The Prof Profile shows professors like you’ve never seen them before, as people. dwars asks the questions that have been bugging students for years; “What does your lecturer eat for breakfast”, for example. Alex Haider, German proficiency/grammar and culture lecturer, gets cross-examined this month.
Four years ago, you moved from Austria to Belgium. What are, in your opinion, the biggest differences between the two countries?
Well, I feel like there aren´t that many differences. It’s mostly the small things that are different, and it’s fun to recognise them. The noises the cities are filled with are distinct: like the signal horns of police, ambulances, fire trucks and trams.
The weirdest and initially quite puzzling cultural difference was the winking, though. I found myself being winked at by people I hardly knew and I didn't know what that was about. It's a quite intimate, conspiratorial gesture in Austria and I don't know what people thought of me when their gesture was met with a quite bewildered look.
You mostly teach German Proficiency and your classes are known of being very interactive. Did that already lead to funny or absurd situations in the past?
Sometimes a more interactive way of teaching leads to funny situations because it allows students to get involved on a more personal level. And language proficiency classes allow for that to happen. I always hope for those two or three students in a group that are a little bit more daring and not afraid of making a fool of themselves – and I try my best to lead by example regarding the latter. Those two or three students can then create a pull for the others to step out of their comfort zone a bit more. When I'm lucky, students take over the class, turn chairs and tables into a bus or a parking lot or even lay down on the floor to visualise and proof if instructions given in German actually work or not. I appreciate situations like that and try to create an environment that allows for creative and autonomous learning like that to happen.
You’re not only a German teacher, you also have studied Dutch yourself. What are the funniest or prettiest words you have encountered so far?
A word that makes me smile every time I hear it is vlinder – It´s even more beautiful than Schmetterling; I also like kikker and I laugh when I hear chacoche or rots – rotsklimmen is really funny for me because in German, Rotz means snot.
I find the Antwerps allez to be a very useful discourse marker while I still don´t fully understand when to insert soit. I also appreciate the concept behind a koffie verkeerd or the accurate ondersteboven or binnenstebuiten ('upside down' and 'inside out').
Recently, your project Deutschcafé was one of the winners of the science communication prize (an award given by the Royal Flemish Academy). For those who haven’t studied German, can you tell us what Deutschcafé is about?
Deutschcafé was founded 8 years ago by my colleagues Arvi Sepp (UA/VUB) and Margret Oberhofer (Linguapolis/KdG) and I've been working along since coming to the University of Antwerp four years ago. It´s a project that addresses people who are interested in the German language (and its varieties) and the culture of German speaking countries.
We organize between five and six events per academic year covering a variety of topics, like readings about for example the migration crisis or the power of Angela Merkel. We also organise quiz evenings, where people can shine with their knowledge on Germany, Austria and Switzerland or where they can increase that knowledge in a fun way.
Our goal is to bring people together and to cultivate “German” in Belgium. Our events are mostly very informal, the lingua franca is always German, admission is free and often we also organise a small reception afterwards to give people the opportunity to talk with to the guest speaker and one other. You can find us on the University of Antwerp website Deutschcafé and subscribe to our newsletter if you're interested – everybody is welcome.
The door of your office is an eye-catcher, with quotes like “Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn”. What inspires you to put up these quotes?
Ah! Are they being seen? That makes me happy. The one you mentioned was about reminding students to try to find their identity, to find out who they are as a person and to reflect on what kind of person they want to be in this society. Obviously this is not an easy thing to do and it requires a lot of personal reflective work. But I think it's a very important and rewarding process to be aware and also critical of oneself and one´s actions in regard to others. The additional “always be a unicorn” puts this heavy stuff a bit in perspective. Be colourful, be non-mainstream, create your own world. Create!
Why I do that? I think as a teacher I have the responsibility to challenge students not only on an professional but also on a personal level to be intentional and consentful with their life and to become responsible, critical, reflective, and kind people.
Finally, what advice do you give to your students?
Relax. Don't only study for points or credits. Also, the truth is that nobody but you can define what success or failure is or means – you have to take responsibility for this yourself. Yes, we still have to function within the system, but use all the wiggle room there is! Don't treat your studies as a means to an end (i.e. earning money) but as an investment into who you are as a person.
On a more practical level: Good organization/planning can reduce stress. Don't be afraid to talk to your professors. Try to get involved with the subject of your studies outside university – like, start using the language you´re studying outside classes or find projects like the Deutschcafé – take an Erasmus semester and breathe.
Thank you, Mister Haider!