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The semester ends with cake: Nothing is forever, but some things are

We bake history. I baked PhD cake. And we will meet on the moon.

The spring semester is my teaching semester. This year, I was involved in running four courses at the same time. My prep got more efficient than it used to be. I still found time to breath and work on other things. Still, in spring I’m a teacher. And now I’m no more.

Conveniently, all final lectures of my courses of this year fell on the very same day: May 8th. I used the occasion to bid farewell to our students in a rather special way. They got PhD cake. And I got my 15 seconds of special attention.

PhD cake is an ancient recipe that is shared with Dutch PhDs at the moment of their graduation. PhD Cake is a little bit of a scam. I used it in 2011 to promote my election to PhD Council Chairman in Rotterdam. It definitely increased the turnout compared to the year before. The year after I still brought cake, even though wasn’t up for re-election. I also made the very same cake at a few occasions in between. Colloquially, it got known as PhD Cake from thereon.

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You take just three eggs, two cups of sugar and four cups of flour. These cups should have about 200ml volume. Oh, and 2 cups of buttermilk. Or karnemelk, if you’re in Holland. Some kind-of acid milk. That’s enough for one tray of cake. You mix everything, add also baking powder. You now mix separately one more cup of sugar with two cups cocos flakes. Distribute that over the cake. Put it in the oven at 140 degrees Celsius for 30min. Then you take liquid cream and pour it over the cake as long as it’s still hot.

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Finally, you share it with students.

Every year I see my students leave. Many of them are exchange students. They go back to their home countries. I stay. I spend a few weeks with them. Three months and a bit. I build connections. I learn about them. I let them learn about me. The day comes that they leave and I’m happy that I won’t have to bother about assignments and readings and extra credits and course admin stuff for a while. Other days come later.

In these other days, I remember their faces. Some of their questions. Some of my jokes. Some of their assignments. I don’t remember all their names. I remember some. I’d love to remember all. I do remember all faces. I know about some of their intentions and ambitions. I wonder if some of what they’ve learned with me will have been useful actually. If they’ll remember their professor – the cyclist.

I just imagine how this would be for someone who has been a professor for 30 years. When thousands and thousands of faces and names passed by. Time and time again they close a semester.

When we close something, we might do it for one of two reasons. We might stay inside and might not want someone to join. Or we might stay outside and we might be ready to go elsewhere. Then we could go in many directions. Where to go to? Where do we… we that stay behind when our students leave, where do we go?

They go boldly out of academia. They follow some dreams. All the while nothing sounds like it’s a time of dreams. A broken education system. A broken climate. A broken pension system and a broken economy. A broken European Union and a broken promise of freedom. Apartment prices are exploding and there are wolves living again in Brandenburg. You may feel abused by capitalists, socialists, terrorists, television, telecom, and whatever train company runs public transport in your country.

Yet they dream. Like space explorers they board their rockets. They don’t care about threats and uncertainty. There will never be certainty. Why wait for it anyways? We had not reached the moon waiting. Some 35 years ago, brave men didn’t wait. They boarded their rocket. We who stayed behind watched them as their rocket got smaller and smaller and then disappeared from our sight. They walked on the moon some days later. There are so many planets yet to walk on.

We, professors, send our students into their space. We hope to give them the means to develop and to use their freedom. Freedom to think and freedom to act. Freedom to take the initiative. Freedom to know how to use their resources. We send them out with a mission. And for them it is time to make the world from their dreams.

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For us, too. Sometimes I’d just wish I would see them come back from their explorations. Sometimes I also wish to board a ship together with them. I’ve met great sailors among them.

Today, the semester is over. Once again. The academic clocks stand still for a moment. Then, tomorrow, we build together this one future. Bocconi here. Them there. And also me. We are young as long as we maintain to dream. So we bake history. Not fear.

I baked a cake.

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And I think what I really want to achieve is to be remembered, too. And leave my mark in a way. In Rotterdam, there’s a plank somewhere on a wooden bridge that I donated. I mean, I donated the plank. The bridge was a crowdfunded architecture project. The plank carries my name on it. In Milan, it’s the marketing research grade that some of our students take on their grading transcripts. It’s my name on some printed student theses. For the moment, I also appear on top of the list of 12 Strava segments.

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We live away. We live alive. Nothing is forever, but some things are. I postpone the feelings until later. And we will meet on the moon.

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