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.
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 (2002-08, 2018-22), James Skidmore (2008-2012) and Grit Liebscher (2012 - 18).
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.
In 2018, we introduced a minor-concentration in Cultural Identities in conjunction with our colleagues from the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies, with plans to expand this truly interdisciplinary program in the future. The Cultural Identities program focuses on the complex role culture plays in the formation, negotiation, and interpretation of individual and group identities. It draws on the research and teaching strengths of the two departments, which integrate different approaches to cultural analysis and have developed a particular emphasis on transcultural perspectives, while adding complementary perspectives from other departments and programs.
Jointly founded in 1972, by Professors Dyck and Dietrich Jöns of the University of Mannheim, the department’s ongoing exchange with the University of Mannheim is the oldest of its kind in Canada, involving 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 in the former Soviet Union.
More recently, the department has fostered new programs that provide students with the necessary linguistic and cultural skills to succeed in our globalized societies. In 2015, the first cohort of students arrived in the historic city of Bamberg for an intense 5-week study abroad program.
In 2011, the new Master in Intercultural German Studies, the first fully integrated, transatlantic joint-degree program on the MA-level between a German and Canadian university, was accredited. This pioneering program is offered in conjunction with the Universität Mannheim and is viewed as a model for joint international educational ventures in the humanities. Building on the success of the joint Masters’ program, the department initiated a joint cotutelle-de-thèse PhD program with the Universität Mannheim, and graduated its first “double doctor” in 2016.
The 1990s saw the passing of our founders and original faculty members into retirement. With the addition of new faculty in the new millennium came new ideas and new program developments. The department has become a leader in innovative online learning, making great use of the current instructional technology to aid student learning. Today, it features a full complement of language courses, culture course in English, as well as an increasing number of courses in Cultural Identities.
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 student travel abroad, research activity, book publications, conferences and workshops, 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.
With information from 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.