Universiteit Leiden

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‘It’s about life skills rather than knowledge’

He teaches, as he puts it, the ‘most brutal class’ at Leiden University College (LUC). Despite this, David Zetland’s students have nominated him for the LUS Teaching Prize. We asked him why he thinks this is.

What was your reaction when you heard that you’d been nominated?

‘It’s great to hear that your students appreciate your teaching, and the prize is a good opportunity to draw attention to the importance of good teaching. Research has been held in high regard here for over 400 years, but teaching is the poor relation. I have taught at five universities and have seen many bad examples. Lecturers teach with as good as no training; the people who have to teach are often not born teachers. And there isn’t enough time to prepare your lessons properly.’

But despite this, your lessons are highly rated, if the nomination is anything to be believed. Why is this do you think?

‘I challenge my students. I do so by discussing complex social challenges with them that they all recognize. At the same time, I give them a lot of responsibility because students wanted to be treated like adults. This makes my classes real and responsible, but you could also call them radical. I always want to try out new things!

‘The people who have to teach are often not born teachers

Could you give an example?

‘In the first year, I give the most brutal class at Leiden University College. In Foundations of Common Pool Resource Management, I get my students to come up with ideas on how to improve life on the LUC campus. They and a few other members of the group tackle a seemingly small problem, such as the overfull cycle basement in our building. And voilà: almost without fail these top students are unable to agree on a joint solution! They came to LUC to tackle global challenges, but can’t even solve a small problem. This is a reality check, of course: if this is already so difficult, how complicated is it to solve climate change or gender issues?’

If your classes are so tough, why do you think you’ve been nominated?

‘I’m obviously not a sadist. You always have to be honest and open with your students. You have to be there for them, give them personal feedback, help them on their way, so that at a certain point they themselves know how to make the best decisions and feel ready for life. It’s about life skills rather than knowledge. You learn these by staying up all night with your friends or because a lecturer pushes you to your limit with a difficult assignment. Only then do you know who you can trust when the shit hits the fan. That’s an asset for the rest of your life.’

‘I’m not a sadist. You always have to be honest and open with your students

Is the LUS Teaching Prize a good way of getting a debate going about teaching quality?

‘Definitely. Although we do have to make sure that this prize doesn’t become a new competition because we already have more than enough rivalry in academia. What is more: we lecturers should actually help each other more. We sit in our separate lecture halls, when there’s so much we can learn from each other. We should really establish a prize for this, a prize for the best lecturer collaboration.’

If you win, what will you do with the prize money of 25,000 euros?

‘Buy coffee! And no, I’m not joking. I really do want to spend it on coffee. I used to work with mathematicians. They weren’t very talkative, except for when they got together in the afternoon for coffee and a slice of cake. I want to do the same at LUC. The coffee would smooth the way for lecturers and students to exchange their experiences of teaching. Creating opportunities to bring people together who wouldn’t normally speak to each other: that’s what I’d like to do.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photo: Sean van der Steen
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About the LUS Teaching Prize

The winner of the LUS Teaching Prize receives 25,000 euros to spend on teaching, and is made a member of the Teachers’ Academy (in Dutch). The three nominees for the Prize are Thijs Porck (Humanities), Francesco Ragazzi (Social and Behavioural Sciences) and David Zetland (Leiden University College). The winner will be announced at the opening of the academic year on 2 September.

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