You can tell a lot about professors by the things displayed in their offices. Professor of German Stephen Naumann displays maps. The walls of his basement office in Delp Hall are covered in maps — of Poland before and between the two world wars, of Germany, of Prussia. He even has a “metro map” of all the major European cities, making the continent of Europe look like one giant metropolis.
“I’ve been fascinated with maps since I was little,” Naumann said. “You could give me a map of any state in the United States while we were in the car driving on vacation or something and I would stare at it for hours.”
Born in Minnesota, Naumann arrived at Hillsdale College in 2013. Some students believe he’d be one of the most popular professors on campus if he taught in one of the bigger departments, but he nevertheless won over students who study German, who appreciate his devotion to teaching as well as his distinctly European habits.
Naumann himself is seven-eighths German and one-eighth Czech, but his early interest in maps was partly what led him to a love for other languages and cultures — particularly those of Germany and Poland.
“There was a moment when I realized that every map is really either a false representation, or just a snapshot of a moment in time,” he said. “I became interested in what happens to those places and those cities when they all the sudden have different names and different people that live there and different farmers farming the land and different people populating the city. I wanted to know how people engage with a previous history of that space.”
Naumann speaks both German and Polish fluently, knows a little Spanish, and also learned some ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew, and Latin while studying at a pre-seminary school. He then decided to pursue graduate studies in German literature and went on to teach German and religion at a high school in the Twin Cities for a couple of years before joining the Hillsdale College faculty. Since high school, he has toured much of Central and Eastern Europe, and he applies a lot of his experiences in foreign countries to his teaching at Hillsdale.
Junior Phil Berntson said his current class with Naumann about the post-World War II history of Berlin is probably the best he’s ever taken at Hillsdale.
“You can talk about random things in history and he’ll just know what you’re talking about and he’ll have so much stuff to bring into the discussion,” Berntson said. “Going into office hours with Dr. Naumann is like the best ever. You do five minutes of German work and then you go in and just talk for like an hour about whatever. He’s so approachable.”
Senior Katarina Bradford, who will participate in the German study abroad program this year, said a discussion in office hours with Naumann was the reason she decided to major in German.
“In class we learned about the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, and that happens to be the church where my Grandfather was christened in 1925,” Bradford said. “So in office hours I brought that up, and he said, ‘Wow, that’s so wonderful — we should investigate your grandfather’s heritage,’ and he looked up pictures in the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche records, and that was one of the things that sealed the deal for me wanting to actually major in German. You can just see his love for people and their cultures,” Bradford said.
Besides German, Naumann also teaches seminars for the Collegiate Scholars program on topics such as Polish history and culture, and the migration and changing maps during the postwar era. He also helps select films for the German film series and co-runs the Slavic film series with Professor of Theater James Brandon. In addition to attending the German “Stammtisch” table in Bon Appétit each Friday, Naumann also plays on the college’s intramural soccer team and holds an Oktoberfest — a traditional German celebration held in the month of October at his house for the entire department. If you visit him at his office, he will offer you tea and a German or Polish treat he acquired from a European store in Kentucky.
“Everyone who’s ever taken him loves him to death,” Bernston said. “He’s just an actually kind person.”
Earlier this summer, Naumann married his Polish fiancé, Agata, whom he met while studying at a language school in her hometown of Poznan, Poland. On one particular day, he was looking for someone to translate a presentation he was going to give from English to Polish, since he didn’t want to write it in Polish. Naumann said a mutual friend introduced them, and “the rest is history.” Agata taught two years of French as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky and is now in Hillsdale working on her dissertation for her doctoral degree in hispanic studies.
Naumann’s favorite German word is “fernweh,” which has no direct English counterpart and denotes a desire to be abroad, or a pining away for no place in particular. The existence of the word in the German language makes sense, as Germans travel more per capita than any other country. Naumann recognized this from a young age, remembering with fondness the “Wanderman” (hiker) decoration hanging up in his living room.
“He was a little painted figure,” Naumann said. “He’s got a sort of a cap on and his hair is kind of coming out all sides, and he’s got a knapsack on his back and he’s sort of in stride, he’s got his walking stick — he’s just loving it I guess. He’s just enjoying the adventures of travel.”