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“I don’t work in health care; no one is going to lose any sleep over me publishing fewer articles this year”

“I don’t work in health care; no one is going to lose any sleep over me publishing fewer articles this year” “I don’t work in health care; no one is going to lose any sleep over me publishing fewer articles this year”

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Simone Golob

Archive Esther Versluis

The second wave: Esther Versluis

Before the summer, a yes-we-can mentality prevailed in the Department of Political Science (FASoS). “We were going to show everyone that we could continue our teaching online in an effective way. Everyone was working way too hard”, says department chair Esther Versluis. By now, fatigue has set in.

Esther Versluis (45) – professor of European Regulatory Governance and, since mid-2019, chair of the Department of Political Science – noticed it in the very first week after the summer break: her fifty staff members were not well rested, even if they had been on holiday. She also noticed that they were worried about what the new academic year would bring us. Now that the Netherlands is caught in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, fatigue is beginning to take its toll. “People are more irritable and a lot less resilient. We don’t run into each other in the corridors or at the coffee machine; all communication goes through email or Zoom. It easily leads to misunderstandings.”

Afraid of getting sick

And, yes, some of her staff members are afraid of getting sick. “It’s almost like that fear is culturally determined. The Dutch attempt to put things into perspective a lot, but colleagues from certain regions are more anxious. They prefer not to come to the university, which is possible. So far, there are enough staff members available to teach tutorials on campus – our students come to the university once per week. But that would have to stop if I didn’t have enough people available. I agree with ‘On campus if we can, online if we have to’. But I won’t force any lecturers to come into work.”

She isn’t really afraid of getting infected herself. “Maybe I’m wrong not to be, but I’m not in a high-risk group. I’ll take it as it comes, if it does. There’s no point in worrying about it in advance. I stick to the rules, we see very few people, but I'm a pragmatist. I let my children do their own thing as much as possible. My daughter is in her second year of secondary school. She’s in a group of six friends who see each other at school all day – no masks, no social distancing. Now, they want to celebrate Sinterklaas together; they’ve already drawn names. But they’re not allowed to do so under the current COVID-19 restrictions. Well, they’re doing it anyway, as we’ve agreed with the other parents.”

Incentive

Some things are easier in this world of working online and from home, she says. “I’m writing a book with colleagues across the country. Before COVID-19, we would meet up in the middle of the country. It was a lot of fun, but we now meet up online. It really cuts down on travel time.” She’s less enthusiastic about the international conference she recently attended online, though. “It’s an annual conference I always used to look forward to. Getting a few days to yourself is rare when you have young children at home. It also always acted as an incentive to complete my research. I do wonder if we’ll ever go back to doing that, even if just in terms of its impact on the climate – flying halfway around the world for three days.”

Cottage in the Veluwe region

Speaking of research, she doesn’t get around to it at the moment. “The last time I finished an article was in September, when I spent five days alone – I’d sent my family home on Sunday – in a cottage in the Veluwe region. My attention and motivation are different, I get distracted or just very tired more easily. I've noticed this in others, too. I’m counting down the days until Christmas break. Research is one of our job responsibilities, of course, but now teaching comes first.”

She is taking good care of herself, she says. “I go for walks during the day, eat healthy food, and life is less hectic in terms of logistics. I used to have these terrible days when I would run from the university to after-school care at six in the evening, only to get home and find out that we didn’t have enough food in the fridge while one of the children had to go to sports club. I now go grocery shopping at a more convenient time and I have more time to cook. I keep my head on straight. It's easy for me to talk; I’m a tenured professor. But I've never worked more than 40 hours per week. I don't sit at my desk in the evenings or on weekends. I take four weeks off in the summer. I try to be an example in this regard.” She chuckles. “That’s one way to become a professor.” Then, seriously: “I can put my job into perspective. I don’t work in health care; no one is going to lose any sleep over me publishing fewer articles this year. We get way too caught up in the academic rat race.”

Fifteen minutes

At times, working online is “too efficient”, she says. “Our department meetings take about 1.5 to 2 hours. We use break-out teams for announcements and discussions, which works well. We now also discuss personal matters: how do you look after your mental health in these times? How do you make enough time for research?” But other things fall through the cracks. “I always used to come in fifteen minutes early and stay for a little while afterwards. People would approach me with little things they wouldn’t bother sending an email about. ‘I’ve been asked to do this, should I?’ Or, ‘I’m very busy right now, so I would like to postpone that.’ You don’t discuss those kinds of things online, you don't exchange them anymore. You don’t catch up with each other like that.” It’s also pretty much impossible to have difficult performance reviews or check in with colleagues who are struggling online, according to Versluis.

Happy students

“I hope we will be able to return to something resembling normal in September 2021. Earlier than that doesn’t seem realistic to me. We might be able to do a little more at the university this spring, once a vaccine is available, but I expect that we will be among the last groups to be vaccinated. Also, many students aren’t here. I currently teach two second-year European Studies (ES) groups, one on campus and one online. The latter includes students from Georgia, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Some of them are still at home; they can’t come to the Netherlands. Some parents don’t want them to, either. They think it’s too risky. My on-campus group is so much fun every week, students are so happy to see each other and come to the university. It really feels different online. Online teaching is just more difficult.”

Resilient students

Versluis also serves as a mentor to thirteen first-year ES students. “I had individual appointments with them last Wednesday. I’d prepared for a tough day, but I was positively surprised. I met eleven of them in person and two of them online. I thought they were very resilient, so mature. Imagine starting a new study programme in a new country, only to face these kinds of restrictions. Ten of my students are doing well. They are content with the education they are receiving and, despite everything, have made new friends they try to meet up with, to the extent that they are allowed to. My two students who are at home in Germany are clearly having a harder time. The rules are stricter there, too. Imagine being eighteen years old and mostly having to stay inside, with your parents. You just want to spread your wings and go out into the world! At least, that's what I wanted to do when I was their age. And it’s what I did.”

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