Corporate Didactics at Dutch University

I have no idea that what’s about to hit me is the wholesale replacement of academic teaching by corporate personality training.

We’re having a meeting on teaching, and I’m already pissed-off.

Not so long ago, the dubious high point of these sessions consisted of an earnest person telling us earnestly that it’s generally advisable to use an example now and then, you know, to make things concrete, just think about it. We’d all nod thoughtfully, and that would be that.

Those days are over.

Now, didactic meetings are systematically contaminated by the efficiency incentives that come with the output financing of Dutch universities. This is a plain and obvious fact, which is nonetheless denied with the utmost precision. What’s good for students just so happens — either by sheer coincidence or by mysterious metaphysical design — to be good for our key performance indicators as well.

At the University of Amsterdam, where I work, I haven’t for a very long time come across a “didactic” or “pedagogical” proposal that wasn’t at the same time another transparent attempt to shore up the timely production of the credits and diplomas that determine our budget.

So I am already wary, and yet I have no idea that what’s about to hit me is the wholesale replacement of academic teaching by corporate personality training.

A nice fellow takes the floor. The fellow radiates the inane enthusiasm one usually finds displayed at TED conferences, Scientology meetings, corporate team-building sessions and mass suicides. He offers suggestions to facilitate intensified collaboration between teams of students. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It quickly appears, however, that the specific way he proposes to reach that goal fundamentally erases the boundaries between the personal and academic lives of students, as well as between academic and corporate contexts.

The team work he outlines demands the full mobilization of students’ personalities and attitudes for quasi-corporate labor. Passing or failing depends on your ability and willingness to play the game: to perform and to communicate in a quasi-corporate capacity; to become your own walking infomercial.

Let me try to give you the gist of it. The group projects are punctuated by regular “scrumming” sessions, a technique for managing software development that has become an industry of its own. Well, if it’s good enough for producing commercial software, then it’s surely good enough for academic papers! If I understand correctly, scrumming involves meeting standing up rather than sitting down, as well as a lot of multi-coloured Post-its, which are both clearly ground-breaking innovations.

Hence, students are called upon to expose their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and challenges, what frightens and what bores them, with nary a concern for privacy.

Other essential ingredients of the group work include concept maps, Pecha Kucha presentations, elevator pitches, issue trees and energizers. Wow! (More than anything, this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, adopting anything that sounds vaguely fad-ish, suggests to me a didactic spirit that’s entirely desperate, entirely lost.) For the energizers, I imagine a combination of rhythmic gymnastics, mindfulness and chanting. As an aside, the speaker admits that not all instructors may have the right personality for the energizers. You don’t say.

There is an academic paper involved in all of this, but its existence is curiously ephemeral. It’s little more than a pretext. As the scrumming sessions and other managerial devices already suggest, this course is primarily vocational or professional in nature. As in an internship, academic and corporate contexts collapse.

At the same time, the course doesn’t seem to offer much by way of technical or professional expertise, for example, knowing how to bake a cake or to build a plane. All emphasis is on the so-called “soft skills,” which have to do with communication, adaptability, and collaboration. Hence, the didactics of the course are less about knowledge and know-how as they are about who you are, how you feel, and how you come across to others. The main objective is to shape the type of personality that is well-assimilated to the contemporary workplace, and to instil an indiscriminately positive and constructive attitude, one congenial to managing, self-managing, and being-managed.

Those personality skills require an unusual level of personal investment of the students. After all, to be able to work together productively, a PowerPoint specifies, team members will need to know both themselves and each other exceedingly well. Hence, students are called upon to expose their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and challenges, what frightens and what bores them, with nary a concern for privacy.

The teacher even supplies LinkedIn recommendations for his students.

By way of assessment, moreover, students offer each other published testimonials. The teacher even supplies Linked-In recommendations for his students. In other words, do well “academically,” and your assessment by your teacher — mentor? coach? trainer? therapist? pseudo-employer? — adds directly to your professional social capital. One might think that Laura “is a shy and quiet person at first sight,” we are informed, ”but truly she is a strong-minded person who knows when to speak up.” Niek is “very committed and enthusiastic.”


Seemingly-shy-but-strongminded Laura and enthusiastic Niek meet up after the four-week course module. They have received their grades and their Linked-In recommendations; all is well. The course that their teachers fancy quite a challenge is, in fact, the easiest to hack, as many senior students have assured them in advance. The instructors are so impressed by their new role of management gurus, life coaches and therapists that they are pathetically easy to fool.

The main thing was to enact a relentlessly positive and optimistic attitude whenever they could see you, which was managed easily enough through pharmaceutical means. Laura appropriated a month’s supply of Ritalin from her little brother, Niek got his Adderall from the web. At some point in the course, they knew they’d had to offer a measured performance of vulnerability: acting out some fear, obstacle, challenge, or problem. They planned this in advance and practiced.

The main thing required was to enact a relentlessly positive and optimistic attitude whenever they could see you, which was managed easily enough through pharmaceutical means.

Another requirement was the cultivated confession of a minor shortcoming or failure, taking full responsibility, then to promise to do better. The most important thing, they found, was subtly to take credit for anything and everything that was going well, managing impressions all the way. They knew they’d hardly contributed to the research paper that was supposed to be the outcome of their team work. It didn’t matter.

Laura starts worrying about getting the Adderall away from Niek. She was no longer so sure she cared much for this enhanced version of her boyfriend. She looks at his face and, in a flash, she recognizes that Niek now earnestly believes he’s very committed and enthusiastic, and that he will be lost to her forever.