Universiteit Leiden

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Leiden Teaching Prize nominee 2023: ‘Every lesson somebody says something I never thought of’

Two years ago, university lecturer Kirsty Rolfe was nominated for the Faculty Teaching Prize. Now she is in the running for the university equivalent. ‘It’s lovely to see students blossom.’

For Rolfe, teaching is a two-way affair. ‘My specialism is literature from the 16th and 17th centuries, but the fact that I’ve read more than my students doesn’t mean that what they notice in a text isn’t as valid as what I notice,’ she explains. ‘I really try to get over in the first year that the moment you come into the university, you are also a literary critic. I'm just going to take you through some techniques so you get better at it.

Rolfe pays particular attention to building her students’ confidence. ‘I praise them a lot, tell them they have really interesting ideas, even to the point they don’t believe I’m sincere,’ she laughs. ‘Actually, I am. I think it’s very generous of them to come to class, share their ideas and talk to the other students. I want to make sure they know that’s something I appreciate. I often feel like teaching is just me and a bunch of smart, interesting people talking about interesting things.’

‘Almost theatre’

This results in lectures Rolfe’s students describe as ‘almost theatre’. ‘It’s true,’ she admits. ‘I was teaching early modern drama last semester. These texts are made to be staged, not to be read at home in bed. I showed clips in class from film productions, but we also read texts together. So yeah, it was quite intense, but it did work well for this kind of text.’

As an added bonus, according to Rolfe, reading out loud can make texts less overwhelming. ‘Poetry can sometimes feel scary, so I tend to read it out loud myself, and get the students to read it out loud too, because suddenly that can unlock meaning for people. We’re quite a noisy classroom, I’m afraid.’

‘Be yourself’

Does the two-time teaching prize nominee have a tip for other lecturers? ‘Play to your own strengths and personality. When I started teaching, I thought I needed to project authority, but I’m not a very formal person. In my day-to-day life I make a lot of jokes, so I started to incorporate them in my teaching and created a sort of exaggerated version of my personality.’

Amazing competition

‘I’m very grateful this led to the nomination by my students, also because I’m so in awe of the other two nominees. They’re really cool. During the nomination process, we had to give a presentation. Afterwards, I desperately wanted to learn more about network theory and the way intestines are formed.’

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