The Robert V. Daniels Award
for Outstanding Contributions to International Education

Professor Wolfgang Mieder, Recipient of the 2012 Robert V. Daniels Award

An interview with Wolfgang Mieder by Prof. Luis Vivanco

Wolfgang Mieder is Professor of German and Folklore. A native of northern Germany, he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 1970 and came to UVM in 1971 as an assistant professor, passing through tenure and achieving Full Professor within seven short years. He is a scholar of German literature, history of the German language, fairy tales, folk songs, and a world authority of paremiology, the field that studies proverbs. Between publishing an astonishing number of books (over 200), articles (almost 500), and editing Proverbium, the international yearbook of proverbs, he served as the chair the Department of German and Russian from 1977-2008, won numerous teaching awards (including Vermont Teacher of the Year and UVM’s George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award), and has lent his support to a number of endeavors that have promoted the advancement of European Studies, Russian-East European Studies, and Global Studies.

In January, I sat down with Wolfgang to learn about his remarkable career, scholarship, and involvement in international studies at UVM. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

On coming to the U.S. at the age of sixteen…

My dream as a young boy in Germany in the 1950s was to come to America, the dreamland, roads paved with gold, and so on. I had met a German-American journalist from Detroit. When I was sixteen I wrote to him to see if he could find some families for me to stay with. He did and I came for a year. The fact that I didn’t come with a program was my fortune because at that young impressionable age I fell immediately in love with the United States. I do mean that. A couple of months afterwards I was begging my parents to stay. I didn’t go home for four years! I took my two years of high school and ended up at a small college in Michigan, Olivet College. I’d gotten a nice stipend from the Michigan Student Aid Foundation, and that paid for about half, and the other half I worked—I ran the language lab and so on. I started off as a math and chemistry major, and like so many students I changed my mind a few times and ended up in the humanities, majoring in French and German.

How he came to the study of folklore…

I got a free ride to the University Michigan and got my M.A. there in a year, and went back to Germany to study a semester at Heidelberg. I also studied two semesters in France. Then I made the decision to switch universities one more time and decided to go to Michigan State in the German Department. That was, in a roundabout way, my good fortune because I met Stuart Gallacher who was a student of the famous American folklorist Archer Taylor. That is where I was introduced to the study of fairy tales, legends, jokes, folk songs and, of course, proverbs. And that clicked. From there it was a straight shot. I wrote my dissertation on the contextual function of proverbs in a 19th century Swiss novelist’s work and then enjoyed that work so much that very quickly I started thinking of other projects.

            When I came to UVM in 1971, senior professors thought that teaching a course on folklore would be a good idea because of the accessibility of the subject matter, and it enters into so many cultural, literary and linguistic aspects. Over the years my interest in folklore became very much broader as far as comparative work is concerned. I always try to tell my students if you want to do serious folklore work you should do it as comparatively as possible.

His approach to scholarship…

There are various models of scholarship. You can be like a bee and jump from flower to flower. And let’s just say you jump on a rose and you do a research project and then you jump to a dandelion and you do something completely different, meaning that every time you have to start from scratch. I learned early in my career as a scholar you have to create something like the metaphor of King Arthur’s roundtable—your scholarly base—which for me is literature and folklore with a special interest in proverbs. Over my 42 years as a professor what I’ve done is establish an international proverbs archive that by now contains close to 4,000 published proverb collections in many languages, and that’s my roundtable, my base. And then since I teach medieval literature, I can ride on my horse, galloping out into the periphery, and the periphery can be whatever suits or interests me, or maybe someone needs a paper on a particular aspect. Or I can come home and I can say, are there any proverbs that deal with sport and how old are they, and where do they come from? Or I can ride out and say every year we have Martin Luther King’s celebration and I can look at how he communicated, what kind of sermonic background he brought into his major addresses, and so on.

The ubiquity of proverbs, the “everywhereness” of proverbs, gave me the capacity to overcome the narrow field of German Studies that I would have faced if I had become a specialist only in medieval German literature. One thing I noticed very early is that living in America, I felt I had to run on two parallel tracks. On the one hand I could do my writing and research using primarily my German language, which opens up almost all of Europe. On the other hand I wanted to communicate with my people in Williston [where he lives with his wife Barbara], you know, give a lecture at the public library, or the elder group, or a Rotary group. And I couldn’t have done that if I had confined my writing and research only to German.

On teaching at UVM…

I think the biggest challenge in a seminar or a big class is to motivate the students. I often tell students, if you can build interest and motivate yourself to enjoy the learning experience, that is important. In my folklore courses, if I could come back thirty years from now and you were to tell me that once in a while you realize that someone like Obama or whoever else might be president used a proverb strategically or effectively in an inaugrual address, I would think I have succeeded. In other words, teaching students the idea of walking around as a conscious human being and drawing on at least some of the things they have absorbed or learned over the years, and looking for connections, looking at the world beyond their own shadows, being a concerned citizen who is able to realize his or her own limitations. Nobody knows everything, of course, but the attempt of being a responsible citizen, be it regional, national or global is important. As teachers, it isn’t that we know so many facts, it is that we are able to look at the big picture, to put things into categories, almost like a mosaic or puzzle, seeing how things connect.

With my folklore and language interests, I want to get students to think how people communicate and what ties us together. Are we really different as some people claim? Teaching diversity is important, but we also all have basic needs, drives, and sensations that are not that different. We realize we’re all different, but there is that human element that connects us and makes us get along. So I am very interested in cultural literacy and commonality, because we can only communicate effectively if we have some kind of common denominator, of knowledge, of ability, of motivation. That should be a major part of what we do as teachers and professors, to say to ourselves, in which way can I more deeply connect people of all types of backgrounds, of culture, race, ethnicity, age, social strata, poverty.

And then all of sudden proverbs become very interesting, after all proverbs are the “wit of one and wisdom of many.” Someone made an observation that was so common that it could be generalized into a formulaic statement that can be applied to numerous contexts in shades of meaning, such as irony or satire, or love and tenderness. Proverbs, in many ways, show that humans are quite a bit alike. Something proverbs have taught me is that people might use a different metaphor to speak about common human experience. If you live in the Sahara you’re not going to create a proverb about fish. But you can still say, instead of “big fish eat little fish” you might say the big scorpion eats the small one. The fundamental idea that a big thing will devour a small thing to describe the rapacity of human beings metaphorically is the same.

On how international studies has changed at UVM during his 42 years…

UVM has made tremendous progress. It behooves universities to seize the opportunity to show students how things are interconnected and how small the world has become. The finest example is the global studies major. Look at the students! I marvel at the fact that it has truly rigorous foreign language requirement. That speaks to the motivation of the students. Clearly if the interest is there, the student can find the commitment, the motivation and, without being a language major, pay the price to be a global citizen. That is a really positive development. In many ways I think there is a future for foreign languages. Also regarding the internationalization of our campus, we have a high ranking administrative officer in charge of it. Study abroad has gotten richer. We are making headway on bringing foreign scholars. The thing that is holding us back, and it has nothing to do with UVM in my opinion, is simply the incredible expense of studying at an American university. German students are used to not paying anything! On the faculty too we have quite a few dear colleagues who have come from various parts of the world to work at UVM. I know wherever I go people say “Oh you work in Vermont!” There’s a certain mystique about our state but also about the university. We’re on the map. We can be very happy.