Connecting with a New Generation of Students
Scholarly, passionate, and creative, German studies professors win major teaching awards

By John Chadwick


Michael Levine’s course, Germans and Jews - an Intellectual History, may surprise students familiar with only the darkest chapter in Germany’s history. “I take pleasure in showing students Germans and Jews before 1933,” said Levine, a professor of German Studies. “There are problems of non-acceptance and outsider status, yet there’s this poetry and brilliant thinking that’s generated out of this encounter.”

Nicholas Rennie, meanwhile, helps students come to terms with a very different type of encounter— the person who sells their soul to the devil. “In the Faust tradition, the writing of the bargain with the devil is a very crucial component, and it has very specific associations and consequences for the character,” he tells students gathered around a long table for his course, Bargaining with the Devil.

Levine and Rennie, along with their colleagues Nicola Behrmann, Marlene Ciklamini, Martha Helfer, and Fatima Navqi comprise the core German Studies faculty at the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences. Eminent scholars, they’ve published important work on Germanic civilization – its languages, cultures, and preeminent thinkers and artists.

But in discussing their department’s strengths, the Rutgers professors continually come back to the centrality of teaching. “One value that we all share is educating the whole person,” said Helfer, the longtime chair who has guided the department in its emphasis on teaching excellence. “In a small department, it’s important to be aware of the students as individuals, to figure out where they are coming from, how best to really respond to their academic needs.”

The department covers the spectrum of humanities topics—from philosophy to drama to art history to film—while also offering German language instruction at all levels. And the courses— from Naqvi’s Classics of German Cinema to Rennie’s Big Bang: Literature of Chaos and Order are provocative and powerful.

Nearly every faculty member has won either the SAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching or the Graduate School of New Brunswick Excellence in Graduate Teaching Award. “I see the classroom as a uniquely creative space,” Levine said. “It’s a jazz session – a place where we close the door and take risks with our thinking.”

Each professor works to expand the reach of the venerable discipline. Navqi, for example, has been introducing students to experimental movements in art, music, and dance through courses like The Cutting Edge. Her Classics of German Cinema covers the major films of the Weimar, Nazi, and post-war period. And her Byrne Seminar Our Threatened Planet: Ecology in Film compares American and European narratives of environmental damage, drawing students from across the university. “For many students, literature is not their primary goal in studying German,” she said. “I try to appeal to them across different media.”

Behrmann’s Animal Spirits, meanwhile, explores the German literary tradition in a bold new way with a depiction of animals in relation to humans. The course traces the paths of wolves, horses, cats, dogs, mice, rats, and snakes. “This is a topic that comes up in anthropology, philosophy, gender studies, and biology,” she said. “It connects and opens up to many fields and I am hoping to attract students from different areas.”

Students praise the professors’ ability to connect with the class and establish a lasting rapport.
Naqvi’s students note how she draws even the shyest of students into class discussions.  “I loved our discussions,” one student said. “They helped me to express my thoughts, which I can’t do in other classes.”

Helfer, meanwhile, is acclaimed for her ability to mentor students in the difficult art of close textual reading. “It’s a new way of thinking for a lot of students,” she said. “It requires encouragement and patience in the classroom to really open up a text and allow students to see things that they hadn’t expected.”

The professors frequently bring their teaching beyond the the classroom, taking students to theaters, museums, and galleries.

And with the Berlin Program, students spend the summer taking courses in the center of German culture. In Berlin, Rennie likes to take students to avant-garde theater and watch them emerge stunned and wide-eyed from the experience. “You can’t just take them back to the classroom and discuss the plot and the characters and be done with it,” he said. “No. They are going to want to know everything about what they’ve seen. 

“This is what makes the teaching exciting. No two classes are ever the same.”