Look Who's Talking

image: Professor Jennifer ZachmanLook Who’s Talking

She’ll climb on a chair. She’ll have students stand up, sit down, form a line. She’ll lie on the floor and feign a siesta until some brave soul answers a question. Associate professor of Spanish Jennifer Zachman wants the language to come alive for her students, and she’ll do just about anything to get them talking.

Call her half-crazy (or media loca) but there is method to Zachman’s madness. “I try to get my students to speak Spanish and participate actively,” she says. “I try to keep a lot of movement in the class not only in terms of what we’re covering, but sometimes, when it’s relevant, physical movement.”

She says she’s trying to show that “studying a language isn’t just studying grammar and vocabulary but also idiomatic expressions related to the culture ... The goal in a language class is always communication. So I tell my students that I prefer them to speak as much as possible, even if they make errors.”

Zachman grew up speaking English in a small town in Minnesota, but you’d never guess it when she launches into her second language. Her accent, gestures, and word choices make her seem more like a character from a Pedro Almodóvar film than a Garrison Keillor monologue.

For good reason, she recently took over as coordinator of the Women's Studies Program. The author of a forthcoming, award-winning book on Spanish women playwrights, Zachman teaches courses on contemporary theatre, women writers, and cinema in the Spanish-speaking world. She travels frequently to Spain for research and as the coordinator of Saint Mary’s program in Seville , she urges students to do the same. “I really try to encourage them to study abroad,” she says, “particularly since you can meet people who are going to have a lasting impact on your life, much like the friends you’ll meet here on campus.”

At Saint Mary’s, a small liberal arts college, seasoned professors like Zachman teach every foreign language class from introductory to advanced levels. That interaction is a plus, she says: “I get to know my students really well. I’ve had innumerable occasions where I’ve learned something from my students about a text, because they saw something I didn’t see. That’s what I think is really rewarding … There’s always more that you can discover.”