Constant demanded more teaching time (and hopes it won’t hurt his career)

Het ComeniusNetwerk 06-09-2022
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Constant Swinkels is an ecologist. He is pursuing a PhD at Radboud University Nijmegen and sees education as a way to increase his impact on people and nature. Using a grant from the Comenius programme, he is revamping a course on biodiversity to introduce his students to the amazing flora and fauna

‘Two years ago, during the job interview for my PhD position, I asked for extra teaching time. Actually, I demanded it. (Laughs.) Ten percent is the norm here, and many PhD students use that time to follow courses themselves, but I also want to develop as a teacher. That’s why my doctoral programme will take five years to complete instead of four, thirty percent of which I can devote to teaching
– although it’s a little more in practice.’

Passion for ecology

‘I got bit by the nature bug at an early age, but I didn’t end up where I am now thanks to some plan. [A1] Still, when I look back, I do see a story that makes sense. When I was twelve, I became a member of the Dutch Youth Association for Nature Studies, and three years later I started organizing and leading my own excursions. I realized early on that policymakers and the general public don’t always know enough about nature. My ultimate wish is to contribute to nature management and biodiversity in the Netherlands. Or maybe even globally, though that might be aiming a bit too high. Doing research is one way to create impact, but sharing the results of that research with other people is just as im­ portant to me. You can do that through public lectures or media appearances, but it’s especially important to do it at the university, with the biologists of the future.’

 
More of a guide than a teacher

‘I’m still developing as a teacher. Part of that development happens intuitively, by trying things out in my classes, but there’s also a part that’s evidence informed
– as befits a scientist. I sometimes spend entire evenings reading articles and watching YouTube videos about self­determination theory. I have no children and an enormous hunger for knowledge, so evenings are perfect for self­study. That’s also my advice to other PhD students: make the most of these years. What characterises me as a teacher is that I take my students seriously. First­year stu­ dents are young adults, so that’s how I treat them. They are responsible for their own learning process, and I hold them accountable for that. But it’s a two­way street – they can also hold me accountable for my efforts. In a sense, I’m more of a guide than a ‘traditional’ teacher. I’m honest about the limits of my knowledge. Even in fifty years I won’t know everything. Sure, I have more experience, and I enjoy sharing that, but there are also questions I can’t answer. Those are things we can explore together. I encourage students to think for themselves, and to discover what excites them. I don’t want them to be little clones of myself, just like I’m not someone else’s clone.’

Discovering biodiversity: there’s an app for that (and a challenge)

‘During my job interview, I not only requested extra teaching time, but I also ex­ plicitly asked for the freedom to revamp the biodiversity course, which I had been involved in for years as a student assistant and member of the innovation committee. I encountered some resistance at first, but then Covid happened. Suddenly, everything was up in the air. We were faced with the challenge of teaching 150 students about biodiversity in the middle of a lockdown, without being able to go into the field with them and no access to lab facilities. I had pre­ viously worked on a nature walks app for a European travel guide organization (the Crossbill Guides Foundation) and was just starting a pilot to see if we could use an app like that in the course. So things kind of snowballed from there. We quickly put together a few new walks so that our students could go on field trips near the university. (Chuckles.) It must have been strange for tourists: here’s this Dutch app for nature walks in the Veluwe, and suddenly these two English­lan­ guage walks pop up near Nijmegen. We also organized a plant hunt, a challenge in which students had to find and describe as many plants as possible in their own neighbourhoods.’

Ownership and connection

‘My main goal for these changes to the course is for students to take ownership of their learning process. I want them to experience what it’s like to discover things for themselves. Biodiversity is a big, abstract concept, but there’s a rich, complex world behind it. Take the crossbill: at first glance it’s just a bizarre bird with a crossed beak. Learning how that beak evolved to extract seeds from pine cones adds a new dimension to how you perceive it. Still, apps and challenges can’t replace a teacher. To stay motivated, students need to feel connected to their degree programme, so we like to engage students in conversations about what they’re discovering.

Research gains value when it finds its way to the general public. That’s why I think communication and education are so important.

We wanted the lessons we learned during the pandemic to be firmly embedded in the course. A Teaching Fellow grant from the Comenius programme made that possible. We’re now in the process of developing a full­fledged app of our own, with an audio tour and assignments. We’ve also adjusted the challenge: our research shows that only a small proportion of the students are motivated by competition, so we’re putting more emphasis on collaboration instead. Stu­ dents will be working together to build a plant database, while the real enthusiasts will still be able to excel if they want to.’

Community

‘Do I feel like I’m part of a community as a teacher? Yes and no. Within my degree programme, some people still see me as a rookie. I don’t always feel like I’m taken seriously, and I’m less involved in the programme than I’d like. I’ve noticed that while educational choices are often less well founded than research choices, people will talk about them with more conviction. As a result, I feel like there’s less room for doubt or openness when it comes to my teaching duties, which sometimes makes it difficult to determine whether I’m doing the right thing. How do I know, for instance, if it’s normal to spend two days preparing for a one­hour lecture? (Upbeat.) But I’m now at a point where I’m fairly satisfied with how I’m doing. And fortunately, my work is appreciated. My immediate col­ leagues see that the course innovations are working, and I received an Education Award from the students. I also have a good relationship with the Radboud Teaching and Learning Centre, and there are many like­minded people in the ComeniusNetwerk. I even joined the board this year.’

The future is uncertain

‘Part of what makes studying at university so wonderful is that you’re taught by experts. To add more depth and coherence to my research and teaching, and to ensure I can continue my work, I’d like to eventually become an associate pro­ fessor. Teaching full­time doesn’t really appeal to me. I see myself primarily as an ecologist, and I find that it’s my status as a researcher, as an ‘expert’, that opens doors. Three years from now, when I finish my doctoral research, I’ll have an interesting profile, combining research, communication and teaching. But I don’t know if the latter two will be rewarded. When I’m up there in the auditorium defending my dissertation, no one is going to ask me about the classes I taught. It’s strange that even though providing education is one of the university’s core tasks, it barely pays attention to this in its selection, supervision or assessment of PhD students. If an application committee only looks at publications and how much funding you’ve managed to secure, I’ll lose out to other candidates. That uncertainty makes me queasy sometimes. I don’t think about it too much, because that would only discourage me, and what good is that? I focus on the present: I’m happy with what I’m doing, and I stand behind my choices one hundred per­ cent.’
 

Profile

Name Constant Swinkels
Position Doctoral candidate
Institution Radboud University Nijmegen
Programmes Biology (Department of Plant Ecology and Physiology)
Total appointment 1.0 FTE
Work experience in higher education 2.5 years (plus 6 years as a student assistant and member of the innovation and education policy committee)
Time devoted to teaching 30 % (in practice 40 %)
Other activities Doctoral research, ComeniusNetwerk board member, Face of Science at the KNAW, author at the Crossbill Guides Foundation
Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk Received a Teaching Fellow grant in 2021 to revamp a course on biodiversity and develop a biodiversity field trip app. Member of the board since 2022.

 

This portrait is part of the publication 'Dedication to education - Ten portraits of inspired teachers in higher education‘. You can download the publication in English and Dutch. This publication was created in collaboration with members of the Duurzaam Docentschap circle of the ComeniusNetwerk.

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