Universiteit Leiden

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‘Old English is super cool’

With his dance routine and YouTube clips, he even manages to make grammar fun. His infectious enthusiasm and innovative teaching methods have won Thijs Porck, a lecturer in Old and Middle English, a nomination for the LUS Teaching Prize.

Why have your students nominated you?

‘I felt honoured and very surprised to hear I’d been nominated because I made it to the shortlist two years ago as well. Apparently, my students appreciate how I do my utmost to make my classes challenging and innovative. Alongside essays, I get them to produce vlogs and blogs, which means they learn 21st-century skills, such as working with animations and voice-overs. I also try to give them a taste of the academic world. My master’s students get to organise an academic conference, which means applying for funds, hosting the conference and presenting their own research, and I encourage students to write an academic article if their thesis is good.

‘This seems to work because my students’ enthusiasm in class and on voluntary excursions shines through. We visit exhibitions about Medieval relics or Tolkien, for instance, and last year I took my students on a tour of London and Oxford. My field is super cool – obviously. I hope that my passion for it is infectious.’

Thijs Porck: 'I try to give students a taste of the academic world.'

How do you get this passion across?

‘I often begin with an attention-grabbing anecdote and use drawings to illustrate it. The story of Medieval King Æthelred the Unready (ca. 966-1016), for instance, who earned his nickname posthumously. He had a really bad reputation; there’s even an anecdote about him pooing in the font as a baby. I draw a kind of cartoon of this because then everyone starts their Monday morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Then I go on to discuss the phenomenon of sources with a political leaning. The stories about this king were first written 50 years later. I thus try to link history to current affairs; that there was such a thing as fake news in the 11th century already. Or how literature was used to process trauma back then too. There was a big Viking raid on England in 793, and monks wrote sad poems about their fallen brothers.’

Topics such as Viking raids are exciting as it is, but how do you make grammar sexy?

‘Grammar can be very dry, it’s true. Then you have to get creative: I’ve come up with a kind of K3 dance for a certain category of weak verbs in Old English. Students only have to do the dance twice and they’ve memorised these verbs. I’ve also produced YouTube clips in which I use animations and catchy examples to explain grammar rules. In the past, students would keep on asking me to explain these rules. That’s no fun for the students who understood them first time around. Thanks to the clips, students can now learn at their own pace.’

Do you produce clips for other courses too?

‘From an educational perspective, I consciously don’t for subjects such as culture and history because students also have to learn to pay proper attention and identify the key points. In real life, you don’t get everything recorded for you and served up on a plate. I do make sure there is interaction though, for instance by working with PresentersWall: here students use their smartphones to say what they associate with the word ‘holy’ and a word cloud immediately appears on the screen. I then base my lecture on the words that they come up with, ‘relics’ and ‘miracles,’ for instance.

If you win, how will you spend the prize money of 25,000 euros?

‘Students often find writing their thesis very difficult, and lecturers devote a lot of energy to helping them even though the number of hours they have scheduled for this are limited. I want to have a digital platform built that gives students a clear idea of what writing a thesis involves and encourages them to begin in good time. I also want to work with peer feedback: where students read and give feedback on one another’s chapters. The platform should also praise moments in the thesis process, so students would earn a virtual badge for completing certain assignments or see a checklist saying, ‘You’re halfway through! Keep going!’ If you ask me, the platform could be used throughout the University, and would be a good solution for students and lecturers alike.’

Text: Linda van Putten
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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