“How on earth did I miss this?”: On handing over teaching coordination tasks

By Karin Bijsterveld

Anyone who has ever taken over the course coordination from someone else or started directing a teaching programme will likely remember the very first year. No matter how well you thought you knew the course or the programme you had just become responsibe for, that first year was full of unanticipated issues. We can help each other smoothen such transitions.

Let me give some examples from my own memory of unexpected to-do’s. What—do I already need to fill out the exam schedule now? Seriously, so long in advance? Hey, what is the meeting I am now invited for actually about? Attending an introduction day—haven’t we had one shortly? What does this acronym mean that a member of the support staff is using? Is that because I am only familiar with either the Dutch or English acronym version? Or has something changed? Of course it has changed—does anything ever remain the same in the Netherlands?! Oops, I should have informed the students that they also need to do this or that—how on earth did I miss this?

That type of questions, even without cyber crises or pandemics. To be frank, I am now only presenting the most rational versions of the question marks in my mind, as in fact, I have encountered many moments of sheer panic in the past. Such as when enthusiastically starting to “improve” something in a course, and then realising this would have been something for the Education and Examination Regulations … one and a half year ago.

Although I have never been without such moments of despair in any new role, there was one in which at least the beginning was much smoother than any of the other roles, and that was when I first took over the Research Master CAST’s directorship. I say the beginning, because doing the reaccreditation in the years after was quite stressful nonetheless, but that’s, well, history. That the beginning was much less demanding was because Wiebe Bijker took half a day for first debriefing his own experiences with CAST and then handing over as much documentation as he had of the programme.

We nowadays all get a list of responsibilities that come with coordinating roles. But what Wiebe did was something more. Most remarkable was the material-digital touch of the handing-over session. He did not only introduce me to the students and send me course books, but also talked me through the average CAST year and what it would require, send me the slides he used for all kinds of introductions, and complementary materials for seminars. Most significant was that he shared anonymised examples of emails he would send out throughout the year, like emails for contacting internship partners, emails to the international advisory board, or emails for inviting students to start with a particular assignment. As Wiebe’s tone of language was always spot on, I gratefully made use of these emails, adapted or not, whenever that seemed appropriate.

Ever since, I have tried to do something similar when handing over. I first make a detailed list of to-do’s in the order of the academic year. As I easily forget these issues soon after the coordination task has ended, I already start with making the list when still in charge. Then I assign the complementary files to it, including slides and emails that might come in handy. Not everything works well. Slides do not say much without notes with the examples, and other teachers (and students) may prefer slides  with less text! Making a reassuring podcast for your colleagues might also work. But taken everything together, handing over with the entire academic year in mind may reduce the number of “what-the-hell-is going-on” moments for your successor. Sure, it will likely just reduce the number of such ocassions, as lists of to-do’s are not the same as “the future.” After all, courses develop over time, just like we do.

About the author

Karin Bijsterveld is a historian and full professor of Science, Technology and Modern Culture. She has been teaching at FASoS, its predecessors and the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) since 1988. Many of her courses focus(ed) on research design, methods or creating cultural events such as festivals. She coordinated a Sound Studies specialisation in the former MA Media Culture, the Research Master CAST, and courses such as Network Society and Doing Research in Arts and Culture in the BA Arts and Culture.