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Ellen Crocker has been a Senior Lecturer in German at MIT since 1981. Crocker is author and co-author for two college-level textbooks for German published in multiple editions: the first-year textbook Neue Horizonte, Dollenmayer and Hansen, Cengage, and the intermediate-level workbook for communicative strategies Reden-Mitreden-Dazwischenreden, Heinle and Heinle, first edition co-authored with Claire Kramsch, iBook forthcoming. Crocker retired from MIT in June 2020. This interview was held by Zoom in July 2020.
What got you interested in learning German?
Crocker: I loved languages in high school and I was dying to live in another country. Not so much to study a language. I just wanted to live in another culture. I had an opportunity through the Experiment in International Living to live with a family in Germany the summer of my senior year in high school. I didn’t even know any German at the time. First, I went to a language boot camp in Putney Vermont for two weeks to learn to hear and start saying phrases. Mainly to get adjusted to how the language sounds. I then studied German in college and spent my junior year at the University of Munich. After I graduated from Skidmore I went back to Germany, and was working at a high school in Mannheim while taking courses in Linguistics at the University of Mannheim. While there I found out about an excellent program in Freiburg in exactly what I wanted to study.
What were you studying?
Crocker: There was a trend in socio-linguistics in the mid-70s, pragmatics, that represented a cross-section of ethnography and linguistics. How does spoken language work? How does communication function? There is a huge research institute in Germany, the Institute for German Language, whose central offices are in Mannheim. I volunteered there and they provided me with the connection to the institute branch in Freiburg. At Freiburg I worked as a research assistant to the director of the institute and did my graduate research with him. His research team had for years been collecting and analyzing audio files of people in conversation. Imagine! This was before computers. They were linguistically transcribing language recordings by hand. Not only phonologically but also using different kinds of symbols to represent when two people were talking at same time, for example. When you see a conversation transcribed, it is not easy to read. They were developing an entire grammar of how spoken language works. Not only sentence structure per se but multiple aspects of individual speech acts. The thing that was interesting to me was the notion of “intention”—what is the intent of the speaker, and how is it expressed? How do you recognize the intention of the speaker? Intention might be “how can I keep this conversation going?” or “give me more information.” How to recognize intention is tricky. If you’re listening to something, say a press conference by a politician. What’s the intention? It may not be conveyed overtly. So, how do you identify those aspects of communication?
How did you make your way to MIT?
Crocker: I ended up coming back to the states after completing my M.A. I connected with Claire Kramsch [former German professor at MIT and now Professor emerita of UC Berkeley]. Without her I wouldn’t be at MIT. And I don’t think my career would have been as interesting. I was teaching ESL at Northeastern and Harvard. She was studying speech acts. She wanted to know more about the research I had been involved in, and we really connected. She asked me if I’d like to come teach at MIT for a semester. Once I started teaching German part-time, I was kind of caught between two disciplines: second language teaching, where students are living and working in the language they’re learning, and foreign language teaching, where students are not living immersed in the language. These disciplines are quite distinct from each other. At first, I was bouncing back and forth. I realized I had to make a choice. It was a hard decision. But gradually I left teaching ESL to teach German at MIT. To tell you the truth one of the things that really drew me to German was the MIT students! Our students aren’t just studying language for a graduation requirement. They are really motivated. They enjoy a challenge. They want to go to Germany and do research and work in industry. Then, shortly after starting to teach at MIT, I was asked by David Dollenmayer, a professor at the time at MIT, to join him and his co-author Thomas Hanson, to rewrite the text book Neue Horizonte for its 2nd edition. I was excited to have the opportunity to start developing teaching materials for publication based on my experience teaching.
I know you have been involved in the Max Kade Writer-in-Residence program at MIT. Can you tell me about that?
Crocker: The Max Kade Writer-in-Residence program at MIT first came about in 1997 through the efforts of [MIT Senior Lecturer] Kurt Fendt. We were interested in bringing writers to MIT for a semester-long residency who themselves had learned German as a second or third language—writers who bridge multiple cultures and could teach an upper-level course in German. The first person we invited was Zafer Senoçak, a Turkish-born German writer. He’s now a very well-known journalist, writer of essays, poetry, novels and is a public personality on the radio. He was less well-known at the time he came here. It was a very successful residency. We were thrilled. We continued every other year inviting other young writers on the cusp of becoming better known, who were interested in taking a semester off to come to MIT. And we assisted the writers with further contacts while they were at MIT so they could perform public readings around the country and teach and interact with students in other fields and at other institutions. We were very fortunate to be able to invite the now famous Japanese-German writer, Yoko Tawada, early in her career as a writer in Japanese and German and before she was well-known in the USA. The residency program became widely recognized and has played an important role in efforts to enrich the German curriculum at MIT. Other residencies over the years have included an East/West German writer, Katja Lange-Müller who had left the East in 1984. It was really interesting for students to learn from her insider view of both German cultures. We also hosted Saša Stanišić, who left Bosnia-Herzegovina as a 14-year old. He has had an amazing trajectory, and now is one of most well-known young German authors. The latest residency was with Kristof Magnusson, an Icelandic/German writer. We were able to work with the MIT Theater program to do a staged reading of one of his works.
I know you worked on Berliner sehen, a very early attempt to create an interactive program for language teaching. Can you tell me about that?
Crocker: I am co-creator of Berliner sehen with Kurt Fendt. This project came on the heels of Douglas Morgenstern’s and Gilberte Furstenberg’s work with Project Athena. Berliner sehen is an interactive hypermedia documentary that engages students in the exploration of everyday life in the changing city of Berlin through the eyes of East and West Berliners. In designing the program, we focused on various ways that students could explore and make their own collections from a large active archive of conversations and other materials and interact with each other in class based on their explorations. There are over 28 hours of video of authentic conversations among Berliners and related documents and images. Students get plunked down in the middle of the conversations and begin to develop their own insights as they recombine the materials in order to construct their own coherent line of reasoning. The documentary filmmaker who collaborated with us on the project, helped us to select a range of people, older and younger, and from both East and West Berlin. Students learn to pick up clues and understand the context in order make hypotheses about what is going on. In class, students work together and they start to figure out what they heard. They piece things together, like detective work. There is no one truth. There’s no one answer. That’s why it’s so flexible. As teachers, we don’t have to say to the students “no, that’s not right.” What is important is how they’re substantiating what they are saying based on how they interpret what they have heard. The program is entirely online and is currently in use at many campuses.
Douglas Morgenstern’s and Gilberte Furstenberg’s projects were similar in some ways. But one of the main differences was that for those projects the language was scripted and the paths through the materials were pre-set. That was largely a byproduct of what was possible at the time in terms of technology. For example, they had to work with laser disks. This was before the Internet and before CD technology. We were lucky in that we came into the game slightly later and more was possible. We’ve also been working to overhaul the technology behind the archive to keep it accessible and current.
Switching to another topic: How did this semester go for you? There was a rather abrupt transition to online teaching due to COVID-19. That must have a rough ride for your last semester teaching before retirement!
Crocker: It was challenging. I normally try to go out of my way to make sure everyone is interacting—not only with me but with each other—and using what they have learned. I’ve always told students “Come to class! Even if you haven’t done the homework. We’ll make it work.” But I felt like what was harder in Zoom classes was that something was missing from what happens when you are face-to-face. We use subtle body language to communicate and to check if we’re being understood. But in cases where students didn’t have good video access, we were talking to static images of faces. The natural flow of conversation was more difficult. For instance, interrupting each other in conversations in person happens quite easily. That’s what language learning is all about: how to interact in different situations, interrupt, take turns, ask for clarification. In Zoom the conversation seemed less spontaneous. With more spontaneity it is easier to segue into another aspect of the lesson plan, making it a nice communicative weaving.
What are your plans for retirement?
Crocker: We have some funding to continue work on Berliner sehen, and I’m excited to do that. Also, I’m reworking Reden-Mitreden-Dazwischenreden as a multi-media iBook. The iBook will contain audio material and a writing function. To put it in a nutshell: the thing that has always been very exciting to me is collaboration. I’ve often sought collaborations within my field, and with colleagues in other fields. Collaborating stretches your mind. You know, the idea of teaching by myself used to scare me. But I began to envision teaching as a collaboration with students. Students at MIT are very driven. You can’t really “lead” them. You need to work together with them. My idea for retirement is to expand on my interest in collaboration and work in community organizations and to get to know the city I live in a little better.