Three Prizes – Many More Rewards: The “Freedom without Walls” Speech Competition at Georgetown University
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on events that make German Studies more visible on campus and for the community. If your novelty event caused a PR roar, please share your idea: email email@example.com.
By Astrid Weigert
“And the first prize goes to…,” these celebratory words were the final fanfare for the speech competition project at the Department of German at Georgetown University, which a month earlier had been part of a week-long set of activities commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. An animated group of about 60 attendees, among them undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, cheered the 3 winners, and watched excerpts of their winning speeches on Youtube, all the while enjoying German Christmas pastries and hot cider. What ended so joyously during our holiday party on December 9, 2009, had been set in motion almost a year earlier when my Department, like many others, received a letter of invitation from the German Information Center (GIC) to participate in the “Freedom without Walls” student project week.
The letter of invitation had outlined a number of potential projects that could be part of such a “Freedom without Walls” campus week. We settled on the following: building a replica of the Berlin Wall, a public lecture by German author Peter Schneider and a second one by Prof. Michael Lützeler on Peter Schneider’s oeuvre, a “Berlin Club Night” for the students, a photo exhibit, a film series, and finally, the speech competition in which students would reflect on the significance of the historic event.
Given my Department’s emphasis on curricular cohesion and on teaching all classes in German, it was clear that we wanted GU students to present their speeches only in German (and not in English as the GIC letter had suggested). Our first challenge, therefore, was how to prepare our students in terms of content and language to give a rather complex speech in German on a political-historical topic. The speech competition subcommittee, consisting of our curriculum coordinator Dr. Marianna Ryshina-Pankova, Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Weidner, and myself, quickly identified an existing instructional unit on the fall of the Wall in our 3rd year course as the best point of departure. A closer look at the materials used in this unit, however, revealed that they were focused exclusively on the years 1989-1990 and reflected only the events and issues of that particular time period. Clearly, if we wanted our students to speak meaningfully about the significance of the events 20 years later, we would need to redesign the unit and include materials ideally up to 2009.