Recognition & Rewards

“To my mind, the Netherlands is ahead of other countries with the steps it is taking”

As a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen (RUG), Steffen Eriksen, who is originally from Denmark, already knew that teaching was his greatest inspiration. He did all he could to facilitate that himself. Thanks to the new Associate Professor 2 tenure track with an emphasis on teaching, he can now actually find the conditions he is looking for. “I am very happy with where I am now, I love my job.”

By way of introduction, can you tell us something about your working practice?

“I work at the Faculty of Economics and Business. The faculty comprises many fields of expertise. I work within the Finance section. I study participation in financial markets based on alternative ownership, and I do so with enormous pleasure and interest. For example, one of my publications is about fine arts. In it, I explore practices in the financial valuation of artworks. I am also working on a paper on collectables, which is about collecting trading cards like Pokémon and special items. I am interested in how we price those kind of objects. I take these topics into the various departments where I teach. I am from Denmark originally and took a Master’s degree at the RUG myself. I am currently a programme coordinator there and from September I will be working as a programme manager.”

Congratulations!

“I am very happy with that. I have come full circle. There are three pillars in my job: teaching, research and all kinds of management activities. To be honest, I rather like such a variety of tasks. But what I like best by far is standing in front of a group of students and seeing how they are beginning to understand something I have just explained to them – especially when it is a subject I love to talk about.”

Your love for teaching extends beyond the walls of the university. On ‘Steffen’s Classroom’, your YouTube channel, everyone can learn about econometrics and statistics, but also about the Pokémon trading card game.

“My YouTube channel is something I do on the side for fun. It all began during the pandemic. I decided that the time had come to develop my own approach to online teaching. My idea was to use all kinds of fun and funny options. So I created playlists on how to learn certain statistical software. You will find my lectures there and other academic topics, as well as Pokémath. I have been playing the game for about 20 years, travelling the world for it and winning competitions. It could have become my professional career. I created a Pokémath playlist in which I explain mathematical concepts using card games. So many decisions go into the choices you make as a player.
My online approach worked out quite well. I eventually got the chance to elaborate my idiosyncratic teaching content into an honours lecture at the RUG. I was really thrilled by this opportunity, which came about because I had won three awards for my teaching practice. The title of my lecture was ‘Combinatorics and randomization in card games’. It came down to me teaching students about randomisation. How do you shuffle the cards so that it is impossible to cheat? As far as I am aware, no one has ever taught that. I was allowed to choose my own topic, provided it was academically relevant, so I decided to merge my potential gaming career with my academic development. I am enjoying it immensely. The workload is high, of course, because there are so many different tasks at the same time, but they come with a lot of freedom to schedule my own hours.”

How do you manage to keep your head above water with that huge workload?

“Over time, I have learnt to deal with both sides of the coin. You have to be really careful to guard your free time. I take as many breaks as possible. For me, it helps to schedule an extra quarter of an hour for every one-hour appointment. I book in some breathing space in my schedule, as it were.

It feels like my fondness for education has been transformed from a ‘problem’ to something that is finally being recognised.
On the whiteboard in my study is the Danish saying ‘Spring over hvor gærdet er lavest’. In plain English: ‘jump over the fence where it is lowest’. You can interpret this in two ways. On the one hand, it means you should take the easiest way out. I take the other approach: try not to work harder, but smarter. Whatever you do, do it smartly. Do not take on any additional work if there is no need, but find simpler ways of working that are just as rewarding. There is no point in working super-mega hard when your energy is better spent elsewhere.”

For some, a career is a consciously coordinated process; for others, it is a path determined by chance. Where on this scale would you place yourself?

“In Danish, we say ‘Heldet følger den flittige’, which means something like ‘happiness is only for those who do their best’. I like that, in the sense that while prosperity is a matter of luck, it is not entirely beyond your control. I believe that is true. Of course, there is always a degree of chance involved, but you have to be able to seize the opportunity when it arises. For me, the Associate Professor 2 profile with an emphasis on teaching was such an opportunity. As a PhD candidate and when I worked as an assistant professor, I was offered a contract that involved 70% research tasks and 30% teaching. I then said something to my manager that was quite risqué at the time – I mean in 2016 or thereabouts. I said that I liked teaching. It felt like I had made a major blunder. ‘Teaching is a lost cause’, he said. I am not criticising my manager, he was fantastic in every way. It is just that like everyone else at the time, he considered my fondness for teaching a weakness. I am glad to say that this attitude has changed, at least in my case. Looking back on that situation with my manager now, of course I do not feel happy about it. But I do see a lot of progress in the fact that I feel I am being recognised and ultimately, through the existing profile, also being rewarded for my personal preferences.”

How did you manage to hold firm in the face of a division of tasks that did not work in your favour?

“It made me angry and I decided to prove them wrong. I was confident that I could do my PhD research and be a good teacher at the same time. I finished my thesis as quickly as I could and then, under false pretences – I said I was very busy – I obtained my University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) in my third year. I became a programme coordinator while still working on my PhD programme. That was not quite by the book, of course, but I managed to get an exemption so I could teach my first course: a programming course for Econometrics students. I taught that course for at least four years and was offered a contract even before finishing my PhD programme. I was extremely pleased with this personal success. Although I really had to work hard, after that things only got better.

When I became an assistant professor and gained a permanent position, I had no further career prospects. Tenure tracks for teaching did not exist. Eventually, I felt that something had to be done, because I had more to offer. In 2021, I heard about a teaching profile in the making: the Career Track in Education. In the documentation about this track, I saw an interesting footnote that read as follows: if you think you already have the competences to be acquired in the track, you can skip it and apply for an associate professor position with a teaching profile. I was the first in the faculty to be promoted to associate professor thanks to the teaching profile, which I am extremely happy about. It feels like my fondness for education has been transformed from a ‘problem’ to something that is finally being recognised. This has also had a favourable effect on my management tasks: now I also reap the benefits as the Master’s programme coordinator.

I consider myself very lucky that all these factors coincided so favourably. I feel recognised and rewarded because my activities are given the right to exist, and I have a clear route ahead. On the other hand, of course, there is no such route; from where I am now, things are developing as we speak, ha ha. But it is certainly not a dead end.”

As an international, you probably also keep an eye on developments abroad – perhaps even more so than academics born in the Netherlands. How would you feel about switching jobs with your current innovative profile?

“You are correct, I do view academia from an international perspective. I always keep an eye on Denmark. They do not yet have a similar teaching position with an emphasis on research there. Still, I think I would be able to switch if I wanted to. We work in a competitive environment, but that does not mean that opportunities do not arise. You have to realise, of course, that moving to another university or another country always means that you will have to give something up. Circumstances elsewhere are always different.”

Do you never worry about your teaching profile falling short of what is required of academics in other countries?

“Research output is of course what most universities are most interested in, you are right about that. Management tasks do not really count as an asset. Teaching is somewhere in between research and management. To my mind, the Netherlands is ahead in this area. If I go to another country, I will be in a much weaker position. I try not to think about that too much because I am very happy with where I am now. I love my job.”

The culture barometer results show that many lecturers feel they are disproportionately burdened with extra tasks and that too much is expected of them across the board. Do you recognise that?

“We have a publication system at the faculty which awards credits for research activities. Different types of output receive different numbers of credits. The requirements for a teaching profile are lower than for a profile with a research focus. If I am not mistaken, I am required to produce at least two publications with a value above 0.60. As a researcher, you are expected to have publications in top journals at 0.90 or higher on a scale up to 1.00. I still have a publication obligation. That is fine; after all, I am a researcher. However, that obligation should be linked to a realistic time schedule. I feel positive about that at the moment.

“I still have a publication obligation. That is fine; after all, I am a researcher.”
Teaching is tough. It takes a lot of preparation and there are all sorts of things you have to bear in mind. I am very happy with the possibility to apply for a teaching innovation grant. I received such a grant twice already, to implement videos and to work out a new style of teaching. Previously, if we wanted to improve our teaching we did not get paid for the extra hours we needed to put in. If you are really passionate, you will plough on regardless, but it is hugely pleasing if the university recognises that you need to be granted the necessary time. The coronavirus pandemic has helped raise awareness about that.”

What do you think Recognition & Rewards will have accomplished in five years’ time?

“Right now, my track exists up to Associate Professor 2. It works well for now, as it allows me and my colleagues to do what we do. Five years from now, the track from Assistant Professor 2 to Full Professor will be fully developed and everyone will have a clear understanding of the requirements. The whole track will be as clear as it is for researchers today.”

And in ten years?

“In ten years’ time, I hope we will have achieved effective international coordination, so that it is no longer a disadvantage to set up a teaching profile because it does not exist elsewhere. I do not think this will happen any time sooner; complicated issues take time, but I do think we can manage in ten years. If you ask me where I want to go, I long to go home to Denmark. My family lives there, so Denmark keeps exerting a pull. I also like the challenge of teaching in different countries. Either way, Denmark remains my base. Fortunately, it is not exactly the other side of the world.’

Steffen Eriksen is associate professor of Economics and Econometrics and, as of September, programme manager for teaching at the Faculty of Business and Economics. In addition, he is among the world’s top Pokémon players, and incorporates this expertise into his teaching. His research focuses on the valuation of special objects, including Pokémon cards and art. Eriksen has his own YouTube channel: Steffen’s classroom.

Striking results of the cultural barometer for the associate professor job category:

  • Associate professors are overrepresented in the response.
  • 56% of associate professors are largely or fully familiar with the Recognition & Rewards programme.
  • In the job category of assistant and associate professors, the Recognition & Rewards programme is talked about more than in other job categories.
  • Associate professors experience more recognition and reward for the work they do than their colleagues in other job categories.
  • Associate professors feel they have to be good at everything.
  • Many associate professors are concerned about the effects of the Recognition & Rewards programme on their own careers.
  • More than those in other job categories, associate professors expect to experience more frustration and annoyance in their work and higher workloads as a result of the Recognition & Rewards programme.

Career paths with an emphasis on teaching

By adopting the Framework for Career Paths in 2022, the RUG aimed to provide more space for talented people by developing differentiated career paths with a particular focus on teaching, research, social impact or health care. The various faculties have been tasked with translating the framework into career paths that match each faculty’s context and objectives. In doing so, the Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB) has developed two career paths for the career steps Assistant Professor 2/Assistant Professor 1/Associate Professor 2, with an emphasis on research or on teaching. In autumn 2023, the faculty even actively recruited assistant professors with teaching profiles.