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Volume 52, Number 24   February 28, 2005         

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People on Campus

Volker Langbehn: Creativity in the classroom
Photo of Volker LangbehnDeciding to teach at SFSU was "a no-brainer," Volker Langbehn says. "The University is unique in its ethnic structure -- I found that very enriching. Ethnic diversity -- I live it, breathe it."

Previously a visiting assistant professor of German at Iowa State University, Langbehn has spent the last three years at SFSU teaching undergraduate and graduate classes in German language and literature. He says he continues to seek new ways to approach his subject matter in the classroom. His latest course is a good example.

"The Holocaust and its Aftermath in Postwar Germany," a pilot course created with Associate Professor Ilona Vandergriff, debuted in the fall. Students in the course look at the Holocaust from a number of perspectives, beginning with those of its perpetrators. Texts including the Nuremberg trial transcripts are examined, as well as artwork, literature and documentary films.

"The freedom to be creative is one of the biggest assets professors have at this institution," Langbehn says. "This is a place where teachers can make something

An expert in 18th-20th century German literature, Langbehn grew up in a small, idyllic farming community in Germany far from city life. He worked as a counselor in summer camps and by age 15 knew that teaching was his calling.

In his early 20s, he refused to join the German Army, declared himself a conscientious objector and spent two years in alternative service with a German organization called Service for Peace. Langbehn did restoration work at both the Auschwitz and Mauthausen camps before he came to America to work as a kindergarten teacher in Boston. He went on to earn his master's degree in education at Cornell University, followed by a master's degree and Ph.D. in German literature from University of Minnesota.

Professor Vandergriff, who works closely with Langbehn at SFSU, says she appreciates his enthusiasm in the classroom. "He is one of the most energetic teachers I have ever seen," she says. "He is always questioning, assessing and re-evaluating his own teaching. Above all, he is absolutely dedicated to his students."

Alumna Kye Terrasi, a former student, concurs. "On many occasions I came to him for assistance with substantial projects, some of which were not directly related to his classes. Despite his demanding schedule and heavy course load, he invested time and effort beyond what was required and treated every project as if it were his first priority."

Ask Langbehn about his students and he says, "Their success is also my success."

First and foremost, Langbehn strives for connection with his students. "When I walk into the classroom, I need to form a bond," he says. "We need to be on the same plane of interest. It's not just understanding the subject matter but knowing why it's important ... why they should bother reading heavy German philosophy."

This semester, Langbehn is taking a break from teaching to conduct research in Germany for a forthcoming book. Recently awarded the SFSU Presidential Award for Professional Development of Probationary Faculty, Langbehn will examine historical documents and artifacts starting at the nation's founding in 1871 as he sets out to explore the question, "What is German?"

A self-described "sucker for books," the professor is a voracious reader. He's also a marathon runner and rower who enjoys a good physical workout in the gym. Every morning he reads The New York Times in the quiet before his children, Otto, 3, and Isabel, 4, wake up. The two towheaded toddlers keep him and his wife, Noreen, on their toes.

This spring Langbehn and his family will stay with his parents in Germany. While the professor spends his sabbatical working on a new book, his children will take classes at a nearby German school.

-- Adrianne Bee

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Last modified February 28, 2005, by the Office of Public Affairs & Publications