When senior German major Emma Eisenman visited Hillsdale as a prospective student, she already had her heart set on attending a different college. Her meeting with the head of the German department during that visit, however, changed her mind.
“Dr. Geyer is the reason I am here, and I am so thankful for it. I didn’t know I wanted to come here until I met with him,” Eisenman said.
Eberhard Geyer, current chairman and professor of German, and director of German Study Abroad Programs, has taught at Hillsdale for almost 35 years. This semester will be his last, as he retires in December.
During his time on campus, Geyer has built the German department from the ground up.
“When I started here in 1985, I inherited a German department which was in decline and had some 35 to 40 students total,” Geyer said.
Now, the German department is thriving.
“This semester, we have 30 students in just one course, the upper level literature class, all of whom are either minors or majors,” he said. “That’s phenomenal.”
“The fact that we have three full-time faculty is unusual for even a good college of the size of Hillsdale,” Geyer said. “At many other colleges, unfortunately, German has disappeared. Languages are a bit in trouble, but I think we are doing really well here because of the institutional support, the department’s dedication, and the willing and very dedicated liberal arts students we have here at Hillsdale. Hillsdale students can be exposed to such wonderfully crazy works as Faust to be read and discussed in German.”
The German department has reached beyond the classroom as well. Assistant Professor of German Stephen Naumann describes how the students carry what they learn in class into their day-to-day lives through conversations in German over lunch and greeting each other in the hallways.
Hillsdale’s German department begins the study of literature quite early. Starting at the 201 level, students are already reading a full novel. Upon completion of 202, all students can begin taking the literature courses.
Geyer has taught these literature courses, which cover canonical literature from the classical era of Goethe and Schiller, the 19th century and its romanticism, realism, and naturalism, up through the 20th century, reading works by Kafka, Mann, and Zweig.
“To my very last teaching day, I will walk into a literature class with a good sense of ‘creative’ panic,” Geyer said. “I have certain key items in mind that need to be discussed, and then I just start talking. Teaching for me is having a conversation with an interested and caring partner.”
Junior Kathleen Hess said Geyer’s approach encouraged her to speak more in class.
“I fell in love with his class on the first day of freshman year,” Hess said. “He encourages you to talk and has a fun dynamic in class. For a language setting, that really helps.”
Throughout his time at Hillsdale, Geyer has greatly influenced students and faculty alike. Politics professor Mickey Craig described Geyer as “a good man, an outstanding teacher and scholar, and a great friend.”
“He instills into his students his own love for literature,” said Naumann. “He has a gift for reaching students with the types of questions and ideas that are in a specific work. We owe an awful lot to him for his hard work and vision in building the program into what it is today.”
Many related how much laughter and joy Geyer creates. Despite heavy topics in the literature read in the German department, students say they are able to laugh in class because Geyer brings the stories to life.
“There was a scene in the book we were reading that the class just didn’t understand,” said sophomore Tricia Becker. “So Dr. Geyer acted it out. At one point, he acted out a lamp. Afterwards, we all understood the scene so much better. It was really funny, and made it really easy to understand.”
French professor Anne Theobald has had an office on the same floor as Geyer for four and a half years.
“I think what I will miss most when he retires is his infectious laugh,” she said. “During the two periods of the semester when he
conducts oral exams in his office, I frequently hear him laughing with his students. It’s the same hearty laugh that he shares on a daily basis with colleagues.”
Geyer’s classes have impacted many students’ lives. Junior German and music double major Zsanna Bodor fondly remembers Geyer’s literature course she took last year.
“We listened to Schubert and Schumann arrangements of beautiful poems by Goethe,” Bodor said. “When we studied Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell,” Dr. Geyer brought in a yodeling CD. I can still remember that feeling of pure delight, sitting in class on a warm autumn afternoon, sunshine shimmering through the golden trees into our classroom, listening to the sweet strains of Inntaler Sänger.”
Among the many opportunities the German department provides, one of the most loved by students is its study abroad programs, both pioneered by Geyer. Running since 1986, the Würzburg Intensive Summer program offers students the opportunity to study and live in southern Germany for a month. The semester-long Saarland University Exchange Program has been in operation for the last 22 years, enabling students to study immersively at an international university.
“I think the addition of the two overseas programs has been a catalyst to the success of the German program,” said Geyer. “I think it is a proud achievement that, at a small school such as ours, the German department has its own bona fide exchange with a German university in addition to a very popular summer study program in beautiful Würzburg.”
Hess completed the Würzburg program the summer after her freshman year.
“It changed my life,” she said.
Eisenman just returned from the Würzburg program this past summer. Without Geyer’s encouragement, however, she may not have gone.
“He really pushed me when I was trying to be too pragmatic about college. I think I needed that push,” Eisenman said. “I needed someone to say, don’t go into it with any expectations. It’s your own adventure, go live it. The Würzburg program felt like the capstone to my German study in a sense, but it also made me realize that my study in German is just beginning.”
Associate professor Fred Yaniga has taken over the role as head of the German department.
“It is a daunting task,” he said. “I have even more respect for him every day. It is a lot of work that requires vision, and Dr. Geyer certainly had that vision. He is a consummate professional. He has demonstrated how to work collegially both with his coworkers and with his students. He has wonderful rapport with students. He is incredibly caring and professional with them. He often maintains relationships with them. He does all of this from behind the scenes.”
Geyer’s work has left a wide-reaching mark on Hillsdale and its students.
“I am reminded of the scope of this program among our alumni,” said Yaniga. “There are people working in Central Hall, Moss Hall, the library who are all his students. The legacy that he leaves behind him is a legacy of people whose lives he has touched through his classes, his ideas, his words. That won’t be forgotten.”