The Engels Seminarium from an English Perspective – Prof. Dominic Baker-Smith

When I arrived in Amsterdam in 1981 I had already spent seventeen years teaching in British universities, and I was to spend the next seventeen teaching in the Netherlands. In fact, after graduating from Cambridge, I had been Instructor in English at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada for three years before I returned to Cambridge, where I became Lecturer in the Faculty of English and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College. Then, in 1976 I moved briefly to Cardiff as Professor, before dashing eastwards to the Amstel. So I had quite a range of experience when I finally arrived in Amsterdam, and I thought I knew almost everything. The Engels Seminarium quickly taught me that I knew just about nothing. It was a difficult transition.

Later, of course, things were to change in Britain, but when I got to Amsterdam the University seemed amazingly bureaucratic.  The idea that I was employed for a specific number of hours per year, and that these hours were to be divided into so many for teaching, so many for research, and so many for administration, was a culture shock. Filling in my onderzoeksformulieren, with the hypothetical projections of time to be spent on various projects, was to me unpleasantly reminiscent of doing my income tax. And, of course, the real time spent on these things seldom bore any relation to the figures on the paper. So each year you had to make sure that your figures related to last year’s return, and this meant that slowly you began to creep into a fictional world where the figures might match but bore less and less relation to reality. I had a friend who worked for a research institute in France: his one obligation was to have lunch once a year with his boss and report on what he was doing. This may appear extreme, but in contrast the Dutch system did seem to assume that unless you could prove that you were at your desk doing whatever it was that you were supposed to do, then you were almost certainly up to no good. I attributed this attitude to a strong sense of original sin. My colleagues advised me that there had been blatant abuse in the past, and I’m sure they were right, but this did seem to me a heavy-handed way of solving the problem. But then, all over the world, as higher education has become more politicized, trust has been in short supply. Yet without it intellectual creativity is hindered.

When I announced to the department at Cardiff my impending departure it coincided with the installation of Queen Beatrix, an event that was accompanied by some riots in Amsterdam. These were shown on British TV and my colleagues were particularly pleased: ‘See what you are getting into,’ they smirked. This was still in the era of krakers, and I remember walking home one evening across Museumplein and finding my way blocked by lines of riot police, while a tram went up in flames in front of the Concertgebouw. This was certainly different from Cardiff, and even more from Cambridge, but part of me was slightly exhilarated and I found myself thinking, ‘this is the real thing.’ It took me a while to get adjusted to the volatility of Amsterdam but I could see that it had its points. One anecdote I like to tell to wide-eyed academic friends is about the occasion when I was giving a class in the Bungehuis on Renaissance Pastoral Poetry (the topic has its ironic relevance); it was one of those rooms where the lecturer was placed in the window bay, facing into the room.  As I talked I noticed that no one was looking at me – they all gazed past me. I spoke louder, but to no effect; so I began to jump up and down and wave my arms. Same result. So then I turned round and looked out of the window myself, and there in Spuistraat was a line of mounted police charging at a mob of krakers. It was an interesting variant on the pastoral theme of social simplicity, though I’m not sure that the students recognized that point.

But, then, what about the students? How did they seem after my Canadian and British experience? I don’t want to seem flattering, but for me the best thing about Amsterdam was the students. I found an openness and a genuine interest in the subjects of study that was far from widespread in the UK, and to that one can add a friendly attitude towards teachers which made that aspect of my work a pleasure.  There was (is?) also a welcome element of maturity in the student body which may come from having to navigate life in Amsterdam rather than living in university hostels. I was warned beforehand that university committees in the Netherlands had students on them, which was still unusual then in Britain. As I soon found, the students were often the most useful people on them. The great change in Dutch higher education took place not long after I arrived, when the 6-year doctoraal course was reduced to 4 years. Looking back I suppose that it was inevitable, especially as universities world-wide shifted from academic goals to issues of employability. But it did make a big difference.  Most of my teaching then was directed at the 4th and 5th year students, and this included ‘tutorials’. Now these were a wonderful opportunity: the course lasted for a whole year, and the class met (if my memory is correct) for four hours a week. This made it possible to explore a subject in great detail, and provided students with the opportunity to do some really original research. You may not know it, but my special area was the Renaissance: apart from my interests in English literature and culture of the 16th and 17th centuries, my Ph.D was in Neo-Latin. In fact I came to Amsterdam in part because I had done work on Erasmus and Hugo de Groot and I knew that Neo-Latin was a serious subject in the Netherlands (in Britain it counted as a ‘hobby’). I found Dutch students very responsive, and often better equipped than British ones in matters like art history, European languages, and the Classical world, and this gave them a valuable basis for the interpretation of Renaissance texts. Some of the ‘scriptie’ students I supervised at the Engels Seminarium were outstanding by any standard and compared very favourably with their British counterparts. It is a matter of some delight to me that two, at least, of my former students there now have posts in English universities, one as a professor.

I gave courses on ’Literature and the Renaissance Court’, ‘Renaissance Love Poetry’, and even a whole tutorial on John Donne, but my bread-and-butter teaching was on Shakespeare. Now that was a very good experience for me. I suppose the fact that Dutch students approach Shakespeare through a ‘second language’ gives their reading a special focus, and there is the further point that their study of linguistics has given them a vocabulary to analyse what it is that appeals to them in Shakespeare’s dramatic writing. I found Dutch students had an enthusiasm for Shakespeare which was most refreshing after the cultural piety which could block appreciation among British students. And then there were the performances. Several times the students put on Shakespearean plays in the University theatre with great success; there was even a group of players known as the Caterwaulers (I never found out why), and I joined in two of their performances, once as Oberon – it seemed only right that the professor should be the King of the Faeries. These were directed by a talented student from Theaterwetenschap called Paul Springer: he was a lively and innovative director, though I viewed his ideas about Shakespeare as quite up the creek. But he was the director and so I did what he told me. I would rate acting in these plays, and the easy atmosphere it generated among us performers, as one of the highlights of my time in Amsterdam. But I can’t leave the subject of theatre without mention of the late John Peereboom, whose popular courses on the English drama would culminate in a trip to see the latest offerings on the London stage.  John was an amazingly bi-cultural man, and among his enthusiasms was cricket; we would often discuss the latest Test match, or slip along to see the live thing at Amstelveen. When I first arrived I was drawn into the committee to read the proefschrift  on Henry Fielding that John was preparing for his doctorate at Leiden. The title rather shocked me: Fielding Practice (in case you don’t know, that is a term in cricket). I complained that this was a bit too facetious for such a solemn event as a promotie, but Professor Bachrach, his promotor, shook his head: ‘Let him have his way’, he said.  And later, as I got to know John, I realized that that this playful touch was exactly his style.

But what about the future? It is now fifteen years since I packed my bags and became ‘emeritus’, and I don’t have a clear picture of developments since that time. Looking back on the many experiences I confronted in the Bungehuis, some of them memorable, many of them definitely to be forgotten, I suppose that one quality I associated with Amsterdam English students was resilience, and I am confident that that must still be true. Over the years the Engels Seminarium has been the setting for numerous bizarre happenings: usually these were acted out among the staff members, while the students got on with the serious business of completing their studies. The administrative burden was a heavy one, and after I arrived from the relatively autocratic structures of British academe I was awed by the proliferation of committees and the time they consumed. What was worse was my sense that even after long hours had been spent in discussion – not all of it amicable – the decision reached might have little relation to the ultimate outcome, since that often appeared to be dropped into the situation from some higher level.  Democracy can be a good thing, but it can also lead to frustration and factional pressures.

The Faculty of English at Cambridge University at one time enjoyed an international reputation for its internal quarrels. These survived into the 1980s, and I can recall one or two lively meetings when threats of litigation were tossed about. The Engels Seminarium might not match this, but there were episodes of friction from time to time, and as voorzitter I found myself drawn into them. To some extent these arose from clashes of personality, but a factor was undoubtedly the division of the department into distinct sections. This led to a certain competitive spirit which was not always helpful. All this was new to me since at UK universities English departments were dominated by literary studies: at Cambridge the history of the language played some part in the Faculty of English, but linguistics as such were housed elsewhere. Naturally, where English is not the first language, there must be substantial allowance for language acquisition; so I was not surprised by the arrangements in Amsterdam, though I could see that the dividing line between practical and theoretical linguistics might prove contentious. This was indeed the case. Then the staff numbers were higher, which might seem a good thing; but it also meant that when there were divisions these were on a larger scale. I often wondered then whether some more unified structure might not be a gain for the department. It may well be that things have moved that way since I left.

When I first arrived in the University of Amsterdam I described my experience as trying to land a helicopter on an avalanche: everything was always shifting. In the highly unsettled world of the modern university to have survived a hundred years is quite something, so I think that all of us who have been concerned with the Engels Seminarium either as producers or consumers can pat ourselves on the back. One way or another we made it. Certainly I had some bruising encounters, but then academics are notoriously aggressive to each other. Looking back over my years in Amsterdam I like to recall the many happy contacts with colleagues that still leave a glow in the memory and, when it comes to students, in my personal World Student Ratings those in the Engels Seminarium come top. Enjoy the celebrations, and get ready for the next hundred years.