On the first of September 2020, I will step down as Chair of the Examination Board of Geography, Spatial Planning, and Environmental Politics of the Radboud University. I fulfilled this task for more than 15 years, which is even longer than then official mandate for this position, to allow my successor to get acquainted with this task.
The main task of the Examination Board is to apply the rules and regulations of the four academic programmes, for which the examination board is responsible. This sounds rather bureaucratic and boring, but in my own experience, this certainly does not need to and should not be the case, if one takes a bit of a closer look at the responsibilities of the Examination Board.
The rules and regulations of our educational programmes are operationalisations of certain values and norms, which are central in academia. But as general rules and regulations, they always miss the crucial individual elements and circumstances of each specific case. So the art of doing a good job in the Examination Board is not in following the letter of the law but to judge, by the spirit of the law, by the moral principles, which are at the base of these laws, rules, and regulations. This then leads to more substantial justice within our educational programmes.
Although spatial justice is a common theme in the field of Geography, Spatial Planning, and Environmental Politics, it is not very common to reflect more deeply on the development of these moral principles. I, myself was mainly inspired by the work of Jürgen Habermas, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Carol Gilligan to reflect on the ethics of values and moral judgments, which learned me to look at each case from a ‘post-conventional’ perspective in which also aspects of care are taken into account.
Although given the debate and insights on these issues in philosophy and science this might sound self-evident, in the practices of many Examination Boards, in the current times in which bureaucracies do not except own responsibilities nor provide trust in substantial judgments, but instead seek full control and zero tolerance, it is certainly not common sense. In similar ways currently, universities and faculties seem to seek further standardisation and centralisation. This is in certain respects a way back to moral judgments at the conventional level at a greater distance to the actual educational practices, retreating from the more substantial justice and post-conventional moral judgments. Happily, as examination board, we have been able to resist these tendencies.
Also, the Dutch law for Higher Education protects the right of the Examination Board to divert from the general rules and regulations, in individual cases, and thus to practice post-conventional substantial justice. In this respect, the work of the Examination Board is a very responsible job, in which one can also set a certain tone, and style, which constructively contributes to the good practices within an educational programme. I always enjoyed to do this responsible work and with which we indeed co-determine the good practices and general tone, much more than being in committees or other bodies which only need to do what they are told to do.
For example, I always interpreted the responsibility of the Examination Board to judge the admission of students to our programmes in a very liberal way. I noticed that increasingly our university system tends to determine the quality of its graduates, by being very strict in admitting students to even start the programme. To a certain degree that is of course justified, since one should not admit any students who do not have the capacity to finish the programme successfully. But on the other hand, in doing so we often seem to forget, that it is our task as educators, to bring those students who do not have the knowledge and skills at the beginning of the programme yet to the level of knowledge and skills which we would require from our graduates. This is the core of formation. So being very strict with the admission of new students, is in a way making things easy for us by selecting those students who also without our help as educators would anyhow reach graduation easily. The real effort of an educational programme and a real educational achievement is it if we can bring those who do not already have the necessary knowledge and skills to graduation level. It is actually these cases which make us as lecturers proud of our work and of our students. Teaching is and should be a challenge. Being rather generous in our admission policy continuously challenges us but also feeds our proudness and is a real contribution to formation, which is expressed at the graduation ceremonies, which are also an important responsibility of the Examination Board.
Another example is the issue of plagiarism, with which the examination board is increasingly confronted, not in the last place also because of the current Covid-19 crisis with the sudden transformation of our teaching towards online teaching and online assessment. Of course, rules and regulations about plagiarism are clear and should be respected. But, if one reflects a bit more on how the use of sources has changed over times, one gets another picture.
When I was studying as a student at university, the internet did not exist yet. Copy machines at that time slowly but surely became available. Searching for scientific sources was a tedious job. Cycling from one library to the other, digging through thousands of library index cards, to identify the right source, then noticing that that specific source one was looking for was at that moment lent out, and therefore one needed to return weeks later to pick it up. Going through those sources and maybe make a photocopy of only those parts which were most relevant, because one could not afford to copy more. Also visiting these libraries, with these immense numbers of books, representing the condensed world knowledge, impressed us, and made us pay respect to these sources which were so valuable and hard to access.
When I was visiting the famous library of the monastery in St. Gall in Switzerland last week again, I once again became aware of this respect, as one automatically becomes very silent and modest in such a breathtaking place.
But compare this with how currently sources are ubiquitously available to students, in digital form, accessible at any time from everywhere. Without making a difference between fake or untrustworthy sources and thorough high-quality sources. Copying these sources or parts of them is then only one click away. And indeed in some of these sources that what the student tends to express in their paper is formulated in such a beautiful way, that it becomes very tempting to copy and paste. Totally wrong and reprehensible of course, and indeed the Examination Board is tough in these cases, but on the other hand one does understand, where this comes from, which does make a difference in our judgment.
In this way, the Examination Board has an important impact on the style and tone of educational practices and is partly responsible for the ‘moral place making’, of this specific place for academic education and formation.
- Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Harvard University Press, Boston.
- Habermas, J. (1985) Philosophical Notes on Moral Judgement Theory. In: Lind, G., Hartman, A. & Wakenhut, R. (eds.) Moral Development and the Social Environment: Studies in the Philosophy and Psychology of Moral Judgement and Education. Precedent, Chicago (pp. 3-20).
- Kohlberg, L., Levine, C., Hewer, A. (eds.) (1983) Moral Stages: A Current Formulation and a Response to Critics. Karger, Basle.