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Von Hammerstein promotes critical thinking
with interdisciplinary content

Katharina von Hammerstein dims the lights and an image of the Berlin Wall coming down appears on screen. Von Hammerstein teaches her class on German culture and civilization in reverse historical order, beginning with the present and tracing the themes back to post-World War II Germany.

"I start my lecture with recent history because most of it should be nothing new to my students," she says. "I want to provide them with content that they are comfortable with, before I lead them into a period they may not be familiar with."

Von Hammerstein's efforts to establish her students' confidence early on in class make it easy to see why she is one of this year's University Teaching Fellows.

In a potpourri course, as she calls it, literature, philosophy, art, music, politics, history and culture are integrated together. On this particular afternoon, a history lesson is appropriate, says von Hammerstein, an associate professor of modern and classical languages, because it will give students a better understanding of the novel they just read by German Democratic Republic writer, Ulrich Plenzdorf.

"Music, literature and art do not appear out of thin air," she says. "They are rooted in a historical period. I want my students to learn how the time in history affected the piece and how the piece tried to impact the people in its time."

By examining "the cultural phenomena" of different countries, "we learn to respect them, and we learn to appreciate the richness that the world has due to the fact that we have different cultural input," von Hammerstein says.

One way that we can tap into the "cultural phenomena," she says, is by examining paintings, viewing expressionist films and listening to speeches by politicians.

"This has made the class more interesting," says Lori Veit, a third semester communications science major. "It has brought the learning experience to life."

Keeping students motivated is a challenge, von Hammerstein says, so "I try to make them feel important and acknowledged for their contributions."

Positive reinforcement is the key, she says, adding that picking up on a student's comments to begin a discussion or even noticing a change in their appearance makes them feel appreciated as individuals, not anonymous numbers.

Von Hammerstein says she integrates interdisciplinary input into her classes to produce an atmosphere that stimulates critical thinking. "As a scholar of literature, I could never talk about Beethoven or the great German philosopher Nietzsche in great detail," she says, yet these two people are important to German culture. So she has invited faculty members from music and philosophy to come into her class and lecture about these two key figures.

"Interdisciplinary teaching and collaboration, along with the internationalization of the curriculum, are close to my heart," von Hammerstein says.

In 1993, she and some of her colleagues founded the Linkage Through Language (LTL) program, linking one-credit trailer sections in French, German and Russian with coursework in other disciplines such as political science, history and geography.

"It is one way to create opportunities for students to use their language skills in a non-language discipline," says von Hammerstein, who is also the program's director.

Since Linkage Through Language was launched five years ago, Hebrew and Spanish attached to courses in Judaic Studies and business, respectively, have been added.

UConn is one of only 20-30 institutions in the country that offer Language Across the Curriculum programs, she says.

LTL courses are taught by a faculty member from the language department and the regular course instructor. Students read and discuss selected foreign language texts related to the topic of the regular course. This semester an average of 10 students are enrolled for each of the six sections of LTL.

"We have to produce students that have interdisciplinary and intercultural skills in order to make them marketable," von Hammerstein says. "With the growth of the global economy, companies are interested in hiring graduates who are linguistically and culturally prepared to deal with representatives from other cultures - both inside and outside of this country."

Luis Mocete