The Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies was officially founded on July 1, 1960 as the Department of German and Russian. In 1960, the Faculty of Arts admitted its first students into three-year general and four-year honours programs in History, English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Economics, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology. Students were able to take German and Russian in combination with each other or with English or French.
It was the eastern European Mennonite connections of our department’s first two professors, founding chair J. William Dyck and Edmund Heier, both Germanists and Slavists, that combined the studies of German and Russian within the department as it is still continued today. Including J.W. Dyck (1960-73, 1978-83) we have had a total of seven departmental chairs Manfred Richter (1973-78, 1992-95), David John (1983-86, 1995-2002), Sigfried Hoefert (1986-1992), Michael Boehringer (2002-2008), James Skidmore (2008-2012) and Grit Liebscher (2012 - Present).
The department was founded under the name of German and Russian, but during the 1965-1966 academic year Ukrainian courses were added and in 1969 the name was changed to the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures. To further strengthen this dual focus, courses in Polish (1976-1977), Dutch (1979-1980) and Croatian (1989-1990) were added to the department’s undergraduate calendar offerings. Our name was changed again in 2001, to become the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, re-confirming the historical association between our two founding disciplines, but re-defining the concept of what our discipline should be. This broader designation encompassed more courses in cultural and film studies, in both Germanic and Slavic languages and in English.
The tradition of a dual focus in both the Germanic and Slavic areas is also evident in the departmental journal, Germano-Slavica: A Canadian Journal of Germanic and Slavic Comparative and Interdisciplinary Studies. Founded in 1973, Germano-Slavica reflects the productive synthesis of our principal disciplines in a refereed periodical with a comparative/interdisciplinary profile. The journal in many ways symbolizes the department’s history and nature by combining Germanic and Slavic studies and scholarship, and is unique in Canada.
The department’s ongoing exchange with the University of Mannheim is the oldest of its kind in Canada. Jointly founded in 1972, by Professors Dyck and Dietrich Jöns of the University of Mannheim, it involves the exchange of both students and faculty from each side. At the same time as the Waterloo in Germany exchange program was introduced, the department initiated one of the earliest Canadian study abroad programs in Russia. From 1971 until 1989 we offered an opportunity for students to travel abroad to Russia through the Russian Summer Workshop. The workshop allowed students to participate in language acquisition and cultural comprehension programs during six weeks of classroom instruction and three further weeks (later extended to four) abroad in the former Soviet Union.
The 1990s saw the passing of our founders and original faculty members into retirement. With the addition of new faculty in the new millennium have come some new ideas. The department has become a leader in innovative online learning, making great use of the 21st-century technology to instruct students. In 2004 the Waterloo Centre for German Studies was founded. This research and cultural institute has a private endowment of approximately $3 million, and these funds are used to sponsor research activity, book publications, conferences at the university, and cultural events for the university and community. The department has also become home of the Rt. Hon. John G. Diefenbaker Chair in German Literary Studies. This endowed chair supports the activity of a distinguished scholar to promote and enhance the presences of German literature and literary studies in Canada.
Much of this summary is based on J.W. Dyck’s The Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures: A Retrospection (Waterloo, 1994), David G. John’s History of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Waterloo (CAUTG/APAUC Bulletin, 2004), and departmental records.