Faculty Abroad: Christina von Nolcken

Professor von Nolcken on teaching in four foreign cities.
This has been a huge part of my intellectual life in these last years, getting these things ready. I like doing it so much that it’s fine: I very much enjoy the excuse to read lots of new texts.
Professor Christina von Nolcken

For some of Christina von Nolcken’s students, class means Tuesday afternoons in Social Sciences, poring over chunks of Old English poetry. For others, an average day of the quarter might involve a jaunt to Thessaloniki, Florence, or Budapest.

Professor von Nolcken teaches medieval English literature here at UChicago, but over the past decade or so she’s branched out—across disciplines and across the world. A perennial study abroad faculty member, she’s taught a variety of content for four of the College’s overseas programs: “British Literature, History, and Culture in London,” as well as Civilizations programs in Athens, Rome, and Vienna. That number will rise to five in 2016, when she lands in Barcelona to lead a “Civilization in the Western Mediterranean” course.

For students who study abroad, living and learning in a foreign city can feel like a once-in-a-lifetime experience; von Nolcken is in a unique position to have that experience year after year. But the luster has yet to wear off.

“Every time I go on one of these things it seems it’s even better than the last,” she says.

This trend of traveling to teach is a relatively recent development for her cohort of professors. “Most of my career was spent without any of this going on: we stuck on the South Side of Chicago and worked—hard—and that was good enough for us,” von Nolcken says. But eventually the University’s growing commitment to international education began to open up teaching opportunities outside of Hyde Park.

Her study abroad streak began a little over a decade ago, when she taught for a graduate-level program formerly offered in Tokyo. Next she traveled to London to work with intrepid English majors on the “British Literature, History, and Culture” program; there she took material from her courses back home but shook things up with trips to historical regions like Cornwall.

After London, von Nolcken began her close relationship with the Civilizations Abroad programs. First she travelled to Athens, where she has continued to teach on three different occasions. Drawing from her background as a medievalist, she focused her course on the Byzantine period, but she also felt it was important to draw on more contemporary history.

One year she brought in a documentary filmmaker to help explain the plight of Greeks during World War II: “The students were having a wonderful time in what seemed like a holiday place—I thought they should know what these people have been through….They got a more complex view of where they were living.”

In addition to her many experiences in Athens, she’s voyaged to Vienna and Rome to teach the medieval segments of the Civilizations sequences there. She’ll continue to focus on the Middle Ages in Barcelona next winter, but this fall, her course in Rome will take her outside of her temporal wheelhouse: she’s agreed to teach the classical section of the curriculum. Reinventing herself as a classicist means a workload that would tax even the most industrious UChicago students. “The students will be reading two books of the Iliad, so I had better have the Iliad down cold before I start!”

Even when teaching courses more related to her specialization, she doesn’t see her time abroad as a chance to take it easy. “It’s much harder work than teaching a course at home,” von Nolcken explains. You won’t find her in tourist-mode after a day of class: “I go back to my sofa and read the texts for the next day!” But, in the true spirit of the life of the mind, she doesn’t lament these busy days hitting the books. “This has been a huge part of my intellectual life in these last years, getting these things ready. I like doing it so much that it’s fine: I very much enjoy the excuse to read lots of new texts.”

Teaching on so many programs has helped her see the value of overseas study for students as well as faculty. Their learning experience extends outside the classroom: “One thing the students learn is how to maneuver in foreign countries. They do it on a scale that’s completely unprecedented, so in six days they’ll have gone to Turkey, to London, and to Barcelona—now that’s crazy!...That’s no small thing, not to be afraid of going abroad, to know that you can do it.”

Professor von Nolcken is also impressed with how smoothly her students absorb new communication skills: she raves, “The language thing is just fantastic.” Students with little prior knowledge of Greek or German or Italian quickly develop the know-how they need to get around. Von Nolcken is so inspired by the quality of language instruction that she’s considering taking the pre-program German course herself, and has already bought a Greek textbook from the instructor in Athens. For now, though, she feels comfortable living abroad even without fluency in the local language: “It’s never been difficult because the [grad student] assistants are so good.”

Though she sees common threads in her various experiences abroad—hard, satisfying work and enthusiastic students—she notes that every program has been rewarding in its own way. Of Athens, she explains, “I have a lot of connections with Greece, so it was very special to be able to go there.” Moving further north, “Vienna, I thought was paradise,” and “Rome just blew my mind.” And the London program? “That was special enough to make me buy an apartment [there]—now that’s a big deal! Those things are not cheap!”

But for von Nolcken, it’s not just the cities themselves that keep her coming back to teach abroad. Working with the students is what makes the labor-intensive process of preparing a course worth the effort: “Doing these fun things with the students is the reward. Going on these excursions, the interactions with the students, everyone being really rather happy—it’s a very nice atmosphere.”

Tagged: Faculty, study abroad