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Balancing Act

By Kermit Pattison


Ginny Steinhagen is quick to mention one credential that is missing from her résumé. She rides a unicycle.

It’s not surprising that she has a good sense of balance given the multiple responsibilities she juggles in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch: teaching German as a senior lecturer, revising the second-year curriculum, and coordinating two outreach programs.

“I don’t think I want to be quoted as admitting that I am a workaholic,"? says Steinhagen (who later allowed her confession to be made public). “But I do think an argument could be made for that!?

Steinhagen grew up in Waconia, Minnesota. Both her parents descended from German colonies in the Minnesota towns of Waconia and Cologne and spoke what she describes as “Minnesota German."?

“Whenever interesting things happened, my parents spoke German,"? she recalls. “It was the secret language to keep it from the kids."?

After earning a B.A. in history from the College of St. Catherine, Steinhagen planned to become a historian of the German Reformation. As it turned out, her own career aspirations went through a reformation. While she was studying for a master’s degree in history at the University of Minnesota, she audited a German culture course with Professor Gerhard Weiss.

“He’s a phenomenal teacher and I just watched him teach and thought, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’ "? she recalls. “I realized I wanted to teach language and culture more than I wanted to teach history."? Steinhagen earned a Ph.D. in 1996 in German literature with a minor in education. She passed her preliminary exams the day before she went into labor with her first child.

Teaching is one of her greatest joys. She usually teaches intermediate German and conducts most of the class in the language. Her classes open a window to cultural questions: she encourages students to think about why Germans fly the flag less than Americans do and don’t sing their national anthem before sporting events. She also is a strong advocate for study abroad.

“I want my students to get as excited about the German language and culture as I am,"? she says. “Spending time abroad and experiencing it firsthand is the best way to do this. At the very least they will be exposed to a new culture and improve their German, but the decision to study abroad could have much more impact on their careers and lives."?

Emphasizing learning through play, Steinhagen uses origami to teach students about giving directions with the imperative. Such exercises mimic the natural way people learn their native tongues. “You understand from the context,"? she says. “When you learn your second language, the more you do, the more you use the language in real situations. That’s what’s important."?

With colleague Beth Kautz, Steinhagen recently led a team that revised the intermediate curriculum and created a new worktext. She also constructed an innovative curriculum for distance learning courses offered through the College of Continuing Education. The distance learning materials are an adaptation of the first-year curriculum with added online features such as flash cards, a bank of self-correcting exercises, and pronunciation exercises. It recently won an award from the University Continuing Education Association.

To demonstrate, Steinhagen opens her laptop, clicks a button and the voice of her former professor Gerhard Weiss says, “Willkommen."?

Indeed, Steinhagen has welcomed countless students to German. She also has taught at the Humboldt University in Berlin, the University of St. Thomas, and St. Paul Academy. She is the department’s faculty coordinator for the College in the Schools program. The number of high schools in the program has grown from 14 to 21 during her tenure.

Steinhagen keeps busy but does find time for one hobby: unicycling. Her son picked up the sport while taking circus classes. Steinhagen, her husband and their other two children followed suit, and now unicycling is one of their main family pastimes. They are active in the Twin Cities Unicycle Club and ride in about 25 parades each year. Last summer, the entire family traveled to an international unicycle competition in Langenthal, Switzerland—luckily, in a German-speaking part of the country.

“I believe in traveling light,"? says Steinhagen. “But when you have five unicycles in your luggage, it changes the picture."?