“I enjoy being alone more than I thought I would”

The second wave: Eline Schmeets

04-01-2021

What do you do when a student mutes your voice in order to listen to music? “Remain empathic and calm,” says Eline Schmeets, PhD researcher at Maastricht working on Europe and lecturer at University College Maastricht. Online education has its own set of challenges. Still, she likes working from home. “A more pleasant, gentler rhythm has evolved.”

For Eline Schmeets, the teaching programme didn’t start until September. “I only teach in the first blocks of the academic year.” She found it “rather exciting” to see students in person again. She spent spring with her parents. “The three of us cocooned together. We had our groceries delivered, started each day with a walk and made a sport of cooking for each other. It almost felt like a holiday.”

Fortunately, she was prepared well. “Everyone at UCM wore a face mask right from the beginning. The COVID-19 measures and the new way of teaching was also discussed in depth with us. I felt that I was taken very serious as an employee.”

At UCM, the tutorial groups have been split in two, to make it possible for lessons to take place on campus. This means that lecturers have to teach the same lesson twice per group. “It is very intensive; I have to do that six times – having three tutorial groups – telling the same story enthusiastically. Because of the face mask, you can only see part of someone’s face, so you miss some of the facial expressions. That makes it sometimes harder to know which student could use a little bit of extra help. I am normally quite expressive, so I also try to use body language to make contact with students.”

Vulnerable

At the end of the week, there is a follow-up online meeting of an hour. “In general that goes well. You have to find your way. For example, I now give more direction behind the scenes, by sending the student an individual message in the chat.”

She did find it very difficult when a couple of groups decided to switch off their cameras, because some students, for privacy reasons, preferred not to show where they lived. “So, then you are really speaking to an empty space, it makes you vulnerable as a tutor. I asked them if they would please switch their cameras back on. One student noticed my uncertainty. I was glad about that. Of course, we have to be there for the students, but on our side, it can be difficult too. If something goes wrong, we might be even more upset than the student.”

It is important to remain empathic and calm, says Schmeets. “I once saw that a student had muted the sound and was listening to music. That is when your reaction shouldn’t be one of frustration or fatigue, but ask; how can I keep you interested?” It is up to students to not only complain, but to give constructive feedback. “I encouraged them to do so on Facebook, sometimes it was very much about everything that was wrong.”

The border

Her blocks are now over, so she can focus on her research again. “I look at the interaction between the EU and cross-border integration processes in the border area. The European Union is large and relatively abstract, for many people that is difficult to take onboard. Europe is always present in a border region, it is in the history, in daily life. When European policies are implemented, here is where you immediately see whether it works or not. COVID-19 is a good example. The borders don’t have much meaning for people here. You take shopping in Belgium for granted, go for a walk in Germany in the weekends. When the borders were closed people became more conscious of the line around us and what that means. I look at it from a cultural sciences point of view; I have no judgement on the political aspect, I research how people try to understand Europe, what they say about it, write about it.”

A Erasmus+ ‘Mobility for Staff’ grant for a two month visit to the University of Sussex in April, where her second supervisor is, was cancelled. “The idea was that we would get to know each other better and that I would join his research group. Now we speak more often online, are less formal with each other.” A project in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, was also cancelled, as was field work that I was supposed to do on Nieuwstraat/Neustrasse in Kerkrade, a street that is half in the Netherlands and half in Germany. “I didn’t mind terribly; it just didn’t happen. They were replaced by other interesting initiatives and projects.  I hope to be able to do the fieldwork in February.”

Balance

Instead of that, she can throw yourself into her reading and writing work for hours on end. “I plot out my work day. I start off with a short walk and afterwards I do a brief online workout. I am more productive. In the past, I sometimes had days where I went from a meeting to a coffee date. Now I can delve into my material. A more pleasant, gentler rhythm has evolved.”

Contact with friends has changed. “I didn’t see my friends in spring, in order to protect my parents as well. When I came back to Maastricht, I noticed that some of them were a little freer with COVID-19 measures. I am still a little stricter, I want to continue to be able to visit my grandmother, who is 91, but I do see more people now. More so even, because I am in contact with people whom I hadn’t spoken to for years. That is extraordinary.”

Still, her social life is a lot quieter. “I sometimes used to feel that I should meet up with someone every evening. Now I have discovered that I enjoy being alone more than I thought.” That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t at times feel fed up. “It has been going on for a long time now. There are times I just want to eat out with friends, or visit a museum with my boyfriend and have a glass of wine afterwards.”

“I enjoy being alone more than I thought I would”
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