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Guest lecturing in Costa Rica from your own home: Early medieval English in Central America

Working during Corona brings along various challenges but also unexpected opportunities. Thijs Porck, university lecturer medieval English at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS), was asked to give a digital guest lecture for the University of Costa Rica and shares his experience…

“A kind Old English request”

Over the summer, I received an e-mail entitled ‘A kind Old English request’ from Dr. Roberto Arguedas, a professor at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. He had seen my YouTube videos on Old English and asked whether I would be willing to give a guest lecture on this early medieval stage of the English language for his course ‘Diachrony of the English Language’. I did not need to think twice about this request: how often does one get asked to guest lecture in Central America, especially if you specialize in the language of Beowulf?

We soon agreed that there would be two guest lectures, of two hours each, in which we would talk about Old English language and the history and culture of its speakers. These topics are relevant for any student of English, since many peculiarities of present-day English find their origins in the early medieval past: odd spellings, irregular plurals and the rich vocabulary of the English language with all of its loan words all result from the fascinating early history of English.

Title slide of one of the guest lectures

Practicalities: Lecturing on the other side of the world, but still on home turf

Naturally, given the COVID-19 crisis, I did not end up traveling to Costa Rica: all teaching took place online. In fact, we ended up organizing the guest lectures in a Leiden University “Kaltura Live Room”. In other words, while I may have been lecturing on the other side of the world, I was still on home turf - in more ways than one: because of the time zone difference, I taught my lectures from 8 to 10 pm (12 to 2pm in Costa Rica), from my own home.

The Kaltura Live Room allowed me to stream myself via the webcam and show the power point slides that I had prepared; students asked questions via the chat and were also able to turn on their own webcams and microphones in order to participate in the linguistic analysis of English texts from over a thousand years ago. This worked remarkably well and by the end of the second guest lecture, students were able to identify cases and grammatical functions in an Old English translation of Genesis.

Challenging but rewarding

Adapting to online teaching is challenging in and of itself: how can you make sure that students participate? How best to present information in an online format and how to keep students enthused for a two-hour session? Teaching for students at a foreign university brings along additional challenges: do my jokes and cultural references still work? What do they expect and what is their level? Luckily, Professor Arguedas kindly helped me out: he told me what he thought his students could handle and he also hinted at the fact that many of them were watching History Channel’s Vikings (a TV series set in the time of Alfred the Great, which also features Old English dialogue). As was to be expected, they really liked learning about the real Vikings and how they had influenced the English language (e.g., through such loan words as ugly, window and sky).

The trick to making sure the two-hour sessions did not become too boring was to keep the material varied and fresh: some grammar, some history, some culture and some literature, with images from real manuscript and, occasionally, a screenshot of the TV show Vikings. The students seem to have enjoyed the guest lectures and so did I; it was an enriching experience to try and translate my material for such a unique teaching occasion.

Word-cloud on the basis of student evaluations, provided by Professor Arguedas (University of Costa Rica)
Thijs Porck

¡Pura vida!

Of course, there were some technical issues and I had to refresh the Kaltura Live Room every now and then in order for the slides to work, but the students did not seem to mind – in fact, they taught me two valuable words: “¡Pura vida!”, a catch-all phrase that translates to something like ‘simple/pure life’ – in Costa Rica, you can use it to say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, but also ‘everything’s fine’, ‘no worries’ – it represents their way of life, do not dwell on the negatives and be thankful for what you have. A good attitude in these trying times -  ¡Pura vida!

Column by: Thijs Porck 

Do you also have a story about online education?

In these unprecedented times, when much of our education has had to move from the lecture hall to the internet almost overnight, we can learn a lot from each other. Are you a lecturer and do you have an inspiring story about online education, or maybe have some tips for other lecturers? Send in your column idea to nieuws@hum.leidenuniv.nl  and perhaps the next column will be yours! 

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