Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit... The first verses of the medieval Nibelungenlied, which was likely recited in song form, open up an entire literary world. The epic poem dates back to the Völkerwanderung period and internal struggles for power within the Merovingian dynasty, when politics was ripe with lust for power, ambition, betrayal and death.
The Nibelungenlied, or Song of the Nibelungs, is a fixture on the reading list of German language and literature students, whose studies include looking at Old and Middle High German texts. Students are usually required to write term papers on specific aspects of the poem and hand them in for grading at the end of the semester. Senior teaching assistant Daniela Fuhrmann and teaching assistant Thomas Müller from the Department of German Studies, however, have chosen a different path. “We want to use modern media such as videos and podcasts and their specific forms of expressions for literary analyses,” says Thomas Müller. “The aim is to promote new approaches in our field and ideally also gain insights into relevant aspects of canonical literary works from the Pre-Modern Era,” adds Daniela Fuhrmann.
Wherein lies the benefit of this approach? “Students learn to think in other formats and not follow the fixed formula of writing a term paper,” says Daniela Fuhrmann. She adds that is also important that students not just describe the contents of the poem but approach it through the lens of literary studies and find new angles for analysis. The innovative project was developed within the competitive Teaching Fund, which is supported by UZH.
More than theory
After the first of the project’s four semesters, Fuhrmann and Müller are happy with the progress of their project. The students in their course face a challenging task. On top of the literary workload, they also have to anticipate how their work will be received, since their video or podcast should also serve as a source of information for other students or also high school students. The project has a lot to offer in terms of professional skills, too: “Our students develop media skills in addition to their literary competencies,” says Müller.
Fuhrmann and Müller teach their seminar in tandem, which creates an unfamiliar dynamic for students. “We don’t necessarily always agree on everything, and different interpretations are possible depending on your perspective,” says Fuhrmann. She believes this is an interesting situation for students, as it enriches course room discussions and enables them to take a critical look at the methods used in literary studies.
Water, wine and blood
And this approach brought about exciting projects at the end of the previous Spring Semester. One group, for example, created a Facebook page, where Burgundian princess Kriemhild posts status updates, uses instant messaging and hands out “Likes”. By reading her Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages, Kriemhild’s deft revenge unfolds to the readers after her husband Siegfried is murdered by Hagen.
Another group focused on the significance of water, wine and blood in the Nibelungenlied. Their insights can be seen in the aesthetically pleasing video above (in German). The video was produced by Eliya Livas, who describes the benefits of the medium: Videos can take into account individual needs; depending on the topic, you can decide to work alone or in a group, produce a live action or animated film, step in front of the camera or stay behind the scenes. “But it’s still essential to uphold scientific standards. Videos are supposed to be an enriching addition, and they mustn’t be lacking in quality and content,” says Eliya Livas. This is why her first step was to formulate hypotheses – as you would for any term paper. “I was able to revise these hypotheses during video production, just like I would have in a term paper.”
Letting the material sink in
And Eliya Livas has some advice: She recommends not rigidly sticking to the original concept for the video, but letting the material itself sink in. The nature of video, which combines many very different things such as audio, on-screen text, moving pictures, color and visual concepts, motifs, objects, and possibly music, brings about connections that you may not have thought of previously. “Once the concept is put to film, it in turn also has an effect on the contents and meaning of the video itself,” says Eliya Livas.
The past semester wasn’t just a first for students, but also for Fuhrmann and Müller. The Teaching Fund has made it possible to plan and realize this new approach. And the project provides Fuhrmann and Müller with a diverse basis on which they can continue to explore university teaching.
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