The Global Identity Experience: Crucial to the AUC Curriculum?

By Christine van der Horst

— “The GIE [Global Identity Experience] course was the final hit that made me leave,” said Tim Weydert, a former Social Science major at Amsterdam University College. Weydert joined AUC in September 2014, motivated by its challenging and demanding standards. However, being an introverted student, Weydert found it difficult to enjoy his time here. It was in January 2015 after taking Global Identity Experience, an Academic Core course mandatory for all first-year students, that he made the decision to drop out.

The course, which relies heavily on group focused lectures and tasks, pushed Weydert into an unavoidable and uncomfortable position. “It [GIE] was, like most of the AUC curriculum, directed towards the more extroverted students, making it difficult for [others] to keep up or stay motivated,” he explained. “The GIE course reflected everything I hated at AUC.” Weydert is just one of many students who have been voicing a variety of complaints about the course. According to those students, it is not only excluding introverts, but it comes across as shallow, irrelevant and unnecessary.  

The Global Identity Experience is a four week course, to be taken in either the January or June intensive of a student’s first year at AUC. The course broadly focuses on two themes – diversity and identity – and places them against the background of the global city of Amsterdam. According to the course manual, it allows students to “acquire basic knowledge of the central concepts and theoretical debates, learn to critically reflect on and analyse popular discourses and representations of identity and culture, and learn how to methodologically conduct, analyse and present your own research about the subject”.

A social scientific group research project carried out across Amsterdam is the main way through which these goals are achieved. Besides that, there are readings, lectures and rotating guest lectures to provide the students with “a proper foundation”, as the manual explains, for their research. Several students identify field work as one the courses’ main strengths. “It made us get out of the “AUC bubble” and made me realise how much more there was to Amsterdam than just the sort of “privileged” community,” first-year Social Science major Clara Jorgensen said.

Thomas Litan, a third-year Social Science major, shares this opinion. “The group project, which allows you to engage with a group or subculture you wouldn’t normally do so with in your daily life, is a great way to exit the bubble, practice interview skills (qualitative research),” he said. “It invites you to think more deeply about culture, privilege, identity, and differences,” Litan added.

Although the practical component is well-regarded, many students feel the course falls short in other areas. Some accuse it of providing little more than dry theory. In-class discussions, which should add more depth to the readings, remain very shallow, according to students. “Some lectures just felt like repetitive ramblings about the readings,” said Ruben de Klerk, a second-year Science major. Eleonora Gelmetti, a first-year Humanities major, shares this experience. “The discussion should be carried out in a more effective manner,” she said. “The teachers should provoke the students, stimulate a debate and make them question their own beliefs,” Gelmetti added.  

Students whose tracks are focused on the themes discussed in GIE also find the course rather repetitive. “If you had ILCT [Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory] and/or [Introduction to] Cities & Cultures (C&C), you will notice a lot of the same scholars and texts are being discussed, just less intensely,” claims Emma Krone, a first-year Humanities major. Next to ILCT and C&C, the Social Systems II theme course is also said to strongly overlap with GIE. “I have already done Social Systems II, which was pretty much about the same topics we’re discussing now with GIE. And yet again, we have to conduct ethnographic research,” said Morwenna Heemstra, a first-year Social Science major.

Students whose interests are less related to anthropology and sociology claim that GIE is irrelevant to their studies at AUC. The course’s strong socio-anthropological character made it hard for Laura van Kins, a third-year Humanities major, to see the relation between that and her chosen tracks. “I sort of liked it, but I would have preferred to spend a month and 6 credits on something more relevant to my future career,” she said.

Some students believe the course should be abolished altogether. “I do not really see the point in covering super abstract concepts that are already present at AUC – like identity, culture and diversity,” said Heemstra. “I feel like I’m not really learning anything.”

Anne de Graaf’s view of GIE opposes that of many students. As the Head of Studies Academic Core at AUC, De Graaf underlines that GIE is “absolutely crucial” to AUC’s curriculum. “It’s an important building block for students and helps lay a foundation for the rest of their liberal arts and sciences education,” she said. According to de Graaf, GIE teaches students some essential skills that will help prepare them better for graduate studies and better employment in the 21st century. “It helps them all orient themselves more fully in Amsterdam, it breaks open a discourse on diversity, it teaches grounded theory, it enhances communication skills like interview techniques and listening —something useful to students of all majors,” she said.

But if the course is so absolutely crucial to a Liberal Arts and Sciences education, why does no other University College in the Netherlands offer something similar? “I think we’re ahead of the curve with this class and soon many other programs will be introducing something similar,” De Graaf said. “The UvA’s Diversity commission highlighted our GIE course as one they would like to imitate and make mandatory for their first years.”

As for the student criticism, De Graaf said to be very open to student input. “I’m listening to the ACC focus group and trying to take on board whatever I can of their suggestions and solutions,” she said. Besides, De Graaf meets with members of the UvA Diversity Commission and local community leaders to make GIE as engaging as possible. “GIE is a work-in-progress,” she said, “but it’s important for students to approach GIE with an attitude of taking responsibility for their own learning process and then try to find what particularly interests them and use that to enhance their particular experience.”

With regard to the student complaints of repetition, De Graaf said that she is perfectly aware of the overlap. “But overlap is not necessarily a bad thing, as it reinforces the learning process,” she added. “The more often students encounter specific concepts, and the wider the variety of frameworks, the deeper their understanding will become.” De Graaf was, however, grateful that students brought this up. “It sounds like there needs to be a conversation among the instructors, comparing notes and deciding in a more deliberate way how we can build on each other’s learning offerings.”

AUC’s Student Council is also working on improving GIE. Last week they sent out a survey to all current AUC students, through which they are trying to get a better sense of everyone’s experiences with Introductory and Academic Core courses like GIE. “We are just working on improving the overall quality and making sure the class is interesting, and a decent amount of theories are discussed,” Ellen Ackroyd, AUCSC’s co-chair and a third-year Social Science major said. More specifically, AUCSC is trying to set up a proper discourse for talking about race and gender within the GIE course. “We want students to learn for example what vocabulary is better, so that during discussion, no one is subject to offense,” Ackroyd said.

After Tim Weydert left AUC, he started the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) program at KU Leuven in Belgium. Weydert is not exactly content with the program. “Course content, while there are exceptions, is generally of lesser quality [than at AUC], and lecturers are in no way as enthusiastic or engaged,” Weydert said. Even though AUC’s ‘excellence’ appears to be missing, Weydert is enjoying his freedom as a student in the BBA program, without mandatory classes filled with group activities like GIE. Weydert added that he does not think the GIE course should be abolished. “I believe GIE is an important course and should not be taken out of the curriculum, however it should be restructured and less biased towards extroverts,” Weydert said.

Anne de Graaf and the Student Council also do not plan on making GIE optional. “I think that there is a reason this course is mandatory and there is a way in which in truly can be a learning experience for all students,” Ackroyd said. “So rather than students just stating that it [GIE] should be optional, which is a pretty passive stance, it would be great if they could get involved in telling us and the focus group of academic core what was wrong, and how it could be improved,” she said.

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