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New chair champions global languages and cultures

By Dave Larsen

University of Dayton Germanist Carola Daffner is willing to go to heroic lengths to engage students in global languages and cultures. During a “Comic Con” event at her previous institution, she dressed as Thor and performed two stories from Norse mythology about the hammer-wielding god of thunder and modern-day Avengers star.

The performance was part of a popular course about Germanic and Norse mythology that Daffner taught at Southern Illinois University. She’s also taught courses about gender and sexuality in German literature before and during Hitler’s rise to power; art and culture in Sigmund Freud’s Vienna and Franz Kafka’s Prague; and the refugee crisis in contemporary Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

“My goal is to tap into students’ interests and create courses about topics that they already find fascinating, but that will also enable them to experience diverse cultures and even, in often unexpected ways, learn more about themselves,” she said. “For example, many students know contemporary rewritings of Germanic myths or German fairy tales through the Marvel comics and movies, popular video games or fantasy books such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. My courses have a strong focus on how these original texts not only influenced but continue to influence Western civilization, its social customs, its ethical values and even mainstream entertainment.”

Daffner joined the University of Dayton faculty in August as associate professor and chair of the Department of Global Languages and Cultures. She succeeds professor Francisco Peñas-Bermejo, who served as chair since 2006.

While she doesn’t hail from Asgard, Atlantis or Krypton, Daffner has a unique origin story of her own. She grew up on a small farm in Bavaria, Germany, and attended a Catholic high school with a focus on classic and modern languages.

“I was taught by monks,” she said. “I started with Latin when I was 10 years old. At this school, I was introduced to more and more languages and it totally opened up the world to me.”

Fluent in English, German and a Bavarian/Austrian dialect native to her home region, Daffner has also studied Latin, French and Hebrew. Next, she would like to learn Italian.

Originally planning to teach English and German in Germany, she enrolled in a master’s degree program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville to improve her English skills. There, she discovered that she enjoyed the American university system, which offers smaller class sizes and greater student support from faculty. She was offered the opportunity to remain for another year to teach and work as a language coordinator at an international dormitory. She stayed several more years and received her doctoral degree in German literature from Vanderbilt.

A dual citizen of Germany and the U.S., Daffner spent most of the last 19 years in the U.S., apart from a year in Berlin to work on her dissertation.

She joined the Southern Illinois faculty in 2007 as a lecturer in German; became an assistant professor in 2010; and was promoted to tenured associate professor in 2015. She also served in a number of administrative roles at SIU, including acting associate dean of student and curricular affairs in the College of Liberal Arts, and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Languages, Cultures and International Trade.

The University of Dayton appealed to her because its Catholic culture is similar to that of her high school in Bavaria.

“In a way, this position combines a lot of different elements from my past,” she said.

Nicola Work, associate professor of French and search committee chair, said Daffner is a quick learner, has a great sense of humor and takes things in stride. “After her first two months here, I can say she is ready to tackle anything,” Work said.

Daffner’s research focuses on gender and the politics of space in German literature and film. Her 2012 book, Gertrud Kolmar: Dichten im Raum, was about an important German-Jewish poet whose work survived her death at Auschwitz in 1943 through such efforts as mailing it out of the country and burying it in the ground.

“My current research project is about one of the first German-speaking women who went to the German colonies in Africa in the late-19th century and caused a sensation in the German Empire when she published her travel journals after her return,” Daffner said. “Of course, these diaries are complex for a number of reasons, because colonialism and feminism appear here side-by-side.”

During the spring 2020 semester, Daffner will teach a course about films that were produced or sponsored by the Nazis during the Third Reich. Students will analyze the films — which include lavish comedies, romances and westerns that were intended to keep the German public happy amid the worsening war effort — to see how they tried to manipulate viewers to think a certain way.

She also hopes to offer her Germanic and Norse mythology course in the coming years — which could see a return of the mighty Thor to further engage students.

“I’m someone who did not fully realize how many new opportunities I would get just by starting to study languages and by not being afraid to leave home,” Daffner said. “UD offers so many study abroad options, and faculty can connect you with internships or teaching and volunteer work abroad. Obviously, I’m biased, but I think languages are an important asset to any sort of work that you want to do that would take you outside of your own little world.”

For more information, please visit the Department of Global Languages and Cultures website.

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