As a scholar and filmmaker I see the humanities as a key player for an informed and engaged public. In my creative-critical work and in my teaching, I am interested building bridges between different disciplines, sectors and professions.
- German 202 (two sections, Spring 2015) German Instructor: Department of German Studies, Michigan State University, USA.
- German 201 (one section, Fall 2014) German Instructor: Department of German Studies, Michigan State University, USA.
- Mit Deutschland um die Welt: Übersetzungsmethoden und –praktiken, advanced German (one section, Spring 2014) Job shadowing, Michigan State University, USA
In my teaching I strive to facilitate students’ development towards becoming critical thinkers who communicate effectively in diverse cultural settings and creatively embrace the idea of lifelong learning. As an educator and life-long learner I am most interested in teaching that has the potential to encourage students to question and challenge their society in substantive ways. I want to awaken students to challenge the status quo, analyze situations from multiple perspectives and to help them understand their roles as local and global citizens. I believe that critical thinking, effective communication and creativity are essential in achieving this goal. At the outset, this statement therefore presupposes a clearly defined understanding of what I mean by these terms (critical thinking, effective communication, diverse cultural settings and the notion of creatively embracing lifelong learning).
By critical thinking I mean the ability to evaluate information by drawing on reason, judgment and experience. I have found that a compare and contrast methodology is one effective approach to achieve this. In order to compare and contrast, students need to be familiar with the item of comparison so they can draw comparisons and see differences. Looking at the same item from different perspectives is especially compelling in the setting of a foreign language classroom. With a multitude of cultures being present in the classroom (e.g. the culture of the target language, the classroom/learner-community culture and culture of the geographical setting of the school) students are not only encouraged to compare the item at stake, but also the perspectives and underlying values they draw on in order to compare and contrast. This enables critical thinking to take place and encourages students to challenge their own worldviews.
Highlighting, for example, how distinctive cultures evaluate or present information differently (for example how the term freedom evokes different associations in Germany and in the US), I urge my students to acknowledge the ways in which the words and languages we use are intrinsically tied to our cultures and embody certain values and assumptions. This is something that can be achieved in both text-based and language courses. Another example from my classroom would be a session in which we compared the health care system in Germany and the USA. During this class I encouraged my students to go beyond a simple “good vs. bad” comparison; instead I ask them to engage critically with the historical, political and personal grounds for the different perspectives they are speaking from and advocating for.
As a teacher I see my role in assisting students conceptualize, analyze and synthesize information in order to make informed decisions in their professional and personal lives. I want to help my students not only to acquire new skills and knowledge, but also to be able to critically and continually review the result and impact these skills and the new knowledge may have. In this context, I strive to make use of increasingly multicultural classrooms, which are marked by students with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and draw on the different experience of this varied student body in order to achieve this aim (Kumaravadivelu, 14). In my example of comparing and contrasting the health care system in the US and Germany, I draw on health care systems from other countries and focus on the experience and perspectives of students who are familiar with them. While students with different cultural backgrounds should by no means be regarded as spokespersons for what is always a heterogeneous culture, I believe that their perspectives (which may be different or similar to those of their US American classmates) teach students and instructors a lot about the danger of claiming absolute truths, above all in the context of cultural diversity. Ultimately, my aim in facilitating students’ development towards becoming critical thinkers is to provide them with tools that allow them to challenge commonly held ideas in an informed and respectful way.
Regarding effective communication, it is important to differentiate between communication and language. While communication refers to the expression, interpretation and negotiation of meaning in a given context (Lee and VanPatten, 51), language refers to the underlying mental representation that people possess for phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax and pragmatics (VanPatten, 20). Hence, communication can involve language, but it is also possible to communicate without language (e.g. by shrugging your shoulders, nodding your head, etc.). While communicating without using language is obviously not the goal in second language teaching, I seek to introduce my students to the idea that communication is more than, for example, “speaking” or “putting the past tense to work”. What I want to stress with this distinction is the importance of cultural context for successful communication and the liaison between language and culture. While lower level language classes often focus heavily on developing language skills, I animate my students to think about the connections between language and culture. While Heimat would be translated into English as home, the term does not carry the same charged political meaning as the German original. Thus, learning a new language does not only open doors for students in their personal and professional life, but also opens up perspectives on the world that were previously invisible to them.
One way I like to address this in my classroom is by tying in a research project I conducted with Rebecca Zantjer during my second year at MSU in which we asked international students to explain their favorite “untranslatable word” to us. We recorded their responses on camera and when showing this video to students two things are always striking: First, the viewers are fascinated to learn about peculiar new words, for example, that Brazilians have a word to describe the notion of tenderly caressing ones fingers through someone’s hair (cafuné), but second – and more importantly – they start to see the indivisible link between language and culture and comprehend the necessity of cultural understanding in order to communicate effectively.
In the classroom and in activities outside of the classroom I transmit this idea by seeking out activities and tasks that connect the skill of speaking a language to cultural knowledge and awareness. An example from my teaching are several activities built around a text by the German poetry slammer Julia Engelmann that I introduced in an intermediate German class. After introducing the students to the text in class and undertaking activities promoting their understanding of it, I asked them to write a reaction to the poem. Afterwards, we discussed this poem as a product of a generation (as it addresses the concerns and dreams of the Millennials and deals with issues such as social media and its discontents) and discussed its applicability outside of its specific cultural context (Germany). During this discussion we examined areas students could relate to in their own culture and generation and those areas they saw as distinct.
In order to provide an environment that fosters effective communication, I thus focus on classroom activities and curriculum that deal with the expression, interpretation and negotiation of meaning. In this context, I have found that good tasks for the language classroom are information-exchange tasks. These tasks are described by Van Patten as activities in which the purpose of learner interaction is to use language to find out things about themselves or the world around them (35). In other words, tasks in which the information obtained is personally meaning-bearing, giving language learning a purpose. I see this combination of purposeful use of language and meaning-bearing exchange of information in a foreign language as a pedagogical recipe to effective communication.
The importance of stressing the intrinsic connection between language and culture also translates back to more content based classes in which historical and cultural context is vital to understand for example a film or a novel. During my Max Kade fellowship I was able to job shadow Professor David K. Kim and take responsibility for some sessions of a 400 level course. There I became acquainted with the selection, preparation and presentation of materials for upper-level German courses and the importance of finding a balance between negotiating between a general cultural understanding and focusing in on the specificities of language. I learned that the application of linguistic rigor in upper language class teaching allows the deep and nuanced access to a cultural product. In text-based courses I believe it is important to give students the tools to analyze and deconstruct texts in order to perceive ideologies and assumptions that are embedded in cultural products. For example, discussing the translations of Paul Celan’s poem Denk Dir (1967) and the film Lost in Translation (2003) I used authentic material to illustrate how a translation always implies an interpretation of meaning and thus is influenced by our cultural and discursive backgrounds.
A course I hope to offer on the “writing” and “reading” of audiovisual products, one always shifting between a macro and a micro perspective, would achieve many of these goals. Looking at German short film production as a commentary on globalization, this upper level course would examine German shorts produced between 1970s and 2000 to examine how films intervene in and examine official discourse of globalization in Germany. This course would allow students to get a general overview of broad social, political and economic developments, but at the same time focus in on aesthetics to show how cultural meaning is embedded in (film) language. A selection of canonical short films would be accompanied by theoretical texts that introduce students to film language and texts that illuminate the social, political and economic shifts happening in the mentioned time frame. What I mean specifically by focusing in on the particular aesthetics, is an analysis of (film) language that shows how cultural meaning is created by creative choices in written/spoken language, image and sound. Through the analysis of selected dialogue and interplay between image and audio the course would point to and illuminate developments associated with globalization and focus in on how aesthetics employed by filmmakers illustrate, critique and rectify consequences of globalization from a German perspective. Students would develop “close reading” skills in class session and become acquainted with the basic tools of film analysis to become better “readers” of audiovisual images. The course would also include a production component, which encourages students to think through film language in a practical way.
Ultimately, I strongly believe that teaching and learning is not a ride on a one-way streetcar, which ends after 50 minutes of class time and begins again when students hop onto the next one. Instead, I see teaching and learning as a journey that never really ends, constantly evolves and allows teachers and students to revisit ideas and topics at different times and with different foci throughout their lives. What I want to convey with the image of an ongoing journey that never stops and constantly changes is the idea of lifelong learning, which is based on a voluntary and self-motivated quest for knowledge, wisdom and wonder. In class-activities that have the potential to develop a lifelong learning attitude are those in which students recognize their peers as a community that can provide feedback and spark new ideas. This aim can be achieved for example through group work or peer-evaluation introduced in the classroom that can then be continued outside of the classroom.
The idea of lifelong learning is intrinsically connected to self-motivation and engaged participation in shaping one’s learning and self-evaluation inside and outside the classroom. As such, it is important that as a teacher I encourage students to take responsibility for elements of their learning, which can be achieved through many strategies found in student-centered classroom. By putting students in charge of certain elements in the classroom (e.g. asking them to participate in the selection of activities and encouraging them to suggest topics that reflect their interests), I seek to establish an empowering environment in which students do not feel like they are simply complying with rules and standards, but actively take agency in shaping the classroom in a way that makes it relevant to their lives. I have also found that giving students more freedom, flexibility and responsibility with regard to their preferred mode of learning has been fruitful in providing students with a variety of ways to learn. For example, I like to animate my students to actively seek out alternative ways to study a grammatical concept and share their approach with their peers in class. In terms of evaluating students’ performances, I am employing peer assessment strategies and am always looking for new, innovative and progressive models which further the empowerment of students. Furthermore, technology has opened up new possibilities for lifelong, engaged learning. Technology-mediated instruction gives the student more choices when it comes to sources to draw on and makes collaboration among students, but also evaluation, easier and more engaging. As I teacher in the student-centered classroom, I see my task as guiding students learning and providing them with tools to critically evaluate their learning strategies and new knowledge. The adjective “creatively” then refers to also presenting students with the multiple ways learning and growing can take place – inside and outside the classroom.
I believe that my three guiding principles in my teaching – critical thinking, effective communication and embracing the idea of creative lifelong learning – provide a nurturing environment that will help students to develop valuable skills and tools, which can help them in their desired careers, but also to become aware, engaged and empowered citizens of the world.
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