Germanic and Slavic Studies Department Newsletter - Fall 2020

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Table of Contents

  1. Greetings from the Chair
  2. Coping with COVID-19: The Students' Perspective
  3. Coping with COVID-19: Faculty and Staff
  4. "Don't teach. Facilitate." - Interview with James Skidmore
  5. The Sommer Letters as Experiential Learning Opportunity
  6. Research Feature: A German Classic at Stratford Festival
  7. Alumni Interview
  8. Congratulations!

Greetings from the Chair

Dear Readers:Chair of the GSS Department Michael Boehringer

We are happy to present the 2020 Fall edition of the Germanic and Slavic Department’s Newsletter. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, life at the university and  in our department has changed dramatically, but as you will see, not always for the worse. The faculty  have made tremendous efforts to smooth the transition from in-person to online learning for our students. Luckily, there is lots of expertise in online learning in GSS,  a valuable resource  when embarking  on this journey. As the interview with Prof. James Skidmore demonstrates there is plenty of opportunity to develop cutting edge online courses.

Many of us struggled with the isolation brought on by the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. Happily, the nice summer weather allowed us to rekindle old hobbies and to find alternative ways of interacting with each other, including an online graduation ceremony for our graduate students and a fun beginning of term get-together (virtually, of course), that was organized by graduate representative, Erica Swyers, graduate student Jana Koepke and graduate officer Prof. Ann Marie Rasmussen. Seeing everyone on the Zoom screen made me realize how much I value the person-to-person interactions with colleagues, the laughter emanating from the shared graduate student office  next to my department office, and just  being in a classroom with students. It’s the human contact, the great people and supportive working atmosphere that make our department so special -- and that can lead to unexpected outcomes, as you can read in the alumni section of this newsletter.

Please get in touch and let us know how you have been keeping up. We enjoy hearing  from you and want to  feature your stories and experiences in an upcoming newsletter.

I close by thanking  Prof. Grit Liebscher and IcGs student Katharina Scholl for all their work on this newsletter. Katharina has been instrumental in bringing this year’s newsletters to you. She will be returning to Mannheim to complete her degree and we’ll miss her enthusiasm and gentle forcefulness in reminding all of us of looming deadlines.

Stay safe and well.


Michael Boehringer, Chair

Coping with COVID-19: The students' perspective

Author: Katharina Scholl

In March 2020, GSS moved all classes and activities online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Undergrad classes were continued asynchronously (meaning that there were no virtual, face-to-face-like, skype or zoom activities) and remotely (i.e. online). Graduate courses were delivered synchronously via meetings on video platforms. Students had many different reactions as they encountered these new forms of instruction.

Transitioning to online courses

The transition to online courses was unexpected but well executed, said Regan Kat, who in the spring 2020 was an Honours Arts student. Halle Lander, Honours Arts student, agreed and added that some parts of her classes could have used some more experimentation and finetuning, in particular the group discussion tools in her asynchronous courses. For Erica Swyers, PhD student, it was a little strange at first to see her fellow students and professors through a video screen in weekly Zoom meetings and she noted that she found it a lot more difficult to participate in class discussions in the online format. Alexander Held, IcGS grad student, was surprised that he found himself engaging in discussions more than before, because the online graduate seminars, which met synchronously, had a chattier vibe.

Most students agreed that the move from in-person to online classes and social events was the biggest change they encountered. Regan highlighted that she was relieved not to have to make major changes to her plan of study because she was able to finish her last few courses online. Sam Schirm (PhD student), however, mentioned that he had to re-plan aspects of his research for the remainder of his PhD. Finding and maintaining a new routine while staying mostly at home has been challenging for some students because even a trip to the grocery store suddenly felt like a big excursion. One student pointed out that the side-by-side writing sessions offered by the department via Zoom or Skype supported getting some hours of work done daily.

The impact of COVID-19 on students’ studies

For Alexander, the feeling of the world being “on hold” made motivating himself difficult. Erica agreed that the general loss of a routine was challenging; it was also a research challenge not to be able to access library books. Sam mentioned that not being able to undertake research travel impacted his PhD heavily. For Halle and Regan, the biggest impact was finishing their degrees online and not being able to attend their fall convocation in person. Erica mentioned that her presentation at a University of Toronto conference was moved online, and for Sam two conferences were pushed forward to next year. Lena Schneider, IcGS grad student, modified her plans and is now revising a seminar paper into a blogpost instead of presenting it at a conference.

LEARN, the UW online library databases, and Google Drive became even more important for students and video conferencing tools such as Zoom became a big part of their lives. “Before COVID-19 I had only used Zoom once or twice, and now I’m quite familiar with it. It seems the days of Skype are gone”, said Regan. Other apps students found useful include productivity apps such as Forest or Freedom that lock your phone or computer screen to avoid distractions and open-source citation managers such as Zotero. Students also found themselves doing research with the help of online journals more than before.

Baking bread and other quarantine activities

Many students decided to revive forgotten hobbies, such as playing instruments, reading, crafting, or running. Another popular activity was catching up with old friends or friends who live far away.  Netflix Party or Jackbox were popular apps for engaging in online activities with friends. Halle has been volunteering to teach children English online via a non-profit called Better Life Vietnam and she has started learning Vietnamese on Duolingo. There have been some “cliché quarantine activities” as well, as Halle called them, such as cutting your hair, baking bread, and buying lots of stuff on Amazon.

Hang in there!

Working from home has made everyone realize the value of personal interactions and that it is important to take good care of your physical and your mental health. The pandemic has brought many challenges and uncertainties, but we mustn’t forget that we are all in this together, and that we are all looking forward to returning to campus one day!

For the Fall term 2020, GSS will continue to offer side-by-side writing sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 10:00-12:30. If you would like to participate, please contact


Coping with COVID-19: Faculty and Staff

Author: Grit Liebscher

GSS faculty and staff have experienced COVID-19 times in much the same way as students: finding themselves at home instead of presenting on their research at international conferences; postponing  summer research plans when fall online course development was pressing on them;  acclimatizing themselves to using online conference tools for communicating with students and colleagues.

Michael Boehringer has learnt a lot about online learning pedagogy and the technological aspects of remote asynchronous teaching and learning. It has been a steep learning curve, but now he feels confident about delivering a good online learning experience to UW students. In order to combat screen fatigue, he has spent some time hiking in Algonquin Park, with no technology more complex than a map and compass. 

Katja Czarnecki has been enjoying the wave petunias on her porch and the tomatoes and beans in her garden, which are thriving because Katja's family is not in Europe for part of the summer this year.

Alice Kuzniar has embraced the time for reflection and mindful "Entschleunigung" that COVID-19 restrictions have brought with them.  She bikes and walks everywhere in KW and continues to cultivate her garden.  She wistfully hopes that certain changes  brought about by the onset of the pandemic, such as less fossil fuel consumption, especially in long distance travel, will become permanent in people's daily lives.

Grit Liebscher learned that making sourdough bread is not only a savory and meditative experience but one that lets you test the patience of your friends who may or may not continue with the hand-me-down sourdough starter. If they do, you have started a bond that could last a life-time!  

Paul Malone renovated a back room into a new bedroom for his middle daughter. He has also taken a lot of naps and reads a lot, so much so that the border between napping and reading has become somewhat fluid.

Ann Marie Rasmussen went on a major home cleaning spree in April and May, from vacuuming the drapes to cleaning the garage. Alas she has now returned to her normal, laissez-faire, housekeeping ways.

Barbara Schmenk has resumed her childhood habit of counting planes in the sky. She is currently putting the final touches on her work on the PIF (pandemic insanity factor), which measures the complex correlation of orange despair, zoom-fatigue and spontaneous dog cuddles.

Skid (James Skidmore) realized that if he is ever placed under house arrest, he’ll be able to survive the sentence.

Andrea Speltz has been trying to reconcile the gratitude she feels for her ability to work from home and spend extra time with her kids with the sadness she harbours from knowing that not everyone has experienced the pandemic in this same carefree manner. Her heart goes out to the students who have had to take jobs at the local grocery store to pay their tuition and to those who fear or grieve the loss of their loved ones. 

Janet Vaughan has been working from home since early March and has had to learn some new technologies that she did not know before, which she thinks is a good thing at her age! You are never too old to learn!

"Don't teach. Facilitate." - Interview with James Skidmore

Author: Vanessa Karl

Director of the Waterloo Centre for German Studies and Professor James Skidmore

Professor James Skidmore is an Associate Professor of German Studies at the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, specialized in literary and film studies, and the Director of the Waterloo Centre for German Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is also a great teacherand an expert in online teaching and learning! He has designed and frequently teaches German Culture courses (e.g. GER 271 and 272) and is currently teaching his new graduate course: Online Teaching and Learning.

Due to the increasing digitization of our society and the current COVID-19 pandemic, changes in teaching methods – including online teaching – have become inevitable. One of the changes James Skidmore aimed at “was to move away from really didactic teaching” by providing the students with material from different sources and making use of discussion forms to give students the possibility to come together and discuss the material. Hereby, students get a feeling of actively contributing to the course and its content. “[Y]ou can really emphasize to the students the notion that you can engage with this stuff directly, and I’ll work with you on it and I’ll assist you with it and I’ll engange with you on it as well.”

The students’ direct contact with the material is one of two elements that he considers to be of crucial importance. The other is supporting students in becoming independent learners that are able to think and evaluate critically. Asked about the differences between classroom and online teaching, he points out that they are not as different as people may think. “A teacher or an instructor brings a bunch of material together and presents it to the students and engages with the students on that material. You can do that in a classroom. You can do that online.”

The chosen medium and the mediated way of communicating in online teaching is what makes the biggest difference. Regarding instructors, teaching online requires more organization than classroom teaching. One of the reasons for that is the necessary pre-planning for the online course, another is the amount of material that can be provided, as the time is not as limited as in classroom teaching. Also, the instructors themselves are no longer “the focal point”, which shifts to the content of the course, under the premise that the course is not moved from meetings in person to meetings online but that the chosen medium is used to its full capacity. The amount of material and the mediated way of communicating also force students to be more organized and to “engage with that content directly and come to terms with it themselves in some way.”

Asked about the way online teaching should change in the future, he answers that more capacity for collaboration and communication on different levels is essential, from gathering information to brainstorming and presenting. For those new to online teaching, James Skidmore points out that while at first it may seem more difficult, once instructors become proficient with the apps and software they’re using, it isn’t more complicated than classroom teaching. “There’s only going to be more technology in our lives and we have to be able to use it so that we can use it in the right way.” According to Professor Skidmore, we should look at it as a challenge and a possibility to acquire new knowledge, be more creative in our future teaching – online or classroom – and be better prepared for similar situations in the future.

If you want to know more, you will find lots of his ideas on the subject on his website:

The Sommer Letters as Experiential Learning Opportunity

Author: Grit Liebscher

Over the last few years, the Department of Germanic & Slavic Studies has implemented unique learning opportunities for our students in the form of experiential learning: “the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities” (UW Center for Teaching Excellence). I had the chance to undertake one such opportunity in the winter of 2020 as part of The Sommer letter project, which I designed and which was funded by a UW Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement (LITE) grant.

The project is centered around transcribing and translating letters from the University of Waterloo Library’s Sommer Family Fonds (pdf), which contains a large collection of personal correspondence (mostly letters) between members of the Sommer family in Canada and in Germany. The letters in the collection (in the amount of 1.1m of binders, approximately 6,000 pages of correspondence) start in 1918 and continue to 2008, documenting the family’s migration to Canada in 1954 and spanning multiple decades of historical events, recounted and commented on by various generations.

One of the Sommer letters, first partOne of the Sommer letters, second part

Some select letters formed the basis for an experiential learning project in the course GER 262/REES 262 “Multilingualism,” for which students worked in groups of two or three to read, select, transcribe, and translate the letters. The transcription and translation processes are not straightforward; they involve decoding of handwriting and low-frequency utterances, applying historical, contextual and local knowledge, interpreting across languages and cultures, and drawing on different factual and procedural expertise among team members. In order to prepare to translate, students were introduced to the UW Porter Library’s Special Collections & Archives and in particular to the ways in which objects such as The Sommer Fonds have been obtained, organized, and stored by librarians.

The project is also accompanied with a research component. As part of this research, I will investigate how the experiential learning component contributes to students’ skill sets, in particular to the translation process and to transcultural learning. I will also learn about the educational benefits of different kinds of collaborative work, for example across different kinds and levels of professional experience (e.g., librarians, instructors, graduate, and undergraduate students) and across different language backgrounds and expertise among students. Overall, I hope to understand what steps are necessary to implement experiential learning in the context of language and transcultural learning, for this and other projects.

Experiential learning in times of COVID-19 limits our movements and face-to-face interaction with others but being together in a room will return at some point. In the meantime, or as an alternative, projects such as the one described here could be transferred to a virtual environment, with groups using online tools to interact and work with each other. In fact, such tools have long been used by researchers and professionals for collaborative work when close proximity is not possible. In this work, the most important aspect is working together to building on each others’ strengths and knowledge and that, we can do.

Research Feature: A German Classic at Stratford Festival

Author: Andrea Speltz

From May 25th to October 19th 2019, Nathan the Wise directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte was performed at the Stratford Festival. The play is one of two that are at the center of attention for one of our professors: Andrea Speltz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies specialized in literary and cultural studies with a particular focus on the European Enlightenment and the history of educational ideas.

Professor Andrea SpeltzIn this newsletter’s edition, she tells us about her latest research involving the play:

“My most recent research project is titled “Multicultural Politics at the Stratford Festival: Birgit Schreyer-Duarte’s Nathan the Wise and Antoni Cimolino’s Birds of a Kind.” The Germans would call this a piece of Rezeptionsgeschichte (reception history). My colleague, Jörg Esleben (University of Ottawa), and I started the project with a very simple question: what does Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s classic play Nathan der Weise (1779) [Nathan the Wise] mean to Canadians in 2019? To answer this question, we interviewed members of the creative team (i.e., actors and directors), developed an online questionnaire for the audience, kept track of the professional reviews, and looked at the production itself.

What we found after all of this data collection was that Nathan the Wise was being used, quite productively I think, to work through the tensions between various Canadian understandings of multiculturalism (e.g., liberal universalism/ cosmopolitanism and hard pluralism/ identity politics). Our thesis statement, if you will, is that Schreyer Duarte’s Nathan the Wise and its companion piece Cimolino’s Birds of a Kind feature manifold engagements (both critical and aesthetic) with multicultural politics and present Canadian multiculturalism as a fluid, discursive practice rather than a uniform ideology. In order to flesh out this argument, we develop a conceptual framework for talking about multiculturalism by plotting the theories of Kwame Anthony Appiah, Will Kymlicka, and Bhikhu Parekh along a universal-pluralist continuum. We then show how the creative team, audience, and reviewers at Stratford Festival reflect, and challenge, a wide range of theoretical assumptions in their theatrical practices.

Many of the theoretical debates around multiculturalism assume that cosmopolitanism and identity politics are irreconcilable positions. But we found that the actors, directors, and audience members at Stratford Festival saw these ostensibly irreconcilable theories as the framework for a productive dialogue, as complementary tools in their pursuit of social and racial justice. The director who wants to remind her audience of the “common humanity project” also uses ethnicity as a factor in her casting decisions. The actor who was hired, in part, because he represents a Middle Eastern linguistic and ethnic group lobbies for his right to perform in the lingua franca. For most Canadians (not all), Lessing’s classic Nathan the Wise represents a productive back-and-forth between the universal and the particular, between what humans have in common and what sets them apart from one another.”

Alumni Interview: Danielle and Kyle Scholz

Author: Katharina Scholl

Danielle and Kyle Scholz met during their studies at the Department of Germanic & Slavic Studies in 2006. Besides finding each other, the department was also the starting point for their careers.

Danielle completed her undergrad degree in the Arts & Business program in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo with a major in German and a specialization in Human Resources on the business side. In 2010, she finished her Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Wilfrid Laurier University. Today, Danielle is a project manager for a Canadian insurance company, though she had started her career in HR after graduating. She explains: “I ended up drifting more and more towards HR projects and finally switched over to project management. I thought that I would stay in HR and love HR, but now I love project management.”

Kyle completed a BA, MA, and PhD in German in GSS  with a focus on applied linguistics and second language development. Against his expectations, Kyle did not go into a faculty position but he has found a career at university. Now, Kyle works as an educational developer for research and consulting at the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) at the University of Waterloo. “The CTE basically helps faculty and staff teach better”, he explains. Kyle works with faculty members who want to educate themselves about research into teaching and to improve their teaching through evidence-based practice. He also organizes the annual University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference. He likes  that his job allows him to both  teach and undertake research while being able to maintain a family life and a healthy work life balance. “Where I am right now has the best of both worlds.”

Danielle and Kyle agree that GSS taught them valuable lessons for their work lives. Kyle says he really benefitted from the teaching experience at the department, which got his foot in the door at the CTE. He highlights soft skills  such as the ability to write and communicate effectively, which help him with what he does now.

Danielle and Kyle ScholzDanielle particularly highlighted study abroad experiences in Germany strengthening her ability to be empathetic and to interact with different people. “I think the reason why I have done well is because of the personal side of things and my life experience from having lived in another country.”

Kyle and Danielle look back fondly on their time at the department. They were active in the German Club, met fellow students from Germany and Canada and, of course – each other. They enjoyed the department’s strong sense of community. “In my undergrad years it was almost like family”, Danielle says, “In this department, you’re not just a number.” Kyle agrees: “I thoroughly enjoyed especially my PhD in GSS. My PhD supervisor Mat Schulze made a lot of things happen for me.”

Do they have any tips for current GSS students? “Get involved in different units across the university. Take advantage of opportunities, go on exchange, fully immerse yourself. Not everything you experience has to be a career builder. Things can be a life builder and you grow from that.”

If you have more questions for Danielle and Kyle, or just want to chat, feel free to reach out via email at:


Last but not least, we want to congratulate students who completed an MA or PhD in recent months. We are very proud of your achievements!

PhD:  Mario Hirstein, Friederike Schlein, Ryan Carroll

IcGS MA:  Konrad Gaerdes, Laura Kronauer, Elizabeth Milne, Nicole Orminski, Anna Rohmann, Nadja Schuhmacher, Mareike Wagner, Caroline Wolfhard


The editorial team of the 2020 GSS Newsletter consists of: Prof. Grit Liebscher and Katharina Scholl.

Any comments, ideas or feedback are always welcome! Please contact the GSS Newsletter team at

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