What skills do students need to critically navigate the world around them today, given the ubiquity of the digital?

This question is at the forefront of my mind as an instructor of both German as a foreign language and literature & visual culture courses at Penn State. My overarching goal is to create a classroom community in which students can practice critical and comparative thinking about relations between themselves, others, and the texts, devices, and overarching structures with and through which they interact with the world. Thus, my approach to teaching promotes interdisciplinarity, fosters community building, and prioritizes adaptability.

Students’ lives are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, insofar as students must rely on multiple literacies to navigate the complex physical and digital spaces making up their everyday. 

Thus, as an instructor, I promote interdisciplinarity in teaching languages and literature. When teaching German, I have my students think through their preconceived notions of Germanness, and how such notions are constructed through trans-Atlantic social, economic, and cultural formations. In all my courses, I have students engage authentic texts in the form of podcasts, articles, and videos from international news outlets, museums, academic journals, and even social media influencers. An example from my German 3 course includes an activity on street art in Hamburg, in which students virtually explored the city, described artworks, and analyzed artists’ language use on social media. Such activities provide students opportunities to practice vocabulary, express opinions, apply course concepts, and think critically about authority and authorship in sources they encounter every day, be it on social media or in the classroom.

Big conversations about big issues do not happen without a sense of trust and community.

I foster community in the classroom by keeping an open channel of communication with my students, which in turn lowers student stress and ensures my accessibility. My teacher evaluation reports reflect my students’ gratitude for this, and they describe me as down-to-earth, enthusiastic, and patient. Maintaining instructor presence and a sense of compassion is especially important when teaching online and in hybrid modes of instruction, as necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  I use class-wide discussion boards for students to share study strategies, questions, headlines, and even memes related to course topics; these discussions often spill over into class time, supplementing my lessons and fostering interpersonal connections among students. Small group work also gets students collaborating, and in both language and literature classes, students and I create PowerPoints through cloud sharing to highlight and present key topics in class. This method allows seamless feedback amid the protection of a small group setting while giving students command over course materials. Importantly, I am always asking students for their feedback, and I try whenever possible to incorporate their ideas and interests into upcoming lesson plans.

I prioritize adaptability in course and lesson design.

Namely, how can I accommodate students’ needs and interests (and, during COVID-19, ensure students’ safety) while fulfilling department course objectives? Taking into account students’ majors, I find that offering flexible multimedia projects (like VoiceThread city tours and coding interactive stories with Twine) allows my students to apply and reorient themselves to skills necessary in their own fields. Penn State also offers plenty of hidden gems for student learning, and through collaborations with student organizations (like German Club and DDR Club) and university spaces (like the Immersive Experience Lab), I help students get hands-on with their learning, make community connections, and realize the opportunities offered to them by a liberal arts education.