students do their internship in the city where they live, they can easily combine it with their studies. But going abroad during an academic semester is not an option if they don’t want to run up a delay in their studies. Many students she knows, abandoned the idea of an internship abroad or a board year just because of the fine. “Especially because many of them changed their programs after their first year, and that leaves them with no time for additional activities abroad,” Mette points out.

Published: Univers no. 14, June 28, 2012

Follow me, please!

Massive groups consisting of more parents than schoolchildren are led around the campus by enthusiastic ‘sample’ students. The white tents, balloons, and old school music create a festive theme park atmosphere. And the festival’s name is Open Days. Univers was an eye-witness.

A cohort of, paradoxically, paid volunteers gathered in the Cobbenhagen building. Wearing elegant, navy blue polo shirts and armed with umbrellas (to fight the gloomy weather) they were ready to battle for potential students. One of the organizers proudly introduced a ‘pop the question’ option, which gave the visitors a chance to interrogate a ‘real’ student. Was it a randomly chosen, objective person? Of course not. The addressees were Tilburg University ambassadors trained in PR talk. And they gave their answers accordingly. The army of volunteers was skilled at picking out the lost souls in a crowd. One of them kindly showed me the way to an English speaking tour guide. And there they were. A group for English speaking visitors consisting of just one couple from Birmingham who were dragging their sons from one Dutch university to another. Are these the only international students interested
in Tilburg University? Perhaps the reason for such a low turnout was that information sessions about the most popular international programs were not held that day. Still, being one of the five visitors from abroad among the sea of Duchies wasn’t very promising.

Before we left for the campus tour, I grabbed one of the Bachelor programs brochures lying around on almost every table, and flipped the pages. Why is the information about English taught programs printed in Dutch? The only clues that these are international programs were the tiny English flags next to the names of Liberal Arts and Sciences, International Business Administration, Economics and, surprisingly, Econometrie en Operationele Research. Apparently, despite its Dutch name, the latter was also taught in English.

Although very handsome in his Asset jacket, our tour guide was not always persuasive. He recited the most popular music events and festivals in Tilburg from the official university document, as this impressive list is something the city should be proud of. Confusing ‘kermis’ (fun fair) with ‘carnaval’, he said rather unconvincingly, that “I’ve never been there, but, yeah, it’s very nice.” He also eagerly ensured the group that there are a lot of housing options in Tilburg and it’s easy to find a room for an average of 280 euros. Either I have been oblivious to those bargains, or the City Hall has classified them as top secret. Towards the end of the tour, the guide showed us a sample
lecture room in the Warande building. For obvious reasons, only one of the largest and nicest rooms on the campus was showed off. But I assume that if we were shown one of the Prisma building’s tiny, dark rooms that can barely be found in the labyrinth, the Birmingham family would have run away immediately.

Published: Univers no. 12, May 10, 2012

Wooden shoes

Drug myths: busted!

As an international student, whenever I visit my home country I notice that people hold a few stereotypes about the Netherlands. If you also hear statements like: “All Dutch people smoke weed, right?”, or “Oh, it’s so nice that marijuana is legal there,” and you have to disappoint the ignorant ones every time, we’re on the same boat. It’s high time to reveal the truth about drug policy and bust all the drug-related myths.


Myth: Soft drugs are legal

Contrary to popular belief, weed was never legalized in the Netherlands. Formally, all drugs are forbidden. However, the government designed a tolerance policy which allows smoking cannabis under certain conditions. Having up to 5 g of weed is decriminalized, so not punishable, yet not officially legal. If you carry more than that you will get a fine, or even go to jail if your pockets are stuffed with more than 1 kg of this drug. You can also explain your friends back at home that you can’t have a little cannabis plant next to your window. The cultivation of marijuana, even for personal use, still remains a criminal offence.

Myth: The Dutch are stoners

Try to make a comment on how kind and relaxed Dutch people are, and you’ll get an eager response along the lines of: “Sure they are! Because of all the ganja they smoke!” It’s a myth. The official site of Holland informs that the number of users of various types of drugs in the Netherlands is no greater than in other countries.

Myth: Weed is a soft drug

Marijuana and hashish are considered relatively harmless when compared to hard drugs. Or are they? The Dutch government is aware that the concentration of THC can vary and high-potency weed can be very dangerous. Thus, marijuana with a THC concentration of 15% or higher was classified as a hard drug and, in consequence, the possession and use of it were made punishable.

Myth: The foreigners can’t buy marijuana

The introduction of ‘wietpas’, a card granting membership to a chosen coffee shop, in my closest surrounding sparked comments like “poor you, you can’t buy weed anymore!” That’s true, as of 1 May 2012 you can only buy marijuana when you are a ‘wietpas’ holder. But it doesn’t mean that only the Dutch can get it, and that international students are excluded from all the fun. The ‘wietpas’ was introduced to limit the invasion of Belgian, French and German tourists craving to smoke a joint next to a canal, and not to make an ultimate division between the Dutch and the foreigners. The only requirement for getting a card, besides being an adult, is being registered in the municipality. And international student usually meet this requirement.

Myth: Amsterdam will stay Amsterdam

Although the ‘Wietpas’ has so far been introduced in the provinces of Zeeland, North Brabant and Limburg, it doesn’t mean that Amsterdam will be saved. This law will apply everywhere in the country from 1 January 2013. So you can tell your sapient uncle that his lecture on how coffee shops are a foundation of Amsterdam tourism, and that there is no way they’re going to be closed for visitors, is rubbish. You can also tell him to hurry up with his visit, because he only has time until the end of this year.

Published: Univers no. 13, June 7, 2012

Abroad and Homesick. How Nostalgic are International Students?

An unpleasant, blue feeling creeps into our stomachs and squeezes them tight. Some of us don’t feel like going out anymore, lock themselves up inside four walls and molest Skype for hours. For others, the feeling can partially be soothed by Haribo gummy bears and a lonely cigarette. The tiny little virus, especially contagious around cheerful Christmas time, is called homesickness.  

We, the Cosmopolitans

When going abroad, we often believe that we should feel at home anywhere in the world and that being tied to any particular place is somehow limiting. Moving to a different country is also an escape from things we don’t like about our homeland. Most of the international students I’ve met are overly enthusiastic about backpacking around the world, being in a constant move, living everywhere and nowhere. These convictions are based on a modern worldview that celebrates the independent, mobile individual. But our emotions often tell a different story. Once we unpack our bulky suitcases, we start missing our (imperfect) homes.

Mom’s cooking

Even if you consider yourself as brave as Steve Irwin himself, the feeling of homesickness can strike when least expected, and that’s perfectly normal. Young people, for example first year students, may experience a sense of dread, helplessness, anxiety, or even depression. Those who are homesick often feel they have no control over their environment and that they do not identify themselves with their own situation. It’s as if life is going on without them in it.Emma Greenwood (Northern Ireland) says that homesickness for her is a “feeling of not being complete, as if I am missing something which belongs to me. Sadness is usually involved and sometimes I cry. I think I miss certain degree of safety that I feel when I’m at home.”

A feeling of sadness or nostalgia can be triggered by many things, often by certain sensory impulses like smells of tastes. Emma: “I often wish to smell mom’s home cooking or the fresh air of Ireland. I suppose I miss a lot of the food traditions. In Ireland Sunday dinners are huge late afternoon feasts, whereas in the Netherlands Dutch families often get takeaways on Sundays instead of cooking. I feel that the Dutch don’t have the same appreciation of food. Quite often ingredients are not available here or they are not quite the same.”

Communication problems can also make one feel a bit lonely. “I speak fluent Dutch but I think that everyone can express themselves best in their mother tongue. Even though I speak English in class, I’m not completely comfortable because I adapt my language to be understandable. Only when I speak to my parents or go home I can speak the way I normally do, with my Northern Irish accent,” says Emma. For another student, Jasmina Kostadinova from Bulgaria, it’s also “not being able to understand what people on the streets are saying” that isolates her from her surrounding. And sometimes it’s simply not having people around to talk to. Hug’ Kobain from France says that “during the spring break the flat I live in was quite empty. I was sometimes walking the corridors trying to see who was still there to have a little chat with.”

Reverse Nostalgia

But before you pack your bags and buy a ticket back to your Ithaca, think about things in the Netherlands that you might be missing, like your international friends. “I think I will be completely depressed! I’m really sad that I might not ever see some of my exchange friends again. I will also miss my independence; here I´m meeting new people every day and I am the one leading my life,” says Lara. Some students will also miss everyday comforts that the Netherlands provides: “Efficient public institutions, working bureaucracy, quality education, cycling pads, lack of stress (at least in Tilburg), clean environment, and being in a place where you can concentrate on improving and actually achieving things.”

The Grass is Greener on This Side

Jos Haarbosch, a student psychologist at Tilburg University says that homesickness is “linked to extreme differences that students sometimes experience between the home and the host country, such as work attitude or speed of live.” But what if the lifestyle abroad is simply better? For some students homesickness is not an issue because living in the Netherlands is much more comfortable than at home. One of the students from Romania: I am not moving back home.I really like the Netherlands more. I definitely don’t miss Romanian public institutions, education, daily stress, infernal traffic from Bucharest, lack of bicycle infrastructure, poverty, vulgar/violent people, the mediocre conversations, trash all over the place, public healthcare… List could go on and on.” Even though Emma misses home, there are a few things in Northern Ireland that she definitely doesn’t long for. “Public transport is really bad. It’s also a lot more dangerous to be out on your own at night, especially as a girl. And I definitely don’t miss the rivalry between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” she says.

Especially for exchange students, the experience abroad is short, intensive, and mostly positive. The excitement of being away is so overwhelming that there is no room for homesickness. Lara van Schaik from Spain:I feel really comfortable and independent making a lot of good friends, learning Dutch and speaking English! I was just talking with a friend from Argentina about being homesick, and neither of us misses our countries.” The feeling of euphoria takes over especially when studying in Tilburg is one of the first trips abroad ever experienced. Lara has never really been abroad alone, so she feels really good here: “I talk to my family on Skype maximum once a week and I don’t really need to talk with them so much in order to feel loved. I don’t miss my family, friends, routine, university, job, home… nothing! Not a single thought about coming back to Spain crossed my mind since I arrived here in the summer.”

Technology to the Rescue?

Most international students make good use of modern technology to stay in touch with their families. Andre Lot (Brazil/Italy): “I have no problem keeping in touch with people with all the technology available, so that helps a lot. I speak with family and some close friends on Skype and MSN every 10 days or so.” However, seeing your family’s happy faces on your laptop screen will not necessarily make you feel less homesick. Ads from Skype trick us into thinking that “free video calling makes it easy to be together, even when you’re not.” It is a comforting illusion to think that you can stay connected with you family through free Skype calls and regular email updates, whereas the instant availability of online contact can even have negative effects. Frequent Skype calls are comforting, but they are also regular reminders of being away and of events or family occasions that you are missing. So don’t rely too much on technology and try to deal with homesickness in a more constructive way. Student psychologists at Tilburg University advise to “keep in contact with home, but don’t let that contact withdraw you from leading your live in Tilburg. Find out what you miss and go for it over here. Be active: study, socialize and do sports.”

Published: Univers no. 06, December 13 2012

Those Foreign Students….

On the one hand the university welcomes international students with open arms and creates an internationally friendly environment. But once the students step outside of the safe campus, they hear voices grumbling about the increasing number of international students. The arguments sound dangerously like the ones against immigrants. Are international students a next target of an anti-immigration mood in the Netherlands?

They don’t integrate

Once the international students, especially the degree-seekers, arrive in the Netherlands, they are expected to blend into the Dutch society. Sander van den Eijnden, head of the Dutch organization for internationalization of higher education (Nuffic) expressed his disappointment in an interview with Volkskrant: “Foreign students are on the edge of society because they neither integrate, nor speak Dutch.” Most of them don’t, but the question is whether it is necessary. Jan Blommaert, a professor from the Department of Culture Studies, reacts: “Why would they do that? They stay here for the length of the program, usually without planning to live here afterwards.” According to Blommaert, learning Dutch should be expected from immigrants applying for citizenship, but not from international students. “There is even a policy of European Union stressing that foreign students shouldn’t be given the status of an ethnic minority,” says Blommaert. For Harrie Verbon from Tilburg School of Economics and Management, learning Dutch is an important part of integration, but speaking English is enough. “The Dutch speak English very well, which makes it a sufficient tool for integration. You can’t ask international students to learn Dutch if they are here only temporarily, although those who want to be a real part of the Dutch society accept that challenge.”

Blommaert also doesn’t agree with the statement that international students are not integrated in the society. He says: “They are here for a specific purpose revolving around well-defined activities, such as going to lectures and socializing. They acquire all integration skills they need to participate in the areas in which they are supposed to. It’s unrealistic to expect anything more.”

When we think about the problem of integration between domestic and international students, the necessity to learn Dutch is the most obvious solution that springs to mind. However, that might not be the answer. Hans-George van Liempd, Senior Program Manager at Tilburg University, sees the solution in the university itself. “The classroom has a potential to solve the difficulties of integration, if we put more emphasis on academic cooperation.  If students of different nationalities work together, it is more likely that they will also spend time on a daily basis,” says Van Liempd.

They take our rooms

Eric Lucassen from Party for Freedom PVV said in an interview with that the number of foreign students in the Netherlands should be limited, because there is a shortage of student rooms. His perception very much resembles the anti-immigration argument that the foreigners take the places of the Dutch. According to Verbon, the argument does not apply to international students: “It is workers who compete for jobs and houses, not students. If there is a shortage of student rooms, it is not a solution to discriminate students from abroad.  An alternative is to limit the total number of students, both international and domestic, by restricting entry requirements.” Apart from that, housing shortage shouldn’t be an excuse to shut the university doors. The problem is already tackled by projects such as the Tilburg Talent Square, which will offer 700 extra apartments and rooms.

They don’t contribute

Another problem with international students seems to be that because they are not well integrated into the society, “they do not contribute to the local economy,” said Van den Eijnden in an interview for Volkskrant. This argument becomes much weaker when you think about student everyday life. Blommaert says: “They rent rooms, eat in the restaurants, take a bus, go to see the movies, buy groceries… What is contribution to the local economy if not this?” Chinese students don’t only dine in Chinese restaurants, nor do they rent rooms from Chinese owners. Thus, the money circulates within in the country though the hands of Dutch owners and companies.

They cost us money

Up until now, European students who work at least eight hours per week can apply for study grants. For many of them this opportunity, along with the loan, is the main source of funding their studies. However, the State Secretary Zijlstra plans to increase the requirement from eight to fourteen hours a week. The argument is that the rules for Dutch students are getting stricter, so it’s only fair to restrict financial benefits for foreign students as well. According to the VSNU, such measure is counterproductive and it will significantly slow the study pace. Blommaert also disagrees with Zijstra’s measure: “I myself wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for a system of welfare and higher education subsidies. Changing this system will result in excluding many excellent students.” The lack of financial pressure for students is one of the main advantages of studying in the Netherlands. “If we lose this advantage, we’re shooting ourselves in a foot,” says Blommeart. For Van Liempd it is a question of a well-defined strategy: “There is a contradiction in the government’s position. On the one hand Zijlstra sees a potential in China, but on the other makes domestic rules stricter for international students. The government lacks a broad internationalization policy.”

Not immigrants!

Jan Blommaert, himself being a knowledge migrant, makes a clear distinction between general immigration figures and the increase in the number of international students. “The days of attracting immigrants are certainly over. Migration in the Netherlands is effectively discouraged and regulated.” Nonetheless, the so-called smart migration is increasingly important. It is crucial for the universities to attract and invest in international students. “Foreign students shouldn’t be seen as migrants! The politicians should approach student mobility as an economic opportunity, and not as a sociological nightmare,” says Blommaert.

Published: Univers no. 11, April 12, 2012