A Disposition Toward Understanding: Heidi Byrnes

A member of Georgetown's faculty since 1979, George M. Roth Distinguished Professor of German Heidi Byrnes will retire on June 30. 

June 23, 2015—During Commencement 2015, Heidi Byrnes, the George M. Roth Distinguished Professor of German, was honored with the Faculty of Language and Linguistics Distinguished Service Award. In her acceptance remarks, she compared graduating students’ time at Georgetown with her own career as a professor:

“I have been [on faculty at] Georgetown for nearly four decades...no doubt, those four decades are a rather different time period than the four years that have been the length of the sojourn on the hilltop for most of [the students]. But looking on those years in a telescoped fashion, I suspect that their rhythm has similar beats.”

Byrnes feels there are many similarities between a faculty career and students’ experiences: the sense of pride of having been chosen to be at Georgetown; the anxious excitement about meeting expectations; and the sense of growth as well as challenge over the years. What stands out most about Byrnes' time at Georgetown is “the opportunity to meet other people, to work with them, to collaborate with them, and to make lasting friendships,” she explained.

A professor in the German department since 1979, Byrnes began her Georgetown career as a graduate student. After earning her Ph.D., she was immediately hired by the university. As her career progressed, Byrnes became one of the first female full professors at Georgetown. She was also the first woman to chair the German department, where she helped create the BMW Center for German and European Studies.

She then became the first woman to serve as the university’s associate vice president for academic affairs, during a major time of transition for the university. Beginning in the 1980s, Georgetown had newly focused on its graduate research programs while trying to maintain its commitment to the undergraduate liberal arts experience. Byrnes was a central figure in determining how to merge the two experiences, both for students and for faculty, which she sees as an ongoing challenge.

“To be competitive the way we must be competitive, we need to continue to shore up our graduate programs and our research presence; but we also need to continue to focus on what it means to offer an undergraduate liberal arts education in the Jesuit tradition,” she said.

Despite these shifts, she’s quick to point out the continuity she has experienced. “One thing that has helped in these times of transition—and I see no change in that as far as the ethos is concerned—is the commitment of the faculty to the students; it is an extraordinarily strong component here.”

This commitment to students pulled her back to the German department in 1995, where she continued to work on interdisciplinary teaching and research, this time through the creation of an innovative curriculum, “Developing Multiple Literacies.”

The entire department, including faculty and graduate students, was able to overhaul everything from teaching to collaborative research to merit guidelines around this new curriculum, which Byrnes attributes to an “enormously committed faculty culture to student learning.”

“We needed to learn all sorts of new things and people were willing to learn,” she said. “What we had was the commitment to ask, ‘Can we make this really good for student learning?’ We have been able to sustain that culture. We couldn’t even think of it in any other way.”

In Byrnes’ signature course, Text in Context, she would introduce the class with a gentle warning: “Everything you’ve heard about this course in campus lore is likely to be correct,” she told them. “It’s very hard work. But I promise you, I will work hard if you will work hard. At the end of the semester, you will be amazed at how much you have learned and what you can do.”

Students saw the benefit of this approach, including Byrnes’s daughter, Sabina Braithwaite (C’86). A German and biology double-major with a pre-med concentration, Braithwaite ended up in her mother’s class for a semester. Although they mutually agreed not to acknowledge their family relationship, Byrnes did get one late night phone call from her daughter.

“She called at about 11:00 at night and was just furious. She said, ‘I have been working for the last five hours, I want you to know, on this essay that you’re making us write.’ I said, ‘If you want a good grade out of this, you will put in hard work.’”

Her son Eric Byrnes (C’90) never had his mother as a professor, but he does keep tabs on her research and teaching work. During a recent phone conversation, he laughed at the idea of Byrnes taking it easy after retirement. 

Byrnes’ post-retirement plans prove her son right. She will continue to serve as the editor for The Modern Language Journal, which will celebrate its one hundredth anniversary in 2016. As part of the centenary, there will be a series of conference presentations and a special issue of the journal—a project Byrnes has shepherded for the last two years, with particular emphasis on a collaborative paper written by fifteen people with different theoretical orientations. The goal is to come up with a platform statement for the teaching and learning of languages, which will be featured as the opening chapter of the centenary special issue.

“I’m hoping that that in itself will contribute to the larger discussion in the language studies field,” she explained. “That’s the whole point—a way of recognizing both the advances in recent scholarship and the challenges of a multilingual world to theory, research, and practice.”

Byrnes sees special significance in the journal’s one hundredth anniversary.

“During World War I, just like now, we had all of these questions,” Byrnes said. “'Can we get along with each other? Can we learn from each other? Can we deal with these things in ways other than warfare?' Language and cultural studies and international relations have always claimed that if you know more languages, you will behave differently. You will be different. You will have certain dispositions towards understanding the other side that you might not have had if you had not had that experience.”

That mentality is why Byrnes will continue to serve as the journal’s editor despite her retirement. “Perhaps that’s a statement about what I have been interested in all along,” she said. 

As to what she will do once she steps down as editor, Byrnes said, “Then maybe [I will] find time to pursue some long-standing interests that tended to be sidelined and start developing some new ones!”

—Elyse Rudolph