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The Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) wants to give everyone within the University of Amsterdam the opportunity to experiment with their education. That is why it offers educational professionals the opportunity to start up pilot projects based around various themes. Last year, it concerned acquiring skills within project-based learning. One of the lecturers who set to work on this was Dr Hanna Muehlenhoff from the Department of European Studies at the Faculty of Humanities.

The ‘European Policy Lab’ course, to which the IIS grant was awarded, took place early spring 2020 and is an elective for students of the Master’s programme in European Studies. The course includes a one week fieldwork trip to Athens where students explore and witness how European policy is put into practice, how funds are actually spent and how local contexts influence policy-making choices. The group still managed to go, but was back in the Netherlands just in time before the coronavirus crisis closed all borders in March. 

Room for improvement

One year earlier, Dr Muehlenhoff noticed during this fieldwork trip that there was room for improvement. One of the groups went to a refugee camp, an experience which demonstrated that more attention should be paid to emotions students experience while conducting research, and the awareness of their own positioning in relation to their research subjects and informants. This planted a seed, and when a colleague forwarded the IIS grant call for proposals to Dr Muehlenhoff, she decided to apply. In total she dedicated 80 hours of time to investigating how to incorporate more self-reflection into the course. Practicing reflexivity is important as it ultimately helps one conduct research in a more ethical way.

Positionality, intersectionality and emotions

In order to achieve this goal, Dr Muehlenhoff incorporated three sessions addressing reflexivity into the course. All sessions included literature readings in addition to interactive exercises with the group in class. The first session ‘What is Positionality?’ dove into the subject of positionality and reflexivity in research and fieldwork. The second session ‘What is Intersectionality’ treated the interaction of different identity categories such as race, gender, class, ability etc. Multiple categories are often in place and this acknowledgement enhances an understanding of the researcher’s and research subject’s positionality. The third and final session ‘Emotions in Research’ was designed to enable students to recognise the normality of experiencing emotions in the field and how to deal with them.

Diary for reflection

Apart from a final report on the policy study (70% of the final grade), the students were also asked to keep a physical research diary (30% of the final grade) during the course to track their own progress. Students were invited to add visual elements (sketches, flyers or maps) and photographs. This diary helps to process and visualise students’ reflections on positioning and research methods. It provides the lecturers with valuable insights, thus enabling them to follow the developments of their students’ ideas over time.

Applicability to other (field) studies

Dr Muehlenhoff feels the time spent on the subject, provided by the IIS grant, certainly improved this course and is confident in repeating the process and further perfecting the sessions next year. However, due to the coronavirus, fieldwork is currently impossible, therefore introducing new challenges. The course and research next semester will have to take place online, but will definitely incorporate the lessons learned and positive experiences gained from last year’s enhanced role for reflexivity. The design of the sessions and diary exercise could also be applicable to other (field) studies and courses as it helps students to reflect on their own biases and improve their research skills.

Athens, picture by Dr Muehlenhoff