Teaching Stories

Barbara Schmenk: Cultural Immersion

Barbara Schmenk

Barbara Schmenk, Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies

Written by Sarah Forbes, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE. 

Barbara Schmenk has always wanted to be a teacher. In her 22 years of teaching experience, she has taught at secondary schools and universities in Germany, as well as at the University of Waterloo. “I find that Canadian universities are the perfect blend of research and teaching,” says Schmenk. Her research focuses on language education and linguistics, areas that she draws upon when she teaches courses like Language Culture and Identity. “Language use is tied so much to culture,” says Schmenk. “When you learn a new language, it allows you to explore so many new worlds.” In order to do so, Schmenk advocates for learning through exchanges, and immersing oneself not only in new languages but in new cultures.

In the joint German Studies MA program that her department pioneered with the University of Mannheim, students spend one year at each university, allowing German students to immerse themselves in Canadian culture, and Canadian students to experience Germany from the inside. This program, which began in 2011, is the only Canadian-German joint degree program in German Studies, formed from the longest running Canadian-German exchange. Students in this program work in both countries (they receive work permits as needed), thereby gaining an abundance of intercultural experience that prepares them for careers in almost any field.

Schmenk admits that one of the hardest parts of her job is recruiting students to study languages. “They tend not to realize how many careers a German major can prepare you for,” she says. But studying another language, she says, helps develop important “soft skills” such as interpersonal skills and creative problem-solving. Such skills are invaluable for any student.

Confidence, says Schmenk, is another skill that students develop while studying languages. “Often they come into the classroom convinced that they are simply ‘not good’ at learning languages. Watching them go on to mature and succeed is one of my favourite parts of teaching.” Fabienne Hargreeves, a former student, agrees: “Professor Schmenk is one of the best instructors I've had for a variety of reasons,” she said. ”Not only does she ensure that the material is engaging for students, but she also ensures active participation in developing the new language for students. She is incredibly empathetic and understanding, and therefore creates a positive and safe learning environment for all students. She genuinely cares about the success of each student and supports them in every way she can.”

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CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include the following: