Dr. Antonia Ruppel created the first of her videos for learning Sanskrit at home in her London apartment right under the airport flightpath. The planes taking off and landing at Heathrow Airport really don’t cause too much disturbance. In the videos you only hear a plane very briefly, then cut — and then the filming continues. Until the next plane approaches 90 seconds later, and so it goes on...
Nevertheless, the videos she’s using to introduce students to the mysteries of the ancient Indo-European language are clearly structured and easy to understand — even though Sanskrit itself is not easy. “It’s a highly inflected language. In my classes, I try to explain the systems behind all the inflections.” That, she says, makes learning it immeasurably easier. Back when she was teaching ancient languages at Cornell University in the United States, Ruppel even wrote her own textbook, published by Cambridge University Press, which she accompanied with a whole learning environment of videos and flashcards.
Now working at the Institute of Indology and Tibetology, she successfully applied for funding from the Fund for the Promotion of Good Teaching, which LMU relaunched last year. Her eligible project involves the creation of a textbook teaching the ancient language in German, along with learning videos to accompany each chapter. In the videos, she explains and illustrates the Sanskrit text that appears next to her on the screen. The benefits are clear: “You can rewatch each video as often as you like,” says Antonia Ruppel, “determining your own study times flexibly and thus being well prepared for each face-to-face lesson at the university.” That’s what she expects from her students, so that it’s not just a lesson with the teacher talking at them, but a two-way discussion.
She is very clear on one thing: “If you want to properly understand the Indian culture, both past and present, you have to know Sanskrit. It’s not enough to simply read translations, which are inevitably always interpretations.” That’s why teaching is very important to her — not only for her students, but also for the growing number of people interested in India and Sanskrit.
Nurturing teaching on a lasting basis
Antonia Ruppel is therefore delighted to have received funding, which will enable her to professionalize her project. LMU has endowed the fund with money from its internal budget — a total of one million euros to be distributed in two phases. The first phase runs until the end of the 2024 summer semester, after which a second round for innovative teaching projects will begin. The first round has already seen 39 applications from 12 faculties received by LMU’s University Teaching Committee, with 31 being successful. The disciplines they span include the humanities, computer science, human and veterinary medicine, and economics.
The starting point for LMU’s in-house initiative was the Covid pandemic and the desire to sustain the push in teaching that it triggered. “We don’t want to just hand out money, asking people to come up with concepts and ideas,” says Professor Oliver Jahraus, Vice President for Teaching and Studies at LMU. “After all, so many really good ideas are already being implemented. The aim of our funding is to add on to that, so to speak, to make the concepts and ideas more lasting.”
Establishing a culture of good teaching at LMU is what the University Executive Board wants to achieve — a network of appreciation for all the efforts and initiatives that teachers are undertaking. This is not about making projects permanent. “But what should be left behind is the experience and the structures that others can build upon to establish innovation within teaching long term,” says Vice President Oliver Jahraus. Alongside the Fund for Good Teaching, the university will continue handing out Researcher Awards for excellent students, as well as Teaching Innovation Awards.
Corrections with the human touch
Dr. Martin Heidebach from the Faculty of Law won one of the teaching innovation awards in 2018. And he is enjoying success with his latest project, too. “The in-class exams the students do — solving case studies — are enormously important in a law degree,” he says. After all, it’s what the lawyers-to-be will be doing in their everyday working lives. And yet, he explains, there is a great deal of frustration, especially among first-year students, about the corrections they get in the form of written commentaries. They can be difficult to read, hard to understand, and sometimes they’re even seen as quite random. “This creates a great deal of distance between the author and the corrector,” says Martin Heidebach.
His solution? Video corrections. This involves the corrector commenting verbally on the exam via Zoom, recording it and making it available to the respective students. “We have done this on a limited scale and have had some very good success,” Heidebach is pleased to say. This is also seen in the students’ subsequent evaluations: “After the corrections and my reworking, I have the feeling that I can actually put the corrector’s comments into practice and I don’t just have to wonder futilely what exactly ‘imprecise’ is supposed to mean here,” says a student, for example. And: “The corrector seems ‘more approachable’ and it’s just easier to see things from his perspective as a student.”
That, in a nutshell, is precisely what the project aims to achieve. Heidebach says, “The students engage with the corrections much better. That’s especially important at the beginning of their degree studies. Also, there is person-to-person communication and not just the supposedly all-knowing anonymous corrector.”
Rethinking contemporary literature teaching and research
Dr. Kay Wolfinger’s master’s seminar is not anonymous, that much is apparent in its very name: “Writing under Observation” is the title of the project. It describes exactly what the lecturer in the Faculty of Languages and Literatures is concerned with — namely, accompanying a writer through the writing process. To do this, it brings together not only online and offline teaching, but also students and writers.
The concept involves inviting a writer guest to the Schwabenakademie Irsee. “We are the observers of this writing residency and we reflect on the texts produced,” Wolfinger explains. The writers themselves regularly participate in the seminar sessions via Zoom. Students can ask questions about the work the writer is creating, their motives, and even their everyday life as a writer or their personal career in a way that is not otherwise possible at the university. The answers, which are also treated as part of the work being created, are reflected back into the seminar. On this basis, students write research papers that are published on Literaturportal-Bayern.
Wolfinger explains that the concept appeals mostly to authors who are keen to experiment and have a desire to engage with this unusual format. In 2021, the Dumont author Roman Ehrlich spent four weeks at the academy and got involved in the local cultural program. This spring, Valerie Fritsch, a Suhrkamp author, is in Irsee. The seminar participants visit the author for a workshop and collaborate with her on a concept for a final reading, which they also moderate.
“This is of course a completely different way of putting on a seminar. That’s why I’m so pleased to see that the participants were prepared to take the opportunity to ask questions of interest for German literature studies,” says Wolfinger.
As seminar participant Alina Tempelhoff explains, “For me, ‘Writing under Observation’ was a groundbreaking new approach to the content, methods and actors involved in literature studies: the direct contact with the author and their writing process, but also the interaction with editors and institutions, the practical work of conducting and evaluating interviews, and the discussion of contemporary literature.”
Wolfinger was nominated for a LMU Teaching Innovation Award by a participant — and won the award in 2022. “The award encourages me to open up the literature department, the university, to the outside world, to make literature a more dynamic discipline.” The third edition of the funded project is planned for the summer semester 24/25.
The level of motivation among the lecturers is high, as Vice President Oliver Jahraus agrees. He finds that quite fitting for LMU with its status as a university of excellence: “LMU has a tremendous reputation as a research university,” he says. “There’s a danger that the incredible amount of effort that goes into teaching here is not put in the spotlight often enough. With our Fund for the Promotion of Good Teaching, we want to showcase our leadership not only in research but also in teaching excellence.”