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German teacher's influence transcends mere words

  • She looks beyond language
    She looks beyond language  In nominating senior lecturer in German studies Jennifer Gully for the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, one student wrote that Gully “is dynamically creative in her approach to giving students a well-rounded knowledge of German that includes culture, film, current events, even comparing German freedom-of-speech laws to those in the United States.”  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award at William & Mary is not intended to honor a lifetime of educating students; rather, it is given annually to a younger member of the faculty who has demonstrated “through concern as a teacher and through character and influence, the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.”

However, if ever there was an exception to that guideline, 2019 recipient Jennifer Gully would be it.

Gully, a senior lecturer in German studies, will be honored at Miller Hall, Brinkley Commons, on Jan. 31 at 3:30 p.m. in a ceremony that is open to the public. Her nominators view it as appropriate recognition for a colleague who has had a lifelong passion for teaching, to the exclusion of all other occupations.

“I never even imagined a different kind of career for myself,” she said. “My mother likes telling that I have a younger sister and I always wanted to play teacher with her and her friends. Later on, I was always tutoring; I had summer jobs teaching summer school fairly early on. When I got to university, I very soon got a job teaching at the university as an undergrad. It was always natural.”

A native of Vienna, Austria, who lived her first nine years in the predominantly Italian New York borough of Queens, Gully has taught at all levels of the curriculum since coming to W&M in 2013, from Beginning Intermediate German to a senior seminar. She pioneered Advanced Intermediate German, an accelerated course combining German 201 and 202 into a single semester.

“Jennifer Gully is one of our most gifted and knowledgeable instructors,” colleague and Associate Professor Robert Leventhal wrote in nominating her. “Her methods reemphasize student agency, spontaneous speaking, deep cultural understanding, serious intellectual engagement and interpersonal understanding. ... We are truly fortunate to have her as a member of the German Studies Program.”

Leventhal added that although he did not seek student input on Gully’s abilities, they “freely told me how wonderful Professor Gully is, how much she cares about their work and how determined she is to give the students a great experience learning German.”

Assignment: A language autobiography

That determination begins with an assignment she calls “Language Autobiography,” a presentation which first entails having students think about the languages in their life. Their excuses gush forth.

“Most of the time, students are like ‘I don’t know. My family doesn’t speak any foreign languages. We never learned anything. We’ve never traveled,’” Gully said, bemused. “But when they come back a couple of weeks later and give their presentations, they realize that’s not quite correct. They might find an aunt who studied languages or traveled abroad. They very often have grandparents they didn’t know had lived abroad or were stationed somewhere around the world with the military.”

She then asks why they are taking German to fulfill their language requirement, when they started learning German, what other foreign languages were taught or offered in their schools, what languages did they hear spoken around them growing up?

“That very quickly leads to the people who speak these languages,” she said. “When I was in New York, all of my neighbors were Italian. I didn’t think about it when I was young, but as I got older, I learned immigration history, why they settled there. I ask the same of my students, that they research a little bit about the different ethnic and language communities that existed where they grew up, and that they learn about these movements.”

That rigor led one student to write that Gully “is dynamically creative in her approach to giving students a well-rounded knowledge of German that includes culture, film, current events, even comparing German freedom-of-speech laws to those in the United States.”

The latter occurred after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. Gully joined with other modern languages and literature members to draft a course titled After Charlottesville: Perspectives on Right-Wing Violence and the New Fascisms, in which she showed students that other Western democracies take different approaches to hate-filled rhetoric.

She has also taught an upper-level course in which she outlined the relevance of Germany’s Nazi past and the Holocaust to today’s reception of migrants, and another in which she stripped away the stereotypical view of Germans as cold and methodical.

“It’s an extremely multicultural and multilingual state right now,” Gully said.

That caused one student to write, “She knows her subject so thoroughly that no matter how difficult or daunting it may be, she finds ways to make it learnable.”

Addressing the language phobia

Another student wrote that, “She guides students through whatever phobia they may have about learning foreign languages.”

That phobia is an issue that Gully said she hears from more American students than those anywhere else she’s traveled. She believes the reason is that learning something other than English hasn’t been emphasized as much in the U.S. as elsewhere. There’s also the speed-learning approach to language-learning that gives people unrealistic expectations.

“They’ve seen these ads for Babbel and others,” she said. “The people who buy these programs say, ‘Oh, I bought this piece of software and went through the whole thing, and now I’m fluent in this language.’ It doesn’t work that way. I tell my students it’s a process, a long, drawn-out process. ... It’s more like a sport; you have to keep practicing it. What’s important to me is that we don’t need to aspire to become native speakers, though a lot of students do achieve that. But the goal in language learning is to become aware of how languages work, of other languages and to connect it to other ways of organizing your life and organizing culture.”

Numerous students cited Gully’s influence on them as being so great that instead of merely fulfilling a language requirement they have continued studying German. At the same time, some students cited her work with them as undergraduate teacher’s assistants as one reason they sought — and were better prepared than most of the competition — for Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships in Germany.

“That’s why it’s important to me that students learn about the countries and the people who speak these languages and what’s going on there, in order for them to become more interested to travel there,” Gully said. “That’s really heartwarming when we have a graduate who is going to move to Germany and spend a couple of years there because of what they learned here from us.

“That’s why we teach; that’s why we do what we do. If you can inspire somebody to explore an area that they were not thinking about before and find meaning in it and find interest in it and potentially even make it their career, there’s no greater reward.”