The Language of Learning

August 16, 2018
SLP students examining early German publications
SLP director Karin Grundler-Whitcre (center) and students examining early German publications at Andover-Harvard Theological Library. / Photo: Bo Clay

Though Harvard’s many serene campuses can be fairly quiet during the summer, such is not the case at Harvard Divinity School.

In early June, students flock to HDS to participate in the Summer Language Program (SLP), an intensive, two-month program that has offered a variety of language courses since 1960. And if this summer has been any indication, there is no sign that the program is slowing down after 58 years and counting.

“We had a record number of students this year,” says Karin Grundler-Whitacre, director of SLP since 2009, lecturer in German, and the Assistant Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs. “We had 103 students as opposed to an average of 70 in previous years, so it’s been a really successful enrollment year.”

SLP is an attractive option for many HDS students. In the course of two months, they become proficient in the language of their choice and, in doing so, earn two semesters worth of credit towards the language requirement of their degree. But given that classes cover a year’s worth of education over two months, the program is rightly labeled “intensive.”

On an average week, students will attend three, three-hour classes and, in the interim, study for upcoming class sessions.

“One day essentially equals a week’s worth of education,” notes Grundler-Whitacre. “It really is a full-time experience.”

Students interested in the program will find the opportunities bountiful. As of this year, the program currently offers language courses in Christian Latin, Classical Arabic, Elementary Biblical Hebrew, Elementary New Testament Greek, Elementary Pali, Intermediate Biblical Hebrew, Intermediate New Testament Greek, along with courses in Theological French, German, and Spanish. Given the array of languages, students of all faiths and varying interests are likely to find an education in a language necessary to their studies.

And even though a majority of the students enrolled in the program are at HDS, SLP also attract students from across the nation and across the globe.

“While we have HDS students who take SLP to either help satisfy the language requirement or to prepare them for their course studies and doctoral pursuits, we also host international students and students from other universities like Yale, Princeton, or even the University of North Carolina, that don’t offer the same programs that we do,” Grundler-Whitacre observes. “And unlike Middlebury, whose language program focuses on speaking, our program stresses text translation, which is necessary to most academic pursuits in the study of religion.”

For this reason, as Grundler-Whitacre notes, the program seems attractive to students of all ages as well.

“We also have lifelong learners who, while entering the later stages of their careers or lives, are hoping to learn more about the language behind their tradition.”

The program has recently started welcoming students from local institutions as well. According to Grundler-Whitacre, students whose schools are members of the Boston Theological Interreligious Consortium can now participate in the program and, “given the success of its first year,” Harvard “looks forward to welcoming such students in the future.”

But while the program offers a unique jumpstart for students’ academic pursuits, it also provides students with the chance to familiarize themselves with HDS and the surrounding area, an opportunity that Grundler-Whitacre calls “incoming student adjustment.”

“Students who attend SLP are also being instructed in our acronyms, our buildings, the Harvard pace, the Harvard culture, Cambridge/Boston commuting, the works. If you name it, they do it.” Grundler-Whitacre says. “But another benefit is the opportunity to meet people and become acquainted with new peers. After about the third week of class, I find students forming cohorts and going out in groups rather than alone. That is a really nice sight to see.”

SLP students learning to sew pamphlets
SLP students learning to sew pamphlets at Andover-Harvard Theological Library. / Photo: Bo Clay

It has also become a growing tradition for a couple of language courses, such as the German language classes, to visit the Andover-Harvard Theological Library and meet with the Special Collections staff. Grundler-Whitacre’s “Elementary German” students recently paid a visit to the library to translate early German publications and learn how to sew pamphlets in the same style as Martin Luther and other early German publishers. Whether reading pieces from the special collection or sewing together pamphlets, students were translating German nearly two months after hardly knowing any.

“Would someone like to try to translate this document?” Grundler-Whitacre asked, as her students stood over what looked like an official notice.

After some time taking turns to translate the document, students were surprised to realize what lay on the table before them: A monetary fine given to Paul Tillich, then a young German student, for drunkenly singing in the streets.

“This is just to serve as a reminder,” Grundler-Whitacre explained, “that one of our greatest theologians was also once a student just like you are today.”

by Bo Clay, HDS correspondent