Maeve Hooper, AM’14, PhD’18, has dedicated herself to teaching the German language and to mentoring other language teachers. As a PhD candidate, Hooper received the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching; today an assistant senior instructional professor, she has been awarded course development grants from the University’s Language Pedagogy Innovation Initiative on three occasions. Tableau spoke with Hooper about her role as director of the University’s German language program, her experience in graduate school, and how mashing together words in German captures nuances of the human psyche.

What first drew you to the study of German language and culture?

I was always a bookworm. I wanted to work with literature and languages in some capacity but thought that I would perhaps be an English professor. I studied German in high school because both of my parents knew German. I didn’t speak it at home or learn it from them, but I figured if I needed help on my homework, I would always have two people close by.

When I got to college, I had the most amazing German professors who took me under their wing. Within the first few weeks of being at school I had signed off to be a German major. I discovered a love for reading texts in a foreign language. I ended up studying abroad in Munich. I never looked back.

Why did your parents speak German?

My mom was from Ireland and learned some German at school. She moved to Germany on something of a whim and ended up earning her master’s degree there in linguistics while also working for a Vogue office in Germany. My dad went to Northwestern and studied German, discovered a passion for it, and then ended up doing his master’s and PhD in German as well. While he was pursuing his PhD, he studied abroad briefly in Munich, where my mom was living, and they met at a party.

What are your responsibilities as director of the German language program?

I wear many hats. I usually teach at the introductory and intermediate levels. That means I come into contact with most of the undergraduates who go through our program. Outside of class, I meet with them, advise them on questions of placement—where they belong in our program—study abroad, and applying for grants. Ten of our students were awarded the University’s Foreign Language Acquisition Grant (FLAG) to study in Germany and Austria this past summer, which was a big accomplishment for a relatively small department. Working with our graduate students is a really rewarding part of my job. When they begin teaching in our program, I meet with them weekly to discuss lesson plans and talk about the curriculum, and also to workshop any issues that are coming up in their classes. And then I work closely with our instructional faculty. I’m very proud to be part of such a collaborative and collegial team of instructors in German, as well as the instructors in Norwegian and Yiddish, who are part of our department.

What is the role of Norwegian and Yiddish in the Department of Germanic Studies?

I was recently on a committee to develop a new Comparative Germanics major track and a Yiddish minor in our department in addition to the existing Norwegian minor. The Comparative Germanics track better integrates the courses taught in Norwegian and Yiddish, so that students on that track can now get credit for language courses at any level in those programs. Typically for the major and minor in most languages, you don’t get credit for first-year-level courses, which makes it very difficult for what we call LCTLs, or less commonly taught languages. The first student who opted into the Comparative Germanics track will be graduating this academic year. He’s a Yiddishist, Eyshe Beirich, and he was awarded the Beinecke Scholarship to pursue a PhD in Yiddish studies. It is really exciting that we have someone who’s pursuing that track and that he’s doing so phenomenally well.

What is the department’s teaching philosophy?

We operate on something of a flipped classroom model. Students study and practice at home so that they can come to class prepared to ask questions—but also so that they can use language in more communicative ways such as interviewing partners, or doing what we call information gap activities, where students have different sets of information and genuinely need to rely on each other to complete a task. “Communicative” here means a genuine exchange of communication rather than the artificial activities you see in older approaches to second-language pedagogy.

Are there any new trends in pedagogy you’re excited about?

This past summer I redesigned our entire first-year sequence based on a new curriculum developed by the director of the Princeton Center for Language Study, Jamie Rankin. We’re making sure that the students are learning the words they will encounter most often in the culture. This curriculum is also open-source. We found that cost of materials can be a big barrier for access for students. So one additional benefit of switching our first-year materials this year is that the cost of learning German will be zero.

What’s the best way to become fluent in a language?

Go abroad. The most effective way to move from an intermediate level to the advanced level is being exposed to the language every day and having to use it in a variety of situations.

Who typically takes your classes?

The student body has changed a lot since I started teaching as a graduate student here. Our courses are more heavily populated by undergrads these days. We used to have more Humanities students learning German to study Hegel and Goethe and Nietzsche. Now we find a lot of students who are interested in economics and engineering as well. Germany is such a leader in terms of economics, engineering, and scientific research that learning German can open a lot of doors for students.

What was it like to be a graduate student at UChicago?

What really drew me to the department was the sense of community and collaboration—within the department and also across other departments—and then also the department’s approach to pedagogical development. Unlike many other programs, graduate students in our department are the primary instructor in the classroom right from the beginning. That appealed to me—the chance to develop my own lesson plans and activities every day, to develop my own teaching style and methodology.

I had incredible guidance from Catherine Baumann [senior lecturer in Germanic Studies], my predecessor as the director of the German language program and the current director of the University of Chicago Language Center. She gave me my foundation in second-language pedagogy, shaped me as a teacher, and encouraged me to seek opportunities outside of the department. With her support, I applied to be first a teaching consultant and a teaching fellow at the Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning, which is another amazing resource at the University.

And then I was also really lucky to have dedicated pedagogues on my committee. David Wellbery, who’s the chair of our department and was my dissertation adviser, and Christopher Wild, who just had a long tenure as master of the College, were both on my committee, and they both came in to observe me doing a guest lecture in Christopher Wild’s fairy tale course. I benefited immensely from the feedback they gave me. I also remember having conversations about teaching with both of them throughout my graduate career. They knew that teaching was my number one priority and really supported me throughout.

How has the pandemic affected instruction?

Students are already hesitant to speak in the language classroom. During the period of remote instruction, having to ask people to unmute themselves really made it more difficult to have these spontaneous exchanges or to call on people fluidly. And since coming back, the masks were challenging. We invested in a lot of these masks with transparent windows, which are very bizarre to look at, but we found that it did increase student comprehension when we wore them in class. But mostly I was just amazed by how innovative the instructors in our program are. They threw themselves into learning all sorts of new applications to increase students’ contact with the languages.

Do you have a favorite German word?

I just finished teaching German 103, and I started every class with a compound word, which the students found really amusing. I like the term Fernweh. Weh means “an ache or pain,” and fern means “far away.” So while the word Heimweh means “homesick”—a longing to be home—Fernweh is the opposite. You’re at home and you have a longing to be abroad, to be elsewhere. I think a lot of us in the pandemic are feeling acute Fernweh.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy Maeve Hooper