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‘The question is more important than the answer’

Francesco Ragazzi loves to talk about international relations. But what makes him really happy is if his students question the discipline. This has won him a nomination for the LUS Teaching Prize. Is he the best lecturer for 2019?

Congratulations on the nomination! What was your reaction?

‘Obviously, I’m over the moon. It’s the recognition from the students that makes it a particular honour. Your relationship with your students is quite hard to measure, so this is one of the few ways to find out what they really think of your teaching. In the past, I’ve been nominated for the Casimir Prize for the best lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, so I seem to be doing something right.’

What’s the secret to your teaching style?

‘It’s all about inspiring student engagement. I do this by asking a question in the first class, and the students and I then go on to answer this in the remaining classes. The theory and knowledge aren’t even that important. The search for an answer is more important than the answer itself, which is good because there often prove to be several possible answers to that one question. You’ve succeeded as a teacher if you’ve aroused the students’ interest and have given them the tools to explore this further.’

‘More than anything, classes should inspire student engagement’

Could you give an example?

‘I usually begin the International Relations and Organisations bachelor’s programme by showing a map of the world. The world is neatly divided into states that are separated by their borders. Are these states the all-powerful actors in international relations? You might think so, but my students gradually discover that this isn’t true. Borders prove to be much more fluid than the map of the world might suggest. Hackers, refugees, drug cartels, terrorists ... today’s big issues are international and go beyond individual borders. I therefore get my students questioning classical opinions about international relations.’

How do you keep students engaged?

‘It’s important to work with contemporary examples, preferably from the students’ own experience. Many of my students come from abroad, as do I. The students from outside the EU know what it’s like to apply for a visa from the Dutch embassy. You have to do that before you travel to the Netherlands, so you could even say that the Dutch border isn’t at Belgium or Germany but at the embassy in Indonesia or Morocco. It’s a completely different way of looking at states and borders. That’s a real eye-opener for students.’

‘I used to have the naïve idea that you have long summer holidays in academia. Now I work in the weekend, evening and holidays to keep all the balls in the air

You recently published a book about radicalisation in the Netherlands and Belgium. How do you strike a good balance between teaching and research?

‘I try not to compromise on the quality of my classes, but that can be difficult if you want to do research às well. I used to have the naïve idea that you have long summer holidays in academia. Now I work in the weekend, evening and holidays to keep all the balls in the air, as do most of my colleagues. It’s particularly difficult for fast-growing programmes, such as those at Campus The Hague, because relatively few lecturers teach relatively many students. We can’t even provide seminars in the first year, which has me wondering about the benefit to students of theory without practice. There’s one way to reduce this constant pressure: invest more in higher education. It may not be a utopian or visionary idea, but can we please return to the situation from ten years ago?’

If you win the LUS Teaching Prize, what will you do with the 25,000 euros in prize money?

‘I’m currently introducing more visual working methods to my teaching. It would be nice if students could choose not only from data analyses or qualitative research for their research but also from video or GIS analysis [geographical visualisations, ed.]. If I won, I would use the money to hire experts or purchase equipment. Who knows, in the long term this could result in a different academic approach. There is so much exciting research going on, but the results are produced on bone-dry paper. We have to find a way to make that academic enthusiasm visual to ensure we don’t lose it.’

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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