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Mapping, Marking, Modernizing: Teaching Goethe in the Modern Classroom

Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning
A National Symposium
November 19-20, 2020
Virtual National Symposium 2020

Sven-Ole Andersen, University of Puerto Rico

Language and literature departments in the US are facing issues ranging from budget cuts and decreased enrollments to bored students, for whom some courses seem to be outdated, uninteresting, or unconnected to the needs of students in the new millennium.

With the use of PowerPoint, I presented practical approaches to teaching the German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with the aim of creating a trajectory from ca. 1800 to the year 2020. This was done by highlighting places that the poet had visited and comparing these geographical locations of the past with the present. In order to do so, I used the method of mapping, which was introduced to me in an FRN workshop in January 2020. Using maps combined with internet technology is one way to make seminars more interesting, to counter decreased enrollments, and to make lessons less boring for the mutual benefit of students and professors. (Note: This is not the method called “concept mapping.”) I would like to point out that this relatively easy methodology of using GoogleMaps can be used by almost all instructors in the humanities, and other fields, to make lessons more interesting and to attract students, when some basic technological requirements are fulfilled, like having a computer in the classroom, for example. The following remarks served as the theoretical framework of my presentation.

J.W. von Goethe
In January 2016, an article published in the book review section of The New Yorker was headlined ”Design for Living: What’s great about Goethe?” (Kirsch, 2016). The article describes the influence of the literary figure‘s works and writings on literature and culture in today’s society. Goethe still dominates German literature today. But not only that: With his Faust, he has even created a piece of “world literature” that serves as the basis for Hollywood movies, including The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Devil’s Advocate, and Wall Street.

As Adam Kirsch of The New Yorker explains:

Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants. (2016)

Today, Goethe might be considered an all-arounder. Besides his literary works he discovered, for instance, that all mammals have the intermaxillary bone, a small bone somewhere in the upper jaw (Helbig, 2016). As a politician, he was later appointed to the cabinet of the Duke of Weimar. In that position, he was responsible for mining in this small state, the Dukedom of Weimar. Also, a mineral is named after him: Goethite. A sample of it is on display at a museum in Washington, DC.

A question of validity
Despite Goethe being a genius, a question remains whether the teaching of older subjects in literature, culture, or languages is of value for students in the age of the internet, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

Albrecht Classen, professor at the University of Arizona, a German who specializes in Medieval history and languages, asks the same question and complains that ”the knowledge and skills of Older languages are declining, even at the university level” (Classen, 2008, p. 19). He asks, then, if it makes sense to teach older subjects like Medieval literature. Professors and instructors who are aficionados of history and are involved in teaching related subjects can only agree to Classen’s own conclusion:

  1. Such literature is a part of history and therefore historically relevant.
  2. There is a huge interest in historic literature, especially at the university level (Classen, 2008, p.19).

Therefore, there is no question about the validity of teaching “older” subjects or any part of history, especially in a university context. Students are generally interested in history.

Technology-enhanced learning and the use of mapping
As Chesla Ann Lenkaitis (2021) points out:

Technology enhanced learning also provides a platform that focuses on the social aspect of language learning […], learner autonomy […] global awareness […], and global citizenship […]. It also gives opportunities to students to enhance their language skills and cultural understanding through interactions […]. (p. 94)

Along similar lines, in the recently published and wonderfully edited collection Technology-Enhanced Learning and Linguistic Diversity by P. Mather (2021), Vincent Chanethom writes about the benefits of technology-based learning:

Technology-enhanced learning, indeed, has significantly contributed to reshape the way in which classroom-based instruction is dispensed in foreign language courses across the curriculum, but also in other academic disciplines. (106)

The findings of the above-mentioned scholars can be proven in practice by using internet technology in the classroom, including mapping.

I would like to emphasize again that the use of GoogleMaps (or other mapping applications) in the classroom is not a new invention. Nevertheless, its use in a seminar is relatively simple and it can be used in almost all areas in the humanities, because it can be used as a cross-disciplinary teaching tool or approach. It has several advantages. The use of modern technology like mapping in the seminar leads to more interest among the students, facilitates the retention ofknowledge, and lowers the “affective filter.” The affective filter, a term coined by Steven Krashen (1984), is commonly considered an invisible psychological filter that can facilitate learning and retention, or make it more complicated and difficult (p. 62). In other words, when the study environment is stress-free, learning is usually more fun and the retention rate is higher. The use of internet maps, a technology-enhanced method, enrichmes the seminar and contributes to a stress-free learning environment. The same holds true for using this methodology at other kinds of institutions, including K-12 education. More examples of how to use maps for teaching can be found online, for instance on TheThinkingStick.com (Utecht, 2015).

Using GoogleMaps to convey knowledge is one of the easiest, fastest, and interesting tools an instructor can use. A simple click on an icon on the map displays more information about the area or a specific location. As suggested by thetheorems discussed above, mapping, provided me with a wonderful method to convey knowledge about J. W. von Goethe’s persona—and more. For my presentation, I had chosen three cities—Frankfurt/Main and Weimar in Germany, and Karlovy Vary, formerly Karlsbad, in the Czech Republic—that are directly connected to Goethe’s origins, life, travels, and works. Moreover, using several of the map tool’s features I was able to measure distances, make references, and show the development of those areas since the Age of Goethe (as literary scholars call the period of his work), as well as the current modern look of the area today. The main goal was to provide colleagues and other interested people examples of how to use this form of modern technology and how to integrate it in the curriculum. (The Zoom presentation lasted about one hour, including a question and answer session.)

Using maps in combination with modern technology is a way to make seminars and lessons more interesting and contribute to learning and retention. It is my personal belief that Goethe’s persona, in combination with his writings, his discoveries, and the historical circumstances during his lifetime, are a valuable subject to teach to a younger generation, especially for the purposes of intercultural education.



Chathom, V. (2021). Students’ attitudes toward critical telecollaboration: A Case study in an L2/L3 French classroom. In P. Mather (Ed.), Technology-Enhanced Learning and Linguistic Diversity: Strategies and Approaches to Teaching Students in a 2nd or 3rd Language (pp. 105-128). Emerald Publishing.

Classen, A. (2008). Das Hildebrandslied im heutigen Literaturunterricht? Eine Herausforderung und große, ungenutzte Chance. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German, 38(1), 19-30.

Helbig, I. (2016). Mephistopheles, the intermaxillary bone, and trust in science.

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Kirsch, A. (2016). Design for Living: What’s great about Goethe? The New Yorker. Retrieved from: newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/01/design-for-living-books-adam-kirsch

Krashen, S. D. (1984). Bilingual education and second language theory. Schooling and

Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. California State University Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Lenkaitis, C.A., Hilliker, S. M. & Castañeda, L.Y. (2021). The intersection of language, culture, and technology: Challenges and strategies in L3 learning. In P. Mather (Ed.), Technology-Enhanced Learning and Linguistic Diversity Technology-Enhanced Learning and Linguistic Diversity: Strategies and Approaches to Teaching Students in a 2nd or 3rdLanguage, pp. 91-101. Emerald Publishing.

Mather, P. (Ed). (2021). Technology-enhanced learning and linguistic diversity: Strategy and approaches to teaching students in a 2nd or 3rd language. Emerald Publishing.

Utecht, J. (2015). 10 Ways to Use Google Maps in the Classroom. TheThinkingStick. Retrieved from: thethinkingstick.com/tag/google-maps/