Lenfest 2015 Winner: Dorothea von Mücke

Sabina Lee
March 08, 2015

A number of years ago, a student reviewing a class taught by Dorothea von Mücke summed up how the professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures taught the course Literature Humanities this way: “Professor von Mücke refuses to tell us The Truth. We have to figure out everything on our own.”

The German-born von Mücke got involved in teaching because “I love learning”, she said. When she first joined Columbia in 1988 after receiving her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, she has been greatly influenced by teaching in the Core Curriculum, in which professors teach material that often goes beyond their individual areas of expertise. “In that kind of class, the professor is one of the students,” she said.

“Teaching Literature Humanities quickly made it clear to me that I had to create a classroom where students share the responsibility for the knowledge produced.” That meant a lot of collaboration and lively exchanges, through joint presentations and frequent written assignments. Last year, she taught for the first time another Core Curriculum class, Contemporary Civilization, an experience she says brought her “great satisfaction and joy.”

In her own department, where she is currently serving as chair, von Mücke’s classes focus on, among other things, 18th to 20th century German literature, the European Enlightenment and intellectual history, and they range from basic introductory classes to more specialized courses for undergraduate and graduate students. She regularly designs new classes “in order to ask new questions and approach familiar texts with fresh perspective,” she said.

Some of these classes were the inspiration for her books. The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale, published in 2003 by Stanford University Press, was influenced by classes she taught on the literature of the fantastic , on psychoanalysis, and Romanticism. Classes on Enlightenment and Religion and on Rousseau and Goethe inspired The Practices of the Enlightenment, in which von Mücke explores how theological thought and religious practice shaped the European Enlightenment. It will be published in May by Columbia University Press.

Her effect on students was summed up by Columbia College's 2014 salutatorian Sam Walker, who gave her a tip of his mortarboard last year when he was interviewed for the Columbia Spectator. After he took her class, “Aesthetics and the Philosophy of History,” he said he began thinking seriously about a career in academia. “She’s just the paradigm of a wonderful professor,” he said. “People like her make me confident that that’s a meaningful thing to do.”