José Sanders, dean
“We want to collaborate more to connect the richness of language, communication and culture with other faculties”
José Sanders became dean at a time when coronavirus measures were being relaxed again. “A lot of adjustment work had been done in the time before. The Faculty of Arts appointed assistant teachers, honoured deferral requests from PhD candidates and encouraged lecturers to provide handouts to students studying from home; real attention has been paid. The previous dean was clearly very attentive to this. After my start in February 2022, we were able to go back to normal very quickly. The didactic approach in our faculty was and is that academic higher education should take place in the context of encounters: learning from each other. Of course, the pandemic had somewhat diminished that notion, so we have to be alert to that now.”
Onward after coronavirus
The pandemic is still having an impact. “The research has continued, the lectures have continued, but at the same time you notice that some things have shifted. Things we needed to take another good look at, things that actually needed to be refreshed. During such a lockdown, you’re in a kind of survival mode, because it takes a lot of energy to make it technically and organisationally possible for all core processes to continue online.
“At our faculty, we have many people who do research using digital or print sources, which in itself can be done quite well from home. Other staff members do, for example, language psychology research on language acquisition or on the effects of communication. Those people need facilities that are sometimes only available in the lab. For them, the lockdown was a huge obstacle. But in general, it turned out that almost everyone can do quite a lot of activities from behind a computer at home. Then sometimes people start asking themselves: how much do we need to go back into the office, the classroom, the lab? So the presence on campus depends mostly on the need of students and lecturers to see each other.”
And that need does exist, Sanders notes. “In the first half of 2022, I mostly heard students and lecturers express relief that we could just be ‘normal’ again. That was the prevailing emotion: happiness that we could do it again, a feeling that we were looking forward to it. But students sometimes have to get used to the idea that they are actually expected on campus, now that it has become apparent that things can be done differently in terms of logistics. ‘Can’t that be posted online?’ is the question we hear. But that is contrary to our understanding of what an on-site study programme is. On the other hand, it’s obviously convenient that there is now an alternative in case of situations beyond our control. For instance, we can quickly revert to the online model if there’s a public transport strike.”
“Languages and cultures are an important element for the entire university”
A highlight at the Faculty of Arts last year was the Week of Languages in May, Sanders says. “In that context, we organised Language Capital Nijmegen to show everyone how important language and culture are. For us, but also more broadly for the entire university. During that week, an Honorary Doctorate was awarded to the writer Adriaan van Dis for his achievements in multilingualism, interculturalism and tolerance. He gave an acceptance speech on the importance of understanding each other's language and culture, which made a big impression.”
As far as education is concerned, Sanders says the challenge lies in making language and cultural study programmes permanently sustainable. “Some study programmes attract too few students to say: ‘We are going to do this for another 10 to 20 years’. That is where we need to take action. It is important to note that this is certainly not the fault of the study programmes themselves; they are excellent. We’re dealing with a social phenomenon that is not unique to our university, and which also has to do with developments in secondary education. And yet the German business community, for example, would very much like us to produce more people who are proficient in German. And the education sector is desperate for teachers of French and other school languages.
“All the Faculties of Arts are now working collectively on a growth fund application so we can emphasise the importance of language proficiency and multilingualism. We want to collaborate more to connect the richness of language with the vastly increased possibilities of language and speech technology. That’s where major challenges lie.”
If it were up to Sanders, the Faculty of Arts would play a bigger role in society. “We could address identity, interculturalism and inclusion even more in education and research, make it clearer that we have a lot to tell society about that. For example, this could involve interactions with people who use Dutch as a second language, functional illiteracy, or communication with data and robotics. There are huge opportunities in that area, given the knowledge we have and the multifaceted perspective in the liberal arts system.”
A few years ago, the faculty already started ‘rethinking’ the minor system, by having practice-based questions answered by teams of students from different liberal arts study programmes. The launch of that approach struggled because of the pandemic, but I expect that this year, for the first time, we will be able to properly see what it delivers in practice.”
“We could be even more responsive to culture and interculturality in education and research”
Last year, the faculty secured several grants. “For example, cultural scientist Edwin van Meerkerk was awarded a Comenius Leadership Fellow grant for his research on sustainability in art education in collaboration with ArtEZ. And national themes have been designated for the Humanities sector plan funds. We are happy with these because they align very well with the focus areas we had already chosen: cultural heritage, humane AI, and language & culture. Those funds will allow us to stimulate research and teaching in those areas while doing something about the workload. On a positive note, we have already been able to appoint additional postdocs, we will be able to appoint more assistant professors in the coming years, and we will be able to promote people to associate professor.”
Sanders particularly praises the national solidarity between the Humanities and Arts faculties, but she also points to collaborations with other faculties at Radboud University. “For example, we have a professor of AI who has a double appointment with the Faculty of Science (FNWI). We hope to see the combination of language and speech technology gain momentum in the coming years. Anyone we turn out who knows something about language and communication data and digitisation (speech synthesis, translation tools) is in great demand on the job market.
Furthermore, we are developing an interfaculty Master’s programme in Health Care Humanities with Radboud university medical center and the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. All sorts of things come together in that field: arts and culture, health care, facilitating communication and language comprehension. Based on that, we can discover new solutions.”
“Anyone we turn out who knows something about language and digitisation is in great demand”
Connecting remains crucial
Such collaboration with the outside world will become increasingly important, Sanders believes. “For the future, our motto is: open doors and connect. The future lies in interdisciplinarity. We must remain self-aware that we have a solid disciplinary base that makes us suitable for multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. Our knowledge and interpretation of history, of context, and of why and how developments take place is needed everywhere.”
Connecting internally is also part of the motto. “We now have an interdepartmental structure: the 11 departments have been regrouped into three departments, and there is already a lot of cooperation between study programmes, such as a Master’s level concentration in heritage policy. Department chairs are also careful to ensure that new people they hire are employable in more areas. But of course, we continue to need specialists too; this is an unavoidable point of tension.
“Over the past year, we started strategic workforce planning as a new way of working within HR. This requires monitoring and coaching of each individual staff member. The different departments are at different stages in this process, but what is common is that from now on we are trying to monitor more closely what someone needs to develop and what our organisation needs. That way, we can start to encourage leadership and better recognise and reward employees, whether that is through a promotion or a broadening or exchange of tasks.”