Alexander Maurits

Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology

Interacting with students at UC Berkeley was Alexander's favourite part of his STINT stay in the USA. It was also a great adventure to live abroad with his family – and all the worrying he did before his trip proved to be unnecessary!

Hello Alexander. What is your department and your subject area?
My home department is the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies (CTR), where I work part-time (50%) as a senior lecturer in church history. I also have a half-time position as programmes director at the HT Faculty Office, but since I have had management duties as head of department at CTR for many years, I am on leave of absence from this position.

You recently went on a STINT stay abroad. How was it? How long were you gone?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of being nominated for and receiving one of STINT's teaching sabbaticals to spend an autumn semester at the University of California Berkeley. In concrete terms, this meant that I lived in California from 1 August 2022 to 6 January 2023, i.e. just over five months.

Tell us more!
University teachers who are granted a teaching sabbatical must spend an autumn semester at one of the STINT partner universities in Asia or the USA. The partner universities in Asia are not very suitable if you are travelling with your family, so when the application allowed me to choose which universities I would like to attend, I only chose universities in the USA. I eventually ended up in Berkeley.

As most people know, Berkeley is located in the Bay Area, just a few kilometres from Oakland (to the south) and San Francisco (to the west, across the bay). Berkeley University is almost iconic. It is perhaps the most prestigious state university in the United States, and often ranks high in various international university rankings. It was also an epicentre of the American civil rights movement and the student Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.

You had your family with you. Did that work well?
Yes, my family – my wife Jenny and our children Isak (14) and Ella (11) – came along to California with me. Generally speaking, we all enjoyed it very much, although we were a bit nervous the first few weeks. Isak and Ella went to middle school in the small town of Lafayette, just east of Berkeley, where we lived. Coming as a foreigner to a completely new context is not so easy, and the school in the USA is of course quite different from the school in Sweden. However, Isak and Ella adapted quickly and now think that the American school is in many ways at least as good, and in some ways even better, than the Swedish one. Jenny volunteered a couple of days a week at the school that Isak and Ella attended. She helped with giving out school lunches and copying school materials. We both helped coach the school's football (aka soccer) team.

What course components did you teach at the host university? What were the student groups like and how do you think it worked?
At UC Berkeley, I was placed in the history department and had the privilege of teaching a thematic course close to my own research interests. The course was titled “Gender and Christianity in Modern Europe”, and it ran for the whole semester. In Swedish terms, it was probably equivalent to a 7.5 credit course, which was a 50% pace. The maximum number of students for the thematic courses – which in terms of teaching resemble seminars – was set at 15. Although there was a slight fluctuation during the first weeks of the semester (Berkeley students have a few weeks to change courses if space is available), there were ten students who continuously followed the course. These students had already completed a lot of prior studies and were in their third (junior) or fourth (senior) year of higher education. However, not all of them had studied much history before. Some had focused on media studies in their previous studies, some had studied global studies and some had studied philosophy exclusively. One of the students was an exchange student from China.

Do you see any particular differences or similarities with your teaching in Lund?
The main difference is that the ownership of teaching in Berkeley is much more with the individual teacher than it is in Lund. For example, I was able to write the course syllabus entirely on my own, and it and the reading list were ready when I decided they should be ready. Of course, I had to submit the syllabus to one of the department's administrators, but that was only done at the end of the semester.

Naturally, there are advantages and disadvantages with a system like this. Here in Lund, the joint and peer-supported teaching work, often together with student representatives, is an advantage and means that you can learn from each other and thus improve the quality of the teaching. The disadvantage of this system is that it takes time. In Berkeley you were more on your own, although there were of course colleagues who could give advice and tips. However, as I understood it, this was not systematised. For example, I never really understood whether the department had a director of studies responsible for undergraduate education.

Did you also teach together with colleagues? How was that?
No, unfortunately I did not. Other colleagues I have spoken to – from Lund and other Swedish higher education institutions – who have been on similar STINT semesters abroad are very much in favour of this type of teacher collaboration during their stay abroad. If I had the chance to go abroad again, I would definitely try to teach with a colleague at the host university.

Was it complicated to apply for the funding? Why do you think it was awarded to you?
No, I did not find it difficult at all. Having the internal deadline here in Lund at the end of summer might be an issue, but that is something you can plan for.

For STINT, it is important to get a clear message about how the knowledge and impressions you gain during your semester abroad will be used and implemented at your home university once you are back in Sweden. I think it is important to think about this and to talk with the department and faculty management and with representatives of the International Office before submitting your application.

Lund University usually gets to nominate two teachers for STINT's teaching sabbatical. In recent years, strangely enough, there have been few applications. This increased my chances in the internal ranking at Lund University. At the same time, STINT has about 10−15 spaces per year to allocate, and the number of applications from all Swedish higher education institutions far exceeds that amount. The fact that I received one of these coveted scholarships may be because I have held management positions at my home department for a long time, I am interested in promoting internationalisation, and I am well established and know not only my home department, but also the HT Faculties and even the University as a whole to some degree.

What do you think you have gained from this stay, in terms of research, teaching and personal experience?
Besides being a great family adventure, the interactions with students at Berkeley are the biggest benefit of my stay in California. The students studied hard, came to class well prepared and wrote well-researched and well-written assignments. They were also both pleasant and interested in the subject.

From a purely pedagogical standpoint, I think the teaching experience from Berkeley has made me better equipped to teach international students here in Lund. I will be doing that already in the autumn, and I am looking forward to it. It is about more than my pedagogical approach or pedagogical models. I have become better at giving instructions and preparing students for the structure of the course and what is required of them.

In terms of research, I got some interesting contacts in Berkeley, but to be honest, I did not spend much time on research during my semester in the USA. This is also not the intention when travelling on this type of STINT scholarship. However, I did spend some time on the role of religion in American society. I find that really exciting and I would like to pursue that topic more.

On a personal note, I think that the hesitation I previously felt about taking my family on such trips has disappeared. Before we left, for example, I worried unnecessarily about how Isak and Ella would fare in California.

What was the best part of your stay?
Being able to spend an extended period of time at a top American university and learning more about American higher education – and actually realising that the similarities between an American and a Swedish university, apart from the availability of money, are greater than the differences – was a privilege. Living abroad with my family was also a great adventure.

What was most challenging?
There was of course a lot of practicalities to organise before we left. Vaccinations, visas and not least arranging accommodation and getting time off from the children's Swedish school and getting them admitted to an American school was time-consuming. To be honest, however, the most challenging thing has probably been getting home and getting back to everyday life here at home. We had a great time in California, and I sometimes long to go back there.

Do you have any tips for colleagues who want to try this in the future?
Do not underestimate how much time it will take to sort out the practical things I mentioned above, and do not be afraid to ask for help from colleagues – in Lund or at other Swedish higher education institutions – who have been on similar exchanges before.

You can read about this and a lot of other practical tips in the blog I wrote about my time in California. You can find the blog here:

Read more about Alexander's experiences

Share in the blog he wrote while at UC Berekeley (in Swedish)

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