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June 10, 2004

National Group Calls Pitt’s German Dept. ‘Model of Good Practice’

Klein aber fein (small but fine) is how Clark Muenzer describes Pitt’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, which he chairs.

Muenzer’s colleagues in the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL) agree with his assessment. Based on the results of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded survey of 2,631 foreign language departments nationwide, ADFL last fall selected Pitt’s German department as a model of good practice in the profession. It was one of only two foreign language units at Ph.D.-granting U.S. universities to be so recognized.

The Pitt department’s seven full-time faculty members (six tenured/tenure track professors, including Muenzer, and one non-tenure track lecturer) were delighted by the national recognition – although they showed no false modesty about their success in boosting enrollments and establishing a multifaceted, student-friendly program since the mid-1990s under less-than-favorable conditions: tight budgets, personnel reductions (the department employed eight professors, all tenured or in the tenure pipeline, when Muenzer began work here in 1979), declining German language enrollments nationally, and the current foreign language requirement in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, which is minimal compared with those at most peer universities (students who come to Pitt having completed three years of one language in high school with C grades are exempt from further language study).

Also, German – unlike, say, Slavic languages or Spanish – these days attracts few U.S.-born “heritage learners” who want to study it because the language is spoken at home or by living family members.

Nonetheless, the number of Pitt students pursuing a B.A. in German has roughly doubled from 18 majors in 1995 to 30-40 in recent years (enrollments vary from one term to another). For students who want to continue studying the language beyond German 4, but don’t want to take dozens of additional credits in German studies, the department in 1997-98 created an 18-credit German language certificate; some 20-25 students are pursuing certificates in any given term.

“We’re a small department,” Muenzer points out, “but we serve a very wide range of clientele, from doctoral students to beginning language students.” In his chairperson’s message on the department web site, Muenzer wrote, invitingly: “If you want to study German film, or fin-de-siecle Vienna, or ethnic diversity in today’s German-speaking countries, we probably have something to offer you. If children’s literature is of interest to you, or Goethe or Kafka or German-Jewish relations, or the history of German cultural politics in Wilhemine Germany, we have courses and curricular options on which to build a program of study.”

Unlike many Ph.D.-granting foreign language departments that assign grad students and part-time faculty to actually teach languages (allowing senior faculty to focus on their research interests), Pitt’s German department involves its whole faculty in language instruction.

“Currently, five of our six tenure lines are held by faculty members pursuing research in literary criticism, film and cultural studies,” Pitt German professor Sabine von Dirke noted in an article profiling the department in the fall 2003 ADFL Bullein. “One tenured faculty member and a lecturer concentrate on language pedagogy. Nevertheless, all faculty members from assistant to full professor regularly teach in the language program.”

To encourage that, the department seeks to align language instruction with faculty research interests. Von Dirke cited the re-design of the department’s second-year sequence during the 1995-96 academic year, which took advantage of the faculty’s strengths in such areas as film studies and multi-culturalism in contemporary Germany.

“The goal was to bring authentic cultural materials into the second-year language classroom that would reflect the increasingly multi-cultural character of Germany and help students understand the historical forces that shaped the nation,” von Dirke wrote. “At the same time, the second-year language sequence still needed to serve as a review of the basic structures of German grammar learned in the first year.

“Instead of using a second-year language textbook, our students now read an unedited, illustrated children’s book, Neben mir ist noch Platz, which teaches about Germany’s difficult transformation into a multi-cultural society by looking at the friendship between Stephanie, a German elementary school girl, and Aischa, whose family fled the civil war in Lebanon. In the next textbook, Stimmen eines Jahrhunderts, students explore the topics of childhood and social class, particularly with regard to gender and social class, by working with texts by Ernst Toiler and Klaus Mann, with drawings by Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz; they also view film clips by Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and Werner Herzog.”

To learn specialized vocabulary such as banking terms, added von Dirke, Pitt second-year German students study among other things a letter by composer Gustav Mahler, who was inept at handling his money.

Undergraduates and teachers alike enjoy working with authentic materials so early in the language curriculum, according to von Dirke.

She also noted that each summer, an average of 5-6 Pitt German students participate in a 12-credit exchange program at the University of Augsburg in southern Germany. To qualify, the Pitt students must pass a rigorous test of their German fluency because the program is conducted in that language and does not cater to Americans: U.S. students attend classes at Augsburg with native German undergraduates and must write papers in German. One of the least expensive study-abroad programs available to Pitt students, it costs about $4,000 including flight, room and board, and spending money.

“There are many other, excellent study-abroad programs available to our students, but the Augsburg program is the one that our department developed,” Muenzer says.


John B. Lyon, a recently hired assistant professor in the department, studied as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota and did his graduate work at Princeton. Pitt’s German department features elements of both, he says.

“By necessity, some of our introductory courses have large class sizes. But beyond that, I’ve found that this department is characterized by the small class sizes and individual attention to students that you would typically find at a small liberal arts school. I find that very striking at a university the size of Pitt, with its state-related status,” says Lyon.

The department also offers a variety of co-curricular activities, often in cooperation with Pitt’s student-run German Language Club, that give students opportunities to use their German skills outside the classroom. These include a career information panel with business professionals who majored in a foreign language, an annual Kristallnacht commemoration in cooperation with Pitt’s Jewish studies program and an annual German essay contest. (Von Dirke noted: “Informal polls among our students indicate that students whose achievement in German was recognized in the essay contest were highly likely to continue with their language studies and even pursue the certificate or major.”)

Lisa Haegele, who graduated in April with a double major in German and French, attended the annual ceremony during which the German department honors its essay contest winners. “The whole atmosphere there was like a little family. Everyone knows each other well,” she says.

Before coming to Pitt, Haegele had taken two years of high school German but learned only the present tense and had a very limited German vocabulary. “I even went to a few professors in the German department when I was a freshman here, saying ‘I’m really weak in the language and I’m scared.’ But they were all very encouraging and supportive.”

Four years later, Haegele plans to begin her M.A. studies in the German department next fall. Ultimately, she plans to go on for a Ph.D. in German (at another university, on the advice of Pitt German faculty who urged her to broaden her educational background) and become a professor.

“I had not expected that I would be doing this at all,” she says, with a laugh. “I was actually leaning towards French. But ultimately, I became more proficient in German. I learned about the culture much more.

“The French department is great, but in the German department there is a particular family environment and I feel very comfortable there. I feel like I can contribute a lot towards it and still be happy with my work.”

According to Justin Leiby, a Pitt senior who is pursuing degrees in German and business, the commitment to teaching and mentoring “is much higher in the German department than it is among many other Pitt departments whose courses I’ve taken. Every faculty member in the department seems to be an educator first and a researcher or academic trying to further his or her career second. I have yet to find a single faculty member in the department who doesn’t practically beg you to visit them in their office.”

At the same time, department faculty keep in mind that nearly all of the undergrads they teach are headed for careers in business, law, medicine- but not German studies. “Only a minute percentage of our undergraduate majors will go on to get advanced degrees in German literature and culture,” Muenzer observes. “We avoid the mistake, common among language departments, of seeing them as miniature German professors.”

Because of its small size, Pitt’s German department chose to focus on what it calls modern Germany and German culture- from the 18th century to the present. The curriculum, especially in advanced language courses, emphasizes the 20th and 21st centuries and contemporary, multi-ethnic Germany, a perspective also provided to students by the department’s seven or eight (the number varies from term to term) German- and Eastern European-born teaching assistants and fellows.

Muenzer says: “People who have an oomp-pa-pa image of Germany wouldn’t know where they were if they got on a subway in Munich today, which would likely be full of Vietnamese and Turks and other peoples in addition to ethnic Germans.”

But according to Leiby, he and other students who study German at Pitt would prefer an even greater emphasis on today’s Germany. “There is a heavy emphasis on Goethe and German classicism of 200 years ago, which is all well and good,” he says. “But I believe that if the department focused more on contemporary and 20th century aspects of German culture, it would be more invigorating for the students while catering more to the faculty’s own specialties. I mean, someone like Sabina von Dirke is renowned for her study of post-modernist topics. It’s almost foolish to not make greater use of her expertise.”

Muenzer responds: “We absolutely strive to offer our students a balanced curriculum. That curriculum reflects the different research specialties of our tenured and tenure-stream faculty,” of whom only two specialize in pre-1900 German culture and literature.

Faculty in the department take turns teaching upper-level undergraduate seminars, so it may be a matter of chance if a student winds up taking more than a single seminar dealing with pre-1900 Germany, says Muenzer.

“Not that I want to discount the importance of studying 18th and 19th century Germany either,” he adds. For example, any student who wants to understand ethnic diversity in contemporary Germany would do well to study what the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) wrote about multi-culturalism, the department chair says.


“When you hire good people,” says Muenzer, “good things happen to them.” As a department chair, he has learned that the hard way.

For example, one of the department’s star professors – Sabine Hake, who built an international reputation in German film and cultural studies of the Weimar period – will be joining the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall. “In terms of resources and compensation packages, it’s tough to compete against the University of Texas,” Muenzer points out.

“Another of our faculty members, Beverley Harris-Schenz, is a superb administrator, and as a result she was called away to serve as an associate provost and then as an associate dean of arts and sciences,” he adds. “All of that time, she counted as one of our full-time, tenured faculty members.”

Arts and sciences Dean N. John Cooper does his best to allocate funds to hire part-time replacements for departed professors and those on sabbaticals and other leaves, Muenzer says, “but it’s always a struggle.

“As a department we may be klein aber fein, but we don’t have a lot of wiggle room in terms of resources.”

– Bruce Steele

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