by Helen West
Dutch instructor Jenneke Oosterhoff uses the real world in language instruction
Jenneke Oosterhoff is the hardest-working instructor in the Dutch Studies program. Of course, she's also the only on.
"It's only me," says the Holland native, who moved to the United States in 1991 and earned a Ph.D. in German at Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating, she accepted a teaching position at the University of Texas at Austin. A year later, she took up residence as a Dutch-language instructor at the University of Minnesota, which, along with the one in Austin, is among just a handful of Dutch programs in the United States.
While being a program of one (with occasional assists from graduate students) presents challenges, it has also given her the opportunity to chart a specific plan to grow the program to include the study of Dutch culture, literature, history, and even gender studies. "I've developed a model for students who want more than just three years of language study," says Oosterhoff. The plan folds cultural and literary studies into the higher-level language-acquisition courses, so as students gain more detailed knowledge of the language, they also gain deeper knowledge of the culture at large.
To teach these multifaceted courses, Oosterhoff is vigilant about staying on top of trends and topics in Dutch literature and culture and is always reading new Dutch-language novels. She also emphasizes reading in all her courses. In Beginning Dutch, students work through the textbook and read a children's book. By Advanced Dutch, they are reading six novels in a semester. "Many students today have insufficient training in reading," says Oosterhoff. "Part of my teaching psychology is: If I can get them to sit and read a book, I take that as an accomplishment."
Not to mention that Oosterhoff was approached by the academic publisher Routledge to write two books of her own: one each on beginning and intermediate Dutch grammar. "Most of the current Dutch grammar books are written in Dutch for foreign students in the Netherlands," says Oosterhoff, explaining the need for new teaching texts. "I wanted to write a grammar that can be used in Dutch programs across the United States, including my own: simple grammar, explained in English, using more contextualized examples and exercises."
Spreading knowledge of Dutch language and culture beyond the classroom walls, Oosterhoff organizes Dutch-American Heritage Day every November for the large Dutch community in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"I invite people to campus to celebrate, and I try to show them a bit more about contemporary culture," says Oosterhoff. "Understandably, expat communities tend to celebrate and preserve the more folkloristic side of their cultural heritage, forgetting that their native country is constantly changing and progressing." To remedy this, she invites Dutch-American Heritage Day speakers to address topics such as the history of AIDS-prevention efforts in Holland, one of the first countries to talk openly about the crisis in the early 1980s. Oosterhoff worked with the local publication Rain Taxi to bring two Dutch poets--Arjen Duinker and Kees't Hart--to the Twin Cities Book Festival and then to campus. The well-known Dutch novelist Renate Dorrestein has also spoken to students in the program.
In the coming years, Oosterhoff hopes to broaden the scope of her cultural offerings and grow enrollment. If you study Dutch "you can study in the Netherlands at some of the best universities in the world," she says--and "you get a chance to learn something that sets you apart from everyone else."
For more information about Dutch-American Heritage Day (November 20, 2008), see