Department of German Studies named 'Center of Excellence'

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Feb. 24, 2012

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The 2010 Vienna study abroad program. Photo courtesy of the Department of German Studies.

A freshly refined curriculum and student learning opportunities that stretch far beyond the classroom have helped earn Emory University's Department of German Studies top recognition this month as a German Center of Excellence by the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG).

The Emory program is one of only two post-secondary institutions in the nation to be honored with the designation, which evaluates areas such as curriculum, faculty credentials and development, extracurricular activities, and growth and support. This is the first time the organization has recognized excellence at a post-secondary program, according to AATG Executive Director Keith Cothrun.

Most impressive to AATG was the University's bold curriculum redesign, which challenges long-held national practices of separating language education from content studies. "Instead of spending the first two years just learning language and grammar — a model deeply ingrained in language studies — we go counter to that notion, also bringing in literature and poetry, writing and culture," says Peter Höyng, chair of the Department of German Studies.

Call it the "language-content divide," says Hiram Maxim, associate professor of German Studies who directs the Emory College Language Center and helped spearhead the redesign. Traditional learning models pose disadvantages to both upper and lower level students, Maxim says. "Here, we offer content from the beginning and language to the end."

The department credits its new curriculum for improved student performance and increased retention. Over the past six years, the Department of German Studies has seen a steady rise in enrollment, despite national trends that show stronger gains in Spanish and French language studies.

"This year we have a new record — with both semesters combined, we now have about 400 students in German studies, including those studying Yiddish, which is doing extremely well," says Höyng.

In addition to program growth, the AATG praised the department for earning support from administrators, alumni and students, its strong ties to campus, community and an active advisory council, an interdisciplinary outlook, and extracurricular offerings, from guest speakers and films to a German-speaking residential house and opportunities to study abroad.

"This is a truly exciting award for a department that has been innovative and responsive to the needs of their students in several respects," says Michael A. Elliott, senior associate dean of faculty for Emory College.

"The department has revised its curriculum in a way that involves all of their faculty teaching language and culture at every level. And the department has developed a close relationship with an advisory council that is benefitting students through some remarkable internships," including ties with German-based American businesses through the American Chamber of Commerce and a popular study abroad program.

Callie Jordan, a senior in German studies and business, said those opportunities "changed everything for me." Jordan arrived at Emory with plans to major in French or Spanish. "I had studied German in high school, but felt I was behind where I wanted it to be," she says.

Following German studies her freshman year, Jordan participated in the Vienna study abroad program — now in its 39th year — which offers eight weeks of intensive language and cultural studies. As a result, Jordan has returned to Vienna every year since then and plans to move there after graduation with hopes of teaching.

"That program made all the difference," she says. "I went from not expecting to like German at all to being fully dependent on it for my professional goals."