Teaching Europe in the Birth Place of the European Union: An Interview with Patrick Bijsmans

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on Maastricht University.

Patrick Bijsmans is a political scientist whose scholarship is mainly concerned with Euroskepticism, a research focus that can seem ironic in a place like Maastricht, where such attitude towards Europe is not expected. Indeed, as the cradle of the European Union, its foundational moment, and its point of origin and conceptual epicenter, the Dutch city of Maastricht readily features in every European’s self-imagination. Patrick Bijsmans engages here with this healthy tension between his research and his multi-faceted teaching activities at Maastricht University in European Studies. He constitutes the perfect illustration of the variety of roles that scholars can craft for themselves in the academe. The ways in which he describes his unwillingness to make exclusionary choices between research and teaching will undoubtedly inspire recent PhDs who find themselves pulled in both directions and might feel pressured to follow one particular path over the other. In fact, he shows that, in the right institutional context, one can do both, and be successful and, most importantly, be fulfilled―if and when the organizational structural framework is supportive of the dual endeavor, enabling and even valuing such a bifurcation.

In this interview, Patrick Bijsmans shares his trajectory and introspection about the kind of academic he wants to be, his involvement with teaching and learning, not only as he instructs students at Maastricht University where the problem-based approach is widely privileged in the classroom, but also as he trains the faculty to be better teachers in tune with the latest pedagogical research and educational methodological innovations. All throughout our conversation, what clearly emerged was his enthusiasm for student learning and well-being, his empathy for both teachers and learners, and his dedication to creating bridges between research and pedagogies to enrich and push forward the field of European Studies. In particular, his reflection on adapting to the recent “crises” Europe and the world have faced, from the COVID-19 induced transition to the virtual university to wider societal debates such as Black Lives Matter, deepens the discussion on the state of European Studies and the future of Europe in general.

Hélène B. Ducros for EuropeNow


EuropeNow I am impressed to see how busy a person you are and the multiple hats you wear at Maastricht University. Could you tell us about your different roles and what led you into those responsibilities?

Patrick Bijsmans Where to start? I do indeed do different things at the university. This situation likely grew out of the fact that ten years ago, at about the time I was completing my PhD thesis, I was asked to become Program Director for the large BA in European Studies and―maybe foolishly―I said yes, because it would allow me to stay at the Faculty and get engaged more deeply in a program in which I already liked to teach. Truthfully, at the time, I underestimated the enormous amount of time and work that an administrative position for such a big program would require (we have approximately 1000 students), time that was spent at the expense of my research time. Therefore, I was not able to completely capitalize on my PhD research. But, at the same time, when thinking about where I am as an academic, I have never seen myself as a pure researcher. For me, teaching is as much part of being an academic as doing research. With teaching also often comes administrative work, which I sometimes like because it allows me to try new things, and sometimes don’t. Not working on my research immediately after the PhD also meant that it was hard for me to think about writing large grant proposals. Instead, I decided to focus on smaller projects and was fortunate enough that colleagues in the UK asked me to do some research on Euroskepticism since it linked to my PhD thesis. I used that opportunity to get my research going again and was able to spend part of a sabbatical at the University of Surrey in the UK, where one of these colleagues worked.

Since I was also interested in teaching and learning, I started doing some research on the topic. At one point, I decided that I did not really want to make a choice between research and teaching in terms of “career.” Even though it might be considered better to make a choice, I also wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror and see a person I wanted to be, rather than an overworked academic with heavy writing demands. So, now, I do a lot of teaching professionalization and was just promoted to Associate Professor in Teaching and Learning. I am the first one at our department in Maastricht to be promoted on such a trajectory. This fits in a wider debate in the Netherlands for the promotion and rewarding of teaching and administrative responsibilities, because it has become clear that we need people who teach as much as we need researchers. The Rector of our university has played an important role in launching that idea, which led to a policy document. I am probably one of the first persons to benefit from it across the university. In the end, I am very happy that my choice paid out.

EuropeNow Why do you think that there is a push for the development of the field of teaching and learning at this particular juncture?

Patrick Bijsmans This has been going on for some time already. On one hand, university administrators and politicians have come to see that universities are not just about research. We also teach students. Also, people have become more aware that teaching well is not something that you can always do on top of your research output. We have great researchers here, who are not always the best of teachers. And that is alright. For a long time, teaching was not the focus in human resources policy, but now it is. It has taken a gradual awareness that if a university is to serve society well, we do not need just good researchers, we also need good teachers and good administrators. This encourages a more holistic vision of the university, away from the traditional view of academia perhaps.

EuropeNow Could you speak about your involvement in teaching and learning training and continuing education for faculty? What courses have you developed in these programs?

Patrick Bijsmans A few years back, I started off with coordinating the University Teaching Qualification, which all teaching staff at Dutch universities have to take. It requires attending workshops and meeting certain learning outcomes at the end that pertain to the development of teaching abilities, whether teaching activities, assessments, or underlying principles. Since last year, I have coordinated another program, which is new, called Continuing Professional Development. It is a follow-up program for all who have completed the teaching qualification. For example, I organize feedback workshops with our academic writing trainer who is an expert in giving feedback. He trains staff in what elements of feedback to focus on, how to write out feedback in such a way that students benefit from it, and so on. We have also put together workshops on course design for courses based on problem-based principles. We also planned to do workshops on how to use games in teaching, but those have been postponed this year because of COVID-19. I either run the workshops myself or with colleagues, especially when they have more experience on certain topics, for example in academic writing and feedback.

EuropeNow You recently wrote about the impact that the various crises Europe is facing has on the ways in which Europe is taught. How can and must European studies adapt to on-going crises, and which crises in particular? Do crises help us or hinder us in teaching Europe?

Patrick Bijsmans In a sense, crises hinder us. The drawback of European studies, but also politics and international relations, is that we teach a moving target. You may teach something one day and the next day it has completely changed. It complicates teaching because, on one hand, you cannot teach something as if it is not going to change, and on the other you cannot change what you teach all the time. As an example, we have a course on EU politics, but we do not have a course on Brexit. The question is “does it make sense to have a course on Brexit, or COVID-19, or the migration crisis?” when these are passing and we will move on to the next crises. Whether these are crises is even sometimes debatable. If you ask students upfront, they would say that they want a course on Brexit. They think they come to a program to learn everything about contemporary Europe, but of course to understand it you also need to know the Europe of the past, and the concepts and theories we use to study contemporary Europe, and how we use them. Hence, it would be better not to have a course on Brexit, but to give students the tools to dive into the crises themselves to understand contemporary Europe. This approach takes a little bit of convincing.

Thus, one of the challenges for our type of program is to develop a curriculum in which we train students in some of the main theories, methods, and concepts in such a way that they can use them to try to understand the newest crises, rather than teach them about the newest crises. So that when something pops up, we can talk with them about the crises and they can base the discussion on what they have learned in terms of concepts, theories, and so on. I think that there is a challenge in teaching something as if it is fixed. Some of our students will think that some of the history we teach is always the same. But there are always changing realities and changing perceptions of historical research. It is a good thing, but it also complicates things. Students sometimes have conflicting opinions about it. It’s a nice challenge to engage with.

EuropeNow Even though the young Maastricht University pre-dates the treaty, “Maastricht” is a place that awakens and feeds European imagination since it has come to signify a commitment to European integration. I cannot imagine a better place in which to teach and learn about Europe than in Maastricht. How is it teaching about Europe in this context? In what ways do you think the legacy of this location might have an impact on teaching and learning at your university? And in your case, how is it being a specialist of Euroskepticism in the very place where the EU started?

Patrick Bijsmans That’s a good question. If you are from Maastricht, people do think you have an ingrained love of the EU. Ironically, when we had a referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, the majority of Maastricht’s citizens voted against it. So, it is not like the city is necessarily linked to a very positive attitude about the EU for the people there. But it is true that people and students come here because they know the treaty and see the city as where the European Union as a union was born. When I travel, everywhere I go, if I say I come from Maastricht, people will talk about the treaty―or the violinist André Rieu. The university uses this image in a sense. The regional government, local government, and university support a large program called Working on Europe that capitalizes on the fact that we are in Maastricht, a city close to the border with Belgium and Germany. Indeed, we are a few kilometers from Belgium, and London or Paris are also easy and quick to reach by train. We are in the very south of the Netherlands and already very international, but the treaty added to this idea of being an international European city. To give you an idea, in our European Studies BA program, eighty percent of our students do not come from the Netherlands. The MA program is also very international. All of our courses are taught in English and most of our students are European, many from Belgium and Germany since the border is very close and our region is already very international. We sometimes have students from the US or Asia, but more of them are at the MA level, rather than the BA level. Part of the reason is cost. The MA is shorter, just one year, while the BA lasts three years. Most European students pay the same fees as Dutch students, but for students from outside the EU or EER, the cost rises about five-fold.

These programs have a very solid reputation independently from the city, but when they were launched in the 2000s, the city was still capitalizing on the Maastricht Treaty. Today, you can take your students to the hall where the treaty was signed and see a copy of it. Some years back, they even brought the original treaty for a celebration. It is part of the consciousness of the city and the university. In fact, the town hall shows three flags: the regional flag, the local flag, and the European flag. It makes it interesting for me as a Euroskepticism scholar to be in a place that is linked to Maastricht because the treaty changed European integration, with a series of referenda, in Denmark, France, and Ireland, around the passing of the ratification of the treaty. It was also very much a moment when public opinion regarding the EU changed to become more critical. I am a scholar of Euroskepticism, but at the same time, while being critical about the EU, I am in favor of European integration.

EuropeNow Your work focuses on “problem-based” teaching and learning, which seems to be an approach that is privileged at the level of the university as a whole. How do you define this approach and what does it bring to the classroom and student learning experience? Isn’t all teaching and learning problem-based in social sciences?

Patrick Bijsmans Personally, I think all science is problem-based. But the difference is in the way it is taught. Problem-based learning is used at some universities across the world, but not that many. It is essentially dependent on small group work and students taking the lead. The role of the lecturer is also quite different. Although we have traditional lecturers, for most of us our role is more to facilitate discussion among students than tell them what to do. Problem-based teaching and learning rests on four principles: 1) It has a collaborative element, with students learning together and from each other; 2) it is contextual, in the sense that it is based on problems; 3) it constitutes constructive learning. The idea is that students, by discussing the literature and taking the lead in all kinds of ways, will construct and reconstruct knowledge according to their insights. For example, a Polish student speaking about the Cold War will have a different perspective on it than a student from the Netherlands or Germany because they or their parents have gone through it in quite different ways. The elements we try to bring in, it is the students who bring them in; and lastly 4) problem-based learning emphasizes self-directed learning. That means that we do not ask the questions; students do. But it does not mean we do nothing. We guide the process, especially if it gets stuck, but the students are first and foremost in charge. Guided by staff members, students chair meetings and they are responsible for taking the minutes, or for formulating learning goals for the next session. The idea is that as they go along, they become more independent and that our role slowly fades away. The main aspect that distinguishes problem-based learning as we do it is the self-directed role of students and collaborative work in every course.

EuropeNow As I speak with you and some of your colleagues at Maastricht, I understand that the whole university curriculum is based on PBL, so that students all receive that methodological training early on. Do you have tips for instructors who might want to introduce some PBL elements to their teaching in incremental ways when they teach at universities that are not set up in that way and where students are not formally prepared to be self-directed?

Patrick Bijsmans The first thing to be aware of is that PBL may feel alien to both fellow teaching staff and students. Many of us have been trained to take the lead and students are used to listening to the knowledgeable teacher in front of the class. In addition, changing to PBL will also come with a feeling of loss of control and uncertainty; students may ask what they are actually learning, whereas staff may wonder what students may come up with next time. For instance, students could come to class with texts that the teacher may not know. As a teacher it is important to not forget that you most likely will still be able to reflect on such a text (after all, you usually still are the expert). My advice would be to experiment in a smaller setting: have students work on a problem parallel to your normal classes. Key is to continuously reflect with colleagues and students on how things are going—and be open to them about your aims. What works and what doesn’t? And what can be done to improve the group’s learning process? Clear intended learning outcomes will also help to give structure and guidance, without having to exactly determine the ways in which students can meet them.

In a sense, the current online teaching challenge offers a nice opportunity to try things out – breakout groups offer a chance to put students to work in a different way than what you may be used to. This is also taking into account that groups in PBL tend to be small (about fifteen students in Maastricht), which also requires smaller teaching rooms and other dedicated facilities that may not always be available.

EuropeNow What kind of student output usually results from problem-based pedagogies? Do you find that the current COVID-19 context of online teaching enhances this approach or on the contrary hinders it?

Patrick Bijsmans From what we have seen so far, given that our students are used to working more independently than at a traditional university, in the first couple of weeks everything went pretty well. Students showed a lot of understanding and respect towards each other and towards teaching staff. They understood that this was not ideal, but that we all had to do it together. Even first year students had a good sense for organizing their time and getting things done. This changed a bit over time. Students got tired and everyone wanted to see their friends again. Unfortunately, this will still be the situation after the summer break. In terms of output, it led to very few changes. Many exams that we have are based on papers and take-home exams. The few exams that we had were all moved to paper-based format to allow for all students to take them. Elsewhere in the university they have been doing online proctoring of exams with a camera directed onto the students, but there are privacy issues there. If your way of teaching is based on student interaction and reconstructing knowledge, we may even ask whether testing with exams is the right way. Then again, our exams tend to be based on two or three questions that students need to answer –argue this, or explain such, or apply this concept to this. Exams are seldom knowledge exams, with usually no multiple choice, for example, or those constitute only a small portion of a whole exam.

EuropeNow Obviously, 2020 has forced instructors all over the world to rethink their pedagogical habits due to COVID-19. As we reflect on what can or will come out of this generalized switch to a virtual university experience, what do you think has been lost (temporarily or forever) and what could be gained? What teaching practices might remain with us after things can come back to normal? In other words, did it create some opportunities and possibilities we had not thought about before and that we will want to retain?

Patrick Bijsmans The main thing that has been lost in the all-online environment is the spontaneous and informal interaction with colleagues and students, not only before, during, or after meetings, but also in the corridors, or even in the supermarket, where you may bump into your students too. It is also harder to get organized. I’ve been back at the Faculty for a week and I realized how nice it is to bump into a colleague and just talk, and to talk about something else that you would not necessarily talk about online. You can try to recreate that in some ways, for example with “virtual coffee breaks,” but it will never be the same. This is why I think that almost everyone I know just wants to go back to the Faculty. Before all this, students were always saying that we should have more lectures online, but now they realize they miss their friends, and they even miss lectures and their tutors.

But for all the negatives that have happened, I think that we all also became aware of tools that we may not have been using in teaching and that we can now use more often, even when things return to normal. I am particularly thinking about the use of video in teaching, which was very rarely used here before. I always wanted to do it, but never had a chance to, and now I have to. It took me quite a lot of time, but I was very happy with the results. I did a short video on Euroskepticism with colleagues across Europe, who accepted to contribute to the video. It was followed by a one-hour online discussion where students had great questions and were very interactive with the material. I will use this medium more in the future. It made us realize that every lecture does not have to be the same or the same length. Can we use other types of online resources to substantiate our teaching? Instead of all happening in class, can we ask for other types of preparation from students in the virtual learning environment? These types of questions have now become more present for many people, whereas before we did not have to think about them (and had little time to do so). Only a few people did. I think this will lead to innovations. I also think that students have shown a real understanding of the staff’s challenges and vice-versa. It was like a reset. Usually, it is easy for students to complain that they do not get feedback on time and for the staff to say that students are not prepared. Now we know that everyone is doing their utmost best and we understand better how small things can very much upset your life. For example, there are students who are still in Maastricht who have not seen their parents for months because they cannot get back home. I was aware of all this, but for some people the situation brought them better awareness. Students would like to see more recording of lectures and more use of video, but they also got an appreciation that being in the classroom is a really good thing too. I believe that, as far as teaching, there are many good things coming out of this and very few bad things.

EuropeNow As I hear you talk, I am thinking that you are more or less describing the concept of the “flipped classroom.” Might the post-COVID teaching environment act as a transition to propel this practice forward and attenuate some of the resistance it had encountered thus far?

Patrick Bijsmans Yes, my Euroskepticism lecture was basically a flipped classroom. I prepared the video with my colleagues, along with a couple of questions, and then we had a discussion with the students once they had viewed it. I see two reasons why some people might be hesitant to adopt this strategy. On the one hand, you teach in ways you are used to. In this sense, this situation is a good thing because it pushes you out of your comfort zone. On the other hand, there is the question of time and resources/equipment and whether this equipment will stay around afterwards to allow people to continue doing this. I did all my recordings on my phone. That was fine, but I now have ordered a new stand to click my phone into and I have a tripod ready too. This is equipment we did not have before. And of course, it takes time. I do not mind experimenting, but some people might see this as a waste of their time, which is very understandable. We may have to start thinking about how to reward this kind of effort. We usually get a certain amount of time to prepare a lecture, but we do not get extra recognition for preparing a lecture on video. That is also why people might be resistant to a completely different classroom configuration. Shooting a video can bring a lot of frustration. For example, you might be shooting a video and all of the sudden a car passes by or the neighbor’s child starts jumping on the trampoline, all sorts of things. That’s also why I ordered a microphone. The challenge will be to keep the momentum going. For some people, it will be easier to go back to the way they used to do things. I agree with you that this is a good moment to try out the flipped classroom and see if it works and what works. It might not work for everyone, but when everything goes back to normal, if we can have people use these teaching methods more regularly, it will be a positive factor for all of us.

EuropeNow You are also involved in the UACES Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group. Can you tell us about this organization and, moreover, how this Working Group as well as Maastricht University are reacting to the social movement of Black Lives Matter?

Patrick Bijsmans UACES―the European Association for Contemporary European Studies―is a UK-based organization that gathers people mostly from Europe, but also from outside of Europe. It has been around for more than fifty years already. I am a member of the Committee and there are also working groups. The Diversity and Inclusion Working Group is rather new. Its main aim is to look at all issues connected to equality and diversity. Aside from reacting to Black Lives Matter, it is also about life-work balance, making it possible for female scholars to come to a conference and think about childcare provision that may have to come with that, thinking about harassment and having the right procedures in place to respond to it, especially at the huge annual conference. With regard to Black Lives Matter, at UACES, there has been talk about connecting to European studies scholars on other continents―South America, Africa, Asia. UACES has a network called DIMES (Diversity, Inclusion and Multidisciplinarity in European Studies) that brought together scholars from Europe and the Global South earlier this year. Travel is also often more challenging for these scholars because of cost. These are discussions that are not taking place only at UACES, but in many other organizations. At Maastricht University, we also have a diversity and inclusion unit that works on these kinds of issues, such as equal pay and women’s rights at the university. Plus, there are now also discussions about the need to decolonize the curriculum. We have all been aware of issues of racism and people have been working on them, but the momentum today seems to be different from what it has been before.

EuropeNow Congratulations on the Centre for European Research in Maastricht (CERiM) award that you received this past year that recognized your successes in communicating Europe and integrating interdisciplinary research and teaching. This is exactly what EuropeNow Campus seeks to accomplish. How do we reconcile research and teaching―these two complementary facets of what we do as scholars? What can we learn about your experience and successes in integrating them and minimizing the rift?

Patrick Bijsmans The separation is age-old. In recent decades, it has been particularly emphasized by “publish or perish” and “research output” as a necessity to get a job or permanent contract at the university. It is understandable that this rift has widened, especially as European studies has become more specialized, which makes it difficult in terms of teaching because you can only talk about your narrow research field and perspective instead of being able to speak to students from their perspective.  Through specialization, we may also have lost some of the ability to engage in and teach broader topics in European studies. People have become less comfortable doing that over time. Problem-based learning can play a role there because if students are in charge, it becomes possible to step beyond those boundaries, while you also get great feedback and questions from students about your own research, just like you would when you go to a conference. Students are scholars too, less experienced, but it does not mean they may not have very good ideas. As an example, I had a student who wrote an MA thesis with me. The data was very good. We managed to get the paper published and it even won a prize. Through teaching, I was able to publish a paper with a student. This is proof that through a problem-based approach, we can find ways to bring in our expertise without stifling discussion. However, the pressures of publishing and professionalization make it difficult to take that step. I have had a strange career, but I consciously made that decision and choice. For many people these choices are not obvious. For example, if you are on a fixed contract and you need to move from one place to the next, you have to focus on research because it is the one thing that “counts.” But I think that fortunately things are changing a bit. And maybe we can start thinking more about how teaching and research are intertwined, how we can learn from students and students can learn from us, and how we can be good scholars when we teach things that are not necessarily our strict expertise. I have taught different types of courses in European studies―history courses, sociological courses, politics, research methods, etc. You need to have the confidence to think that you always know more than your students. You will always understand a text better than they will, even if it is new to you too. That realization is sometimes difficult because specialization gets in the way and it is difficult to step back.

EuropeNow How about policy? How do we go the next step and integrate policy-making or policy-advising?

Patrick Bijsmans We have courses here where students write policy papers. What I try to do when I teach academic writing is to encourage not only academic research but to also have students think about how this also prepares them to work on policy evaluation and research. The paper you referred to before is also a call for thinking about the ways in which we teach and decide on the material we use. It is a call to university management and program directors. We are still confronted with people just wanting to get to their research project and get their teaching over with–again, for reasons that are understandable. However, the holistic idea to ally research and teaching is now on people’s radar and it is also one reason I got the recent promotion since I also have management experience. But it is one thing to think about it, and it is another to convince your colleagues. Not everyone will be on board, but if we could convince ten percent, it will be a huge step.

EuropeNow And students can also drive change, can’t they?

Patrick Bijsmans Absolutely! Student representatives play a key role in different university bodies and are regularly asked to evaluate courses or to contribute to discussions on new courses. Some students have great ideas, for new problems to discuss, new material to study, and so on. Sometimes their ideas cannot be taken onboard, for didactical reasons or more “mundane” issues such as legal requirements or finances. But even then, their ideas and suggestions can sow the seeds of change. For instance, the BA program directors initiated a substantial review a few years back, based on student input and with students taking part in course design. Also, students in our temporary Support Team Online Teaching & Learning have signaled problems and issues and come up with proposals that will also help to tackle the current online challenges. When arguments are good and well thought-through, they will lead to change. Perhaps not immediately, but they will.


Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching and Learning at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Culture. He teaches courses in European Studies at the BA and MA level. Patrick was program director of the BA in European Studies from 2010 to 2014 and currently coordinates the staff professionalization program CPD. His research is concerned with media and Euroskepticism, but also with topics pertaining to teaching and learning in European Studies.


Hélène B. Ducros is Chair of EuropeNow’s Research and Campus Editorial Committees. She is a human geographer with a wide range of interests in place and place-making, cultural landscapes, and the rural-urban nexus. Her latest publication appears in The Routledge Handbook of Place (2020). She is also committed to exploring issues of pedagogical methods and teaching and learning, and co-chairs the Critical European Studies Research Network at the Council for European Studies.


Published on November 10, 2020.


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