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Excellence in Teaching: Mary Rhiel, Associate Professor of German

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
August 5, 2009

Mary E. Rhiel
“I know a language class is working when we're operating in German and someone makes a joke and everyone laughs."
Photo: Perry Smith, Photo Services

Mary Rhiel calls finding her way to teaching German a historical accident.

In Wisconsin, where Rhiel grew up, knowing a second language was viewed as exotic. Of course, the notion fascinated her. After earning her bachelor's degree, Rhiel bought a one-way ticket to Europe and vowed not to leave until she was fluent—at the time, in what language didn't matter.

Eventually she studied at the renowned Goethe Institute. Then she landed a job with a company where she heard and spoke German daily. And that was that.
"I loved speaking German," Rhiel says. "When I came home three years later, I went to the University of Wisconsin to get a degree."

What Rhiel loves about teaching—language, literature, and film courses—is the insights she gets from her students.

"Learning a new language along with its critical vocabulary takes real commitment," Rhiel says. "I know a language class is working when we're operating in German and someone makes a joke and everyone laughs. The class congeals and the students are really communicative. That's magic."

A past chair of the President's Task Force on the First Year Experience, Rhiel has an affinity for students just starting out. And she, too, continues to be adventurous. She's a founding member of the European cultural studies major, cofounder of the cinema studies minor, and a well-regarded scholar of German filmmaking.

"I've always had my fingers in film," says Rhiel. "Films are a link to what's going on in history. Students learn how various techniques—like lighting—are used to create meaning. Films are a way to understand a particular moment in time."

German films offer an alternative perspective, giving students the chance to see their own culture in another light. "The goal," says Rhiel, "is to get students actively involved, to relax and try new things whether that's language or ideas."

"Be it second-language methodologies, film, or literary texts," says Lori Hopkins, associate professor of Spanish, "Professor Rhiel's approach to teaching always resists falling into a pattern."

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