The secret lives of our profs: Associate Professor of German Brent Peterson

Rachel Young

Brent O. Peterson is an associate professor of German and has worked at Lawrence since 2002. Peterson received his undergraduate degree in history from Johns Hopkins University, and earned his doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He has lived and taught in Germany, and is very interested in German self-identity, as reflected by his book “History, Fiction, and Germany: Writing the 19th Century Nation.” In addition to teaching German, Peterson also started the film studies department at Lawrence.


RY: How did you become interested in learning German?

BP: Well, it was sort of a series of accidents. It wasn’t really a plan. It was so many things — a lot of life is just showing up, and it was a series of coincidences that led me to German, but it has really worked out. That’s part of being a liberal arts graduate too, you have to prepare yourself and then be ready for what happens afterwards.

I didn’t start learning German until I was a junior in college, which is scary to most people because I should have grown up with German speaking parents or at least started studying it in high school. I was the first person from my family to go to college, so I didn’t get much advice pertaining to what I should do.

Anyway, German wasn’t my original focus when I started college. I was originally a history major during my undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University and wasn’t quite sure what to do afterwards, so I took some time off during graduate school to learn more German. I ended up teaching in Germany for five years. Something with German just clicked with me, and the first time I went to Germany and took advanced language classes, I just fell in love with everything. When I went back to graduate school, I went back for German.

After my time in Germany, I realized there were many goals I wanted to achieve, and that German would be more helpful in reaching them than history would. So, I ended up getting my Ph.D. in German from the University of Minnesota. I was very fortunate to have a series of good jobs related to German after I graduated from Minnesota, and I jumped at the chance to come to Lawrence and teach German in 2002.

RY: What do you like about teaching German at Lawrence?

BP: Lawrence has good students that are interested in serious issues. In my classes, we can look at important questions in German culture, such as what it means to be German, especially in light of migration issues. We can talk about the Holocaust in a serious way, and we can think about German unification and the development of modernism in Germany. You can’t do that type of academic work if you don’t have students who are interested in going deeply into a subject.

RY: You teach a class that is somewhere between advanced German and intermediate. What’s that about?

BP: Well, I actually call this class — affectionately — “German Boot Camp.” I tell students that in order to get into the upper division of learning a language you need to be able to read more. This class is called Reading Texts and Contexts, so in the course of a term, we read two novels, a bit of nonfiction, watch a film, read some poetry and finish with a play. We pack all of this into 10 weeks, and at the end of it, whatever students might think about some of the books, [they] say that they read a lot faster than they did before.

They say that the class forces them not to translate, but to read the text directly in German, because there is no way to translate so much material for comprehension. I see huge progress in students because of this, especially when students say that when they read these same texts in the future that they don’t struggle with them as much and find them more manageable.

RY: You have another class that you love to teach; can you talk about that?

BP: Yes, I teach a class called Berlin: Experiencing a Great City. It’s an intermediate course designed to get people to Germany for the first time, and it gets students over that initial fear of being abroad. They realize that an abroad experience is manageable.

During the course, we study Berlin, and then we go to Berlin as a class for 10 days. Each of the days is a relatively long walking tour of the city, and a different student is responsible for leading a tour each day. I tell them when it’s their turn, and they get us to the start of the tour and lead us around all day. They explain to the class what we’re seeing.

I always tell them before we leave, “It will be great fun, but bring some sturdy shoes!” The students realize that Berlin is a fabulous city, and many of them afterwards realize that the idea of studying in Berlin for a semester or a year is not all that intimidating anymore.

RY: What is your favorite place in Germany?

BP: Berlin! It’s a very livable city; everything you could want is going on there. For a capital of one of the world’s most important countries, it’s also cheap! For example, there is a restaurant that has a substantial five-course meal with great food for 30 Euros!

RY: Germany isn’t known for their food, but do you have a favorite German food?

BP: Italian restaurants in Germany. They just have great food. Also, there is a tradition of migration from Italy to Germany, and many immigrants stayed and opened restaurants. Berlin is a great restaurant city, and Germany is a great place to cook because they have great ingredients, so you get all this fresh food made authentically. Last year I sat at an Italian restaurant watching big televisions rooting on the German national team, so I’m not a complete traitor to the undertaking, but when I’m in Germany I eat more Italian than German food.

RY: What do you do when you’re not teaching?

BP: I read a lot, mostly German, although I try to keep up with The New Yorker and The Nation. I also have recently become a fan of podcasts, so I download the German nightly news and listen to that. I watch some movies, but I don’t really watch much television. One of the great things about being a professor is that I get to read for my work, and reading novels not necessarily connected with a class gives me ideas about what I might want to teach next.

RY: How do you stay immersed in German?

BP: Well, as I said, I like to read, but I also try to spend time in Germany. This can be difficult. However, last year a friend and I got a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, so we spent a little over five weeks in Berlin teaching a course for 16 American teachers in German.

It was a nice chance to spend some quality time speaking German and [to] work with talented teachers. I’m hoping to be able to go and spend a month [in Berlin] next fall. I do miss being immersed in German, and for that reason I encourage students to go abroad, because it’s a crucial part of learning the language. It would be nice if we could require study abroad for the German major, because going abroad is a life changing experiences. After all, the whole series of accidents and coincidences that got me here was in part because of my first abroad experience in Germany.