On Cowboys and Yodeling
Fulbrighter Jeffrey Lewek '13 views world culture through a cinematographer's lens
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Fulbright scholar Jeffrey Lewek '13 will teach English and American studies in Germany next year.
The cowboy holds a unique place in our national consciousness. He’s a symbol of American resourcefulness, adventure and self-reliance that resonates with cinephiles across generations, even if they never rustled cattle or stepped a spur-heeled boot onto the range.
That fact captivates Fulbright scholar Jeffrey Lewek ’13, a keen observer of world cultures who has long been fascinated by the ways in which literature and film create portraits of who we collectively believe ourselves to be.
“You need to avoid making generalizations, but looking at media like this does lead to an acknowledgment that cultural differences exist, even if these national identities don’t affect the way that people interact day-to-day,” says Lewek. “And when you look at these identities, it opens the door to interesting conversations.”
Lewek will engage in many such conversations next fall, when he’ll travel to Germany to teach English and American studies to middle- and/or high-school students as a Fulbright scholar. It’s an opportunity that aligns perfectly with current interests and work.
Lewek has enjoyed international travel since high school, when he traveled to Europe to perform as part of a youth orchestra. He continued to study music at Dickinson and adopted a double major in German and international studies with a concentration on the cultures of Eastern Europe, but he soon learned that he had a passion for world literature and film too.
Those passions intensified last year, when Lewek enrolled at the University of Bremen (Germany) through Dickinson’s study-abroad program. He took additional courses in German language, literature and culture, and during a school break, he caught a glimpse of Bosnia and Croatia—areas he’d researched at Dickinson.
He was riveted by what he found, particularly when he visited a famous area in Bosnia that houses a Catholic church, a Serbian-Orthodox cathedral and an ancient mosque, all within a five-block radius. “It was interesting to see so many cultural influences coming together in such a small area, and to think about how these converging cultures influence politics in that region,” he says. “There are so many factors—-like sustainability, culture, religion, human rights, media—that play into political affairs.”
While still on break from the University of Bremen, he received an email from Assistant Professor of German Sarah McGaughey, who suggested that, based on his analytical skills, creativity, international outlook and mastery of the German language, he should consider applying for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) in Germany. Lewek had been considering pursuing a career as a comparative-literature professor, and the intensive Fulbright international-teaching experience gelled well with those plans. He decided to give it a shot.
Scholars in the German ETA Fulbright program must be accomplished, well-rounded, articulate and able to not only assist in the English-language classroom but also to teach American-studies courses and/or lead related extracurricular activities. In his application essay, Lewek outlined his plans to view American-studies subject matter through the lens of comparative media.
He proposed to begin by comparing elements of the German mountain film—a genre he’d learned about at Dickinson and had explored further while abroad—with the typical American western. As in the western, the landscape figures prominently in the German bergfilm, and both genres offer glimpses of pop culture in the early 20th century, when they were in their heydays.
But there are telling differences, too. The typical cowboy movie centers on a solitary figure who adheres to a moral code in a fight against evil and adversity. The end result is usually a moral lesson learned. Bergfilms, on the other hand, center on a love triangle—two male mountain climbers and one female—whose members must battle against nature and become enlightened in the process.
"What I’m most interested in exploring is how these stories may or may not affect people on a daily basis,” Lewek says. The Fulbright Foundation review board apparently shared that curiosity. Two weeks ago, Lewek received word that he’d been awarded the scholarship.
He’s thrilled by the chance to return to Germany, and as he prepares to take the head of the classroom, this teacher-to-be is also excited not only by what he will teach but what he will learn.
“I’ve spent a little time thinking about these ideas of national identities and national conversations, and now I’ll have an opportunity to really explore them in depth, along with [my] students,” he says. “I’m interested to see where it goes.”