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Full Stream Ahead

by Danny Lachance

Singing and smelting, Ray Wakefield has been sharing with students his passion for language, history, and culture for nearly 40 years


For many years, Minnesota's Dutch program hosted an annual visitor from the Netherlands, an up-and-coming young author who would spend the year teaching and writing in the Twin Cities. And every year Ray Wakefield, associate professor of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch, would give the visitor a quintessentially Minnesota experience by taking the writer up to his cabin on the North Shore in April for the annual smelt run--a massive migration of tiny fish along the streams that run into Lake Superior. Standing in a frigid stream late at night and hoisting a net teeming with fish out of icy water--what could be more Minnesotan than that?

One year, Wakefield ruptured his Achilles tendon in a volleyball game several weeks before the smelt run. He never even considered canceling the trip--or the end-of-the-school-year fish fry that traditionally followed it. So there he was, wading into the icy spring water at midnight in a full leg cast, showing a Dutchman how to position his net to catch the smelt. "One of the graduate students was with us, and every time my crutch would fall out from under me and begin to float away, she would run and grab it and bring it back to me," Wakefield recalls, laughing.Moments like that are classi
A newcomer to Minnesota in 1969, he founded the Dutch program in 1970, which was, and still is, one of just a handful in the country. Under his stewardship, the program grew into one of the largest and best known in the nation. The Dutch writers he brought to campus put Minnesota on the map for Dutch readers. "The experiences these writers had [in Minnesota] would show up in novels, books, essays. Dutch readers know more about Minnesota than we would think," Wakefield says.

A teacher of language, history, and culture, he has been a force behind significant developments.

A decade into his career here, he headed a task force that overhauled foreign language instruction at the University. Collaborating with both federal initiatives and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Wakefield helped to implement at Minnesota nationwide standards for better assessment of students' proficiency in foreign languages. Proficiency tests, he explains, put everyone--University faculty members, high school teachers, prospective employers--on the same page when it came to evaluating a student.

He also pushed for a shift toward a more communication-based teaching of language. It's a way of teaching languages that seems vKlaas van der Sanden dryly describes it as "thinking that one might actually learn how to use the language in real-life situations, instead of by going through grammar rules in meaningless exercises, like a thousand versions of 'Father's pipe is made of clay.' " Thirty years ago, though, it represented a departure from established methods.

For Wakefield himself, nothing quite compares to the thrill of teaching students about medieval culture. His courses, he says, are aimed at replacing students' romanticized ideas about knights in shining armor and damsels in distress with a complex picture of a radically different way of life.

To understand the period, Wakefield tells his students, you have to see the world through a perspective that is so foreign to us that it's difficult to inhabit. For instance, medieval culture is steeped in communal rather than personal identity--a fact that alters ideas about something as fundamental as justice.

Sexually assaulting a married woman of noble birth, for example, was a criminal act not because it violated the dignity of the victim, but because it incited large-scale acts of violence. "The rights of the women involved aren't mentioned at all," Wakefield says of medieval transcripts of judicial proceedings. "The disturbance of the communal peace of the kingdom is the key. Not the individuals--that's insignificant. It's the fact that the king's knights are killed, that a melee has erupted, that the peace is disturbed."

To get students to understand this and other values of the Middle Ages, Wakefield shows his classes films that capture the period's idiosyncrasies, like the French film Perceval le Gallois, in which characters communicate using stylized gestures and appear taller than trees, as they do in medieval manuscript illuminations.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail makes the cut as well. Buried in its silliness are rich allusions to medieval culture that reflect the scholarly background of the film's creators. "Almost everything in the film that seems too outrageous to be true ties into the studies of the authors at Cambridge and Oxford," Wakefield says.

Once his students have analyzed these intelligent portrayals of the Middle Ages, Wakefield turns the tables on them and asks them to write and produce a scene that could be added to one of the films. They then have to show the scene to the class and write an analysis explaining how their historical knowledge informed the decisions they made, from plot to camera angles.

The assignment, he says, leads to historical research and more sophisticated analysis than a project in which students merely analyze an existing text. Writing and filming a scene requires them to consider the relevance of every detail--every location, prop, line, and gesture has to fit into the analysis of the Middle Ages the students are presenting.

The results, he says, are inspiring--and voluminous. "I have to put limits on the analysis, because some of these students would write a small book," Wakefield says.
But getting carried away by the material is part of the learning process. As his students will attest, he himself is not afraid to go out on a limb at times to capture their attention.

A few years back, he was teaching a class on medieval poetry as part of his German Civilization and Culture course. He wanted the students to hear the distinctive beauty of sounds from a mystic poem of the period: the reduction of every line in the poem to one scintillating, rhyming syllable, the majestic sense of repetition that captured his imagination decades ago when he was a first-semester graduate student. And so, on a whim, he closed his eyes, took a breath, and began to recite aloud.

When he finished, he opened his eyes to a sea of faces with their mouths agape. He was so caught up in the beauty of the poem that he didn't notice how shocked the students were, unaccustomed to seeing their professors burst into sonorous recitation.

He thinks that moment in the class had something to do with the comment he received on his student evaluations at the end of the semester--perhaps the most memorable comment he's received from a student in his 39 years of teaching at Minnesota.

"The student said, 'It was really intense. I thought sometimes his head would explode,' " Wakefield recalls, laughing. "And I thought, 'Maybe I should cut down a little bit.' "

Luckily for his students and his colleagues, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.