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'The show must go on, but making politics less tedious is an almost effortless job these days!'

After almost a year of working from home during this Covid pandemic, Scientific Director Paul Nieuwenburg conveys how the Institute of Political Science is sailing through waves and lockdowns: from transformation to bi location to 'non location', from teaching on the beach to teaching to 'black cubes' and about ambitions in uncertain times. 'It will take years to properly analyse and understand the consequences. Plenty of work!

Paul Nieuwenburg

How did the Political Science Institute hold up last year?

Our institute has a somewhat atypical story. For us, the circumstances were full of change from the start. Because of the changes in our educational programmes and the new The Hague specialisations, our institute has grown explosively in recent years. This increase in scale has also led to an increase in diversity among staff and students. This complexity required a different organisation and administration. And the implementation of the reforms that followed in response coincided unhappily with the pandemic outbreak.

Did the global crisis put those reforms at risk?

Well, we were in the process of a partial move to The Hague due to having our educational programmes taught at two locations, in Leiden and The Hague. After much discussion, The Hague would become the work location for some of our colleagues and workplaces were realised at Wijnhaven. Now, a year after all that preliminary work, we still haven’t experienced what it’s like to physically work in two locations. The fact that we were going to work in two cities was a big discussion within the institute for a while. By a very perverse twist of fate we all ended up in the same digital boat. We went from bilocation to nonlocation, as it were. Yet, other reforms that were in the pipeline ensured that in coronation times there was no need to take a different course.

For example, the new-style Institute Council coincided with the forced online work, but was still ready to get implemented. Also, we took office as a new Institute Board in the summer in an entirely online context - I even started this board with someone I had never physically met. I've done a fair amount of governing before, but this was all new to me as well. In cooperation with an interim institute manager who was not given immediate access to relevant systems, our first few months were not exactly a flying start. But our course stands and although the pandemic and working online make for a strange situation, it also brings new insights. With conferences and meetings we now see that travel is not always necessary, for example. Awareness of the repertoire of choices is much greater now.

As the institute was in transition already, did that actually help weather the Covid storm?

Due to our expansion, we are constantly dealing with new employees. Many foreign colleagues have joined us, so English is increasingly becoming our working language. Yet, another reaction to the growth is that we have adapted the structure within the institute. We now have research clusters in which the various specialisations team up. In this way we have brought back the small scale, both administratively and socially. Now, we are focusing on these research clusters as a supportive subgroup in which colleagues can quickly feel at home and can come into contact and work together easily. In the Dutch Politics cluster, for example, young researchers are working on a centre in which they collaborate with colleagues from other faculties, with online webinars about the upcoming elections. The online interaction has actually given certain kinds of activities a boost.

Next to online collaboration, is digital teaching a challenge for the institute?

I remember the former Vice Dean Henk Dekker once conveying to me about online learning: ‘It would be fantastic if a student could follow a course on his laptop at the beach in Zandvoort.’ I responded with the joke that it would be great if I could give that lecture on the beach at Saint Tropez. I think this is a time when we can identify the major advantages and disadvantages of the digitisation of education. I myself miss the direct contact with students. I'm now talking to ‘black cubes’ on my screen because not everyone has their camera on. I don't like that. But I also notice that giving lectures live takes more time and energy than doing it from my laptop.

Cartoonist: Tom Janssen

How does the institute stay connected in these times?

With us, because of the unfortunate coincidence of reform and pandemic, it's not so much maintaining cohesion but more so how do we generate it, in a work environment that is different and new in so many ways. We haven’t found the Columbus egg for that yet. It is important to realise that things take time. We have newsletters and online introduction meetings and proposal rounds for new colleagues. We also held the Away Day online. Moreover, we are glad to see that bottom up a lot is organised by colleagues themselves as well; zoom cafes and interdisciplinary lectures, lunch seminars and seminars on online education. We even see that the internal bet that we always hold around elections is now still happening online.

What challenges do your colleagues encounter most?

When you start working for a new employer and everything has to be done online, that is of course difficult. Especially if you also come from abroad and are socially dependent on the institute, trying to make a new environment your home. That’s one example of the difficulties. But we also have colleagues who can stay abroad and spend more time with their partners. And colleagues who actually really enjoy experimenting with digital teaching. 

I notice among our staff the same things you see in general. People need perspective. In the first wave there seemed to be a perspective, that we would go back to ‘normal’ in the new academic year. Now we don't know where it's going. As a board, sometimes we can't do much more than lend a listening ear. And that's hard, I don't have another word for that. When you're in the building, you walk the corridors and just pop into a room, or you have coffee, spontaneously. I'm quite a wandering board member myself, so it’s a little frustrating that's not possible now.

A selection of publications on the pandemic

Can you political scientists also genuinely enjoy this global crisis?

We definitely don't lack for substance in these times, that’s for sure. The pandemic as an object is very interesting to many of us with so many socio-political implications. In terms of international relations, of course, there are the battles over vaccines, the impact on the implementation of the Brexit, the balance of power between the United States, Russia and China. Then of course there are the crisis aspect of a global pandemic and the possible electoral consequences .

I remember that after eight years of our ‘Purple coalition’ government there were posters hanging in the institute’s hallway about panel discussions ‘How to make politics less boring’. Well, we certainly won't see those again for some time. Everything that is going on now will reverberate for a long time. Even when the pandemic is over, we are far from done with it. The socioeconomic repercussions, elections, the uncertainty that follows. It gives the same feeling as when the former Eastern Bloc imploded. It takes years to properly assess what has happened and to understand it’s consequences.

It takes years to properly assess what has happened and to understand it’s consequences.

How are you approaching the future?

We are trying to implement the reforms as smoothly as possible. Students should get the education they are entitled to. The show must go on. But we shouldn’t aim too high; that is not realistic in these circumstances. I therefore hope that soon we’ll get some perspective and that, despite everything, our employees will have the mental resilience to keep their private lives on track and that, from that foundation, they will also retain the necessary pleasure in their work. Somewhat modest but realistic ambitions, I think.

Text: Sabrina Otterloo

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