2017-05-18 / Schools

CLU literature professor prepares to turn the page

Sigmar Schwarz retiring after 47 years at school
By Melissa Simon


IN HIS ELEMENT— Sigmar Schwarz, a literature professor in the English department at Cal Lutheran University, gives a lesson earlier this month. Schwarz will retire May 31 after 47 years at CLU. 
RICHARD GILLARDAcorn Newspapers IN HIS ELEMENT— Sigmar Schwarz, a literature professor in the English department at Cal Lutheran University, gives a lesson earlier this month. Schwarz will retire May 31 after 47 years at CLU. RICHARD GILLARDAcorn Newspapers Sigmar Schwarz’s teaching days may be coming to an end, but the literature professor doesn’t plan to slow down just yet.

The 72-year-old Simi Valley resident, who is retiring May 31 after 47 years at Cal Lutheran University, said he will soon return to Fiji, where more than two decades ago he discovered a passion for a new culture.

Schwarz first visited the South Pacific island in 1992 to research indigenous authors and expand his knowledge of post-Colonial studies. That summer, he taught at the island’s University of the South Pacific.

“My first trip to Fiji was really life-changing because it exposed me to a whole range of art and literature I wasn’t familiar with, and I’ve kept that passion ever since,” he said. “Fiji was and still is the center of my interest because it made me much more aware of the richness of contemporary global literature and . . . it was like a doorway to another world.”

Excited to revisit the place that ignited such a passion, the longtime professor is also looking forward to seeing the friends he made there during many trips over the last few decades.

“I haven’t really thought of what I’m going to do (in my retirement), but I can say that I’m going back to Fiji in September. Then I’ll figure out what’s next,” he said.

Cultural insight

Schwarz, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany at age 6 in 1951, joined the CLU staff in 1970 as an associate professor of English. In ’72, he became a full professor, teaching American literature with an emphasis on minority and post-Colonial studies.

During his first decade on the Thousand Oaks campus, Schwarz developed an interest in African American, Chicano/a and Native American literature and began incorporating such works into his lectures.

“I was drawn to those topics because . . . people who write a little more from the margins often have a greater insight into the culture that they’re looking at . . . from the outside,” he said.

“I found it a positive and meaningful experience to see the world through these lenses and tried to impart that to my students.”

But perhaps one of the most emotional courses he taught, he said, focused on the Holocaust through literature and film.

Having been born at the end of WWII and spending the early years of his life in a country where atrocities had taken place, the professor said he was “more sensitized to marginalized communities.”

“The immigrant story has always mattered to me, even as a child, because it was the natural result of me being an immigrant myself.

“But it quickly became larger for me and included anyone who has experienced being targeted for being ‘other,’” Schwarz said.

He said current events, much like history, can be used to teach students to “explore what it was like to be on the outside” and to have empathy.

“Certainly Sept. 11 (2001) was a big event in terms of shaking students’ consciousness. It really opened the door to discussions about how to handle that kind of horror and how easy it can be to project intolerance rather than understanding.”

Schwarz said the writings of Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born American Jewish author, professor, activist, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, taught him a similar lesson.

Wiesel, who died in 2016, was most famous for his book “Night,” which is about his experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.

“What I learned from (Wiesel) is to teach seeing the horrors for what they are, but also to cultivate empathy and compassion.”

During his tenure at CLU, Schwarz received the university’s President’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2005 and the Honorary Alumnus Award in 2010.

While he’s been credited by his colleagues at CLU with influencing thousands of students over the years, Schwarz said he’s been equally touched by his students.

“You never really know how many students you’ve impacted over the years, but you always hope that you’ve made some kind of impact on those who came into your class,” he said.

“To have them actually tell you is amazing, humbling and a little disconcerting.”

Return to top