Universiteit Leiden

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Back to university: ‘A bit apprehensive but mostly pleased’

After almost 18 months of following lectures alone in their rooms, many students are going back to face-to-face classes for the first time. And the same is true for the lecturers. How do people feel about it? We went to Leiden Law School to find out. ‘For a whole year, I’ve been watching lectures in bed.’

It’s 9.00 on Wednesday morning. Dozens of students hurry along Rapenburg towards the Kamerlingh Onnes Building, which at long last looks like a beehive again, with all the students flying in and out. For nearly everyone, today is the first time they’re really going to classes, and their world is suddenly much bigger. ‘For a whole year, I’ve been watching lectures in bed,’ says one student, who is clearly aware of this special, almost historic moment. 

Back at the Law School and wearing face masks in the corridors.
Back at the Law School and wearing face masks in the corridors.

Where’s your face mask?

But it’s not quite business as usual just yet. ‘Where’s your face mask?’ a vigilant receptionist asks a student, hurrying past. Professor Alex Geert Castermans and PhD candidate Sarah Vandenbroucke are waiting excitedly in the Grotius lecture room for their students to arrive – a maximum of 75 are permitted. The larger lectures are therefore still digital. Castermans can understand that some students may still feel a bit hesitant. ‘I’ve opened the windows wide because I don’t want my lectures to be a spreading event. I also feel a bit apprehensive myself about what will happen this year, of course, but mostly I’m pleased.’

Castermans and Vandenbroucke welcome their students back to campus.
Castermans and Vandenbroucke welcome their students back to campus.

Morning rush again

Today the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) tutorial is on the menu. What does CSR have to do with law, and what can a lawyer do to promote it? Janna, a second-year student, sits expectantly in the row of seats. ‘I’m happy, but it’s strange being back here. I suddenly have to rush around in the morning again.’ What does she see as the main difference from home learning? ‘I get distracted more easily when I’m watching an online lecture. And it’s harder to ask questions. I find it easier to do that in the lecture hall. We’re all here together and we all have the same aim.’ 

Students in a lecture hall at Leiden Law School.
‘When I’m here, I really want to be working!’

Travelling to class

Another student, who wants to remain anonymous, actually prefers online lectures. ‘I’d rather study at home. It gives me more freedom to structure my time myself. I don’t live in Leiden and now I’m having to spend time travelling again.’ 

Julie is sitting a little further along. She lives in Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht and therefore also has to catch the train again. But she doesn’t mind. She says that she’s ‘more focused’ sitting on her fold-down seat in the lecture hall. ‘When I’m here, I really want to be working!’

‘I’ve opened the windows: I don’t want my lecture to be a spreading event.’

Eye contact versus black screens

Two hours later, Castermans comes out of the lecture room, wearing a face mask and looking excited. ‘You can’t beat a face-to-face lecture,’ he says. ‘It’s great to be able to walk up and down again; to really look students in the eye and hear them laughing. They were so committed that it took no effort at all to get them back to work.’ What’s the main difference? ‘The online lectures went well and the facilities were good. But it’s still more difficult to make real contact with all those black screens. Sometimes I would ask a question directly to a student and the screen would just stay black. Then I’d hear a “sorry”, and the student would apologise for not wanting to be seen because he was still in bed.’ 

Speak more freely

In his lectures to an international group of students, Castermans sometimes covers sensitive societal issues. Such as: if you’re a lawyer who has been asked to advise on a partnership with a clothing company in China, should you spontaneously raise the question of the role of trade unions? He has noticed that students often daren’t express their views on sensitive themes so clearly in online lectures, which are also recorded. ‘And especially if they come from countries where people have to be careful what they say.’ 

Clothes management

But the digital lectures have also given him inspiration. For instance, Castermans would like to integrate the chatbox – the handy online option that lets students ask questions without interrupting the speaker – into his face-to-face lectures. And one aspect will suddenly be making extra demands on his time once more: ‘I have to work on my clothes management again. What do I put on each morning? This morning I discovered that my suits had gathered dust after all this time and really need to be taken to the dry cleaner’s.’ 

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos: Marc de Haan

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