New Math: Professors Trade Places in Unusual Exchange Program
By Lisa J. Mauch
Imagine, if you will, two men waking up one morning to discover that they’re driving each other’s cars, living in each other’s homes, visiting each other’s friends and working at each other’s jobs. They switched lives in an area of the fifth dimension known as…The Exchange Zone.
Fortunately for mathematics professors Bernd Rossa and Hans Fischer, Xavier and Universität Eichstätt were behind the swap, not Rod Serling. They were the first faculty members to participate in a semester-long exchange program between the universities—Fischer from Eichstätt, near Munich, and Rossa from Xavier.
“It started with the Munich Sister City Association of Greater Cincinnati encouraging us to develop a student exchange program with a university in Munich,” says Max Keck, retired dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. For the past eight years, Xavier has exchanged students with Eichstätt, which led the University to explore exchanging faculty as well. Rossa and Fischer were the first two interested faculty the schools were able to match up.
“Last summer, Dr. Rossa went to Germany on a trip and he visited Dr. Fischer to talk about the exchange,” says Keck. “Rossa showed him pictures of his own family and met Fischer’s family. So Fischer decided to come over here, and we were able to do the exchange. The idea was to trade homes and cars and to teach each other’s classes.”
And they did. Rossa is driving Fischer’s car; Fischer is driving Rossa’s car. Rossa is living in Fischer’s home; Fischer is living in Rossa’s home. Rossa’s kids go to Fischer’s school; Fischer’s kids go to Rossa’s school.
“I thought this would be a good opportunity to come to the U.S.,” says Fischer. “It’s a very important experience for my family. It’s a chance for my daughters to learn English and make social contacts.” Rossa echoed similar sentiments. “I grew up in Germany. I came to the U.S. 20 years ago, and this exchange was an ideal opportunity to reconnect with my family, with the ways of life I grew up with and to see how things have changed. It also allowed my wife and children to get to know the culture I came from a bit better.”
So while the professors’ families were adjusting to an alternate language and living in a new country, the two men were discovering just how different it was to teach in another land.
“I feel that the students in Germany are much more aware of the fact that it is up to them to learn, not up to the teacher,” says Rossa. “They do not expect the professor to cater to the students. For example, it’s customary that students rap on the tables with their knuckles at the end of each class as a form of applause.”
Fischer also noticed the difference in teaching styles between the two countries. “It’s a very interesting experience for me to learn a different university system,” he says, noting that most courses in Germany are taught lecture style. “And then here in the U.S., you have courses with 30 students and you can talk with the students and ask them questions and have discussions. It’s not as hard as giving a lecture for 60 minutes. The style here is more to discuss an issue and work on problems.”
Rossa finds himself bringing that American style to his German students. “I try to show students who are studying teaching how we approach mathematics here at Xavier. I thought that was something special I could contribute as part of the exchange. The students here expect lectures. They were surprised with the interaction going on, but now they are used to it and enjoying it.”
It’s this exchange of different styles and ideas that hits the program’s goals right on the mark. “What it does is bring new ideas into the department and the students benefit from having somebody with a new perspective,” says Keck. “Hopefully, as others come back to the University and talk about it, more students and faculty will become interested in going abroad.”