"Learning a language is learning a new way of thinking. That is what college is all about."
Steding received his Ph.D. from the Universität Regensburg in Germany and held his first teaching position at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He later had a one-year appointment at Michigan State University in East Lansing before he arrived at Luther. “Teaching at these large state universities with many experienced colleagues was good preparation for my work at Luther, as I had to work with a very diverse group of students and varying expectations when it comes to foreign languages,” he says. “I learned a lot about higher education in the U.S. and its challenges. It also taught me to appreciate the possibilities and opportunities that a small liberal arts college can provide.”
For the most part, Steding teaches German. “The beauty of a liberal arts college such as Luther is that it not only gives students the opportunity to take courses from a smorgasbord of subjects, but also lets faculty members teach outside their regular fields,” he says. “For the Paideia program, for example, I’ve taught on topics such as cyberethics, ethics and technology, the future, and the ethics of remembrance,” he says. “For the Scholars program, the honors program at Luther, I’ve offered courses on the universe, non-humans (i.e., ghosts, robots, or vampires), and dreams and fears as forces behind human action.”
Steding likes how, at a liberal arts college, the borders between disciplines are to some extent artificial and students and professors can explore the connections between questions from different fields more easily.
Modern languages have been a part of Luther’s curriculum since its early days. Steding points out that understanding the world is one of the core goals of a liberal arts education. “Globalization means that interactions with people from different countries and cultures are more common than in the past.” he says. "We want to prepare our students to not be afraid of having to learn a new language. It can be done. Some students, for example, are scared of German because they think it’s difficult. But all are surprised about how much they can learn in just one semester. And we teach them not only German, but also methods and techniques to study any other language. Learning a language is learning a new way of thinking. That is what college is all about.”
As the director of the Münster Semester program, one of Luther’s oldest study abroad programs, Steding regularly teaches courses abroad, and mostly language courses. “But when I’m in Germany, I also teach a Paideia 450: Ethical Choices course which explores how humans, on a societal level, interpret and constantly reevaluate the past,” he says. “Specifically, we look at the history of Jews in Germany and how, after the Shoah, Germans deal with this aspect of their past through monuments, memorials, and other forms of remembrance.” During the course, the students visit important sites and museums and read about the controversies surrounding the German way of coming to terms with the past (die Vergangenheitsbewältigung).
Steding feels that Luther takes the idea of the liberal arts seriously. “It allows for engagement across the disciplines and opportunities for students and instructors to pursue multi-dimensional questions and interests,” he says. “For a relatively small school, we offer a lot of interdisciplinary majors and minors. This shows the diversity of interests among the faculty and students and their willingness to put time and effort into pursuing them.”
Steding has found this experience to be very different from his time at large universities where it was much harder to work across disciplines. “Here, with the Paideia 450 courses, which are usually team-taught by two faculty members from different departments, and with our many study-away courses, we have a strong culture of cross-disciplinary cooperation,” he says. “I’m very proud, as a language teacher, that we have so many students who study abroad. [Two-thirds of Luther students study away before graduation.] It’s the best way for students to learn about other cultures, other ways of thinking, and about the world.”
I’ve served for several years now as a faculty adviser to the Honor Council. The group is made up of students and faculty who work together to insure that all academic work is based on the principles of honesty and fairness.
—Sören A. Steding
“I like to go running,” Steding says. “Here in Decorah, you can step outside and find yourself surrounded by nature in just a couple of minutes.“