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Eduard van de Bilt and Joke Kardux say goodbye to Leiden

For more than 35 years they helped put American Studies on the map: Joke Kardux and Eduard van de Bilt. This spring, the couple retired. A farewell interview.

How did you end up in Leiden?

Joke: ‘We met when we were students in Utrecht, where Eduard was a student of history and I a student of English. During my studies I received a scholarship to attend Wellesley College, near Boston, for a year. Afterwards they encouraged me to obtain my PhD in America.’

Eduard: ‘That’s when I said: “You know what, I could get myself interested in American history!” Together we applied to about nine or ten universities in the United States, hoping that we would be accepted into the same one. The first one immediately rejected me, but we got accepted into all of the other ones. Eventually we chose Cornell (in the state of New York, ed.). In Amsterdam and Leiden they started teaching American Studies as early as during the 1950s, but during the mid-80s the field got an extra boost in those cities and elsewhere in the Netherlands. The funny thing is that we both applied for the new position of American Studies coordinator in Leiden. Both of us were interviewed, but Joke got the job.’

Joke: ‘They knew that we were a couple. During the interview when they asked if I found it beneath me to put up posters I joked: “If you give me the job, I will let my husband put up those posters.” That made them laugh so hard that they hired me. Six months later Eduard got hired at the University of Amsterdam. In addition to that, he started working half his hours at Leiden in 1991.'

What is it like to work with your partner?

Joke: ‘We don’t know any better, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have always complemented each other very well. During my maternity leave Eduard took over a course for me, for example. In that way, our private lives and work have always intertwined. You could also see this in our children. In the nineties, Eduard was on television quite a lot to talk about president Clinton. Naturally, we discussed this topic quite a lot at home as well, to which one of our kids asked, at the kitchen table: “Daddy, is Clinton one of your students?”’

Eduard: ‘When I would go to the market on Saturday morning the market trader would say: “Well, you looked more well-rested on TV.” But it’s a good thing that the communication lines between us were short and that we were able to help each other further. The same goes for the rest of the team. The American Studies programme (the minor American Studies and the master’s programme North American Studies, ed.) is successful, but never became too big. Partly because of this we have always enjoyed working together with each other and with our colleagues.’

What have been the highlights of your career?

Eduard: ‘We have done a lot of fun stuff. In the late-80s Joke started organising lecture series on topics such as African-American history and culture, Chicago, the Vietnam and Civil War and presidential elections, where a lot of prominent Americans got to speak as guest speakers. That was fairly new at the time. We welcomed all of those people when they came to the Netherlands. That was demanding but also caused a lot of funny situations. One time I ended up in a highly guarded diamond shop in Amsterdam with a guest speaker who wanted to buy a piece of jewellery for his wife. Let me just say that that was an entirely new experience for me.’

Joke: ‘Frequently, Americans came to teach courses via the Fulbright visiting chair. Usually their specialisation was different from those of us or our colleagues, so that was a real enrichment of the programme. We also took care of their accommodation for them, which was no easy task. One time, a visiting professor and his family turned up with fifteen giant suitcases for a four-month stay when I went to pick them up at Schiphol airport. It was like they had packed all of their household goods.’

Eduard: ‘Joke had to take the train because she couldn’t fit in the taxi.’

Joke: ‘The course “From Bradford to…”, which we started in 1986, is also something that I’m proud of. Each time we changed the last name to that of the president: From Bradford to Bush, From Bradford to Obama, etc. That course still exists, as well as three courses on American literature that I introduced at English language and culture at the time. Another highlight were the large international conferences that we, together with others, organised in Leiden, mainly the MESEA conference “Migration Matters” in 2008 with almost 300 speakers and the Leiden-Mayflower400 Conference in August 2020, the first Leiden conference organised entirely online.’

What are your plans for the future?

Joke: ‘Eduard is still working on theses, I just wrapped up the last two. Look, the flowers over there were given to me by those students. I have cleared out most of my office. I still have to pick up some final things, but it mainly keeps feeling like I have forgotten to do something, because all of a sudden I have no obligations anymore.’

Eduard: ‘That happens to me as well. Research and writing continues. Those activities suffered due to how busy the year was because of Covid. I have two book manuscripts to finish and we want to publish a new edition of our book about the Pilgrims.’

Joke: ‘There are still publications to be released from the 2020 Pilgrim conference. That will keep us busy this summer. And we will babysit our granddaughter Zoya more often. Oddly enough I am kind of glad that we got to experience this period of Covid. The enormous solidarity between lecturers, support staff and students, especially during the first lockdown when we suddenly had to switch to online education, when we had to organise even the Pilgrim conference online, it turned this into a very special period in our careers.’

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