UNC School of the Arts
“German is not a class; German is life,” German Professor Hans Gabriel tells his students — in German, of course, and only half jokingly. As the only German professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, a school where students major in dance, design and production, drama, filmmaking or music, Gabriel seeks to deepen the meaning of his students’ creative pursuits.
Focusing on German language, literature, culture and intellectual history, Gabriel’s courses put the music and art songs of German composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Schumann in cultural context. They break apart and examine the narrative structure and techniques of German literature that has been adapted into American films, like the Arthur Schnitzler novella on which the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut is based. And they enable opera students to learn and practice the language in which they often perform.
“There’s this world out there that you can access through the German language, and I want them to understand that they are able to make something meaningful out of that for themselves,” Gabriel said.
He emphasizes that students must figure out individually how German will be valuable in their lives. “I want them to want to continue their inquiry,” he said. “That requires that they own what’s going on in the class rather than coming in saying, ‘Tell us what we need to know for the test.’”
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Gabriel the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for UNCSA. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC constituent institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.
Allison Gagnon, an associate professor in UNCSA’s School of Music, has worked with Gabriel numerous times over the years and this past spring, led a group of students on a trip to Germany with him. She describes Gabriel as a quiet, personable man with a dry wit and gentle sense of humor. He is dedicated, well-read, studious and curious about many subjects, she said.
“He is always teaching,” Gagnon said. “When we were traveling with our group last May, it didn’t matter whether we were at a meal or on the train or walking along the street, he was encouraging the students’ use of German and their taking in their surroundings and the experience they were having,” she said. “He works really hard to connect the language to the art forms in which the students are specializing. He encourages loyalty and teamwork and dedication and helps build students’ self-confidence.”
Gabriel’s mother’s parents immigrated from Southern Italy to the United States through Ellis Island after World War I, and his Austrian father was one of the first exchange students after World War II to come to the United States with the Fulbright Scholar program. (He studied cowboy culture and cowboy poetry at Arizona State University.) His father officially immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1950s and met his mother in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was teaching German at John Carroll University and she was studying English as a graduate student.
Gabriel grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where both of his bilingual parents taught Italian and German courses at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Though his family spoke only English at home, many aspects of Gabriel’s upbringing were European in nature. His family’s perspectives and humor had a European bent; they rarely left the television on in the background; and they celebrated the Christmas holiday the German way, with advent and the 12 Days of Christmas starting on December 24th. During the summers, they often traveled to Austria to visit Gabriel’s grandparents.
Gabriel took German for the first time at West Charlotte High School with instructor Becky Shinn, who students affectionately nicknamed “The Frau.” In college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he double majored in Spanish and German, and he continued on to the University of Virginia, where he earned his master’s and doctorate in German language and literature. During graduate school, Gabriel spent a year at Free University in Berlin and a year at the University of Tübingen in southern Germany. He found himself equally comfortable — and uncomfortable — on both sides of the ocean.
“I can pass in North Carolina, and I can pass in Germany and Austria,” Gabriel said. “I feel kind of like an insider and an outsider at the same time. I think that has helped — just by the accident of birth and location: it made me sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences, and it made me sensitive to learners, having both the language facility and the perspective of having learned it.”
After receiving his PhD, Gabriel taught a year at Ohio University and two years at Washington State University in a tenure-track position. In 1999, he moved back to North Carolina to care for his aging parents and began teaching at UNCSA. While at the arts school, he has served as a guest professor at Wake Forest University and taught at the Middlebury College German Summer School in Vermont. His research focuses on German-language realism, German-language novellas and narrative theory and structure.
Gabriel first began teaching while in graduate school. The night before his first class, he remembers admitting to his parents on the phone how nervous he felt. His father answered, “Good! If you’re not nervous, it means you’re either dead or you don’t care.” His father added that he still got nervous before teaching — and when he didn’t anymore, he’d know it was time to stop.
Following his parents’ example, Gabriel tries to use this nervous energy before meeting a new group of students “to connect with and inspire my students as they follow their own chosen paths.”
Mia Vallet, a 2013 graduate from UNCSA’s School of Drama, took “Brechtian Theatre and Beyond,” a course that looks at the work of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, with Gabriel. Vallet described the class as her best academic experience at UNCSA.
“Our class was very lively and exciting, filled with passionate debate and student involvement. It quickly became a highlight of my week,” Vallet said. “Dr. Gabriel is obviously extremely passionate about his subject. My thinking and writing were pushed in new directions because of his investment in close readings and thoughtful responses to my work.”
A LIVING LANGUAGE
From the moment Gabriel steps into the classroom on the first day of a German language course, he immerses his students in the experience. He introduces himself in German, asks the students to introduce themselves in German and leads the class in a half-hour-long discussion, all in German. “It makes an incredible impression,” Gabriel said. “Years after, they remember.”
Throughout the rest of course, Gabriel puts the onus of learning on his students. He designs his classes so students complete readings and written exercises at home and can devote in-class time to practice and discussion.
Jason Mullen, a 2009 graduate of the School of Music, said Gabriel’s immense knowledge, paired with his down-to-earth humility, created a learning climate of openness and honesty, in which he felt comfortable being himself and was able to learn to his fullest potential.
“Dr. Gabriel’s German language teaching was some of the most effective teaching I have seen, regardless of the subject matter,” Mullen said. “He has a way of making German seem so clear and logical. His style was always kind and patient and emphasized the practical use of the language.” In addition, Gabriel introduced Mullen to Friedrich Duerrenmatt, Frank Wedekind, Bertolt Brecht and many other German-speaking dramatists, whose creative work served as a great source of inspiration for his own.
“I can honestly say the life lessons I learned from Dr. Gabriel in his classes have shaped me as a person,” Mullen said. “It was a pleasure and invariably illuminating to be around him, leaving me intrigued and wanting to learn more about my own existence.”
In addition to his work in the classroom, Gabriel hosts a weekly evening “Stammtisch,” or German conversation session, at Foothills Brewing in downtown Winston Salem.
“This is where I found my voice,” said student Thomas Rowell, who graduated from the School of Drama in 2012, of the conversation sessions. “Through these evenings and countless other outings, I not only got the chance to hear the language I had been learning, I got to try it out. The connection was made between the textbook and life.”
After he graduated from UNCSA, Rowell went to Berlin to study theater and wrote Gabriel a letter of gratitude to his former professor. “You made German a living language for me — not one that I sat at a desk and mindlessly repeated, but one that I took into the streets and shared a meal with in a crowded burger joint, or in the passenger seat of a Saab,” Rowell wrote. “I feel that much closer to the German perspective, and the more I speak, the more I learn about myself, about this beautiful country and about its people — but most importantly, about how clearly similar we all are despite our perceived differences. So thank you. For all of the untraceable and unspeakable influences that you have given me through the gift of foreign language.”
Story by Christina Cook, Freelance Writer
Photos submitted by UNCSA