Teaching a Semester in Vienna: Connecting Cultural Experiences with Class Concepts

Study abroad programs offer opportunities to explore local culture using a textbook instead of a guidebook.

This semester, I have had the great fortune to teach in Vienna, Austria in one of my university’s study abroad programs.  The program itself is rather unique in that the Resident Professor (RP) and selected students go through the experience together and live under the same roof—essentially a century-old mansion with classroom space on the main floor as a “buffer” between the students’ bedrooms and faculty apartment.  Given that students select their classes from those offered by local professors as well as from the RP, each semester’s cohort tends to be particularly interested in the RP’s discipline.  Hence, the opportunity to teach two courses abroad (Developmental Psychology and Special Topics in Developmental Psychology: Bridging Fact With Fiction) to mostly Psychology majors or minors has been rewarding beyond belief.  Here, I share a few highlights of my experiences so far, which I hope will inspire others to find ways to get out of the classroom and connect cultural, real-world experiences with class concepts, regardless of where they are on the planet.

RPs in the study aboard program are urged to tailor their classes to take advantage of the cultural setting they are in, and Vienna has certainly been a historical hot spot for psychological theory and research.  Class excursions to the Freud Museum—complete with a visit to enjoy his favorite pastry (apple strudel!) at his favorite Viennese café, the Alfred Adler Center, and a weekend trip to Geneva, Switzerland to browse through the Piaget Archives, were obvious choices for class excursions.  Yet, some of my favorite experiences have been in planning activities that defied the obvious, and in making spontaneous connections both in the classroom and out.  For instance, even a casual reference to Gregor Mendel when discussing biological foundations took on a special meaning upon recognizing his Austrian roots, considering how he conducted his infamous work with pea plants in a still-operating monastery in nearby Brno, and the fact that we happened to discuss Mendelian genetics the day after some students returned from a day trip there.

As another example, one of our first class excursions was to the impressive Belvedere Palace in Vienna.  To be completely honest, the planned excursion started off as my way to find an “excuse” to visit the gorgeous museum to begin with.  In my preliminary planning, it struck me that the Belvedere houses the largest collection of busts by the famous German-Austrian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, as part of its permanent collection.  Surely, I could merge this exhibit with course material and, in preparation for the visit, I actually found that there were many more links than I initially expected.  As a prelude to the visit, we discussed creativity as a form of intelligence, issues of psychopathology (the artist was rumored to have been mentally unstable), and, perhaps most relevant, the possible universality of emotional expressions.  Moreover, although the main goal of the excursion was to visit the famous “Messerschmidt heads”, students were also encouraged to explore other parts of the museum.  In doing so, many other spontaneous links to class material were made (e.g., gender and portrayals of women in the art of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and other artists of the fin de siècle movement; religious persecution and issues of identity in medieval antiquities and frescos; changes in depictions of family structure and expectations for children through the centuries).  To be sure, this experience as a whole has taught me that there is no shortage of opportunities to link course material with real-life experiences, even in ways that might appear at first to be a “stretch”.  Hearing about these connections and sharing perspectives with students during a post-visit debriefing at a traditional Austrian brewery was also rewarding, but quite unlikely when I return, stateside!

Several other notable examples of linking class material with cultural activities and excursions come to mind.  For instance, one paper assignment requires students to define and illustrate developmental concepts (e.g., attachment classifications, self-esteem, Freud’s stages of development, issues of classism or racism, principles of physical growth) through the characters and themes found in fairy tales as authored by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, or other classic authors in the area.  Having students read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning prior to a visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp followed by a tour of the Viktor Frankl Museum in Vienna was another rich series of activities.  Visiting a WWII exhibition on Nazi experiments and crimes against children offered complex layers for discussion with regard to ethics and conducting research with human subjects.  Visiting a church designed by Otto Wagner that was erected solely for the benefit of hospital patients offered a meaningful start to considering cultural differences in societal views of and possible stigma related to the mentally ill.

The list of connections can go on and on.  Indeed, a large component of my overall teaching philosophy, even before I embarked on this experience, is to make course material as relevant and engaging as possible for my students.  Although I regularly try to infuse my classes with such connections (e.g., observe parent-child interactions at the playground, take note of how toys are organized and displayed at the store, notice the speech patterns of children from different developmental periods), this specific teaching experience has provided much inspiration for me to continue being on the lookout for such real-world integration, particularly in interdisciplinary ways that I never really considered before.  When I return to the U.S., for instance, I definitely plan on coming up with some “excuses” to plan some class excursions that take us out of the confines of the classroom, and perhaps visit some of the art museums and other cultural centers in my little corner of Winston-Salem.  I’ll admit that the post-visit pastries back home might not be as tasty though.

 

Dr. Lisa Kiang is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Wake Forest University.  She earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Denver and received her B.S. in Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park.  She teaches courses in developmental psychology, research in developmental psychology, and self and identity development.  Her primary research interests are in the intersections of self and identity, family and social relationships, and culture, with a focus on adolescents from immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds.  Major themes include relational or contextual influences on identity formation, and protective factors in promoting development and well-being.

 

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