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‘Let students see you’re passionate about your subject’

In line with tradition, at the opening of the academic year the LUS Teaching Prize will be presented to the University’s best teacher. Get to know the nominees. This week: Thijs Porck.

Thijs Porck is ‘enormously honoured’ that his students have nominated him for the LUS Teaching Prize.  Porck, a lecturer in Old English, is known for his good humour.  He particularly likes the fact that it is students who choose the eventual winner: ‘They’re the people we’re doing it for.’  

Why do you think you’ve been nominated?

‘I’m truly passionate about my subject. I absolutely love everything I do, study and teach, and I think that comes across to my students. I put a lot of myself into my lectures. Every holiday I go to England and once I even followed the same route as the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, from  London to Canterbury. All kinds of places that are mentioned in the book still exist: I made selfies so that I can use them to illustrate different points in my lectures.  

‘I also try to make my teaching as innovative as possible. I’ve made some knowledge clips, for example: videos where I explain difficult points of grammar, so that students can go through them at their own pace. I write a blog and I’m active on social media, with a Facebook group for students of Old English where I share interesting snippets about my  field – in the evenings and weekends too. And last year I got students to make a vlog, as a kind of essay assignment in the context of 21st-century skills.’

You are enormously passionate about your subject, so how do you handle students who really don’t like it?

‘As far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to like the subject; many students just want to pass the course to get their bachelor’s in English.  That’s why it’s important to keep the subject accessible, and to make sure that it’s not just fun for the loonies among us.  I try to relate it to the world of today’s students. English of the Middle Ages is a completely new language for them, and a difficult one at that, and it’s about stories and events from a very long time ago. To keep it interesting I link it to present-day events or culture, including TV series or films.  To give an example: in one of the Harry Potter books Harry has to appear before the Wizengamot, the highest court of law in the wizard world. The court’s nameoriginates from the Witenagemot, a council of bishops, high priests and noblemen who advised the king in Anglo-Saxon history.’

What do students need in their studies?

‘I would say that excellent students need more depth, so that they can get on with research even during their bachelor’s. It strikes me that Honours Programmes are often very broad in structure and content. The best students from English, Philosophy, French, etc., are brought together to work on a broad theme. My idea is that you should let students specialise: say you’re good at Old English, then you should really get stuck into that subject. That’s why I’m very happy with my project as part of the Research Traineeship Programme at the Faculty of Humanities. It gives you the chance as a lecturer or researcher to apply for a subsidy with which you can have two students carry out research under your supervision.’  

‘More generally, students require clarity, and a good structure in their programme. They want to know at the start what will be expected of them in the exam. Obviously, you don’t give them the answers on a plate, but you do have to make it clear from the outset what the aims of the course are and how you will be working towards those aims. It’s also important that lectures are clearly structured. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the lectures are completely static, but at the very least students will know what to expect.’

What do you like to see most in students?

‘Obviously, my subject – medieval English – is a bit weird. Students generally decide to study English because they’re good at it, they like reading or they want to learn to master the language. And then I come along telling them what happened 1500 years ago and how the language was spoken then.  That’s something of a surprise, and not always a pleasant one. At the first lectures many students look a bit shell-shocked, and they wonder whether they are ever going to understand it all.  It’s really great when, after twelve weeks or so, they realise that they can do it and that they’ve exceeded all their expectations!'

About the LUS Teaching Prize

The LUS Teaching Prize is an initiative of the Leiden University Student Platform. Every year the LUS honours a university lecturer who has made an ‘exceptional contribution’ to teaching. All students at Leiden University can nominate a teacher. Members of LUS attend several lectures by the teachers nominated, after which they select three finalists. The skills LUS are looking for are innovative teaching, interaction with students and whether the lecturer is able to continually improve his or her teaching. This year the nominees are Thijs Porck (Humanities), Florian Schneider (Humanities) and Christine Espin (Social and Behavioural Sciences). The winner becomes a member of the Leiden Teachers Academy and receives an award of 25,000 euros, to be spent on teaching projects.

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