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Taking a class with the best teacher at UCPH 2019

She is celebrated as the best teacher at the University of Copenhagen in 2019. We took part in a lecture in literary history full of references to popular culture, fantasy and science fiction.

The photographer and I are hard on the heels of Maria Damkjær. The teaching starts in six minutes, and she does not want to let her students wait. At the same time, there is so much that she would like to share, and this leads to a string of long sentences.

Twenty or so students are sitting there, ready, at tables set up in a horseshoe. There is a lively chatter, and laptops are ready on the tables. Maria welcomes the semester’s first class. She speaks a beautiful, clear, academic British, and she speaks loud and fast. Then she takes a walk around the inside of the horseshoe and shakes the hands of the students that she has not met before.

»I’m Maria, and my pronoun is she,« she says, and justifies the pronoun business by saying that she wants the classroom to be »a safe space.«

»I try different things, but I make mistakes all the time.« She does not want to pressure anybody, she says, but she invites everyone to share their pronoun if they want to. Two of them do exactly that during the presentation round. One of them would like to be referred to as they/them.

Maria Damkjær wants to make sure she has all the names, because she is so bad at remembering them, and because it is important to know them. That’s why she writes on a piece of paper, while the students talk a bit about themselves.

The first lesson is free flowing, she says. In the next, the students are to discuss in groups the worksheets she has emailed them in advance. But she wants to set the framework. The text of the day is Beowulf, an Old English epic poem in alliterative lines about the Nordic warrior Beowulf and his struggle against the monster Grendel and, at the end of his life, against a dragon. The poem is considered to be one of the most important works in Anglo-Saxon literature.

In the groups, the students are to work on themes that Maria Damkjær writes on the board, and the chalk dust swirls as she explains why the themes are cool, and why they are important – both back then and today.

The students are to talk about the role that Christianity and the sense of nationality plays in Beowulf. They are also to consider how kingship is performed, and what kind of masculinity is in the text. Some people, women, are not so prominent in the text, according to Maria Damkjær. At this time, women only had a place in literature as maidens or monsters or someone who offered sex.

Even though the text is a thousand years old, Maria Damkjær has no hesitation in putting it into the popular culture context of the present. She refers to both Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones along the way.

A delightful, tacky cover

The students had to do one piece of homework. They had to bring along a work that had made an impression on them. Maria Damkjær opens up with her own example. She pulls out an attractive, big hardcover with the title The Lost Books of Jane Austen from a cloth bag.

»I’ve taken this lovely book along with me, because it shows that Jane Austen achieved the status of being a classic, because she was read by ordinary people. Her success is not the result of being pushed by aesthetic and academic connoisseurs, but from a lot of people reading her books in cheap, tacky versions. And we should not only think of the classy books and the academic books, but also the cheap books, the bad books and the ugly books.«

That’s fantastic, thanks a lot!

Maria Damkjær to her students

She also has a more recent version of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice edited by her colleague and head of department Tina Lupton, who has made her aware that it is often the case that classical works by female authors have a painting of a reading woman on the cover. This is as far as creativity goes when works are are presented, Maria Damkjær says.

One of the students has taken a book that she loves with her, which also has a problematic cover, she says. It is a paperback version of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a key feminist text about a young woman’s struggle with herself and outside pressure which involves suicide attempts and psychiatric hospitalisation.

»It’s so ugly because it’s packaged as chick lit with a young woman on the cover that applies lipstick while looking at a pocket mirror,« says the woman.

»That’s fantastic, thanks a lot,« says Maria, and shoots a smile to the student when she has finished off her train of thought.

The round continues. Others have included magnificent books. Leather-bound classics with gold on their covers and sides. Books that live in protective cassettes, like Brave New World in an edition with a silver cover and red spine. »Reflective goodness,« the happy owner says about his book.

Both books that stand out because of their looks, and books that stand out because of their content, full of post-its, appear on the tables.

»I have written out long passages from this book, because the quotes are so striking,« one of them says.

An exchange student apologises for turning up empty-handed, as all of her books are back home.

Most of the students are in their early twenties, but it is still major, established, classics like Virginia Wolf, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Charlotte Brontë and Hemingway, that are presented.

However, there are also modern genres, like a semi-autobiographical, so-called graphic novel, which is presented with acclaim. An anti-self-help book by a popular blogger with the title The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is loved by its owner for its screaming orange cover, its black pages, and its overwhelming content.

A student has a Tintin comic series in hardcover: »It is quite interesting to follow how the publications change linguistically over the years in parallel with the times,« the Tintin fan says.

»That’s fantastic, thank you all,« Maria says, and shares a practical tip to all the students gathered around a table in the middle of the room browsing each other’s books:

»I wrap up my most-beloved paperbacks in a transparent plastic cover. Then there will be less wear and tear.«

The students study English on their second semester. Maria Damkjær teaches them literature history and has asked everyone to take a noteworthy book to class. Here, they study each other's copies.
image: Jonas Pryner
Maria Damkjær is 36 years old and lives alone in an apartment in Copenhagen. She is a singer in a choir and has just started to knit her first sweater.
image: Jonas Pryner

An owl with a lion’s face

The lesson has ended, and we sit down at Maria’s office, just next to the grand piano on one of South Campus’s long, white, generic corridors.

The narrow office is dominated by a forest of green plants. On a bookcase there is a distinctive sculpture of a white porcelain owl with a painted lion face. The owl acts as a support for a plant that has sent a long shoot in the direction of the window light, and which now threatens to topple the mother plant in its pot.

Maria »really likes« that owl. She got it from Prorector Bente Merete Stallknecht at the University of Copenhagen’s annual commemoration in November 2019 for her teacher of the year award.

It is the students across all the faculties who, at the university’s request, recommend excellent and inspiring teachers for the award. One committee reads the fan letters, and last year it was the students’ praise of Maria Damkjær’s teaching that made the biggest impression.

When they then start to discuss things between themselves, then I am electrified, and that’s great.

Maria Damkjær

A passage from one of the many nominations is the following:

The view of all of us who nominate [Maria Damkjær] is that her communication of the material is always (!) both successful and thoughtful, and that we every week leave class with a clear sense of what this particular literary work can do in its own time. We want to […] stress her ability to generate an interest in literature that for some people has been difficult to access and/or uninspiring.

The students say that Maria Damkjær’s commitment is infectious, and that she can open up texts that seemed closed off or boring, so that even very old – and cryptic – literature is brought to life in her teaching.

This is not the way it has always been, she says. Her first semester of teaching, when she was writing her PhD, went pretty bad.

»You really need to get jump-started as a teacher. At first, it is really, really difficult. But on my second semester I had a course where everything succeeded. And this gave me a huge buzz that had me running up stairs nine floors afterwards. I was completely up in the skies.«

I still get that feeling. Not when everything works out according to her plan, but when she can step back because the students take over:

»I had a lesson the other day, where everything came from the students, and we ended up somewhere that I had never predicted beforehand. When they then start to discuss things between themselves, then we are all electrified, and that’s great.«

Maria Damkjær’s heroes

Maria Damkjær was smitten with books as a child, she says. One of her students, who we talk to during the break, says that she seems to know all the books in the world. As a child of an upper-secondary school teacher and a university teacher, she has always devoured books.

She started studying comparative literature in 2003, took an elective in English, and on both programmes there were teachers who made the kind of impression that made her think: I want to be like her.

In comparative literature, it was Lilian Munk Rösing, who inspired Maria Damkjær so much that she has even borrowed her gestures when she talks about language with her students:

Literature was unlocked. That’s the same thing I’m trying to do.

Maria Damkjær on her teaching idols

»It can hardly be translated into written language, but she rubbed her fingers against each other, so that language became something material, something that you can bury your fingers into. Language has a texture that can be touched by it, needled, interacted with. It is not something beautiful and closed off. You can go in and mess around with it and get dirty fingers,« says Maria Damkjær, and rubs her fingers against each other, eyes wide open with enthusiasm.

She would also like to mention another teacher, she is called Lene Østermark-Johansen and has just become a professor at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies.

»She was also very dynamic. She could ask questions which opened up new possibilities, and I felt that I was allowed to get involved. That I was helping create what it all was all about. The literature was unlocked. It’s the same thing that I’m trying to do.

»I love it that you are taking chances«

Why did Maria Damkjær start the lesson by asking students to take a book with them? It was actually a colleague’s idea, she says, because it would get the students thinking about what a book is, and the different shapes that literature appears in.

Another trick that comes from letting students talk about the books that are important to them in their lives is that the teacher gets to know each of them better:

»We need to know more about where they come from and what it is that has shaped their experiences. And it’s brilliant when we give them the space to do that.«

Many students find it hard to speak out in class. Here is an open invitation to everyone to get started talking, according to Maria Damkjær. Otherwise it is only often in smaller groups that the students open their mouths and ask questions.

Sure, I try to be appreciative.

Maria Damkjær

I notice that Maria Damkjær expresses a good deal of recognition to the students. This goes for both those who developed longer, original, analyses, and those who did not say so much.

»Sure, I try to be appreciative. If a student says something that does not convince me, then I try to go meta and say: Okay, this is a bit of a wild hypothesis that you are bringing to the table, and I would like to see a bit more evidence. If you can find somewhere in the text that supports what you say, I might be convinced.«

On the other hand, Maria Damkjær goes a long way not to stifle the students or suggest that they are wrong:

»I tell them that I love it when they take a chance, but I want to see it anchored in the text. They are good at reading things into the text – I think they do a lot of this in secondary school – but what we need to do at university is to go back to the text.«

Back to the text, that is, right down into the lines that on the paper, where you can poke at the language, interact with it and get dirty fingers.

Love of the low brow

Maria Damkjær would like her students to question who it is that has decided what is good and what is bad literature.

»We need to let our guard down on what is good and bad literature. With the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is awful. I am quite interested in genre literature, science fiction and fantasy, and we are not expected to discuss this at university. But this is actually what many people read, and for this reason, I read it also,« she says.

Her own turn towards the Anglo-Saxon happened when she took a master’s at King’s College in London, at the same time as she was enrolled as a master’s in literature in Copenhagen. This led to the offer of a PhD scholarship at King’s College..

In London, this set off her interest in the history of books and what she calls »the materiality of the text.« At the same time, she was attracted to the offbeat genres, the history of reading and to what happens around books. Or, as she formulates it, what happens »in the margin of literature.«

She has written the book Time, Domesticity and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain, which focuses on time in a middle-class home in the 19th century. Apart from novels, she analyses private scrapbooks and a cookbook published as a serial. And her own book was actually nominated for a British book award.

In a later project, she has trawled through Victorian literature to track down the symbolism of the umbrella:

»If you had standup comedy at that time, it would have been about the umbrella. It became a symbol of democracy, because with an umbrella you can suddenly move around in the dry without having access to a coach. But the umbrella tends to get lost, it gets stolen, it does not belong to anybody. So it is also a symbol of the fact that you may have reached the middle class, and you have gained the right to vote – if you are a man – but you cannot keep track of the status symbols that you have usurped,« says Maria Damkjær.

»The umbrella is phallic, it often has its own soul, and it is disloyal. I could go on… I think it is a great joke when material culture becomes a symbol of something deep inside.«

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Product placement in the 1800s

Her current research project is about hidden advertising, filler texts and other offbeat genres in English journals in the 19th century.

»When did adverts get so cheeky?« she asks and answers herself:

»We think that product placement is a very modern thing from the world of cinema, but the readers of the past already knew that texts can have a hidden purpose, and they often found that the fiction they read was a hidden advertisement.«

Sometimes, the [students] might think that I am trying to act young with them.

Maria Damkjær

According to Maria Damkjær, it is not only modern cultural consumers that are accustomed to being played in this way. And it can also be the cause of delight when an experience gets this kind of twist:

»If the readers had access to printed culture, they have been good at seeing what lies behind what it is they are reading. And they found it amusing when they were taken for a ride. I do not think that the editors behind the 19th century journals would have printed an advert poem slap in the middle of everything, if the readers did not find it fun.«

When Maria Damkjær started at university in the early 2000s, she was much more unsure about herself than students are today, she says. And this is partly due to a more liberal approach to literature.

»I felt that there was some real literature, and some bad literature. But fortunately we have got much more popular culture on to the syllabus over the past 15 years.«

She wonders whether students think it’s odd to see her referring to contemporary culture like Marvel films:

»Sometimes, the students might think that I am trying to act young with them.« She is 36.

Translation: Mike Young