By Rachel Severin and Jacquelyn Turkovich
Jun 17, 2013
The interests and passions of Honors Alumni often have them spanning the globe after graduation. Sometimes, though, their paths return them to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan; such is the case with Dr. Frederick Amrine (Honors English, 1974). After concentrating in English and German during his undergraduate career, Amrine went on to study Philosophy, Russian, and Ancient Greek at Cambridge and Harvard. He taught for several years at Harvard before returning to the University of Michigan as a professor of German Studies. Amrine currently holds a prestigious Arthur Thurnau Professorship in German, one of the University’s highest awards for teaching. Dr. Amrine enriches the University of Michigan community with his tremendous intelligence, energy, and intellectual curiosity. It is clear that he is deeply invested in his work as both scholar and professor.
“What I love most about academia is the tremendous freedom for inquiry,” says Amrine. “I have always been drawn to unconventional takes on unconventional questions, and the University of Michigan has supported me every step of the way.” And many steps there have been! He has seen the University of Michigan from many angles: as an undergraduate, an alumnus, a professor, an administrator (as Chair of the German Department for a decade), and a parent. “I know U of M intimately, and I have to say that even today, after all these years, it’s exciting to me to be a part of it. It’s a truly great institution in just about every way you would want. I’m like Warren Buffet in one way at least: I tap dance to work every day,” Amrine reflected.
Amrine also finds teaching incredibly enriching, calling it “a kind of alchemical process that leads to discoveries in the act.” He adds, “The stereotype of teaching as communicating information just couldn't be further from the truth.” This personal philosophy has undoubtedly contributed to Dr. Amrine’s remarkable impact as a professor at the University of Michigan.
When Amrine came to UM he placed out of Great Books, the quintessential Honors course. Little did he know he would teach in the Great Books program for some 30 years, when he returned to Ann Arbor. Although he loves teaching that subject, leading the annual Fall Honors seminar called “Imagination” has meant even more to Amrine. The “Imagination” course is interdisciplinary, drawing much of its content from philosophy, and covers a lot of ground in unconventional ways. He developed the seminar while teaching at Harvard, where it earned a reputation for being difficult. When asked to teach the course at Michigan, Amrine was happy to do so. “It has a deserved reputation for being very challenging, which it is meant to be. I think I have had some of the very best undergrads at Michigan in that course over the years,” says Amrine.
As much as he enjoys the students of his course, they, in turn, appreciate Dr. Amrine and his seminar. Connor Spehar took the course in Fall 2011 and he agrees that it was daunting, but rewarding. “The most significant experience I had when taking [Imagination] was the painful amount of freedom given to the students by Dr. Amrine. I say painful because, at the time, I was distressingly uncertain about how to tackle the major paper assignment for the course. I had almost no experience with a class designed for me to explore different subject matter and ways to approach an assignment with no academic hand-holding,” Spehar shared. Early anxieties aside, Spehar highly recommends the course. “This class opened my eyes to the fact that I was not in high school anymore, but was fast approaching the real world where problems are not always spelled out in black and white with solutions in the back of the book. All students should have a chance to take a course as inspiring as this.”
Dr. Amrine is truly a great teacher and mentor for current Honors students. You could say he’s passing the torch, as Amrine had his own great mentors during his undergraduate years. “My great Honors experience was in the English Honors program. There was a young English professor whom I greatly admired, and who influenced me deeply. Eventually he advised my undergraduate Honors thesis on Shakespeare. It was Ralph Williams, who went on to become a legend at the University!” The other mentor of his undergraduate years was Alan Cottrell, who was a great scholar of Goethe. “He died tragically young, of cancer, and I was actually hired to be his replacement in 1986. As you can imagine, that was very moving for me. It was Alan Cottrell who also introduced me to the writings of Rudolf Steiner, who is very profound and sadly neglected,” reflects Amrine. “I have studied Steiner my whole adult life, and I have translated and edited some of his works: that’s going to be a major ongoing project for me going forward.” As a passionate educator, Amrine maintains a youthful curiosity and enthusiasm that helps foster connections to his students today.
Fondly recalling his formative years at Michigan, Amrine shared, “I was in heaven because I was interested in almost everything, and I had lots of energy. Whenever the time schedule came out, it felt like the menu at a fine restaurant. I wanted to take all those courses.” In asking about how he came to be a professor of German, Amrine admitted, “I fell in love with German literature and philosophy, even though I thought right up to my senior year I would want to become a professor of English.” It’s no surprise then, that his Imagination seminar is interdisciplinary!
When he wasn’t absorbed in his coursework, Amrine spent many enjoyable evenings throwing a Frisbee with his friend in Regents Plaza outside Chicago House of West Quad, where their tricks would often draw a crowd. “I had really long blond hair back then, which would be hard for my current friends to imagine, since I’ve been more or less bald for a long time.” From a long-haired, energetic, curious kid to a celebrated professor and high-achieving scholar, the Honors Program is fortunate to have Dr. Amrine in its ranks.(Photo: U-M School Days with Amrine & Arthur Zajonc, "who went on to make a distinguished career in Physics at Amherst College in the field of quantum optics. He is now the head of the Mind and Life Institute in Amherst, working closely with the Dalai Lama on contemplative inquiry.")