‘After the lecture, the world should be broader than before’
Lecturer in Hebrew Martin Baasten wants to raise super-sharp students. ‘I sometimes say something that is obviously untrue. Just to see whether they notice.’ He is one of the five nominees for the LSr Education Prize, the prize for best lecturer of the year.
Martin Baasten (48) teaches courses such as Jewish Cultural History, Biblical Hebrew and Rabbinic Hebrew. Integrating current events in the lectures is one of the criteria for the LSr Education Prize. But how do you do that with topics from so long ago? ‘I see parallels everywhere,’ says the nominee in his study room where there is hardly any room to walk in between the large piles of books. ‘Something might have happened a long time ago, but the underlying reason is often still relevant today. Jewish history is primarily about splinter groups wanting to secede. I usually compare it with the IRA and the Real IRA later trying to secede from them.’ He stimulates the students’ love of the subject by letting them translate texts directly from the original, such as a piece of text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the subject of his dissertation. ‘There is something magical in deciphering such a text. Students feel a bit like Indiana Jones.’
Baasten teaches with a personal mission. ‘After the lecture the world should be broader than before. I hope that when they leave the lecture hall my students think: Hey, does all this still exist too? Transferring information is not enough, I want to ripen minds. Students must learn to read in a critical manner to check whether the translations are correct.’ He gives the example of the inaugural lecture of Groningen professor Ellen van Wolde, some years ago. She was of the opinion that the opening sentence of the Bible was incorrect: God did not create, but ‘separate’ the Heavens and the Earth. She thought there had been a translation error. Baasten disputed her conclusion in an article and treats the case in his lectures. The lesson being: first read the whole text critically before you place a word in the right context.
The students of the Sababa Leiden study association appreciate his didactics. ‘If the lecturer wants to make an important point, he repeats the issue in a number of ways so that it gets through’, they write in the proposal for his nomination. Baasten: ‘My goal is for everyone to understand the material. I never simply answer a complex question. I start with something of which I am fairly sure that everyone knows it, and then I proceed step by step so that all the students find the end of the answer logical.’ Sababa students name another one of his qualities: ‘The lecturer dares to be critical of himself and he encourages students to be critical too.’ Baasten bursts out laughing: ‘Yes, I do impress upon my students that they should not always blindly believe me. Sometimes I say something that is obviously untrue. Just to see whether they notice.’
Baasten wants to raise sharp students, but how does he remain sharp himself? ‘I love my field and I love people. After all these years of experience, I know the material like the back of my hand. But the students do change every year, and that keeps me fresh. I think it’s a beautiful thing when a student cries in my office. It illustrates that as a lecturer you are primarily dealing with people and emotions, and that the subject reaches further than wisdom from books.’ Despite all his teaching experience there is still something that Baasten would like to learn. He notices that students nowadays have increasingly more trouble with thick books: those classics of the field which they are supposed to read from cover to cover. ‘Students hardly ever do that anymore; they just scan texts quickly. I would like to find a trick to get them to read patiently once again.’
The winner will be announced by the Leiden Student Council during the Dies Natalis celebration (8 February). Until this time, every week one of the candidates is placed in the spotlight. The other four nominees for the LSr Education Prize are:
Hebrew and Jewish Studies (Dutch)