Wetenschap - 3 november 2011

Navel gazing is fatal

We need a radical change from time to time, to keep us on our creative toes. That's Cees van Woerkum's view, anyway. His life's path has taken him from the role of fervent Trotskyist to that of illustrious professor of Communication Strategies. 'If I do the same thing for a long time I get stuck.'


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Cees van Woerkum was 16 when he left technical high school. No, he was no highflyer, he says. The timing of his birthday meant he left school young. But otherwise, he reckons he got through by the skin of his teeth. 'There was really just one subject I was good at, and that was writing compositions.'
At 16 he was too young to be admitted to the social work training programme, for which you had to be 18. 'An uncle of mine suggested that I should just go and do sociology in Nijmegen. I was hooked immediately. On questions like: what kinds of mechanisms make people join hands instead of going for each other's throats? On the other hand, I always felt like a technical school boy who had a feel for what drives the natural sciences.'
'I was happy to get away from Eersel, a beautiful village but rather stifling. My father worked in a cigar factory, where he eventually rose to be head of the personnel department; my mother came from a farm. I liked going to the farm, milking the cows, mowing with a scythe, binding the sheaves - I did all that. It stood me in good stead later. Anne van den Ban, with whom I applied, thought it was a strong point. I graduated with a study of how women influence each other in adopting new fashions. That fitted well with Van den Ban's work on the way innovation spreads. I started in Wageningen in 1971. It was certainly a big change. In radical Nijmegen, the noticeboards were full of pamphlets and calls to action. In Wageningen there was just one note hanging up, from a student who had lost his lecture notebook on beekeeping.'
Trotsky and traverso
In Nijmegen, Cees van Woerkum belonged to a fraternity for two years, and even sported a three-piece suit. He supplemented his full grant by writing reports for his fellow students for ten guilders apiece. Until the revolution came. 'I had Marxist leanings, I was Trotskyist and applied that to cultural matters as well. I was not the type to man the barricades, and I wasn't a leader. I started to write about the use of music for revolutionary or, repressive ends. I still have that in me, and I am extraordinarily suspicious of commercial music. It can be very nice, sure, but I lose interest if I get the feeling that it's all about marketing, exploiting effects that will make people buy more CDs. Commercial music keeps people in a particular groove, which cripples their creativity. Just as people sometimes use TV to avoid their problems. External stimuli eclipse their own experiences. When they should be rebelling against the situation at their work or in their relationship, they just daydream in front of the telly.'
Van Woerkum watches very little TV himself. 'I do follow the football though. I stopped playing myself when I was about 35. I still had the reflexes and the techniques, but not the substance. But who knows, given a bit more time... There is a field in the neighbourhood where you can kick a ball around and I still have my football boots.' He has kept up his other youthful passion, music. He tries to play an hour a day on his traverso, a Baroque flute. 'Once I've retired, I am going to concentrate on that more. And besides that, I want to write - a book, columns. I don't know exactly yet. Maybe poetry.'
Oration and creation
One thing is sure to remain, and that is the tough cycling tours through Europe he makes with his partner Joke. They pack a tent and go off in search of people, nature, and 'the backrooms of Europe.' It looked for a while as if that was going to come to an end; they've just come through a rotten year. 'Joke was discovered to have cancer. All went well in the end, but it did make us think. It made her want a stress-free way of life now. It had a different ­effect on me. Every ten years I have taken a radically
new direction in my work, and made a creative leap. In 2003 I even gave a new 'oration', or inaugural lecture.
If I do the same thing for a long time I get stuck. The more I know about something, the less I am able to come up with something surprising, something creative. Then I ­have to start all over again. And I was about to reach that point.'
Initially Van Woerkum focused on 'how to get people from A to B': how to convince them through a good press release, a video, or later with a combination of rules, information and tax benefits, for example. 'For a long time I thought in very instrumental terms, but a well-argued story is not enough to convince people; you also need to be able to relate to their concerns, how they talk, how you can give them confidence. The approach of trying to steer people, behaving like a teacher, doesn't work. Just look at the debate about biotechnology or about CO2 storage in Barendrecht. In the last few years I have focused mainly on how organizations can stay in tune with the field they work in.'
Science and benefits
Navel-gazing is deadly, thinks Cees van Woerkum. Take nature organizations, for example - as someone whose binoculars are always within reach, he is very irritated by the way they have become so inward-looking. 'They don't stay in touch enough with farmers. That hampers the search for constructive solutions for nature policy. Of course some species are in decline, but you shouldn't allow yourself to be blinkered by that. Shell made big changes after the sinking of the Brent Spar. The company has forged alliances, including with nature organizations. Of course that is in their own interests, but it does lead to a stream of totally different information flowing into a big organisation, which can break down its group-thinking.' A similar thing applies to Wageningen UR, in Van Woerkum's view. 'Don't be defensive about test animals, for example, but make sure you stay sensitive, and exchange ideas with the public, including with critical groups.' Dialogue is the only way to reap the benefits of applied science. And those benefits are the big criterion for applied science. 'In the nineteen nineties, I gave thirty lectures a year and was on dozens of committees and advisory boards. In recent years I have concentrated more on the science itself because increasingly, that is what we are judged by (his group was assessed very positively by the last visitation). There is a hidden danger in that. As a researcher you are also responsible for the way your research is used. 'Science for Impact' is not just an empty slogan.'  
Cees van Woerkum (Eersel, 1947)
1971 Studied Sociology and Mass Communication, Catholic University of Nijmegen
1971 Taught Extension Science at the Agricultural College in Wageningen
1982 Thesis: Extension Science and Mass Communication: the action plan of mass media extension, at the Agricultural College
1989 Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies, Wageningen Agricultural University
2003 Professor of Communication Strategies, Wageningen University
Cees van Woerkum lives with his partner Joke Janssen; he has three adult children from a previous marriage.
'He can't stand affectation'
'Music is in Cees's genes; he is an ambitious, good musician. I think for him it is the ultimate means of communication. We both play the traverso, and especially Baroque music. In this music, the rules of rhetoric are used to influence people's moods. Last summer we did a week's masterclass near Montpellier. In the evenings we would have a glass of wine. He's a nice man with a broad range of interests; he's very interested in other people and concerned about all the things that are going wrong. He doesn't think in boxes, he looks over fences, and one thing is sure: Cees can't stand affectation.'  
Martin Knotters, researcher at Alterra and music mate.
'What are they talking about in the cafés?'
'We run into each other now and then, on a committee for example. Cees is a likeable man, a bit scatty to be sure, but he does always know exactly where we left off. If there is one word I associate with Cees it is 'discussion'. He was tremendously important for my development as an extensionist. That came especially through his about-turn, from a planning-minded thinker who ponders how to get his message across to the target group, to someone who focuses more on those on the receiving end and asks: what is going on in society, what are they talking about in the cafés? A typical statement of his: 'Arguments are pointless to everyone except those who are looking for them.'
Guido Rijnja, communications advisor at Rotterdam city council management services.
'Absent-minded professor'
'When you saw how upset his colleagues were when Cees announced his retirement, that says it all, really. He is the ultimate absent-minded professor, but above all he is an amiable man who respects people for who they are. I could never have a better boss.'
Sylvia Holvast, secretary at Communication Science
'Keen on diversity'
'His staff are given a lot of freedom, but they are expected to show that they create and produce. A lecture out in the field is of just as much value to Cees as an academic article. He is very keen on diversity and his team includes anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists; multidisciplinarity generates new ideas. What is more, Cees is very nice to work with. We shall miss him sorely, both as a scientist and as a person, but he has invested so much in us that there is a strong team ready to take the work further.'
Noëlle Aarts, associate professor of Communication  Science, extraordinary professor of Strategic Communication at the University of Amsterdam