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October 11, 2019

By Devon Donohue-Bergeler, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Defending a dissertation and winning a teaching award were major victories in the process of teaching and research development that characterized my doctoral studies. As a teacher-scholar with a growth mindset, this spiraling process didn’t end with graduation. In the journey from those April milestones to an August faculty position, I leveled up from supervised graduate student instructor and advisee to the director of a German program that I had the freedom to reinvent. I teach a 4/4 load that, through creative cross-listing, single-handedly sustains a lower-division German program, an upper division German track that culminates in a minor and a major, and includes a rotating comparative studies in humanities course every semester. There’s also the weekly Stammtisch, the German Club, and the bi-annual faculty-led summer study abroad.

To mitigate the challenges of such a jump, I turned to my research training. As a scholar using qualitative research methods, I had extensive experience in writing detailed field notes… so I wrote monthly entries to document the journey. The first semester of entries were titled chronologically: “I can’t do this,” “Doing my best in the context I was dealt,” “Growing,” and “Settling in but still new stuff.”

In the “Growing” entry, I wrote the following:

I’m slowly able to add in improvements, and next semester I’ll have even more bandwidth open for developing better tasks, assignments, interactions, and interpretive work with texts. After two months at this institution, I have a better sense of how to build the curriculum and grow the program. But that takes time. It’s okay if I don’t offer a faculty-led study abroad program until summer 2020. It means I’m able to partner with a professor who is taking students to Frankfurt in 2019 (field notes, 10/31/2018).

Enter Matthias Hofferberth, a freshly tenured faculty member in the Department of Political Science and native German speaker. From the first time I reached out to him, he has been open to including my language students and my pedagogical ideas. In his first email response to me, he wrote:

I have been doing this in 2015 and 2017 and it was a great experience both times. I would teach globalization there, together with students from Frankfurt. If we could somehow connect this to your ideas or at least pitch this in the German department (I will start recruiting later this fall…), that would be great! (email, Matthias to Devon, 9/14/2018).

Since that initial correspondence, our collaboration has grown organically and equitably. We discussed the possibility that I add a linguistic and cultural component to his program. We discussed running parallel programs in Frankfurt. In the end, I decided that giving our students access to two types of programs in Germany in alternating summers was the best solution. This choice would allow me to develop a different kind of program in my beloved Dresden, where I could offer a focus on GDR history, STEM fields, high culture, migration, and the youth culture I got to explore through my 20s.

This decision to run separate programs did not end our collaboration. On the contrary, it gave us a basis for further collaborative work. Matthias has visited my language courses and Stammtisch to inform and recruit students for the Frankfurt program. I attended a Shared Experience Forum on Study Abroad in which he shared and discussed insights about program development. A few hours later, I facilitated a workshop at his third pre-departure meeting. Students learned and used some basic German to get to know their fellow participants, then articulated and reflected on their expectations for the study abroad program through a drama-based technique called “Poster Dialogue.” The following day, I emailed Matthias a call for papers for a special issue in feminist German studies and suggested that we discuss our collaboration in a reflective essay. In his response, he said:

That seems indeed like a good opportunity to create a road map. As a disclaimer, I need to make clear that I do not share any of the background here and thus would be somewhat limited in my reflections. […]

If you are willing to be the lead author, I’d be happy to share my reflections as to why this collaboration is indeed meaningful and we could use it to outline what we have in mind for the years to come.

Most importantly, I was meaning to send you an email to thank you again for yesterday – I had a lot of fun and so did the students! I also learned that DAR [“Describe, Analyze, Relate” meaning-making technique] is a great way to discuss posters which, in my classes so far, not always triggered good discussions… (email, Matthias to Devon, 3/21/2019).

This response demonstrates our mutual valuation of and commitment to collaborating in a way that serves our students and makes us better teachers. On the one hand, he has expressed enthusiasm for helping me develop and run my program next year. On the other hand, even as a tenured professor and expert in his field, Matthias demonstrates a willingness to learn innovative pedagogy from and publish with a non-tenure track junior faculty member. Although the essay proposal was ultimately rejected for the special issue, the process of intentional reflection is helping to guide our collaboration.

In sum, this essay afforded me the opportunity to reflect on surviving the first year as a faculty member; it also serves as a roadmap for further plans. Through a combination of our interdisciplinary fields and our individual attributes, Matthias and I have complementary skill sets, experiences, and commitments that create a solid foundation for collaboration that prioritizes students. Our fields of foreign language education and global affairs have different affordances and limitations based on institutional categorization, yet they are deeply interconnected in terms of learning goals: to develop transcultural global citizens of the 21st century.

Although this essay is highly personal and specific to our context, readers can view it as a case study with implications for how UTSA faculty can improve programs and amplify their impact beyond their home departments through interdisciplinary collaboration.