The Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) is one of the three major universities in this wonderful city of canals, fiets (means ‘bikes’ in Dutch) and stroopwafel (means ‘if there was a bakery in heaven, this is would be their bestseller’ in Dutch). It’s the school I am enrolled in through the CIEE program, and it educates the largest number of Dutch and international students by any one institution in Amsterdam, with well over 28,000! This fact may seem daunting, but I knew I wanted an experience that was as different from my college life back in the U.S. as possible (my home school, Amherst College, is a small school with >1,700 students nestled in the heart of rural western Massachusetts). Needless to say, I got what I was asking for!
At the UvA, I am taking classes in a bunch of departments, but most are in the CSS (College of Social Sciences). In the field of Gender Studies, Amsterdam is known to house the world’s most progressive-thinking students and professors; and even though I am an English and Biology double major, I always had a hidden attraction to the works of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and other legends in the fields of Sexuality and Gender. So, armed only with a curious and open mind, I signed up for “The Social Meaning of Gender Differences” and “Moving Manhood,” the latter being a class where masculinities (yup, ‘just found out there’s more than one of ‘em) are analyzed cross-culturally.
Coming from a Liberal Arts background, I have to admit that classes aren’t structured that much differently than what I’m used to. If anything, I would say the breaks students and professors look forward to mid-way through class (where students can enjoy a cigarette with their professors) and the informal relationship between students and professors (I definitely heard some giggling from classmates when I addressed the instructor as Professor Mügee, not Liza) are two good changes. On the other hand, one not-as-good difference was the realization by my “Moving Manhood” professor that I was the only science major in the class. And, to my surprise, my love for genetics and neurobiology would be used against me for weeks to come.
Here’s the thing: as the only person in a class of twenty with enough knowledge to know the difference between meiosis and mitosis, I was unofficially crowned “Champion of Science” in debates of masculinity by the professor. Every class felt like I was put in the hot seat; the professor’s gaze: a high beam lamp and I, a deer caught in the headlights. I hadn’t the faintest clue why I was asked to answer for the works of bad scientists trying to justify gender differences in terms of chromosomal disjuncture. Or why I was expected to know how the scientific method is inherently masculine. And so, for the first two weeks of classes, Tuesday afternoons quickly became the bain of my existence.
Luckily by week three, these hardships of mine came to an end. The weekend before the third class, I went to a talk on Muslim homosexuals and ran into my “Moving Manhood” professor. During the break (I told you the Dutch love these things), my professor came over to my table and, surprisingly, was all friendship and smiles: a welcome change in our relationship and one that hasn’t reverted back to stress-inducing interrogations and eye-tearing gazes. The point is, while you might be able to handle situations with more calm and poise than I can, expect the unexpected, in and out of the classrooms of Amsterdam.