Course Description

This is a course in the arts of looking. It treats the entire city of Amsterdam as a museum, asking: How do people in the Netherlands use design, the arts, and other forms of visual culture in the public realm to engage, revise, reject, or reflect upon Dutch identity and other identities? How do we engage it as visitors, outsiders, museum-goers?

In False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good, architectural critic Aaron Betsky argues that since virtually every square centimeter of the Netherlands has been dredged from the ocean or otherwise engineered, space itself is precious, and therefore everything is designed to work in that space. Yet the ways Amsterdammers have imagined and used visual and physical space has changed radically over time, in uneven ways. Twenty-first century bicycle infrastructure, for example, re-configured the entire transportation landscape around the most conservative vehicle on earth—the “Dutch bike,” whose design remains frozen in its 1930s state.

So: How do contemporary architects and designers relate their work to the city’s centuries-old canal layout and respond to ideas from the Amsterdam School or De Stijl? How do today’s photographers, filmmakers, and artists carve out spaces in a city whose museum landscape seems dominated by Rembrandt and Van Gogh? How do historical museums imagine the difficult past and narrate it for present-day audiences; e.g., is World War Two a story of resistance or collaboration? And how do descendants of immigrants from former Dutch colonies in Indonesia and the Caribbean—along with immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere—use the city’s arts and public infrastructure to articulate new ideas about themselves, each other, and what it might mean to be “Dutch” in this post-colonial, international context?

In the first 4 weeks you will engage methods of visual analysis from art, design, architecture, museum studies, cultural studies, and anthropology. You will read, research, blog with peers, and write short “method” papers applying these disciplinary frameworks to Dutch visual materials online. We spend the final two weeks together in Amsterdam, experiencing museums, galleries, films, events, and the city itself. Students will co-author an intellectual travel blog, revising ideas from your papers in light of the experiential acts of looking we practice in the city itself. For graduate students, the course closes with a final blog essay. Graduate students will have an extra “wild card” day in Amsterdam to spend research time at the museum/site of their choice. 

Learning objectives. The course helps students to expand their capacity to

  1. Synthesize and apply  disciplinary methods.
  2. Assess uses and limitations of these methods.
  3. Perform the above in short essays modeled on public art criticism.
  4. Revise ideas and arguments in response to peers and to experiential engagement with live materials during our trip to Amsterdam. 


You will want to purchase these three books. We will read all of False Flat, all of Murder in Amsterdam, and long excerpts from the others; you can find used copies of all. All other readings are accessible via GW Libraries online databases or Blackboard > E-Reserves (you must maintain internet access throughout the course).

Aaron Betsky with Adam Eeuwens, False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good (New York: Phaidon, 2004). NOTE: You must have this book in hand before Week 2 begins.

Simon Kuper, Ajax, the Dutch, the War (New York: Nation Books, 2012).

David Winner, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer (New York Overlook Press, 2000).

[Note: we’re not really reading two whole books just about soccer! Winner’s is a visual analysis of the professional game, while Kuper’s is a wide-ranging cultural history told through the lens of fan culture and club participation. We’ll read selections from each.]


Method essays

Weeks 1-4 will each culminate in a 1200- to 1500-word essay (2000 words for grad students) applying principles and methods from a choice of the readings to visual materials from online sources (e.g., digital collections on museum websites). These are modeled on public art criticism, e.g., modeled on public criticism, e.g. Roger Lewis’s essays on architecture in The Washington Post.  You will highlight the uses and limitations of each framework, which are particular to their respective disciplines.

Blog discussions

In weeks 1-4, you will use the course blog to draft ideas for your method essays and respond to peers on these ideas. In weeks 5-6 in Amsterdam, you will co-author an “intellectual travel blog.” After each day’s visits, two students are assigned to lead with prompts and then all will respond, revisiting ideas from the methods essays in light of your live engagement with materials on site.

Grad students will write one final essay of 2000 words, revising and adding to their prior essays and using new research materials from Amsterdam.

Undergraduate students:

20% Discussion posts/responses (4 x 5% each)
60% Method essays (4 x 15% each)
20% Travel blog (10% leads, 10% responses)

Grad students:

20% Discussion posts/responses (4 x 5% each)
60% Method essays (4 x 15% each)
10% Travel blog (5% leads, 5% responses)
10% Final essay

Course completion: Failure to turn in any one or more of the areas above will justify an F in the course, regardless of other grades. I use the 4.0 scale for all assignment grades. This is the same 4.0 scale used for your GPA.  Note: The 4.0 scale does not translate to percentages (e.g., a 3.0 is a B; it is not 75%). Your final course grade is  the average of your assignment grades (weighted by the percentages above) on the 4.0 scale, rounded two decimal places (note: these already rounded numbers are firm cutoffs and do not round further; e.g., a 3.49 is a B+).

A (4.0)     3.70+
A- (3.7)   3.50 – 3.70
B+ (3.3)  3.15 – 3.49
B (3.0)     2.85 – 3.14
B- (2.7)    2.50 – 2.84
C+ (2.3)   2.15 – 2.49
C (2.0)      1.85 – 2.14
C- (1.7)     1.50 – 1.84
R                  0.50 – 1.49 and completed all required work



Travel policies

You are representing GW while abroad, so be on your best behavior both with the group and on your free time. All GW policies apply to you while in country. If GW rules prohibit it on our campus, then it is prohibited on the trip, regardless of local laws, and I may be required to report violations to GW. Please remember that you signed a Short-Term Abroad Participation Agreement which states:

The undersigned understands that the use of possession of drugs which are illegal in the US or host country during the program or being knowingly present in instances of use or possession of such illegal drugs during the program is cause for immediate dismissal from the program without refund.

You must attend all assigned activities in country. Missing an assigned event docks your course grade by one full letter grade. If for any reason you are not prepared to fully engage with any assigned event, it will count the same as an absence.

Please take responsibility for each other. Travel with a peer whenever possible. Always let more than one person know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Text them if your plans change. Also text me this info if you’re traveling alone, regardless of time of day. We’ll all share our contact info once in country to keep in touch (I’ll have a new SIM card, so a new number once there.)

See Travel Info for all other travel details.

Academic integrity

The George Washington University’s Code of Academic Integrity defines academic dishonesty as “cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one’s own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” Recommended penalties for plagiarism and other violations range from failing the assignment to expulsion from the University.

Most narrowly (and legalistically), this means you must quote accurately, paraphrase fairly, and cite all sources completely. More broadly still, you should act ethically and honestly in all the work you do at the University. Accept responsibility for what you write. Openly acknowledge aid others give you in doing your work, whether through collaborative writing or critical feedback. You can do this in the text, in footnotes/endnotes, or in an acknowledgements page.

Student support

Although this is a distance course, GW student services are still available to you.

The Writing Center offers GW students free, one-on-one feedback from peer tutors for any kind of writing at any stage of the process and may have online options available to you. They will have limited summer hours, so check early.

If anything—personal, family-related, institutional, whatever—ever interferes with your academic work in this course, please feel free to discuss it with me, the earlier the better.  You do not necessarily need to share personal information with me; just the fact that there is something happening would be helpful for me to know.  We can then decide how best to proceed or what resources GW might offer to help. You can always consult the Academic Advisor in your Dean’s office:

Columbian College of Arts & Sciences (CCAS)
Elliott School of International Affairs (ESIA)
School of Business (GWSB)
School of Public Health & Health Services (SPHHS)
School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS)

If you require any specific accommodation to compensate for a disability, GW’s Disability Support Services requests that you contact them with documentation, 202-994-8250. Also, please talk with me about anything I can do to help facilitate your getting the most out of this course.

The University Counseling Center, unfortunately, is not available to you while abroad. But you have access to local mental health providers in Amsterdam under your HTH/GeoBlue health plan. See details there, and make appointments ahead of time if need be.

If you experience, witness, or hear about sexually assault while in this course, contact GW’s Sexual Assault Response Consultative Team at 202.994.7222 or In addition, the DC Rape Crisis Center hotline is open to you: 202.333.7273, and ASK DC’s free app can help you be prepared with “immediate access to the information needed most in the event of a sexual assault on one of DC’s nine college campuses — quickly, confidentially and free.”