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Jesse Dijkshoorn: ‘I had to learn to take time off’

Research master's student in history Jesse Dijkshoorn collaborated on a transcription system for medieval texts. ‘It’s nice to make the Middle Ages accessible to people.’

What makes history so fun?

'As a child, I found it fascinating to think about how we came to the present as a society. What do you have to think about when you want to build a society? What steps do you have to go through? What has been thought of in the past? Where did things go wrong? This made me interested in a wide variety of topics, from how bricks are made to how social institutions are set up.'

You chose a bachelor’s and a research master's in history. Did you consider a different subject?

'After secondary school I first went for the history teacher training programme, but there you mainly learn how to pass on knowledge. I preferred to work with history itself. So I went to university after my propaedeutic year, where we had lectures on the Middle Ages from the book Centuries of Discernment. Some people hate that work, but I loved it. When we had to specialise two years later, I became a medievalist.'

Why did you take up an internship at the Huygens Institute?

'The Huygens Institute aims to make history available to people. To do that, they use all kinds of digital techniques, which I found very interesting. As an internship assignment, I trained an AI system to read medieval texts. Until now, those models could mainly read the handwriting of one scribe very well, but the Huygens wanted to develop a model that reads all kinds of different manuscripts.

‘That meant I processed a lot of data. The system read the text, after which I entered what should be there. That way I contributed to the system “reading” better and better.'

What is your favourite place in Leiden?

'I like spending time at the archives of Erfgoed en Omstreken on the Boisotkade. It's a nice historical spot, near the gate where the Beggars entered Leiden at the Leidens Ontzet (Liberation of Leiden), looking out at the Pieterskerk.'

What do you do to relax?

'I am a perfectionist, so the first few years of my studies I worked especially hard.  I really had to learn to read academically and to just scan some texts. It helped that I was increasingly allowed to decide for myself what I wanted to research ánd that corona had passed. Throwing myself into my studies like that  was partly because I was deprived of social connections at university. 

‘I now work alongside my studies as an editor for Leidschrift, a Leiden journal for historians, and since last semester I have made sure I have a day off every week. Then, of course, I like to spend time with my girlfriend, or I play guitar, read nineteenth-century literature, bake cakes, pies or bread, and enjoy working with plants. I really like rowan berries, so during corona time I collected seeds from all the trees in the neighbourhood, and I’ve since grown them into two small trees.'

What are your future plans?

'I would ideally like to do a PhD. I really enjoy doing research and throwing myself into debates about it. I think it would be great to say: “We’ve thought this for years, but actually it isn’t right”.’

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