Teaching heroes: ‘Accidental’ professor still going strong after nearly 30 years

Sabine von Dirke in front of projection screen


“In some ways I’m more of an accidental professor than some other people,” says German department faculty member Sabine von Dirke. If it’s an accident, it has been happening since joining Pitt in 1991 — and today she can barely squeeze in a chance to talk between students stopping by her office.

Von Dirke’s collision with academia began at the University of Tuebingen, in her native Germany, where she focused on history, political science and cultural studies, as well as German literature. Following her undergraduate degree, she took advantage of her university’s exchange program with Washington University in St. Louis, which offered students a scholarship for their master’s degree program if they would teach first-year German. This new experience eventually took her to Stanford, from which she joined Pitt right after earning her Ph.D.

“I like being in the city — I really like Pittsburgh,” says von Dirke, who is an associate professor. “It was a good fit for me: a very egalitarian department where I would grow intellectually and have an opportunity to teach a variety of courses right away.

“I didn't start out thinking I would become a professor, but it’s more than a job,” she adds. “It is something I have enjoyed in my life. I might have withered away in some sort of administrative job. I also like a good controversy in my class. I like when people debate things” — as happens in her class on Marxism, which touches on philosophy and ethics.

She labels her own teaching methods as “eclectic.”

“For me it has worked best to be eclectic, not dogmatic, in my teaching,” she says. “I like to give my students the impression that they are not just vessels into which you pour knowledge, that they are thinkers. I like to interact with people and discuss ideas, concepts, and also perhaps, challenge their worldview. I also enjoy the feedback from the students. Their questions are often the kinds of questions that push you to think outside your disciplinary box.”

She believes instructors do a better job if they feel they have a stake in the teaching assignment. They also do best if they are learning simultaneously themselves.

“When I teach, particularly a course I’m very invested in for my research, I often feel the materials I’m researching, the problem I’m researching to prepare for class, this process brings me to a greater understanding,” von Dirke says. “I get the feeling that I have intellectual breakthroughs.”

She also sees cultural breakthroughs among her language students who report a deeper understanding of experiences abroad, once they return from a visit to Germany, Austria or German-speaking Switzerland: “They tell you how much it meant to them to be in the first time in a foreign environment — how much it meant to them to understand people” in a manner far beyond that of a tourist fumbling through phrases from a guidebook.

However, she values a bit of fumbling — a dose of intellectual exploration — in her classroom, adding fresh materials to established courses that she must learn herself, “to put yourself in the shoes of a student encountering the material for the first time,” she explains.

If she has any teaching secret, she says it is “to be honest to your students, in the sense of don’t try to cover up if a question comes that you can’t answer.” There’s no sense faking it, she adds: “The students figure it out very quickly …”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.