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Thomas Vaessens

Thomas Vaessens

Who: Thomas Vaessens (1967)
What: Professor of Dutch Literature
Studied: Dutch Language and Culture, Literary Studies
First job: Lecturer at Utrecht University
Favourite spot at the UvA: The inner garden of the Oudemanhuispoort
Essential: The enthusiasm of students

Thomas Vaessens (1967) is Professor of Dutch Literature. As a child of highly socially engaged parents, he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to writing. He studied Dutch Language and Culture in Utrecht, followed by a Literary Studies programme for good measure. Conducted research as a doctoral candidate and spent a decade working in Utrecht. In 2003, Thomas became part of the UvA's ‘New Generation Offensive’, which aims to design courses that transcend departmental boundaries. He has been with the university ever since. Thomas places great importance on teaching people to read, write and think both creatively and critically.

Exactly how vital is language, and the Dutch language in particular?

‘While it's patently obvious that people consider the national language to be one of the aspects that determines a country's identity, it is a misconception that studying Dutch is a nationalistic thing to do. It is not about defending "our language", it's about teaching people to read, write and think both creatively and critically. That's important, even if you consider politics alone. We face a constant stream of guiding, cajoling and sometimes frankly demagogic messages from politicians, lobby organisations and advertising firms. It can be tough to distil the truth from all of this, or at least develop an opinion of your own. In a discussion-oriented culture like ours, in which everyone can join in via all kinds of media, it is vital that we maintain our critical view of the language. Language is political and language proficiency is a crucial part of democracy. If people are no longer proficient in their language, can they still be resilient citizens capable of independent though and action? We tend to underestimate the importance of language in general, in terms of the society within a country.’

I not only listen to what people say, but also to how they say it.

Is the Netherlands becoming a weaker country because people are spending less and less time reading books?

‘There is much talk of the “end of reading” in society, but that's an exaggerated claim. The percentage of their time that people spend reading has not changed much in the past decades. The number of leisure hours per person, on the other hand, has increased. On balance, people spend as much time reading as they ever did. Literature still provides an important window to the world, and for young people as well. What is different now is that young people have gained a multitude of other potential windows. In the 1950s, your choices were limited to reading a book and maybe going to the cinema now and then. In the 1960s, we gained television as an option. Before the 1970s, very few young people attended concerts or music festivals. The internet did not emerge until the late 90s and Netflix came even later. The cultural-consumer pattern of a person in their twenties today is unbelievably diverse and much richer than in the past. Yet the number of writers, books and publishing houses has remained relatively constant. A vibrant literary culture exists and receives a great deal of attention in the media. It's active, but it doesn't have the same cachet it used to. Reading is now simply one of the cultural-consumer activities in which many people take part.’

The Dutch Language programme is about how you express yourself and how to express yourself creatively.

What kind of shift would you like to see in society?

‘I'd like to see the school subject Dutch being taught in a more inspiring way. Partly because there are few compulsory exit qualifications for Dutch that apply to all schools, how the subject is taught depends on the individual goals of each school. While this sometimes yields good results, it can also be disastrous, particularly where literature is concerned. Literature is barely addressed in the central school-leaving examination, so teachers more or less skip it in their lesson plans. The problem doesn't lie with the teachers, but with the requirements that have been established for the subject. Because literature is not an aspect on which schools are evaluated, the reading list is rather limited and literature is given little or no discussion time in the classroom. As a result, the seed is insufficiently planted, as it were – which we are seeing in the Dutch Language programme. In the past, every secondary school had a dozen pupils who developed a real passion for reading and literature. There seem to be fewer these days. Another factor at work is the strong focus on science and technology programmes, which makes it seem as though a degree in Dutch Language is less promising in terms of future employment. Despite the fact that, if you want to be sure of a job, you should definitely study Dutch! Not only because we need good teachers, but because we need language professionals as well. We need people with rock-solid language skills, both active and passive. People who can work for language consultancy firms, or help draft language-related policy. Or work anywhere in the media, for that matter: we have far too few people with an aptitude for writing.’

The UvA is an intellectual, dynamic and creative hotspot. There's a thriving culture of debate.

The UvA now versus the UvA then: do you see a big difference?

‘The university then was completely different than the UvA of today. The interaction between students and lecturers was different. There was more distance, a greater awareness of hierarchy. Things are much more dynamic these days. What's more, the programme we currently teach is better and more challenging than it was when I was a student. One thing that hasn't changed, and which bothered me in the past as well, is that people always seem a bit surprised to learn you're planning to study the Dutch language. Especially when, like me, you took a science-focused course package in secondary school. Today's UvA is truly an intellectual, dynamic and creative hotspot. The intellectual environment is intense and there's a thriving culture of enthusiastic debate. No one is too shy to say what they think or too afraid to present their own points of view. The people here are engaged and passionate. Explicit and extroverted. I really like that, although it can be a bit maddening at times. Of course it stems from the kind of city Amsterdam is: a self-assured city, filled with proud people who are unafraid to express their individuality. The same definitely applies to my own students: generally speaking, Dutch Language students tend to be creative people. They're people who write, act, make music, or do all those things at the same time. Which is fantastic, because it means they are intimately involved with the very core of our study programme: language, literature, speaking, writing, expressing yourself. It is a creative field, and not just where literature is concerned. The Dutch Language programme is about how you express yourself, how other people express themselves and how to express yourself creatively.’