Faculty Profile: Robert Godwin-Jones, Ph.D., School of World Studies

Where do foreign languages, the Brothers Grimm and computer-assisted learning intersect at VCU? In the office and classroom of Robert Godwin-Jones, Ph.D., a professor and member of the foreign language faculty in the School of World Studies.
Robert Godwin-Jones

Bob, who has a B.A. in French and German from Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa., and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, came to VCU in 1979 in a rather roundabout way. He was working at the University of Wisconsin when his wife, Elizabeth, expressed an interest in attending law school. They began looking around the country for places where he could teach and she could attend school. This led the couple to Richmond. Elizabeth attended Georgetown University Law Center while he accepted a position at VCU. “I was attracted to the position at VCU because I wanted to use my degree in comparative literature, principally in French and German, and VCU allowed me to do both,” said Bob. For three years he and Elizabeth saw each other only on weekends, but for Bob it was the start of a long and storied career with VCU.

Bob’s true academic love is comparative literature, but his tenure at VCU has taken him on some branching paths that may not seem to be directly connected to his research interests. In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web was just being introduced to academia. He recognized the possibilities the web presented to enhance language learning, especially in exposing students to authentic language use.

“With digital audio, and later video, it became evident that there was the potential to do interesting things with language learning outside of the classroom. A typical language course meets three times a week and that’s very limited.”

Working in VCU’s Multimedia Development Center, which was created to help faculty use technology in their classrooms, Bob began exploring ways in which he could use technology to enhance language learning. The Center invited him to become a faculty fellow, and eventually he became its director. At around this same time, the College welcomed a new dean, David Hiley, Ph.D., from Auburn University. David was aware of the use of computer-based technology at Auburn to teach Russian, and with his encouragement, Bob applied for two grants, both funded, to set up a language media lab.

None of his colleagues were well-versed in computers and computer programming and neither was Bob, but as principal investigator on two grants for a media lab he dove in and immersed himself in learning about computers and computer programming. He developed software for German language learning, which he shared with his colleagues, some of whom also began writing their own programs. He also co-created “Web Course in a Box,” which was meant to provide students with web-based extracurricular language learning that could be tracked (as opposed to just assigning work in a language lab with no follow up or student accountability). The pedagogical value of Web Course in a Box soon became clear. In fact, Bob received the 1998 Virginia Governor’s Technology Award for his creation. And it didn’t end there. Just a few years after its creation, Blackboard bought Web Course in a Box, and although changes have been incorporated over time, that initial programming remains within the core of Blackboard today.

Although Bob’s work at VCU has been closely tied to computer technology for language learning, his original and continuing interest is comparative literature. Bob notes that computers were just a sideline, even if that sideline took on a life of its own. “I am really interested in folk literature and fairy tales, especially the works of the Grimm brothers,” he said. “Their stories are still important in Germany today and they have also provided many story lines in modern filmmaking.” He looks at how these stories are retold for political and propaganda purposes, and he’s now trying to devote as much time as possible to this work. “Computers happened, and they took over my life, but now I’m battling my way back to my first love,” he comments. “It’s difficult to withdraw completely from that area because of regular requests for articles and book chapters.” (He writes a column three times a year for the Language Learning and Technology Journal, which requires him to keep up with advances on the technology side of things.) But Bob is gradually slowing down these commitments to focus on his folk/fairy tale research. Toward this goal, he won grants to create a digital archive, in German and English, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a 2018 College Seed Award for archival work in Berlin on a related book.

“My proudest accomplishment is getting students interested in language learning and understanding its importance. You won’t be able to understand your own culture very well if you aren’t at least aware of other cultures.”

One of the courses Bob teaches is a class on German children’s literature. His interest in fairy tales and his collection of children’s books—which fills an entire bookcase in his office—led to a realization: children’s literature is ideal for teaching foreign languages and cultures. He explains, “This is because the writing is simplified; the words and sentence structures are easy to understand. You can even start with picture books and move on from there,” he adds. Another favorite class is “Communicating across Cultures,” which looks at the influence of communication and language across various cultures. When first teaching this course, Bob brought in guest lecturers to introduce his students to various languages and cultures from around the world. More recently, he realized that he has tremendous cultural diversity right in the classroom and he now taps into his students as resources for exposing each other to different languages and cultures. And because technology always plays a role in his pedagogy, Bob uses apps like Skype to allow his students to interact in real time with students from around the world.

When asked about his proudest accomplishment in teaching, Bob took a minute before thoughtfully answering: “My proudest accomplishment is getting students interested in language learning and understanding its importance. You won’t be able to understand your own culture very well if you aren’t at least aware of other cultures. It’s about providing ‘insider understanding’ of a culture. If you can speak the language you can experience the culture from the inside.” He continues, “Appreciating the importance of language in identity formation [is critical]. A second language can allow the creation of a second you. This is especially important today when there is less emphasis on foreign languages. To me it’s more important than ever, particularly in today’s political environment, to have an appreciation of other languages and cultures.”

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