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Robert S. Leventhal
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Summer 2009
Volume 74
Number 4

Fellowship Award Recipients

Robert S. Leventhal
Associate Professor of Modern Languages
B.A., German and Philosophy, Grinnell College;
M.A., German Literature and Ph.D., German Thought and Literature, Stanford University


Mark Mitchell

Robert Leventhal can't always confine himself to a single discipline.

"In a sense, the humanities have become more and more aware of their relationship to all sorts of other realms of discourse and realms of inquiry," he says.

Leventhal, a professor in the German section of the modern languages and literatures department, is focused on what he calls a "prehistory" of the psychological case study, dealing with literature, history and medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In 2007 and 2008, he led a group independent study to look at the emergence of the new Jewish community in Munich since 1990. The project took the group into the fields of sociology, urban planning and the history of postwar Judaism. Despite the challenging material and complex language, Leventhal's students were able to match the task.

"I have taught at four institutions -- my students here are far and away the best students I've had," he says. "I can throw at them everything I've got and they'll come back asking for more." The German section alone will send four Fulbright scholars to Europe this year.
Leventhal began his fascination with the language while in high school in New York. A bilingual translation of Goethe's Faust sparked an interest that manifested itself in college in Iowa and while studying abroad at the University of Friburg in Germany.

"What fascinates me about German is that it is an ontological, synthetic language; that is, it has an additive structure which seems to make certain claims about the world," he says. "In a sense it's already a language that inspires reflection."

But it's more than just the German language, though Leventhal does still teach advanced grammar and stylistics at the College. Equally drawn to both philosophy and literature, Leventhal's coursework in graduate school translated to the wide range of courses he teaches at William and Mary. In addition to grammar, he has taught introduction to literary studies, German literature from the 18th century to the present and modern German critical thought, as well as an interdisciplinary course on the cultural explosion in pre-World
War II Munich.

"I've always been a hybrid creature, always existing between disciplines," he says. "I love teaching crossdisciplinary courses -- we get this great mix of people."

Leventhal's first book delved into 18th-century hermeneutics -- interpretational theory, including unwritten aspects of the text such as presuppositions and reliability.

"It's always a matter of interpretation," he says. "Interpretation is infused into the very idea of understanding the structure of language and understanding the most reliable text.
"We haven't lost the demand for rigor and for very close attention to the text and its terms," he says. "We've gone from there to a much more expansive notion of what literature consists of and how the methods of literary analysis can be fruitfully applied to a number of different disciplines."

Leventhal himself lives an interdisciplinary life -- his wife, Janet Warren, teaches psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia, while his daughters are in fields as diverse as real estate, electronic-acoustic music and health science.

"They're very different; each is totally unique," he says. "There's never a dull moment."

Christopher Del Negro | Robert S. Leventhal | Robin Looft-Wilson
Paul F. Manna | Kam W. Tang

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