Using Team-Based Learning in German Courses

July 26th, 2013     16 Comments »

I thank my teaching assistant, Seth Berk, for his help in successfully implementing this new pedagogy in my first TBL course and editing this paper for style and naïve fluency.

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My institution, a public R-1 flagship, periodically conducts surveys of its recent alumni in order to learn about where we do a great job and where we need to improve, specifically in terms of how well we prepare our students for life after college. On the plus side, our former students usually mention the fact that they were trained for a global world, to speak languages, to write well, and to think critically; they were exposed to other cultures, values, and ideas, and they returned from their study abroad experience as more mature human beings. The one thing, however, that they all missed in their education – looking back at their student days after a decade or so in the real world – was that they did not learn how to function in teams. While they all appreci-ated the opportunity to improve their writing and critical thinking skills, to acquire knowledge of history and various cultures, and to receive basic training in the sciences, they felt that the intensive experience of studying for their exams, taking notes in lecture classes, and discussing ideas with their teachers and fellow students in seminars did not adequately prepare them for performing an essential skill needed in many job environments: the ability to work in teams.

A few years ago I started experimenting with student teams on my own without any prior theoretical pedagogical background, because I wanted to address this need for team learning, yet I initially struggled with several issues: Firstly, I did not know how to form the teams. The result was either teams comprised solely of people who were already friends or, on the other end of the spectrum, teams of complete strangers that did not complement each other in terms of skills they brought to the table. Secondly, I did not know how to grade individual contributions to team assignments, as most of the projects were completed outside of class. When I came across the pedagogy of Team-Based Learning, I intuitively knew that I wanted to try this out in my next German Studies course (i.e., a course that is taught in English and that includes students from German, as well as students from other majors). I joined a series of webinar training sessions to prepare for this new teaching style; [1] I also did some background reading into the philosophy behind TBL.[2] I have since taught two larger German Studies courses conducted in English and one class in our German major that utilized the TBL format, and I plan to teach a revised version of one of my German Studies courses again next year. I believe, however, that this pedagogy is adaptable to a large variety of teaching formats and is not limited to those German Studies courses with larger class sizes and taught in English, or to the core courses in the German major; even introductory German language courses that take a task-based approach would profit tremendously from the emphasis on creativity, team learning, and presentation skills that the TBL pedagogy represents.

What attracted me right away to TBL is its modularized approach to the course material. For a ten-week German Studies course on “Literature, Culture, and the Environment,” which met three times a week for fifty minutes, I chose five topics: mountains, polar environments, plants and animals, tropical environments, and postcolonial settings. In a modularized approach, instructors can test what works best for them and their students and what does not, and they can then switch out individual modules or change them around, if the material becomes tiresome or requires more coherency. For instance, for future articulations of the same course, I plan to develop additional modules on food, waste, impacted landscapes, climate change, pollution, etc. Each of these modules then follows the same instructional activity sequencing:

readings are done outside of class before the modules begin

a test on the readings as part of the Readiness Assurance process on the first day of the module (RAT) – half a class period

instructor-led discussion of topic (analysis) – one and half class periods

team discussion of topic – one class period (this can be handled flexibly, some classes need more instructor-led analysis than others)

project-based team-work (application) – two class periods

project presentations (showtime) – one class period

SPRICH: Student Provided enRICHment: Building a language community

July 26th, 2013     6 Comments »

(1) Carnegie Mellon University        (2) Michigan State University

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One major issue in higher education today is the struggle to develop new language learning opportunities while continuing to provide superior language instruction in the face of current fiscal hardships. A March 2013 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that, “States are spending $2,353 or 28 percent less per student on higher education, nationwide, in the current 2013 fiscal year than they did in 2008, when the recession hit” (Oliff et al.). These spending cuts have been especially detrimental to funding for higher education language teaching, which often takes a back seat to more profitable departments, such as the sciences (Skorton and Altschuler; Zehr).

With the almost certain knowledge that no additional funding will be provided to develop new opportunities and programs for students learning foreign languages, we, as language educators, must become more creative in our use of available resources. This paper outlines one way in which we can live by the well-known adage we, as educators at all levels, have come to know all too well, “Do more with less.”

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Designing and Running a Short-Term Study Abroad Program in Germany: Guidance for New Program Directors

March 27th, 2013     15 Comments »

Wernigerode Summer 2011
Image by P. Ecke

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This article is written for teachers and administrators at institutions of higher education who would like to create and run a short-term study abroad program for their students. It discusses practical issues that need to be addressed when designing, planning, and maintaining a program by illustrating part of the decision making process that was involved in the development of a summer study program in Germany offered by the author’s department at a large public university in the southwestern US.

North American Students and Short-Term Study Abroad

Only a small percentage of college students in the USA and Canada gain study abroad (SA) experience. Just over a percent of US American students at any academic level study abroad during a given academic year (IIE). Less than three percent of Canadian students study abroad at some point during their degree program (Bond). About 14% of US students who pursue a bachelor’s degree study abroad at some point during their undergraduate program (IIE). Unlike the Canadian figures, however, the latter percentage includes students who participate in short-term SA programs of eight weeks or less, the largest and fastest growing program type in the US. Over 56% of students who study abroad do so in short-term SA programs (IIE).

In spite of the low rate of students who manage to pursue a part of their studies in another country, SA appears to be valued by teachers, administrators as well as the general public. Ninety percent of Canadians believe that SA is valuable and should be made available to a larger part of the student population (Bond). SA can be an eye-opening experience with a profound transformative effect on students’ lives and careers. For students of foreign languages, SA represents a means to potentially improve language proficiency and intercultural competence. Successful SA early in a student’s degree program may result in the students’ selection of a (second) language/culture major, participation in a longer SA program and/or choice of a career that requires a substantial amount of language and intercultural competence (Ingram).

In this article I would like to share our experiences in developing and maintaining a short-term SA program with educators and administrators who plan to build their own program. I will point to organizational issues that need to be addressed and provide examples of decisions that we have taken over the last ten years developing our summer program. The decisions that we have taken may or may not be the best option for other programs, but they should provide the reader with a good idea of what organizational issues they will have to resolve.

Program Participants

Creating and running a short-term SA program is a rewarding, but challenging and time consuming task that requires year-round planning and organization. The program planning process will normally start with determining the type of student participants for whom the program will be designed. That is, what kinds of students are expected to enroll in the program? For example, are they students in different degree programs or are they exclusively majors and minors in the target language and culture? Important aspects that need to be considered are minimum requirements for students who apply for the program. These may include a language proficiency level or minimal amount of prior language study, a minimal age requirement, and academic performance requirements. Program organizers will also have to decide whether their participants will come solely from the home institution or whether students from peer institutions will be eligible to apply as well.

Students of any field of study are eligible to apply for acceptance into our program. However, there is a minimum language requirement of two semesters of college German or equivalent. This limits the pool of applicants, but has the advantage that participants will already be minimally functional in the target environment compared to total beginners.  Our program also has a motivational function for students in the basic language program and for majors and minors of German. Going to Germany in one of the next summers can be a long-term goal that some students will be preparing for in their German language and culture courses on campus. While enforcing a minimal language requirement, we encourage students to participate in SA early during their degree programs (see also Chieffo and Zipser). In their first and second year of study, students’ career paths are still quite open and flexible, and an early successful SA experience might result in the selection of and commitment to a language major or minor or an academic year abroad (King and Young). Academic standing (reflected in GPA and a one-page recommendation form to be filled in by an instructor) are additional application requirements. Enrollment has been kept to a maximum of thirty students. More than that would make it difficult to organize student housing, classrooms, and excursions (including accommodation, guided city tours etc.). While the program welcomes and accepts applications from students of other colleges, the large majority of participating students has been from our university.

The Curious Case of the Turkish Drag Queen: Film and Social Justice Education in Advanced German

August 31st, 2012     1 Comment »

Image from absolut MEDIEN

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In this essay, I will discuss my inclusion of Kutluğ Ataman’s film, Lola und Bilidikid (1999), in an advanced German conversation and composition or stylistics course on “Mysteries and Crime Stories” at a large, public university. Part of this will be an assessment of the pedagogical approaches used in class, the outside work related to this film, and the students’ reactions to this complicated cultural product. The topic of the course in which I featured this film changes each semester but maintains a focus on refinement of the students’ oral and written expression in German. The narrative of Ataman’s film treats the experience of Lola, a Turkish-German drag performer, whose surprisingly limited appearances—and eventual death—in the film’s action nonetheless structure the other characters’ behavior. Lola und Bilidikid offers a chance for students of German Studies to examine such contemporary issues as immigration, xenophobia, homophobia, prostitution, and the nation as well as categories of identity like gender, sexuality, race, class, and health. In what follows, I will briefly examine some feminist and queer pedagogical theories relevant to my course design and describe the course itself and my use of cultural products in it. I will argue that language instruction offers a prime opportunity to discuss otherness and identity, both in the target culture and in the students’ own experiences, and that Ataman’s film is a useful tool for reaching this goal.

In this iteration of the course, I chose to structure it around German-language crime stories in literature and film. I had three main thematic, linguistic, and pedagogical goals for this course: first, to unify a variety of cultural products around a particular theme or genre, especially one not often taught in German Studies and at our university; second, to supplement this “red thread” with a concentration on ideas of Otherness or externality; and third, to address the course’s generic objective of refining the students’ speaking and writing while providing interesting and relevant topics around which the students would engage their language abilities in reading, listening, speaking, writing. Before proceeding with more information on the course, it is important to summarize the film’s action so that the rest of the work below is clearer with respect to the material toward which I was moving in the course and also with which I wanted the students to contend.

Teaching History Through Feature Films

October 21st, 2011     12 Comments »

Remixed CC Photo from StörFaktor_urbex

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Teaching History through Feature Films

Historian Robert Rosenstone has mused that commercially made feature films have become “the chief conveyor of public history.”[1] Consequently, today’s college students will most likely know more about recent German history from movies like Das Leben der Anderen and Good Bye, Lenin! than from books or other traditional scholarly sources.   Anglo-American historians like Rosenstone have been eager to promote the study of feature films as a valid source of historical knowledge.[2] Recent pedagogical studies such as those edited by Alan Markus (Celluloid Blackboard, 2006 and Teaching History with Film, 2010) offer concrete suggestions on how to use film effectively in secondary schools,[3] but there are few practical resources for college-level teaching.[4] How can we teach our students to read critically what Hayden White has called historiophoty, “the representation of history and our thoughts about it in visual and filmic discourse”?[5]

Generally, scholars have moved beyond the question of how factually accurate feature films are or can be.  Few reject the feature film outright as falsification of history due to its conventional devices of collapsing time, merging characters, inventing dialogs, and focusing on individuals over events and processes.  Yet one of our primary challenges as educators is to provide students with basic historical knowledge and a frame of reference so that they can learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.  Moreover, we are faced with a balancing act between teaching students how to develop analytical skills, acquire comprehensive historical knowledge, and appreciate the unique manner in which cinema engages with the past.

I would like to address several on-going areas of scholarly debate that can be productive material for teaching history via the movies.  Firstly, how does one incorporate a nuanced discussion on the very nature of historiography in a course devoted to cinema (in practical terms: how much Hayden White can a Freshman digest in an introductory film course?)  Secondly, does the perennial question on the merits of art-house versus mainstream cinema contribute to a preference toward “serious” and “experimental” films or can we learn important history lessons from conventional B-movies or even movies that “get it wrong”?[6] Finally, I would like to conclude with some remarks on how we can encourage students to move beyond passively consuming history and help them to become active arbitrators of what the past means to us today.  What should students be doing before, during, and after watching a movie?  What activities can help students to recognize the constructed nature of historical analysis and the need for multiple perspectives?

Commentary: Teaching German Film

October 21st, 2011     4 Comments »

Remixed CC Photo from Schrottie


Response to the GSA Panel on Teaching Film

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First let me thank Stephen Brockmann, Christian Rogowski, and Mary Beth O’Brien for providing such helpful papers, filled with practical advice, suggestions of websites and texts, advice on teaching strategies, how-to’s and not-to-do’s.  Indeed the three presenters complement each other well as their presentations speak to each other insofar as one mentions teaching strategies that in fact respond to questions raised by another.  Thus, I will not address so much the nuts and bolts of logistics, or how to seduce our students into paying careful and deliberate attention, or what it means to teach German history through film; rather I will focus on more general strategies of teaching.

I will begin, however with a personal comment of where I fit in: I feel like a dinosaur – one of the early (or first?) generation who started teaching German cinema in the late 1970s.  It is sobering to think that I have become the history that Stephen and Christian refer to in passing.  While this in itself does not make me especially competent to comment in this forum, since witnesses also construct their narratives in particular ways, as I am sure Mary Beth would concur, nonetheless I can attest to the fact that many of the challenges and practical issues mentioned by the presenters have been with us from the very beginning, be they access to films and finding subtitled versions, how to integrate the screening experience, what textbooks or texts to choose, how to balance breadth and depth, what kind of assignments to require, etc.  At the same time, the speakers make clear that we are confronted with a dynamic situation: film distribution and screening technologies are changing, so are student viewing habits, and of course approaches to film analysis and film theory continue to evolve along with the changes in film production and accessibility.  Hence, echoing their insistence on establishing context, I remind you that there is a context for this discussion of teaching German film courses in our institutions of higher learning, one that goes as far back as the late 1970s.  I do not intend to reconstruct that context for you, but I do want to recall three important aspects of that early phase:

Moving Pictures, Moving Targets

October 21st, 2011     3 Comments »

Remixed CC Image from Loop_oh

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Moving Pictures – Moving Targets

While preparing for this panel on teaching German film, I came across a remarkable phrase in an essay on teaching literature, written by Amherst College’s new president, Biddy Martin: “Learning to read requires suspending the demand for automatic intelligibility.”[1]1 This aphoristic statement strikes me as the best formulation of what lies at the heart of a liberal arts education in general, and the humanities in particular: learning involves not only the acquisition of new information and skills, but also the ability to let go of preconceived notions, to open up to new perspectives, to endure uncertainty, and to aim for a deepened understanding.  Teaching, then, to a large extent, involves an undoing, helping students in this process of letting go.  Learning to “read” in the metaphorical, general sense I take Martin to mean, requires time and effort: slowing down to engage with the material at hand; working hard to achieve a different, non-“automatic” intelligibility.  Given the ever-accelerating pace of life for both ourselves and our students and the erosion of attention spans – hopefully, not our own, but primarily those of our students! – what are the implications of this situation for the teaching of German film?

When I first started teaching German film, some twenty years ago, the students who would take German film courses taught in English could easily be divided into three distinct groups, with minimal, if any, overlap: some came with considerable expertise in film studies – let’s call them “the cinephiles” – who were attracted by a largely auteurist interest in the great names of directors, or by the allure of a mythologized period, such as the Weimar Republic or the New German Cinema.  Such students tended to have strong skills in visual analysis but limited or no knowledge of German history and culture.  The second group of students had a background in German – let’s call them “the Germanophones” – and usually had a neutral interest in the topic; they took the courses to fulfill the requirements of their German Studies major, or they were heritage learners with a decent grasp of literary or cultural history but little or no specific skills in visual analysis.  The third group consisted of random students without background or interest in either skill set – let’s call them “the clueless” – who may have been vaguely attracted to a course they thought would be “easy” and “fun” since it promised to involve “watching movies.”

Teaching Film History: Logisitcs

October 6th, 2011     23 Comments »

CC Image by MorgenNebel

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Teaching Film History: Logistics

I am calling this a talk about “logistics” because logistics strikes me as something that is addressed relatively rarely in discussions of film pedagogy, even though it has always been and continues to be, at least for me, problematic with respect to film classes.  I have taught my “History of German Film” course about seven times over the last two decades, but I have never taught it the same way twice.  In other words, each time I teach it, I make significant changes not just to the content but also to the logistics of the course.  I do not do this as much when I teach literature, because generally when I teach literature I can assume—or require—that students will show up in class with a copy of the work under discussion, and that the class can then discuss both specific details of the text and more general issues relatively easily; if there is a dispute about the text, students can consult the text in order to prove a point.  With film things are obviously different: students do not usually show up in class with a copy of the film in question, and even if they did, it would be difficult for them to access any particular segment of the film under dispute; therefore it is often more difficult to talk about specific formal issues with film than it is with literature.  Film, as Raymond Bellour has argued, is “le texte introuvable,” the unfindable text.  It is, as D. N. Rodowick’s puts it, “a very uncertain object.” Rodowick suggests that film is “peculiarly unquotable, since the written text cannot restore to it what only the projector can produce.”[1] For these reasons I have to give more thought to exactly how students gain access to the aesthetic objects under discussion when I teach a film class than when I teach a literature class.  When courses about German film history first emerged on the U.S. academic scene in the late 1970s and 1980s, logistics were particularly problematic because most films taught academically existed in a 16mm or even 35mm format, which meant that the film instructor had to gain access to films in one or both of those formats—and make them available to students as well—which of course raised logistical issues about when to screen the films, whether such screenings should be required or not, who would operate the projection apparatus, who would be responsible for receiving and shipping the heavy film canisters, who would pay for the shipping, etc.  And in those days there was also a problem about what non-film text or texts to assign students. 

Störfall at 25: “Relevance” and the Teaching of Environmental Literature

August 8th, 2011     21 Comments »

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By mid-semester, Christa Wolf’s Störfall: Nachrichten eines Tages (1987) seemed like a risky choice as the final assigned text in an upper division undergraduate 20th-century course designed for German majors. The previous year when I had decided to design a syllabus around the topic “German Literature about the Environment,” the book selection was logical. Now it was evident that despite the fact that all the enrolled students had spent time abroad and possessed relatively strong language skills that would place them at the intermediate high-advanced low threshold according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, Störfall would be a difficult read. Then on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake hit Japan, triggering a tsunami and the nuclear accident at Fukushima and relevance trumped linguistic ability.

What follows is a reflective account of a pilot course in “green” German studies and recommendations for the development of similar courses. Given the fact that a significant number of undergraduate German majors and minors pursue double majors, especially in fields related to the sciences, global studies, and journalism, a compelling case can be made for creating courses and paths of study that combine German with a focus on environmental and sustainability studies. The long history of environmental awareness in German-speaking countries argues for expanded study of the wealth of materials that reflect this consciousness as well. With intentional curricular planning, a broad range of literary and journalistic texts, documentary information, and film can be made accessible to undergraduate students. Moreover, the growing body of ecocriticism (cf. Heise), expansion of study abroad opportunities related to environmental studies, and funding opportunities like the DAAD RISE programs suggest that at a time when vital new directions are being sought in German studies, “green” courses offer a way to revitalize the curriculum and foster interdisciplinary intellectual initiatives among faculty in the process.

Beyond Sightseeing: The Learning Effects of Excursions within a Study Abroad Context

July 5th, 2011     7 Comments »

CC Photo by CAPL

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Supervised cultural excursions are often included in the offerings of study abroad immersion programs. Such excursions have the potential to achieve a depth beyond sightseeing. Under certain conditions, excursions can foster foreign language and intercultural learning as well as skill acquisition in a setting that has advantages not only over the traditional classroom, but also over daily unsupervised immersion.

I intuitively came to these conclusions during my experience as both a program participant and later, as an organizer and leader of such cultural excursions with the Boston University (BU) Dresden Programs in Germany. In academic literature on study abroad topics, excursions are generally viewed as being beneficial for students (Dahl; Fry; Hansen, Bohn, Smithers; Thies 86; Zeilinger 10, 16). However, to my knowledge, the above statements have never been supported by empirical evidence. Therefore, the questions which guided my research were:

What are the potential learning effects of immersion program excursions?

What are the actual learning effects of immersion program excursions?

I attempted to answer the first question with a literature review of immersion programs and excursions, and the second question with an empirical case study of the cultural excursions offered by the BU Dresden Liberal Arts Program. My findings will be described in condensed form below.[1]

The accompanying Appendix for this article can be downloaded here.