Brücken bauen: Rosmarie Morewedge leaves a lasting impact in German studies and beyond
When the Berlin Wall fell and the gates between East and West yawned wide, Rosmarie Morewedge was ready.
Even during Soviet times, Binghamton University hosted a few students from the University of Leipzig, located in what was then East Germany. Shortly after the nation’s reunification, Morewedge — an associate professor who chaired Binghamton University’s Department of German and Russian Studies from 1988 to 2008 — began an official exchange program with Leipzig, similar to one already in place in Graz, Austria.
“We have sent a lot of students to the University of Leipzig and received students from there,” she said. “It became a very interesting prospect for students; the American students could think about their place in the world, and how the United States could collaborate with a new Europe and a new Germany.”
Morewedge, who began teaching at Harpur College in 1969, retired in December 2022, after decades of shaping Binghamton’s language programs. And her impact extends beyond the German language; under her chairship, Binghamton developed programs in East Asian languages such as Chinese, Korean and Japanese, a process that took nearly 10 years to see to fruition, noted Associate Professor of German and Russian Studies Harald Zils. In fact, the department was once known as German, Russian and East Asian Languages, or GREAL.
She also enjoyed teaching classes that drew on her interdisciplinary interests in literature and history, such as “Myths of Power and the Power of Myth,” “Fairytales in the Social Development of the German Bourgeoisie,” “Literary Fairytales as German Responses to the French Revolution” and “Global Tales,” as well as courses in medieval German literature.
“’Tireless’ hardly does her justice; she is a whirlwind of ideas and energy, always pursuing new possibilities, bringing people together and creating connections,” said Jamie Rankin, director of the Princeton University Center for Language Study. “I’ve never encountered anyone who was so tirelessly committed to the well-being and growth of a department, and indeed of the profession as a whole.”
Morewedge earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she focused on medieval studies, folklore and mythology. She and her husband — philosophy scholar Parviz Morewedge — came to the East Coast to be closer to their families.
“I found this to be a department of intellectuals who were interested in theory and in literature, and there were colleagues who became very good friends. And then, of course, I saw how great the students were here, and what a pleasure they were to work with,” she said.
Harpur’s German Studies program, which only offers an undergraduate major and minor today, looked different in the late 1960s; at that point it still had a doctoral program, which the State University of New York system was in the process of phasing out. While Morewedge taught seminar courses related to German literature from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque periods to graduate students, her role began to focus more on undergraduate language instruction.
“Pedagogy became extremely important: how to teach and think about language teaching, how to connect language with cultural competence and use it as an asset in research, in travel, but even more so in thinking,” she explained. “Language is a new skill for our students, and it gives them awareness of another part of the world.”
Consider, for example, the German political system, which students learn about during their studies. Rather than the winner-take-all politics of the United States, in Germany multiple parties work in concert to form a coalition government and dissent — such as criticism from opposing parties — is seen as positive and helpful.
“By studying the election, students learn about a different kind of discourse and a different way of doing things,” said Morewedge, noting that learning about a political system isn’t tantamount to supporting it. “They think about what systems of governance make the greatest sense and what they represent.”
The late 1980s saw the increased globalization of trade, communication and science. Binghamton aligned with these trends, with general education requirements that encouraged global perspectives and an increasing focus on Asia. As department chair, Morewedge worked to build international connections not only with Germany and Austria, but Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.
Under the aegis of GREAL, German studies students might attend a discussion on Japanese film, and students studying Chinese might attend a German-themed event, such as a tour centered on German scientific developments. The breadth of international opportunities taught students to be global citizens, an asset for whichever career they chose, she said.
“She was always a champion for internationalism of the college and the University,” said Zils, who first met Morewedge in 2004 after he came to Binghamton from Bonn, Germany, via a government exchange program.
Education-abroad opportunities play a critical role in both fostering global perspectives and achieving fluency in a target language.
“It’s absolutely transformative to be in another country,” Morewedge reflected. “When you go abroad, you have to rethink the purposes, the goals and the processes of education, and why you do things and how they could be done differently, and how you want to plan your life.”
All too often, these opportunities are out of reach for lower-income and first-generation students. Throughout her career, Morewedge has worked to make international education more accessible, such as promoting the Weigand Study Abroad Scholarship established by retired Professor Paul Weigand.
“She always made sure that students who study abroad with our programs have extra money so they can attend theater performances and concerts, and enjoy the cultural life of Europe,” Zils said.
In the education-abroad programs at Graz and Leipzig, students enroll in universities there and attend regular college classes — entirely in German. That requires an exceptional level of language proficiency, which Morewedge helped students achieve beforehand with six- to eight-week language immersion workshops, said Katharine Krebs, who joined Binghamton as director of international programs in 1994.
“It is rare for a language program to get their undergraduate students to that level of proficiency,” said Krebs, who retired in 2015. “She contributed to making the German program equivalent to the best German instruction you could find at any university in the United States. That’s an incredibly distinguished accomplishment.”
She would also introduce the American exchange students headed to Graz or Leipzig to their German and Austrian counterparts at Binghamton, so that they would already know someone once they reached their overseas destination, she added.
A generous heart
Morewedge’s generosity extended beyond students to faculty and staff. Krebs remembers fondly the bouquet of flowers that Morewedge left for her on her first day on the job. Morewedge provided counsel and career guidance for Rankin, then an assistant professor of German in his first job out of graduate school; he remembers her fondly 30 years later.
Thanks to her negotiations, Rankin was able to take a year off to gain additional training in language teaching — although she must have recognized that training would likely prompt his move to another university someday, he said. She also recommended him for the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, which he won.
She is also a consummate organizer, Zils pointed out. A few years ago, she helped start an alumni organization for the American branch of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the German Academic Exchange Service.
On the research side, she has led academic conferences in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, on the role of women in the Middle Ages, and has spoken at universities around the world, including in Iran. She will continue to conduct research and present at conferences, including one this June in Reykjavik, she said. Plans are also in the works to create a German studies scholarship in memory of a former student.
During her more than 50 years at Binghamton, Rosmarie Morewedge has left an indelible mark on generations of students that goes beyond the worthy goal of mastering a language.
“She wanted the students to have the best support, the best guidance and the best teaching possible. She wanted them to really grow in their undergraduate experience, to be venturesome and not afraid to experiment,” Krebs said.