Q&A With Professor Beth Martin

CATEGORIES: February 2015

How did you decide to become a University professor?

Those who know me today recognize my enthusiasm for teaching German, but actually when I started my undergraduate studies as a double major in biology and German, I did not consider going into education.  In fact, I told my advisors that I definitely was NOT going to teach.   After graduating, I first worked translating research articles for the Pharmaceutical Department at the University of Bonn.  This was a great way to combine my skills, but I felt my creative energy stymied.  When I returned to graduate school and was offered a teaching assistantship, I discovered how creative and rewarding it is to work with students.

What do you consider to be your most notable professional achievement?

Whenever former students report that they have in some way woven German into their lives by using it for their jobs, further studies or in their personal life, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. I also have a private celebration, whenever someone decides to continue beyond elementary or intermediary German – especially if they had only taken German in order to “fill a requirement!”

Teaching inspires me to keep learning and thus I am pleased to thwart the urge to “stagnate” and use the same approaches, materials and methods I used at the beginning of my career.   My master’s thesis focused on the impact of student motivation and affect on learning. As student cohorts change, so do their interests, and I strive to find a way to really focus on issues and ideas that are relevant in today’s world.  This flexibility means that I have occasionally had to to replace materials that I found personally fascinating (i.e., the film, “Heimat”), but I nevertheless push to find new ways to present concepts and maintain the energy and love for what I teach. While I continue to let my approach evolve, I will not give up my belief that learning is fun and that the challenge of learning a new language is a skill that fosters critical thinking useful to all students, no matter what their major. 

What has been your most memorable international experience?

One would think an experience in Germany would be my most memorable – but my experiences in the German culture have become second nature to me.   That is why I would list my recent experience in Japan as my most memorable.  Like Dornröschen, the newness of Japan re-awakened me to the wonder of navigating a new culture. 

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At the beginning of 2014, my husband and I spent six months in Japan when he had a Fulbright Research Scholarship to study centenarians there.  While it was not my study, I helped with the collection of research, and we visited and interviewed (with the help of translators) more than 20 one-hundred-year-olds in several areas of Japan.   Clearly, the fact that we needed a translator is a clue to the linguistic challenges of this trip – and the fact that we spent so much time in homes also makes clear that we had an intense cultural learning experience.

Since we were guests in the centenarians’ homes, we needed to be sensitive to many cultural practices. In Japan, I felt awkward from the moment I entered a home: starting with how to bow, how to get my shoes off without falling down, where to sit, how to sit – all this in the first five minutes!  Although these customs had been thoroughly described in books I had read, it is not so easy when one actually has to remember to do it – especially when it entails sitting on the floor for a 2 hour interview!  I was constantly checking with my Japanese colleagues for clues.

Culture also affected our research.  We conducted an environmental assessment using a well-established research instrument.  The item asked: how many chairs are in the centenarian’s room?  (From the US cultural perspective, if there are chairs, visitors can easily stay and have a conversation – a positive indication of the possibility for social support.)   Our centenarians were sitting on the floor – and of course they did not have chairs for their visitors.  This item was not valid in Japan!

On the language front, this trip offered me the opportunity to try out the tips I have on my “how and what to study list” for beginning students of German.  I knew I could not quickly acquire enough Japanese to conduct centenarian interviews, but I wanted to be able to speak well enough to survive in my every day life.  My motivation was high and I thought I would advance quickly – but I am sorry to report, my Japanese did not reach the 102-level.  Motivation is clearly not enough!  It takes time and a lot of effort to learn a new language.  I have gained a new appreciation for how much our beginning students learn in just a semester – in addition to taking several other courses!   Like my beginning students, I was often frustrated by my inability to express very simple ideas.  It all looked so easy in my textbook – but when I ordered beer, the waitress brought coffee!  I became hesitant to venture out because I repeatedly set off alarms – LOUD alarms – in the kitchen, in the public restroom, in the office – all because I couldn’t read the signs.

What is the last foreign country you visited? Is there a place in that country that you recommend anyone to visit?

We had the opportunity to travel from Hokkaido in the north (which has the lowest level of longevity in Japan) to a three-week research stay Okinawa (a “longevity hot-spot”) in the south.  Everywhere we went, people were extraordinarily kind to us and the food was delicious.    Our apartment was near Osaka University in what a book described as a “tourist wasteland.”   However, we were only 45 minutes from Kyoto –which is a very special city.  While we could experience the celebrated cherry blossom time, I would suggest visiting at a quieter time.

My favorite memories were not sights, but activities:  eating (often I had no idea what was on my plate, but even in a tiny noodle shop, the food was beautiful); taking an outdoor onsen (a hot thermal bath) while gazing at the stars; and shopping on the 1st floor of a large department store (what a mind-boggling expanse of beautiful goods).  Osaka is the home of the National Bunraku Theater, so I went to several performances.  Bunraku is an ancient art form using large puppets to tell a story.  The music was extraordinary, but it was the puppets that enthralled me most.  I have worked with puppets in class for years, and it was a thrill to be able to talk to one of the professional puppet masters.  He allowed me to hold and animate a puppet that was almost as large as I am! 

What has been the most interesting or unusual course you taught at ISU?

While I have taught the same levels for several years, I try to incorporate new content and ideas each year.  The students actually are the framework for each course.  I can’t really say one class has been the most unusual course.  Instead, I find each year has unique peak moments:  writing fairy tales and murder mysteries, making short films, constructing grave stones to bury famous Germans in our “class cemetery, stumbling through polka and waltz lessons, putting on puppet shows, touring the art gallery, debating whether blue gummy bears are indeed unhealthy, and wondering what would have been different had Hamburg not been located near the sea.  I am continually amazed at the creative products and ideas students develop.  From my perspective, the classes each year seem to have a highlight of their own and deserve to be nominated in the “most unusual” or “most interesting” category.