Momentum Award: Michael Resler

The grinning man sitting behind the desk, half-hidden by a large Mac computer, never grew up to be the first baseman for the Chicago White Sox.

Even though his childhood dream never materialized, one would be hard pressed to say that there is a lack of passion in the life Michael Resler has made for himself. A professor and the chair of the German studies department at Boston College, Resler is known for his exuberance—the wonder and optimism he exhibits toward his central passions: family, teaching, and language, to name a few. Throw in some classical music and fresh powder—according to his iPhone, he has snowboarded over 430,000 vertical feet this season—and Resler is all set.

“I don’t like things, I love things,” he said. “And people.”

In a quaint office on the second floor of Lyons Hall, the music of Bach twinkles in the background, sketches of German towns and posters of castles line the walls. High on the list of things Resler loves are the German language and culture. Self-described as a “nerdy kid” growing up in Sarasota, Fla., Resler spoke German at home with his paternal grandmother, a nod to his family origins in Germany and Austria.

Despite his background in German, though, the subject is not his only scholarly passion, nor was it even his first choice of a college major—Resler said he would have chosen linguistics or Russian, if only the College of William & Mary had offered them as majors. Without those options, German was a natural alternative. In exploring the country, particularly as a Fulbright scholar, his specific passions in Middle High German and medieval Germany were serendipitously born.

“To tell people that, ‘Oh, I saw a castle and I fell in love with all things medieval and became a philologist’ sounds a little lame,” Resler said of his trip to Burg Eltz, a 12th-century fortress nestled in the German hills.

But for Resler, philology—a combination of language, linguistics, and historical study—is at the root of his life’s work. He finds particular joy in teaching his courses in German language and Arthurian literature.

“I have the best job in the world,” Resler said. “I wouldn’t trade with anyone.”

He paused, getting a little “hiccupy” while talking about his teaching—something he said happens when he gets overexcited.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to think that I get paid to teach this course,” he remembered telling students in his attractively-titled “Knights, Castles, and Dragons” class.

“He is one of those few people who can take away the fear of German that people have and show people the wonder of the language and his fascination with it,” said Daniel Bowles, assistant professor of German studies, who Resler hired into the department two years ago. “His love of language is infectious.”

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The “F-word” in the German studies department, is “Fulbright.”

Resler makes this joke often and, as the driving force behind his department’s success with the Fulbright Program, he has every right to do so. With the selection of two more BC winners this spring, the German studies department has produced a total of 115 Fulbright grants, placing it among the nation’s top producers of Fulbrights to places such as Germany and Austria. A Fulbright student grant allows recent college graduates to conduct research or teach English for a year in one of over 155 participating countries worldwide.

Since arriving at BC in 1976 fresh out of graduate school at Harvard, Resler has made it his priority to “sink his meat hooks” into the students who walk through his door, eagerly telling them about the Fulbright opportunity. Resler described his Fulbright year as epiphanic, responsible for changing his life and the substance of his career interests. His own mentors in college—including a strong-headed German department chair with a tough Austrian accent—continually told him, “You will apply for the Fulbright.”

That same mentality transfers every year from Resler to the numerous students who he encourages to apply for the grant. He said he had never actively thought of it as payback for the guidance he received, though his prodding has much to do with wanting students to have the opportunity for the formative Fulbright experience he had.

Last November, the University hosted a two-day celebration to commemorate the German studies department having produced 100 Fulbright scholars, a milestone that was achieved in the spring of 2013. Over 40 former students returned to BC for the event, at which Resler also received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for individual service to the nation.

The celebration felt like a “family reunion” for Christine Kochefko, BC ’07, who won a Fulbright in 2007 along with 12 other students from the German studies department in a sweep that Resler said is likely the most Fulbrights ever awarded from one university to one country in one year.

“Along with [teaching] all of us, Dr. Resler’s other full-time job was the Fulbright season,” Kochefko, who is now a high school German teacher, said in an email. “I will never forget how thorough and thoughtful Dr. Resler was when guiding us through the application process.”

While numerous members of his extended German studies department “family” were present for the ceremony, one person was notably absent—Resler’s husband, Charlie, who had suffered a severe brain injury after being struck by a car just weeks before.

Although he is presently on his way toward a full recovery, his long-term prognosis was still unknown when Resler took the stage to accept the award. This period, Resler said, was the most difficult time of his life.

Addressing a crowd of former students—many of whom also knew Charlie well after he and Resler had welcomed them into their home over the years—he knew it was something he just had to get through.

“It’s a great feeling to hold a freshly published book in your hand, but you look at it the next day and it’s not going to hug you back,” Resler said. “A book is not going to hug you back. A student will hug you back.”

Resler wears multiple hats at BC—among them, language instructor, literature and culture teacher, mentor, scholar, and department head. The face time he gets with students on a regular basis as a teacher and a mentor, he said, is the benefit of being in a small department, and is more rewarding than producing publications.

“He is so dedicated to keeping his students interested inside and outside of the classroom, and making sure that they feel that the size of the department is more like a family than a large, anonymous group of people who give grades,” Bowles said.

The family atmosphere extends not only outside the classroom, but also outside of BC’s campus, as Resler regularly invites students and colleagues to his home in Brookline, Mass., and even on ski trips up north.

His passion for teaching, his subject, and his close-knit department is not lost on his colleagues and students. Cameron Givens, A&S ’15, who was recently awarded a Fulbright to teach English in Germany beginning this fall, said he hopes to draw inspiration from Resler’s way of interacting with students.

“He’s so down-to-earth, and really tears down all the barriers that can sometimes exist between professors and students to the point where you feel like he’s just a really good friend who you’re learning from and learning with,” Givens said.

Givens noted Resler’s encouragement and generosity with his time as they poured over his two short Fulbright application essays last summer, often taking passages line-by-line or even word-by-word to perfect them.

“He has an unusual gift for connection with young people and I am so grateful that my path crossed his at a critical time in my life,” Paul Runci, BC ’88, said in an email. Runci, who helped organize the November celebration, said that he and Resler, along with their families, have remained close friends over the years and that Resler sits comfortably on the top of the list of “magical” teachers who had a transformative impact on his life.

For how much love he evokes from his students, it may come as a surprise that Resler’s courses are no easy “A.” Notoriously difficult, they still hold the power to bring people back for more, according to Bowles, and Runci said that he never enjoyed working so hard for any other class, drawing on Resler’s enthusiasm and a desire to avoid letting Resler down.

“He is really selfless and does things not for the desire to be recognized but because he really wants to and because he truly cares,” Kochefko said, remembering her first visit to Resler’s office one Saturday when she toured BC as a prospective student, and his commitment to an “open office door policy” for her and every other student during their time at BC.

The German word herzlich is what Bowles uses to describe his colleague Resler, whom he calls a great human being, always with a smile, upbeat, and “of the heart” in his vocation that is anything but a “9-to-5” job to him.

“You’re always glad to see him because he’s always happy to see you,” he said.

Featured Image by Graham Beck / Heights Senior Staff

About Julie Orenstein 47 Articles
Julie Orenstein was a Heights editor for three long years that still somehow went by too quickly. She can be found singing in inopportune places, playing sports badly, eating grilled cheese, or just talking at anything that will listen.