Class explores the ‘wild side’ of language

Thomas Lang selected as new German creative writing professor


Milton Guevara

Ben Devlin, ’19, and Eric Pingel, ’18, compare notes in Thomas Lang’s creative writing class.

Every fall semester, Allegheny College hosts a resident from Germany, using a grant provided by the Max Kade Foundation, Inc. The foundation has been bringing German teachers to Allegheny since the early 1990s. The college is currently hosting Thomas Lang, a creative writing teacher.

“We are proud to have him,” said Peter Ensberg, professor of modern and classical languages. “Allegheny is one of only a handful of institutions in the [United States] that has this kind of residency for a writer.”

The German creative writing course offers students a chance to approach their studies from a different angle.

“They discover within themselves the ability to work creatively in a foreign language,” said Ensberg.

Ensberg is charged with inviting writers to campus. With a residence in Berlin, Ensberg is able to conduct research on  literary theory. During his visits to Germany, he scouts for potential teachers.

“Berlin is probably the most vibrant city in the German-speaking world,” Ensberg said.

Ensberg looks for talented writers with an interest in teaching. The prospective teacher has to enjoy working with students. Ensberg monitors the writing circles in Germany by attending readings.

“The writer has to have certain pedagogical qualities,” Ensberg said.

According to Ensberg, Lang is a well-known author in Germany. Ensberg was impressed with Lang as a writer and his prior experience teaching.

“He is forthcoming with explanations … [and] he is patient,” said Ensberg. “Those qualities are very important to teach students how to write creatively in a foreign language.”

Lang encourages students to be expressive with language. According to Ensberg, many students taking the course have studied in Germany. While many language courses focus on grammar, Lang said he wants students to learn about other aspects of the language, and he believes the course offers a unique way to engage with the German language.

“Mr. Lang shows the other side of language, the wild side of language,” Ensberg said. “It is a great opportunity to work with the language in a liberal environment.”

According to Lang, he wants to encourage the ambition of his students. Lang said he tries to generate creativity by bringing in German texts. The structure of the course is flexible to the needs of his students.

“The most important thing is to be open-minded, playful and creative. It is not so much about being all correct,” said Lang. “There is more freedom in it.”

Lang said he does not want his students to be busy worrying about conventions.

“You lose your spirit for the language,” he said.

Lang said one of the challenges facing him is figuring out what material will connect with students. The cultural differences between Germany and the U.S. can create some differences in tastes.

“The things we are laughing at are a bit different,” Lang said. “You just have to figure out what works and what does not work. It is very much about getting to know each other and figuring out what you can do with each other.”

By not getting caught up with grammatical errors, Lang hopes students will feel at ease with the language.

“You have to relax to be able to talk in a foreign language,” said Lang. “Having the experience of learning a foreign language helps.”

Students take the course to expand their ability to use the German language. Eric Pingel, ’18, is an international studies major. A student of Lang’s, he said the course helps him explore the language.

“I think it is good to experience all of the different avenues of a language,” Pingel said.

Ben Devlin, ’19, another class member, agrees with Pingel’s sentiment.

“I think it’s important because it helps you expand your mind beyond just the mechanics of the language, and more into the feeling and the expression that the language holds,” Devlin said.

Lang will be giving a public reading of his fiction on Oct. 13, at 6:30 p.m. in the international wing of North Village I.