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Laughing & Learning

By Kermit Pattison

Lena Norrman was in her mid-30s and already had two careers behind her when she found a new love—the Vikings.

Thus began a saga that led from her native Sweden to Iceland, Harvard, Turkey, Greece, and, finally, to the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch. Unlike the Vikings—runestones notwithstanding—Norrman has left unmistakable evidence of her arrival in Minnesota. In her first year as a lecturer in Swedish, she has enlivened teaching and spearheaded a revision of the curriculum.

“I love teaching," says Norrman. “And I love to spread the word about cool things like the Vikings, Scandinavian cultures, and the Swedish language."

Born and raised in Stockholm in a family of teachers, Normann briefly entertained the idea of becoming a professor but changed plans after a stint studying in Paris. “I came back and said to myself, ‘Nope, I don’t want to be an academic, I want to be a dressmaker or a weaver,’ " she recalls. “That was the late ’70s when everybody was following their own voice."

Norrman spent 13 years as a dressmaker. She customized fashionable dresses for high society and briefly worked at the Royal Opera in Sweden. Eventually, she wanted a career change and studied to be an executive assistant and bookkeeper. “I worked at an accountant’s office for about two years," she says. “That was dreadful. I was trapped inside an office again and I didn’t like that."

Craving intellectual challenge, she decided to go back to school. In 1995 she entered Uppsala University in Sweden and studied history. In her second year, she won a scholarship to spend a semester in Iceland. While she was there, it rained for three weeks straight and by the end of her stay daylight had disappeared. No matter. She loved it.

She read the Viking sagas, studied Icelandic, and was inspired by the natural landscape that seemed to bring history to life. The Vikings stormed into her heart.

After Norrman finished bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a friend suggested that she apply to graduate school at Harvard University. In 1998 she moved to Cambridge funded by a scholarship from the Swedish royal family.

Her unique life experience enriched her academic research. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the Overhogdal tapestry, a textile from northern Sweden made between 650 and 1240 A.D. She drew on her experience as a weaver to develop a new theory of the tapestry’s meaning. The tapestry, she contended, was not just a random collection of humans and horses—as one professor tried to tell her—but a series of microimages from the Saga of Volsungs and Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. She was convinced that the tapestry must be read from right to left because that’s how it would have been woven. Her quest to decipher the imagery led her to Greece and Turkey to study textiles and ceramics. The tapestry became part of her dissertation, “Women, Power and Performance in Viking Age Scandinavia," which she is revising into a book.

“This is the female way of telling a story," she says. “We have to follow her as a weaver along with the threads in the weft. She’s telling her story visually instead of verbally as a man would do in that time period."

Meanwhile, Norrman discovered a gift. At Harvard she won eight awards for distinction in teaching, and this passion impressed a hiring committee from the University of Minnesota Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch.

Norrman arrived here in the fall of 2005 and teaches elementary and intermediate Swedish. One of her main tasks has been revising the Swedish curriculum. She changed the textbook for introductory Swedish, assigned students more time in the language lab, and introduced a variety of lessons to encourage active learning.

“She has a devoted following of students and has inspired several students to become Scandinavian majors and minors," says Professor Kaaren Grimstad. “She insists that her students speak and write good Swedish, and she accomplishes this by means of pedagogical techniques that feature playing and serious fun."

The proof lies on her office shelves, which are lined with Swedish board games, videos, compact discs, newspapers, and magazines. There’s even plastic food for playing grocery store and a toy cash register (apparently her accounting background has come in handy too). All the props have a common purpose: to make students use Swedish in real-life situations.

Norrman asks students to explain how to make noodle soup in order to practice the s-passive. She hands out photos of celebrities from People magazine and assigns students to write a story in Swedish based on the characters.

“I get the most crazy stories," she says. “We laugh and laugh in the classroom."
And learn.