Never stop learning

Never stop learning

Julia Karolle-Berg expresses her thoughts about teaching after accepting the Culicchia Award

Julia Karolle-Berg and Jeanne ColleranJeanne Colleran (right) presents the award to Karolle-Berg.

The Lucrezia Culicchia Award for Teaching Excellence is given to a member of the
faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences who has made a distinct difference in the
teaching climate of the College in such areas as model classroom teaching, campus
leadership about teaching issues, pioneering teaching methodology, and creative course
development. The award, which has been given annually since 1990, is named in
honor of Lucrezia Culicchia, a former teacher and the mother of alumnus Anthony N.
Culicchia (’64) whose generosity makes the award possible.

Traditionally, the winner is notified each spring via a classroom visit by the Dean of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the College.
Beth Martin, Interim Dean of the College in 2009-2010, and Peter Kvidera, Associate
Dean, surprised Julia Karolle-Berg, Associate Professor of German, by visiting her class
this past April to let her know she’d been selected.

The award is presented each fall at the annual meeting of the faculty of the College of Arts
and Sciences. The previous year’s winner has the honor of introducing the new recipient,
who is invited to share reflections about teaching effectiveness with his or her colleagues.
Maryclaire Moroney, Associate Professor of English and the 2009 Culicchia winner,
introduced Julia. Jeanne Colleran, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also provided
a welcome. The following are Julia’s remarks to her colleagues.

Thank you Jeanne and Maryclaire for your kind introductions and Fr.
Schubeck for his inspiring invocation. I would also like to thank the other
members of the Culicchia Award committee for their efforts and the colleagues
and students who took the time to write letters of support. I also must mention
how touched I’ve been by the efforts of the colleague – she knows who she is –
who prepared and submitted the nomination without me knowing. I can not tell you what a surprise it was when Beth and Peter appeared suddenly in my classroom in April. Since then, it has been an honor and delight to receive my colleagues’ generous words of congratulations.

I now can see the wisdom of announcing the winner of the Culicchia Award in April, though the formal acceptance does not take place until the following fall. In her letter to me in the spring, Beth indicated I would be asked to share a few thoughts about teaching when I received the award. If, in the excitement of the moment last April, I actually had committed those thoughts to paper, they would have resembled John Galt’s manifesto in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” But with the semester ending and other things requiring my energy, I didn’t commit them to paper in April, or May, or June …

I ran into Jim Krukones in July, and he asked – with what I detected as a bit of Schadenfreude in his voice – “So, Julia, have you written your speech yet?” I had to confess to Jim my John Galt manifesto rapidly was becoming an Alfred Hitchcock Oscar acceptance speech. Without missing a beat, Jim responded, “Oh, you mean from 1968.” For those unfamiliar with Hitchcock’s monument to rhetorical brevity, the full text amounted to, “Thank you very much, indeed.”

Inspired by Hitchcock, my manifesto about why I teach what I teach in five words or fewer is man lernt nie aus, which translates to “you never stop learning.” It deserves a closer look. The verb auslernen is formed by adding “aus” – a prefix that can mean out, off, or over to “lernen” – to learn. When the verb is conjugated, the prefix moves to the end of the sentence. Man lernt nie aus. In its structure, auslernen resembles austrinken – to drink something, to empty a vessel completely. This image is appealing because it suggests learning is something we consume, process, and incorporate into our identities. Moreover, the expression suggests the well can’t ever be emptied entirely because it replenishes itself endlessly; and we’ll never be able to empty it physically or intellectually. Man lernt nie aus.

First, I would like to relate this phrase to why I teach. I safely can assume almost every one of us is here because we were inspired by at least one, if not many, wonderful teacher-mentors. I’m the product of many mentors, but would argue a quality consistent among all of them was their ongoing commitment to, and delight in, learning. They were open to change and growth; they were evolving continuously in their careers; they learned with and from their students. This was the disposition I perceived in them and one I wanted to cultivate in myself. In German, lernen and lehren – the words for “learning” and “teaching,” respectively – can be traced back to the same root “*lei-,” which means “to cling” or “to stick.” Teaching is a causative formed off of learning. As the etymology reveals, teaching and learning are related enterprises. Teaching causes learning, including, I’d argue, in oneself. Man lernt nie aus.

Now to the question of why I teach what I teach. I have been learning German for 25 years and teaching it for 16. But I do not teach what I teach because I simply can not get enough of the dative case and Goethe. German has become my portal to the study of the most complex, dynamic, and powerful invention of mankind – language. Much of what we do with our native language we don’t understand. One way we understand is by studying other languages.

To offer a few examples – and I’ll give you an easy one first – do you know why we tend to speak in the third person with babies and small children (“Is baby hungry?” “Mommy loves baby.”)? What about the rules for forming the simple past tense in English (I jumped. I swam. I brought.)? Why do we say “jumped” but “swam”? And why are people so insistent about “brought”, when it seems “brang” would do just fine? How about this one: How old is the word “fart”? What would you guess? As it happens, it can be traced back to Middle English, Old English, even back to Germanic, our shared ancestor with German, Dutch, and Swedish. The word already was present in the language, meaning what it means today, about 100 B.C.

I teach language because it is a well that can never be emptied. I hope to convey some of that depth to my students, to help them gain insight into the nature of all languages – including their own – and to lead them to the empowerment that comes with acquiring a new language. Man lernt nie aus.

I have told you why I teach what I teach, now I would like to close with a story that illustrates the importance, ingeneral, of remembering that we are still always learners as we are teachers. A few years ago, I participated in a workshop through the Goethe Institut in Germany. The topic was “Intercultural Communication in Business German,” and the instructors favored a learning-by-doing approach, including role-playing, simulations, site visits, etc. In a group of 20 teachers from throughout the world, I was the only American. One of the assignments during the workshop was a group exercise in which we interviewed a figure involved in commerce in Germany, and then reported our findings in plenum. My group was comprised of three other women – one each from Russia, Brazil, and Japan. After interviewing a representative from the Ministry of Labor, we were given several hours to prepare our presentation.

That experience marked one of the most disastrous examples of group work I’ve known in my professional career. We, veteran teachers and learners, all motivated to learn something new in a common field of interest, could not work together. We could not even reach consensus on how to proceed, let alone the content or form the presentation should take. As communication derailed in my group, I first felt stressed out. Ach, our presentation would be incoherent, disjointed, the worst of all the presentations. Then I felt angry. Why were we wasting our time on an activity like this? What did this stupid group work assignment have to do with intercultural communication? Oh, right.

Karolle-Berg with husband Matthew Berg, professor of history

Later, when I reflected on my disastrous group work experience, I realized some of the frustrating aspects about teaching were common characteristics of learning in general. I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments like this, where we teach as well we can, but the students don’t seem to learn. This disconnect caused me to think about what distinguishes successful learners from less successful ones. Though certainly not an exhaustive list, I’ve arrived at a few qualities that characterize successful learners. They:

  • Are open to viewpoints and teaching approaches and unfamiliar to them.
  • Adapt well to working in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar people.
  • Understand the learning process is not quick and easy;  they’re willing to devote time to the process and don’t become frustrated when setbacks occur

Bearing these dispositions in mind, I would like to return to my workshop experience. As I learned later, the collaborative train wreck that occurred in my group was representative of what happened in the other ones. In one group, members were so much at odds with each other one member left the room in tears. We were guilty of behaving like bad learners. I failed to do all the things I desire in my students.

We forgot how to be successful learners. I might even go so far as to say we didn’t want to be put in the position of being learners again. Maybe we just wanted our sage instructors to tell us how to teach intercultural communication, and we’d go home again. Learning can be slow, difficult, and painful.

Our group presentation was a disaster. But what I learned from our failure is I still have much to learn about learning. I learned that if I remind myself what it takes to be a successful learner, I might be more:

  • Willing to engage in collaborative work with people I don’t know.
  • Tolerant of others’ viewpoints and teaching approaches.
  • Patient when I try to learn something new when it’s slow and difficult.

Who knows? I might even become more understanding of my students when they – who are not veteran learners and may not be motivated to learn something new in a common field of interest – struggle with the dative or Goethe. As they say in German, man lernt nie aus.

It’s a privilege to receive the Lucrezia Culicchia Award for Teaching Excellence. Thank you very much, indeed.

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