Associate Professors Pascale LaFountain and Thomas Herold have rebuilt from scratch the University’s German language program into one the nation’s leading German programs, efforts recognized by the American Association of Teachers of German, which has designated Montclair State University a German Center of Excellence.
The significance of the achievement isn’t lost on Professor Lois Oppenheim, chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures. She hired the two, who are married, based, in part, on the strong recommendation of a dean at Harvard, where LaFountain and Herold earned doctoral degrees in Germanic languages and literatures. Paraphrasing the conversation, Oppenheim was assured the academic couple would create a German program “the likes of which we could not imagine.”
In just nine years, they have done just that, reintroducing the major in fall 2015 and growing the program with innovative instruction and a commitment to their students, says Michael Shaughnessy, executive director of the association. Montclair State University received the 2020 designation during a virtual ceremony on November 21 with the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Along with a recent FACE Foundation grant offered via the French Cultural Services of the French Embassy for a virtual teaching exchange with the Université Bordeaux Montaigne, and the culture and curricular programming grant from the Korean Ministry of Education also just awarded us, the Department of World Languages and Cultures is feeling very proud,” Oppenheim says.
The German program has benefited since LaFountain and Herold joined the faculty. Despite the program’s long history at Montclair State and the esteemed international sister-city exchange of scientists, engineers, musicians, and other scholars with Austria’s University of Graz, the German major had been discontinued due to faculty retirements and falling enrollment.
It was a pivotal moment in the couple’s careers. “Building it all up from scratch, just the two of us, made it so that we know the program, we know every single student, and that makes it such a tight circle,” Herold says.
“Our courses are about the students and about the students having this genuine cultural dialogue,” LaFountain adds. “You can’t get through our classes without getting to know us. We’re talking about our families, we’re talking about social justice, we’re talking about our hopes and dreams. We’re talking about what we care about most in life.”
The major has grown more than 80% in just five years and the University’s designation as a German Center of Excellence is expected to continue that growth.
The program’s success “makes people want to teach with us, makes people want to study with us,” LaFountain says. “It makes our students confident to want to apply to grad school, to have the courage to apply for a Fulbright or other international scholarships upon graduation.” Five alumni last year, for instance, won stipends to teach in Austria with the U.S. Teaching Assistantship program administered by Fulbright.
“The study of German has certainly given me a wider international perspective and cultural experiences abroad,” says Thomas McNulty ’19, who earned degrees in German, and International Business and Marketing. “Learning a new language is no easy task, but the rewards and experiences unlocked along the way are truly invaluable.”
One major goal has been to provide an affirming learning environment for LGBTQ+ students. The program introduced a preferred pronoun element, created an advanced course called Queer Germany, and integrated a unit on the public service photography initiative Trans at Work. In June 2019, the German program was invited to a celebration by the campus Office of Social Justice and Diversity, at which its efforts for inclusion were publicly recognized.
The ability to adapt and offer courses that speak to the lives of their students is among “the advantages of us having created the program,” Herold says.
Music Performance and Musical Theatre partner with the German program, and have helped double majors from the artistic fields bridge their study in music performance, art history, studio art, and animation with German.
“We’ve been able to see what our students love, what really animates them and then design our whole curriculum around that,” LaFountain says.
Student engagement is high, with a film and lecture series, coffee hours, and German club and honor society among the events students regularly attend.
“My favorite thing about the German program is that all of the students are like one big family,” says Casey Masterson, a senior German major who heads both the German club and honor society. “I never expected this type of community to come from my German program, but you often find the best things in the most unexpected places.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren