October 20, 2003

Home away from home

By Eric Rangus

For Gerd Bräuer, the fall semester is his first on the Emory campus in two years. Bräuer has spent the last four semesters at the University of Education in Freiburg, Germany, where he created a college writing center and began integrating writing pedagogy into the school’s teacher-training program.

"The students were very excited," said Bräuer, associate professor of German studies. "They have noticed a lack of writing instruction themselves in high school and college. They were also very excited to have someone from a different country, and a different educational and cultural setting."

Bräuer was born and raised in Germany and still has a slight accent, but he has taught most of his career in the United States, where he moved 11 years ago.

"I think I teach in an American fashion, and I deal with students that way," he said. "I think they found that very exciting, having someone really accessible. It was new to them." Many professors in Germany, Bräuer said, give their lectures then disappear. Dealing one on one with students is a foreign activity—as is, for the most part, the teaching of writing.

In Europe, the practice of writing is taught in elementary school, but neglected at higher education levels. In Germany, for example, there is no formal writing instruction after eighth grade. If German college students receive poor grades for their writing, they rarely know why. Bräuer spent the last two years in Freiburg hoping to change that.

"People had started to understand that learning to write is not a one-time shot that you take care of in elementary school then you are set for the rest of your life," he said. "It is lifelong learning that requires relearning whenever you have to write in new genres or with new sorts of texts or for new audiences."

In 2000, Bräuer developed a model for writing centers for secondary schools and won an award for it from the Germany-based Koeber Foundation. That led to a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service that covered Bräuer’s time in Freiburg.

"I felt at home, although I had never been in that region," Bräuer said. Freiburg is a city of around 200,000 tucked into the far southwestern corner of the country, in the upper Rhine valley with France to the west and Switzerland to the south. The university where he was based is relatively small one—about 5,000 students—and is dedicated to training teachers. Bräuer grew up and was educated in Zwichau, in the southern portion of what was once East Germany. He earned his doctorate at the University of Education in that city in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell.

"Being able to work and teach in my native language, I enjoyed very much," Bräuer said. "I also noticed students enjoyed what I had to offer. In Freiburg, I taught two courses in English in Freiburg, and a lot of students participated."

The writing center Bräuer built is the first of its kind in European teacher education. It creates an institutional framework for writing instruction that not only provides writing-intensive courses for students but also training for the faculty who teach writing. Peer tutoring plays a major role in the center, and so far 10 of the center’s students have been certified as writing tutors. It is this sort of personal instruction that German higher education has been missing for a long time.

Bräuer’s interest in writing began when he was a student himself. He majored in German studies with an emphasis in literary theory, which was in a way frustrating because of its lack of a writing curriculum. "I was bored by the training in literature and theory," he said. "It meant just absorbing texts and, except for your final thesis, you never really produced anything." All Bräuer’s writing at that time, which included short stories, poems and plays, was done on the side.

The situation in his home country led him to study American writing pedagogy, and he earned a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the German Research Society that brought him in 1992 to the University of Oregon. He taught and toured the country, visiting universities and gathering information about how they taught writing.

After he was finished, he was ready to return home except for one thing—home wasn’t ready for him. "I had this two-year scholarship, which was tax money from Germans, and I wanted to give something back," Bräuer said. "But I couldn’t find a job. Educators in Germany were not ready to come up with writing programs yet."

So, Bräuer began applying for jobs in this country and found Emory in 1995. Seven years after that, he finally was given the opportunity to put his teaching ideas into action at home.

After his two years in Europe, Bräuer has brought back to Emory much more than refrigerator magnets and postcards. Foremost in his mind is the creation of an online multilingual student newspaper. Already he has formed partnerships with Emory organizations (Center for International Programs Abroad and the Emory College Language Center, to name just two), Colgate University in the United States and three universities—including Freiburg—in Germany.

The newspaper will be based in the German studies department, and Bräuer currently is planning a freshman seminar in the spring whose students will form the core of the newspaper staff. The publication’s primary languages will be German and English at the beginning, but stories in other languages will be welcome. It is his hope that other foreign language departments will join the project in the coming months. His goal is to have the first issue online sometime in April. Bräuer sees the online newspaper as the next logical step in his transatlantic work.

"It would have been seen as a waste of time from an Emory perspective if nothing else continued after the writing center setup in Freiburg," he said.

The online newspaper represents the melding of Bräuer’s two primary interests: the teaching of writing and the importance of peer tutoring—the latter, he said, is not always as highly appreciated as it should be.

"People misunderstand or have forgotten about the concept of peer tutoring," said Bräuer, who discussed the subject as well as outlined his time and accomplishments in Germany at a Cox Hall roundtable earlier this month.

"Peer tutors are not little teachers, but they join an exchange of expertise on the same level with other students," he said. "They help each other and build teams to work together. Especially through the project method, you can create very naturally this peer working environment that requires participation from everyone."