Friederike Eigler (Georgetown University)

Teacher Education and Graduate Studies in German

The conference “Re-Imagining the Discipline,” organized by Patrizia McBride and Paul Fleming at Cornell University in September 2019, was highly unusual in multiple ways. Beyond the range of institutions and programs represented at the conference, scholars from different career stages participated: they included PhD students and postdoctoral fellows as well as junior faculty on temporary and tenure-line positions along with senior faculty. The presentations of several junior faculty members focused on the broad teaching duties and extracurricular demands at small liberal arts colleges, while other participants challenged us to think about larger implications of “decolonizing the curriculum,” and still others addressed the continued relevance of canonical authors and texts. In brief, the event was a rare occasion to witness and reflect on the heterogeneity of German studies – illustrated in the many stimulating presentations and discussions.

Over the course of the conference it became clear that despite different institutional contexts most of us are grappling with similar challenges – albeit often from diverging perspectives. Not surprisingly, these challenges include increased institutional pressures, shrinking enrollments and changing demographics, increased competition across the country for smaller graduate program applicant pools, and a decrease in academic positions and thus the need for graduate programs to prepare students for a range of professional careers. There are of course no one-size-fits-all solutions to these manifold challenges, but it was instructive to learn more about both the stress points and best practices across different institutions and programs.[i]

One of the challenges raised by junior scholars concerns the tension between graduate programs with their focus on excellence in research on the one hand and broad teaching needs, especially at small undergraduate programs, on the other. As is well known, only a small fraction of freshly minted PhDs will end up with positions at institutions similar to their own, i.e., at research universities. Most of those who find jobs in academia will instead teach exclusively at the undergraduate level, often in small German programs and at small colleges. This situation has implications for the role of teacher education in graduate programs.

Against this backdrop, my contribution introduces ways of addressing this tension in a proactive and comprehensive manner. More specifically, I focus on the multiple linkages between the undergraduate and graduate programs at my own institution (Georgetown University), illustrating why and how we conceive of teacher training as part of the intellectual core of graduate education instead of as an extra burden tacked on to the many demands graduate students face. I present the following observations from my perspectives as Department Chair (2013-19) and long-time faculty member of the freestanding, mid-sized German Department at Georgetown. The larger objective of this contribution is to encourage discussion of a dominant approach to graduate education, one that explicitly or implicitly pits teaching against scholarship and that usually privileges one (scholarship) over the other (teaching).[ii]


I would like to start out by pointing out the far-reaching advantages of conceiving of teacher training as central to graduate education:

First, a comprehensive approach to teacher education fosters graduate students’ own advanced linguistic and cultural literacy abilities in the target language. Arguably this advanced literacy benefits not only graduate students’ teaching but also their scholarship (e.g., primary and secondary sources in German become more easily accessible).

Second, when graduate students have the opportunity to combine their expertise in the study of literature or culture with the development of teaching materials and pedagogical practice they learn how to integrate content and language in foreign language instruction. At a more abstract level, this also challenges junior scholars to approach their areas of expertise from a meta-critical perspective, i.e., they are encouraged to consider how to present their specialized research to a range of audiences.  


To understand the role of teacher education in the German Department at Georgetown some contextual information is useful: The Department is comprised of an undergraduate and a graduate program. Even though the number of majors has dropped to 3-4 per year – a trend that corresponds with decreasing numbers of majors in many humanities disciplines across the country – we are fortunate to have a substantial number of minors as well as other students who continue to take upper level courses in German beyond the language requirement. The latter is the joint effect of a strong undergraduate program with a broad selection of upper-level courses and the prominent role of foreign languages in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. 

The mid-sized graduate program includes approximately 15 students, most of whom are pursuing the PhD degree.[iii] Of nine full-time faculty members, two hold non-tenure-line positions and seven have tenured or tenure-line positions. Of those seven, one is a joint position with the CGES with only 50% teaching responsibilities in the German Department and two are positions in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) – a highly unusual situation that has shaped the outlook and functioning of the entire Department. To be sure, the German Department at Georgetown struggles with all of the same challenges as the field at large, but today I focus on a particular area of strength, namely the role of teacher education in the PhD program.

The Department benefits in multiple ways from its collaboration with the Center for German and European Studies (CGES) and with the Linguistics Department. The latter is one of the largest in the country and is internationally known in the area of applied linguistics (which includes second language studies). The historically prominent role of linguistics at Georgetown provides the institutional context within which the German Department has developed an area of emphasis in second language acquisition studies (SLA) in addition to its focus on literary and cultural studies. As a result, approximately one in four of our PhD students write their dissertation in SLA studies. However, irrespective of students’ primary research interests, all graduate students participate in a carefully mentored, comprehensive teacher preparation program. Put differently, the majority of our students complete the PhD program with a primary focus in literary or cultural studies, but they also acquire some expertise in SLA scholarship and gain substantial experience in teaching and curriculum construction. This dual emphasis serves them well when they apply for academic positions.


 The institutional and departmental contexts outlined above are of course specific to Georgetown, but some aspects described in more detail below might be useful for rethinking the role of teacher education in graduate programs at other institutions. 

The comprehensive approach to teacher education in the German Department builds on the close ties between the graduate and undergraduate programs. More specifically, the undergraduate curriculum serves as a kind of laboratory for research projects in SLA. This means student data on writing or speaking tasks are collected from some of the undergraduate courses and constitute the basis for individual research projects (e.g., dissertations) or collaborative projects (frequently involving faculty and graduate students). A recent example is the “Humanities Assessment” project, where graduate student participants help determine cultural learning outcomes and evaluate learner essays. The project provides evidence for the relevance of lower-level “language” courses for humanities learning and thus challenges the widespread assumption that only so-called “content” courses in foreign language programs are relevant for the humanities.[iv]  It is important to note that the results of these projects are also used to make adjustments and improvements in the undergraduate curriculum.[v] Put differently, graduate students learn firsthand about the interrelationship between SLA research curricular design, and pedagogical aspects. At the same time they are introduced to aspects of the profession as these projects frequently lead to (joint) presentations at AATG/ACTFL conferences and (co-authored) publications.[vi]

Beyond participation in these research projects, which are open to all graduate students including those whose main focus is literary or cultural studies, all graduate students are required to take two SLA courses (compared to the customary single course required in most other PhD programs). The first one, offered to all incoming graduate students, is called “Literacy and Foreign Language Teaching” and is closely tied to the theoretical underpinnings and pedagogical implications of the undergraduate curriculum.[vii] The overarching goal is to introduce graduate students to an active and intellectually rigorous approach to teaching and curriculum construction – arguably two important prerequisites for successful teaching, especially at the collegiate level.

Graduate students taking this course engage in the following tasks: 

  • observe classes at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum with special focus on the articulation of each curricular level; 

  • learn about sociolinguistic theories of language that inform the undergraduate curriculum at Georgetown;

  • are introduced to materials development and assessment; 

  • develop a new instructional unit for an introductory or intermediate German course as a final project (the best projects are the basis for conference presentations or even publications - usually co-authored with a professor).[viii]


After completing the “Literacy and Foreign Language Teaching” course and engaging in structured course observations in their first year, graduate students start participating in mentored teaching or co-teaching arrangements in the second year.[ix] Although specific teaching assignments vary for each student, the goal is that graduate students gain teaching experience across three curricular levels (introductory, intermediate, and advanced German). Depending on teaching experience, language proficiency, and general interest, some students also have the opportunity to co-teach or teach upper-level courses in German or courses in English that fulfill the general education requirement at Georgetown. 

Towards the end of their studies, i.e., usually at the dissertation writing stage, qualified students are invited to develop their own upper-level course in German by drawing on their thesis research. Throughout the course development process they receive lots of guidance and feedback from faculty mentors. Recent examples of undergraduate courses developed by PhD students include “The Graphic Novel and German History” and “Heimat Lost and Found: Return Narratives in Literature and Film.”      


The idea behind this overview was to illustrate how one particular graduate program draws on its institutional and departmental strengths to foster a comprehensive and intellectually rigorous approach to teacher education. I would add, however, that more important than the adoption of any particular approach is a change in outlook and awareness, especially among senior faculty in literary and cultural studies, regarding the crucial role of teacher education and, by extension, of language program coordinators (who are often tasked with overseeing graduate student teachers). With this in mind, I want to end by advocating for the creation of more tenure-line SLA positions in mid-sized German studies or modern language programs. The rationale vis-à-vis the administration (and skeptical colleagues) would be at least twofold: Hiring a SLA scholar who is on equal footing with other tenure-line faculty members demonstrates awareness of the importance of SLA scholarship and a recognition of how language program coordination and teacher training benefit from the expertise of a SLA scholar. By the same token, hiring a tenure-line faculty member in SLA signals to graduate students how central teacher training is for their overall education.



[i] See also the  “Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature” (2014) for a discussion of these larger trends and the need to rethink graduate education in the modern languages more generally.

[ii] For a more detailed discussion of related issues in the context of recent reforms of the graduate program, see Friederike Eigler and Marianna Ryshina-Pankova, “Educating Scholar-Teachers: Envisioning the PhD of the Future,” ADFL Bulletin, vol. 44, no. 1, 2016, pp. 58-71.

[iii] The German Department also offers a freestanding MA degree and, together with the Center for German and European Studies (CGES), a joint Masters/German PhD degree.

[iv] The undergraduate curriculum follows the principle of “content from the beginning and language till the end,” i.e., conceptually and with regards to course design a separation between language and content courses no longer applies. For more information, see

[v] For more information, see

[vi] Joint presentations and publications are standard practice in applied linguistics.

[vii] The second required SLA course is more specialized and can range from “Introduction to Pragmatics” or “Telecollaboration” to “Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics.” 

[viii] A recent example is a forthcoming article co-authored by a PhD student and a faculty member on “Genre-Based Instruction at the Advanced Level: Focusing on Islam in Austria.”

[ix] For more information, see