Profile: Barbara Altmann

Photograph courtesy Barbara Altmann

Barbara Altmann is on a quest. She’s familiar with what’s required, having spent decades steeped in the epics of medieval France. Altmann’s mission, however, is more difficult than the standard slaying of foes or saving of maidens: she’s got to convince modern college students that the Middle Ages matter.

“Generally, in ten weeks I can get people to see what a dazzlingly complex and sophisticated period it was,” Altmann says. People, she adds, don’t initially understand how such ancient history affects them, but examples aren’t hard to find.

“There’s religious warfare, for one,” Altmann says. “It’s a very sobering view to see that the same ideologies were in conflict 800 years ago.”

Altmann’s research focuses on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century French poetry; she teaches the language and its history to the full range of college students, from incoming freshmen to master’s candidates.

“It’s a move that I made deliberately,” she says. “Teaching such a wide variety is one of the things I like best about my job because it keeps me fresh.”

Altmann’s upper-level courses are taught in French; no matter the tongue of study, however, she wants each student to walk away a skillful user of language.

“That’s what we do at a university: teach people to express themselves through language,” she adds.

The methods she uses—which include debunking French stereotypes with freshmen to capture their interest in the culture—work well. Glowing student praise for Altmann has led to numerous teaching awards with her career bookended by the UO’s most prestigious teaching honors: in 1997, she won the Ersted Award for exceptional new teachers; fourteen years later she received the Herman Award, given to senior faculty members with outstanding teaching records.

“It never occurred to me I’d be at any one campus for my career,” she says. “This is a university where there’s always been something interesting to do. I have yet to have a moment where I felt bored.”

Neither, it seems, have her students. “My favorite comment on student evaluations is ‘It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.’ I take that as high praise.”

Name: Barbara Altmann

Education: PhD ’88, University of Toronto

Teaching Experience: Joined the UO faculty in 1989.

Awards: Ersted Award for Distinguished Teaching, 1997; Thomas F. Herman Faculty Achievement Award for Distinguished Teaching, 2011.

Off-Campus: Altmann enjoys cycling and gardening. She has two sons, one of whom will become a Duck in fall 2011.

Last Word: “Time with students keeps me humble, it keeps me honest, and it keeps me working so I have something of significance to bring to them.”

By Elisabeth Kramer