By Nick Ramirez
Our interview began on a late Monday afternoon in a café on the Universitätsstrasse. A light Spring breeze was in the air and the trees nearby were just beginning to flower. After a sudden volley of shockingly loud sneezes, Dr. Laversuch looked up over her steaming latte machiatto: “Oh excuse! I have hay-fever!”
Would it be better for you, if we sat inside.
“No, no. It’s beautiful out here! Besides, if I went inside every time I had an allergy attack, the only time I would ever see the sun would be in the Winter or the Fall. No. Let’s stay out here and enjoy the sunshine. So what’s your first question?”
Let’s start with the basics. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background?
“I am a native New Yorker. But, I lived all over the States. Missouri, California, Georgia, Maryland, Washington State, Washington D.C. You name it and I’ve been there. The only two states I haven’t lived in YET are Alaska and Hawaii…But they are both on my to do list.”
After another volley of sneezes, Dr. Laversuch tells me a bit more about her background and I see that radical change has been a stable part of her life. She first came to Germany shortly after the Wall came down. As she reports: “That was a very turbulent time. Many foreigners were being brutally attacked on the street then. I can tell you I had more than my fair share of run-ins with Skinheads. It was a horrible time. I had a lot of friends who told me that they no longer felt comfortable walking down the street with me because they were so afraid.” Dr. Laversuch pauses to sip her Latte. “At the same time, I also experienced incredible heroism as well. I had countless students come to me and offer to walk me home. They were wonderful. We went anti-Nazi rallies together and peace demonstrations. It was that courage that convinced me that I could stay here…that I could make a home here.”
And make a home she did. Since her arrival in 1991, Dr. Laversuch has worked at a variety of different universities throughout Europe. For the past three years, though, she has worked as a full-time lecturer in the English Department at the University of Cologne. With degrees in Clinical Psychology and German Literature, and English Linguistics, she has expanded the selection of classes offered by the English Department. Three of the most popular have been Differences Between British and US American English, World Varieties of English, and Trilingualism. This diversity of courses reflects Dr. Laversuch’s interdisciplinary background.
“I actually started out in Biochemistry and had every expectation of becoming a psychiatrist. That all changed when I took my first course in German. At my home university, all students are required to take a foreign language to graduate. Since I had already studied Spanish for a number of years, I was ready for a new challenge. I tried German because I had always heard that it was ridiculously hard!”
And was it?
“Absolutely! I still remember my first day. We had an immersion program. That means that from the very first class, the instructors talked exclusively in German. I had never taken a German class before in my life! I had NO IDEA what my teacher was saying but I remember thinking that German was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I knew then that whatever I did in my life, it had to include German. That was more than 20 years ago and I am still in love with German. But I can tell you, it is truly a ridiculously hard language.”
That explains what brought you to Germany. What got you interested in Linguistics?
“It’s the same story actually. In the German Department, we were required to take courses in both literature and linguistics. At the time, I had no idea what linguistics was. I had only heard that it was very complicated but that’s exactly what made me fall in love with Linguistics.”
It sounds like having fun is very important to you. That’s surprising because most people don’t associate studying with having fun.
“I know but I think it is a privilege to be able to educate oneself. There are people on this planet who risk their lives by even having a book in their possession. I enjoy my work but I also take it very seriously.”
Would you say that that is a rule you try to live by?
“Yes. Definitely. I always say to my students, ‘If you are not enjoying yourself, stop! Take a serious look at your life and make a change.’ Sometimes it’s important to make a radical change in your life. I know that is not always easy, but sometimes it is necessary. Life’s too short to spend it doing something you hate. I can honestly say that I adore teaching and researching and I’m proud to call myself a sociolinguist. ”
It sounds like you have a lot of fun with your students…
“Yes, we laugh all the time. I love to laugh, especially at myself. I try and teach my students to relax and not to be afraid of making mistakes. Perfectionism is fatal for language learning. If you’re afraid of making a mistake, you won’t take any risks. And if you don’t take a chance, you’ll never develop. That’s probably true of most things in life really.”
Would you say that was a personal motto…taking risks?
“No…not really. Instead, I would say that it is important to find a comfortable balance. Students who try to study 28 hours a day are ultimately in as much danger of not finishing their degree as students who try to party 7 days a week. It’s important to try to find a good balance. Finding that balance is not only a challenge for students, though. It’s also hard for the teaching and administrative staff at the university to find the happy medium. For example, in recent years, the number of students in the English Department has exploded. That means that our workload has increased substantially and with that so too has our daily stress. But precisely because of that fact, I think it’s doubly important that we all work together, and when I say ‘we’, I mean students, teachers, and staff.”
This all sounds like you are a bit of an optimist. I’m curious. Is there anything that can make you really angry?
“YES!!!! I cannot abide rudeness. The challenges that we all face here at a university of this size become that much more difficult by discourteous, inconsiderate, insincere, opportunistic, egocentric people. At the same time, the lack of sensitivity which some people demonstrate only highlights the extraordinary kindness and professionalism which so many others display on a daily basis. It may sound old-fashioned but I think the English expression ‘Try to treat others as you would have them treat yourself’ is a good rule to live by.”
To use another English idiom, that is “sometimes easier said than done”. Do you personally have any role models, people who have inspired you in your personal or professional life?
“Goodness. There are A LOT of people whom I’ve learned from. People like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Sophie Scholl, Rosa Parks. When you read the biographies or autobiographies of these people, what I find the most striking is that they all say that they were not heroes. They were simply people who nevertheless had the courage to do the right thing, even when that meant risking their own lives. To me those examples are so important because they teach us that heroism is not something that you are born with: it’s simply having the fortitude to stand up for what’s right. And you never know, one act of resistance can start a revolution.”
‘Revolution’ and ‘rebellion’ are somewhat touchy subjects in Germany. There are a lot of people who criticize today’s generation of students because they’re not like the 1968 Generation who were willing to risk everything for their ideals. On the other hand, they’re often criticized for being too unrealistic or naive when they fight to keep education free in Germany. What do you think of this generation?
“I think this generation is still trying to find itself. That process of discovery has become more difficult in today’s society. There are so few guarantees. I think that lack of security has had a very negative effect on this generation. At the same time, the fact that the society is changing so quickly is also an opportunity. In many ways, this generation has more power to make more positive changes than anyone before it. Just think of what the Weisse Rose could have done if they had had access to the internet!”
You speak a lot about history. That’s surprising for an American. Most Europeans, I think, believe that Americans are completely uninterested in the past.
“I know that’s a popular stereotype but as the saying goes: ‘He who generalizes, generally lies.’ History is very important because it’s one of our most powerful teachers. Just take Cologne. It is an excellent example of a city which hasn’t forgotten its past but has integrated it into everyday life. Take, for example, the Stolpersteine, those small square bronze plaques which mark the homes where not too long ago, people were deported and most often murdered by the Nazis. As a African American woman who works in Cologne, I really appreciate these memorials. They not only reminder us of just how far people have come, but they challenge us to keep going. Cologne is filled with creative and moving memorials like that. It is one of the reasons why I love this city so much.
You mentioned that you are an African-American woman. Can I ask you one final question? Who are you going to vote for in the upcoming election? Obama or Clinton?
“Oh boy! That is a question I get asked almost everyday! You know the thing I really hate about that question is the fact that it assumes that I would select a candidate on the basis of his/her gender or racial ethnic identity. If a white man were to do that, everyone would call him either a sexist or a racist. I don’t think it’s any different for me as an African-American woman. Personally, I am going to vote for the person who has the wisest and most responsible plan for repairing the damage that was done not only to my nation, but also to our planet during the past administration. I’m looking for the person who is the most committed to healing the wounds of the past, and who can come up with creative SOLUTIONS. But no matter who wins the election, our responsibility remains the same…We’ve got to come together, if we’re going to right the wrongs of the past. And by ‘we’ I mean all of us.”
Thank you Dr. Laversuch for your time.
No problem. What do you say we have another Latte?
Dr. Iman M. Laversuch ist Lektorin am Englischen Seminar