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A pioneer of education

Lisanne Wilken is the kind of teacher who can easily incorporate an EU summit and the Eurovision Song Contest into her teaching for Danish and international students of European Studies. And she has now won the Aarhus University Anniversary Foundation’s Educational Honorary Award in 2013 for her pioneering educational work in the international classroom.

2013.09.13 | Anja Kjærgaard

Wilken has always had a flair for teaching, and things went fine until she met a class who were unresponsive no matter what she tried to do. She could have chosen to shrug her shoulders and move on – but that’s not in her nature. This is one 53-year-old associate professor of European Studies who always wants to understand what’s going on around her.

“I read somewhere that when you’re involved in international education you have to remember that big cultural differences in an international classroom often mean that humour is a bad idea. So I thought ‘That’s what’s going wrong here – I’m simply telling them too many bad jokes’,” she explains with a twinkle in her eye but with the emphasis on ‘too many’.

So she taught another class without telling any jokes. In her own words, “It wasn’t a disaster, but it was pretty boring.” However, the experience inspired her to find out how to deal with classes of students from all over the world and from very different cultural and academic backgrounds. Because this is what students on the Master’s degree programme in European Studies are like.

Embarrassing proceedings

She discovered two things. First of all, you can of course include humour in an international classroom. After all, she says with an infectious laugh, “I can’t expect all the international students to think I’m funny, but the Danes don’t necessarily think I’m funny, either.” And second, she discovered that the academic environment at European Studies is fantastic. It’s an environment in which you’re perfectly welcome to say that things aren’t going too well, a place where your colleagues are happy to talk about possible changes in the way things are done.

She mentions a number of successful projects, including “The Project”, which involves the use of an integrated form of teaching with the students using their cultural and academic backgrounds as a resource in joint projects. “The Project” has also led to educational initiatives such as “Euro-Sim”, a role play in which the students simulate an EU summit playing various roles such as ministers, journalists and lobbyists. And finally, Wilken has also included the Eurovision Song Contest in her teaching, with the students being placed on an equal footing because all the countries involved have an equal share in the embarrassing proceedings on display, as she puts it.

And this is the key to her educational work: she wants the students to feel that they have a share in the teaching – to accept co-ownership of what goes on in the classroom. Educational projects should create a form of equality in the international classroom. This is an educational practice that has been at the forefront of the teaching of European Studies at AU for many years, and Lisanne Wilken has invested a huge amount of energy in helping it to succeed – alongside all the other staff (she always presents these achievements as a joint effort). She is an anthropology graduate from the University of Copenhagen who was appointed at Aarhus University in 1997 – first as a part-time lecturer, and subsequently as an assistant professor and associate professor. In 2001 she gained her Dr.phil. based on a doctoral thesis on minority policy in the EU.

It’s all Anne Knudsen’s fault!

Anyone who has known Lisanne Wilken since she was a child will know that she has come a long way since the dreams of her childhood. When she was eight she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She had read a fascinating article about the mysteries of the Mayan Indians, and decided that she wanted to solve these mysteries when she grew up. She almost kept her word because she wrote her Master’s thesis on the Mayas. But she found out that there wasn’t really much of a mystery to solve, and ended up turning her academic attention to Europe after a well-intentioned order from a fellow student of anthropology – a woman who was later to become a famous newspaper editor in Denmark:

“It’s all Anne Knudsen’s fault because she told me to work with Europe instead of the Mayas. And then I was lucky enough to be involved in a project on Europe, and Anne and I have actually written a book on culture and cultural conflicts in Europe,” she explains. She knows exactly what it is that drives her enthusiasm in the everyday tasks of teaching, supervision and research.

“What drives me is that I’m working in an important field of research in which the knowledge that is produced is important. At European Studies we focus on something that has enormous significance for the decisions made in society. Another thing that drives me is that I’m too stupid to give up. When I meet a challenge I’m forced to solve it,” she says in a refreshingly honest evaluation. This is also the reason why Mayan mysteries or any failures in the classroom have to be dealt with – she’s not the kind of person to let sleeping dogs lie.

Each year Aarhus University’s Anniversary Foundation presents the Educational Honorary Award to a leading researcher who has achieved something special in terms of teaching at the university. The award is “honorary”, but also includes DKK 100,000. It is to be presented in connection with AU’s 2013 annual celebration.