Revising German 204: Toward Content-Based, Critically-Engaged, Text-Driven Instruction

7 January 2022
By Seth Peabody

This post discusses the role of literature, and “texts” more broadly, within the Carleton German curriculum. The specific point of reference is our upcoming revision of the syllabus for German 204, an exciting and pivotal course in which students encounter longer texts and prepare for upper-level courses. Students gain higher-level language skills that open up opportunities beyond Carleton such as science research internships or volunteer opportunities in German-speaking countries. At the same time, by studying complex German-language texts that deal with pressing contemporary issues, they acquire insights that shed new light on their work in other fields, whether that work is carried out abroad or right here in Northfield. 

Topics, Texts, Tasks

The revision of German 204 builds on work we have already done to rethink our first-year courses. During the summer of 2021, just before I officially began working at Carleton, I collaborated with Juliane Schicker and Kiley Kost to select a new textbook for the German 101-103 sequence and to redesign the first course in that sequence. We continue to refine those courses, as described in Prof. Schicker’s recent post, but much of what we decided in summer 2021 remains intact. 

As we selected a textbook, of course we were thinking about grammar and vocabulary, and we were very drawn to our ultimate selection, Der-Die-Das, as a cost-free option for students. But perhaps the biggest consideration was to find a book that would align with the content-based goals of our program. We sought a book that we could use as a primary, but not exclusive, source of input as we build a curriculum to “teach German language and culture in a way that provides students with skills, knowledge, interests, and curiosity that will help them take on critical challenges of the world today,” as described in our German program mission statement.

The first-year courses guide students toward an understanding of the German-speaking world as a complex and diverse society and culture, with a strong emphasis on contemporary Germany but informed by the broader geographies and the long and complex histories of the German-speaking world. Students learn, write, and give presentations about a wide variety of aspects of German culture, and when clichéed topics such as Oktoberfest make an appearance, it is generally in order to help students to see the nuance and contested status of what they might have assumed to be an inherent and accepted element of that culture.

One of the primary pedagogical influences of our approach is the framework of Content-Based Instruction (CBI), which promotes the teaching of language skills within recognizable real-world contexts and thematic groupings. Language learning and communication take place in meaningful contexts. Research has shown that learning a new language is much more effective when approached this way, rather than when presented as a collection of abstract linguistic skills or in a random set of unrelated texts.

Within a CBI curriculum, the basic process for designing a syllabus involves making decisions about topics, texts, and tasks. The instructor first decides what topics are most important, then chooses a set of texts (or one longer text) in relation to each topic, and finally determines the specific assignments and projects that students will complete in connection with each text and topic. This course planning method enables students to gain the full benefit of CBI language learning, since their new language skills gain significance and relevance by being situated within important and interesting contexts.

Based on the success with German 101-103, we plan to revise German 204 during the upcoming summer. For this final course in the Carleton German language requirement, we are now asking ourselves, what topics, texts, and tasks should students work through? 

Rethinking Texts

In our work at Carleton and beyond, we have seen benefits from the CBI approach. The complex topics woven throughout German 101 have proven popular with students and effective at stimulating language growth. In my prior work at St. Olaf, I helped redesign a curriculum centered around diverse understandings of the idea of Heimat. Kiley Kost and I have developed several projects on environmental pedagogy and have encountered a number of successful content-based courses and curricula built around environmental topics (see Sustainability and Community Engagement in German Studies, and a variety of teaching materials.)

And yet, despite all the positive outcomes of CBI teaching, I have repeatedly stumbled across a tension within the “topic, text, task” approach, in that the category of “text” appears to be secondary. The key thing, it would seem, is to select fascinating and relevant topics and then choose high-quality texts that guide students through the topic. But when students describe what they loved about a course, the texts are key. And their readings often point in different directions than the topics we had initially chosen. 

In student responses to German 204, comments were particularly impassioned regarding Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1962 play Die Physiker, which we studied during the second half of the course. Numerous student evaluations named this text as the thing that most engaged them from the course; some students named it as the favorite thing they had read for any class during the fall term, or as one of their favorite texts ever. 

These responses to Die Physiker gave me pause regarding the upcoming project of revising German 204. In choosing the topics that will guide students through the course, we must aim to build the syllabus around texts that maintain the level of fascination students showed with Dürrenmatt’s play. The accompanying tasks must draw on our (the professors’) own understanding of the texts, while also inviting students to find their own interpretive directions and voice.

Rereading Die Physiker

As I described in a prior post, the process of identifying with or getting excited about a text is not simple, and is often tied to sophisticated and complex processes of understanding and analysis. In German 204, many students loved Die Physiker, but they also read it critically. Some students were drawn in by the varied cast of characters, about whom the reader slowly learns more in order to understand the mystery at the center of the text. Others enjoyed the dark humor, were troubled by the portrayal of gender roles and mental health issues, and were intrigued by the playful yet deadly serious development of questions regarding human knowledge and freedom. 

In their daily homework on Die Physiker, students answered questions and discussed each new section of the text in order to build comprehension and develop awareness of the key themes. They also engaged in classroom discussions that considered the play’s themes in the context of their own settings at Carleton and beyond. At the end, they created final projects of their own choosing.

In terms of the text’s resonance extending beyond my expectations, two items stand out in my memory:

  • For their final task in German 204, students completed a large-scale project relating to Die Physiker. The specific format and topic was left up to the students. Some crafted analytic essays or created exhibits that gave a formal discussion of the play. Others wrote diaries from a specific character’s point of view within the play, ranging from major characters to neglected viewpoints. Still others created multimedia projects that shifted between viewpoints within the play, engaging with the diversity of meanings and perspectives that can emerge in literary works. The themes ranged from the political instrumentalization of science to the status of mental health within society. The projects departed from the themes we had explored together in class and demonstrated knowledge of the play’s content and the course’s language goals: they were clearly still connected to the “topics” that had formed the starting point for the course. But in their innovative formats and approaches, the projects went beyond what I had initially envisioned.
  • Shortly before the final project, the class engaged in a number of conversations  regarding science and society. These conversations built on one of the core questions in the text: What are the roles and responsibilities of scientists who develop new knowledge that could be put to dangerous uses? When we had nearly finished reading the play, one class period was devoted to discussions with “real physicists,” in the form of two Carleton seniors who speak German and are also physics majors. The conversation made the fictional content concrete for the German students, and also proved intriguing for the senior physics experts, in that they were challenged to think about ongoing (and possibly unresolvable) tensions and questions regarding science, freedom, responsibility, and politics that they had not considered in their science courses. Many German programs in the US (as in one successful example from the University of Rhode Island) have sought ways to align themselves with STEM fields to show how German can help students gain new opportunities for coursework in STEM, but this class session seemed to flip the scales: it showed how texts from a German class had something new to offer that students would not get from a physics or engineering class. 

When I began teaching German 204 last fall, I assumed that Die Physiker (like most of the texts currently on the syllabus) would not make it onto the revised plan for the course. Some texts will certainly change, but Die Physiker proved remarkably valuable as a text that sheds new light on the topics from which it emerged, and that simultaneously becomes continually more fascinating for students as they gain more nuance and complexity regarding its context. When we revise the course, we will seek topics that contribute to the nuance, complexity, and diversity of students’ ideas about the German-speaking world (and beyond). We will assemble texts that might fascinate, engage, and perplex the students, and we will design tasks that help these topics and texts to mutually illuminate each other. In this way, we support our students to engage with a text in a way that opens up new dialogues, connections, questions, and tensions, instead of steering them toward a stable understanding of a fixed topic. To conclude with an expanded, if somewhat utopian, return to the initial discussion of CBI language instruction: our goal is to build on the strengths of the planned topics, texts, and tasks, and then to go beyond, so that the format of the class might evolve as follows: Topic, text, task, tension, transformation, topic, text…