Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1


Text, Culture, & Language

William Rozycki

 

As an undergraduate, Cheri Brown plodded through the two years of German she took to fulfill her foreign language requirement. “In the sixties, language was taught like any other subject—by the lecture method,” she recalls. “After two years of lectures, I had learned little and was looking forward to being finished with it.” But then something happened that changed her life. Brown, now an associate professor of German and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages at Indiana University South Bend, says, “My mother, who had relatives in Germany, encouraged me to experience life overseas.”

The seed planted by her mother grew into determination, and what she earned at summer jobs in her Nebraska hometown, Brown found she had enough to enroll in college-credit courses at a summer school in Germany. She recounts the defining event in her life, when she got off her plane in Germany. “At the customs counter, I found myself in the line marked ‘Ausländer’—it means ‘foreigner.’ I had never before experienced being an outsider. Suddenly I was the one speaking a strange language, getting lost, misunderstanding simple dialogue.” But by the end of the summer, Brown had gained a basic understanding of German and had developed an affection for the German land, its history, and its language.

Overseas study can be a dramatic experience that can broaden students, international and intercultural awareness. Here two IUB students, Michelle Scofield (left) and Kathryn Brooks (middle), spend 199899 in the Indiana University Academic Year Program in Freiburg, Germany. The woman on the right is the program coordinator in Frieburg, Manuela Moll.

Brown returned to America, got her bachelor’s degree, and soon was teaching high school German. “I feel that to really have an experience of ‘foreignness’ or ‘otherness’ is an essential part of social maturity and the education process,” Brown maintains. “A well-taught foreign language class can bring the ‘otherness’ to life at least for a few hours a week, for students who may otherwise never experience that ‘otherness’ firsthand.”

After three years of high school teaching, Brown went on to graduate studies in German. For her dissertation research, she chose a modern German writer, Günter Eich, studying the style and meaning of his prose poem collection titled Maulwürfe, or “Moles.” The work was extraordinarily challenging. “The poems are so abstract, so fragmented and puzzling that they require the reader to negotiate their meaning—that is, the work only truly ‘means’ when readers respond with their own perceptions,” she states. “That research into reader response changed the way I teach.”

“When I first started teaching in college,” Brown explains, “I still delivered lectures to my classes, simply because I had been taught that way.” The Maulwürfe research introduced her to constructivist theory, the notion that the meaning of texts depend as much on the reader as on the writer. “I started taking the Maulwürfe texts into my classes, to see how students would perceive them.” The response was gratifying, engaging the students and sparking discussion. “Now,” Brown says, “I find it much more productive for both teaching and for learning to allow my students to interact with the ‘gaps’ in texts. Students participate in constructing meaning from texts, as informed readers—with all that term implies."

Brown’s upper-level courses are not readings from a select few texts of the literary canon, but instead they introduce texts of varying types from a wide selection of authors. “I also assign students to read what critics and literary experts have to say about the texts, Brown adds. “Then they can make their own choices, as informed readers, about the meaning of each text.”

Introductory students, too, get a taste of texts. “I try to present many types of texts to students at all levels, including first-semester German, and not just to ‘literature’ classes,” Brown says. “It’s unfortunate that undergraduate curricula still divide these. Learning a language is an activity interconnected with the literature and the culture.”

For introductory courses, Brown tries to present recent texts that tie in with the students’ own world. She uses the Internet to access such texts. “I can bring to class at 10 a.m. something from the morning’s news in Germany,” Brown marvels. “It’s instant access.” The World Wide Web provides a wealth of material, but it offers irritations as well. “It takes hours,” Brown says, “to sift through all the Web sites. When you find really engaging material, by the next day the site may be down or even gone.”

Due to her administrative duties as chair of her department, Brown doesn’t have the time she would like for research. Still, she has chosen her next project: the relationship of Eich (author of the Maulwürfe poems, and now deceased) to the National Socialist regime in the 1930s. “There have been innuendoes and allegations,” Brown says. “Here was an intellectual who professed distance from the regime, yet recent research has shown that this stance is questionable.” With more archives now open for inspection, Brown wants to determine what, if any, accommodation was made between Eich and the National Socialist government of his time.

In all of Brown’s research and teaching, the interconnection is clear. “Text, culture, language: they’re indivisible,” Brown affirms. Then she cites a favorite quotation. “One has as many lives as one has languages.”

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