When we first established the DDGC mutual aid group, we committed to publishing an anonymized aid log that details the ways we have been able to build a collective and support one another in various ways. We share this information both to encourage transparency in how we function as a mutual aid community and to highlight the many areas affected by, for example, contingency or lack of mentorship and support in German Studies.
Today, we are publishing the first iteration of the mutual aid log to share data from our first year as a mutual aid group.
Resource requests have included manuscript editing, helping to connect Directors of Graduate Studies, project brainstorming, networking, and connecting individuals with housing resources.
July 2021-July 2022 Aid Report
Total requests fulfilled: 22
Resource requests fulfilled: 7
Financial requests fulfilled: 15
Total monetary funds given: $3,210
Average financial request: $170
If you would like to participate in our mutual aid group, please fill out this form, which allows you to both offer aid. You may update your form at any time. You can also click here to offer monetary support, including recurring donations.
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Fulbright Noir is a platform and community that aims to increase representation within the Fulbright Program by featuring the work of and creating a network of Black Fulbrighters. Fulbright Noir is a member of the Fulbright Diversity Collective (FDC), an initiative that now includes several groups that serve, advocate for and bring attention to the diverse community of Fulbrighters. The Executive Board of Fulbright Noir generously agreed to an interview to share more details about the groups’ inception, its primary goals and ways to support the organization. To learn more about Fulbright Noir, please visit their Instagram page, and explore other member organizations of the FDC on the Partner Organizations’ site.
1. Why was Fulbright Noir formed? What are its main goals?
Fulbright Noir was created and founded in 2017 by Chiamaka Ukachukwu, Desiree Daring, Hannah Menelas, and Sonita Moss. The four Inaugural Fulbright Noir Board members came together across three countries to address a need that was not yet fulfilled in the formalized structure of Fulbright: a space for Black grantees. We are committed to creating a supportive community for Black Fulbrighters and focus on the professional and personal growth of prospective, current, and alumni Black Fulbrighters. We do this through creating, collaborating and sharing resources to support Black Fulbrighters as they navigate their unique experiences abroad as Black cultural ambassadors. We also expand our networks through mentorship, social activities and professional development opportunities, such as conferences and workshops.
2. Has Fulbright Noir changed from its inception? If yes, in what ways?
In 2020, the Board expanded to seven positions, including Events, Fundraising, Communications and Outreach, Logistics, and Social Media. These positions are open to current and former grantees who showed engagement in the community and held Fulbright Noir’s goals to heart. The COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately shifted programming to an entirely remote format, making it difficult for Fulbright Noir to hold in-person conferences and events. Our Board members were also located across the U.S. and Europe, which was a positive and a negative!
3. How do you reach students/individuals already interested in pursuing a Fulbright? Do you also conduct forms of outreach to find individuals who may not have Fulbright on their horizon but would be great candidates?
We have multiple forms of outreach for prospective applicants. Many people find us through word of mouth or other Fulbright affinity groups, and reach out with their questions via social media and email. We also engage with college and university fellowship offices to conduct webinars on Fulbright Noir’s mission and initiatives, which brings more awareness to our organization and highlights various grant experiences. In our engagement with the Fulbright Association, we join Fulbright in the Classroom initiatives, which are presentations for elementary to high school students on the importance of travel, global education, and cultural awareness. Finally, we have direct communication with our specific Fulbright coalitions, dependent on our grants. Our current Board represents alumnx from Germany, the Netherlands, Côte d’Ivoire, Cyprus, and Colombia, so we meet with grantees during the application process who have questions specific to these countries. If we don’t have expertise in their field, we share an open call for alumnx to volunteer their insights or share our global alumnx database of Black grantees from across the world.
4. In what way(s) does Fulbright Noir support and connect current and alumni Fulbrighters?
Fulbright Noir hosts and joins panels with Fulbright alumnx and current grantees on professional development opportunities, research areas, and advancement of diversity in the Fulbright Program. These events are key for having the Board connect with a full-range of Fulbrighters, but also for them to connect with one another. Attendees can gain insight into all the opportunities the Fulbright program has to offer, during and after their grants.
Our Genesis Conference in Spring 2019 was held in Brussels, Belgium, and brought together Black grantees completing grants in Europe together for the first time. As Fulbright Noir’s first large gathering, Genesis was an open space for Fulbrighters to discuss their challenges, interests, and aspects of daily life as Black teachers and researchers in Europe. There were large disparities between Western and Eastern Europe, which is something attendees may not have considered without having the space and community to share their experiences. We hope to have more in-person gatherings like Genesis in the future, especially given the changes the Fulbright program has undergone during the pandemic.
5. As current board members, what drew you to serve on the board? What has been most rewarding, surprising, challenging?
A number of current Board members had the opportunity to participate in Genesis and learn about Fulbright Noir, meet the founders, and network with Fulbrighters across Europe. Others wanted to give back to other Black prospective applicants who had questions on how to navigate the application process and the specific structures of the program in different countries.
While the work is enriching, it is difficult to keep the momentum of a movement and organization going in a remote context. All of our Board members are either full-time workers or students in Master’s and PhD programs, so time management becomes very difficult when there are pauses in events and outreach. Not only are we serving in an unpaid volunteer capacity, but we also have limited forms of income for the organization, which can inhibit some planning of our future endeavors. Despite all of this, we are all very loyal to the mission of the organization and sharing our fellow Fulbrighters’ stories. It’s always great to hear from members of our community who have benefited from our events or advice.
6. What have been some of the most effective ways of connecting/helping fellow Fulbrighters to network within Fulbright Noir? What are some challenges that you have faced?
Word of mouth and social media are the most effective ways of connecting with the Board as well as other Fulbrighters. We started on Instagram, and it has remained our primary platform. We use email to connect with other Fulbright affinity groups, Fulbright Association chapters, and the U.S. Department of State. Because our communication is so varied in different parts of the world, it can be challenging to respond to concerns and questions in a timely manner. We try our best to connect necessary parties to our Fulbrighters who may need them.
7. Under “Partner Organizations” on the Fulbright website, there are other groups that have formed to serve and advocate for other people/populations. These include Fulbright Families, Fulbright Latinx, Fulbright Lotus, Fulbright Salam and others; do you ever collaborate with these other organizations?
Yes - we are happy to be a member of the Fulbright Diversity Collective (FDC), which comprises these groups and others. We were the first affinity group to be created, followed closely by Fulbright Prism and others that wanted to create spaces for their respective communities. We meet and collaborate closely, and it is a great opportunity to host events that focus on the intersection of identities, such as the representation of Queer/Trans People of Color (QTPOC). We hope to expand on this even more!
8. How can others support the work of Fulbright Noir?
Follow us on Instagram and Twitter - @fulbrightnoir to keep up with our initiatives! We’re currently working on a website so that we can be more accessible to more groups, so please stay tuned! In the meantime, please inform undergraduate and graduate students who may be interested in traveling and studying abroad to get connected with Fulbright Noir and learn more about the Fulbright Program. Finally, you can support us monetarily by buying some merchandise! You can find our online store with various products here - https://fulbright-noir-merch.creator-spring.com/.
Jeannette Oholi (Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen)
Es gibt immer wieder Momente, in denen ich keine Hoffnung mehr habe. Es sind diese Momente, wenn mir Fragen und Kommentare entgegen geschleudert werden wie, “Gibt es überhaupt Schwarze Autor*innen in Deutschland?,” “Dass du dich in deiner Forschung auf England und Frankreich konzentrierst, ist klar – aber Deutschland?,” oder—besonders beliebt seit den Black Lives Matter Protesten 2020—“Schwarze deutsche Literatur – dazu arbeitet jetzt ja jeder*r.” Es kostet viel Energie, Schwarze deutsche Literatur und Geschichte in der Germanistik zu erforschen und sichtbar zu machen. Und doch gibt es auch andere Momente, in denen ich durchatmen kann.
Es ist die Zärtlichkeit, an die ich mich noch lange erinnern werde. Die Zärtlichkeit in den Worten, in den Gesten, Gesichtern und im Umgang der Anwesenden miteinander. “So kann eine Literaturveranstaltung also auch sein,” denke ich mir nach dem dreitägigen Schwarzen Literaturfestival Resonanzen. Was wäre alles in den Literaturwissenschaften und den Literaturbetrieben möglich, wenn die Herzen und Ohren so geöffnet wären wie bei diesem Festival?
Resonanzen fand im Rahmen der Ruhrfestspiele vom 19. bis zum 21. Mai in Recklinghausen statt. Angelehnt an den Bachmannpreis, der jährlich in Klagenfurt vergeben wird, lasen die sechs Schwarzen Autor*innen Joe Otim Dramiga, Melanelle B. C. Hémêfa, Raphaëlle Red, Bahati Glaß, Winni Atiedo Modesto und Dean Ruddock ihre Geschichten vor, die sie rund um das Impulswort “Erbe” verfasst hatten. Eine Jury aus vier Schwarzen Literaturexpert*innen—Aminata Cissé Schleicher, Elisa Diallo, Ibou Coulibaly Diop und Dominique Haensell—kam im Anschluss einer jeden Lesung auf die Bühne und diskutierte die Texte.
Nun könnte man denken, es handelte sich um eine Literaturveranstaltung wie jede andere. Für mich war es jedoch eine ganz besondere Erfahrung, die ich so noch nie gemacht habe. Schwarze Autor*innen und ihre Literatur standen in einer öffentlichen Veranstaltung als Teil eines etablierten Festivals im Mittelpunkt. Es vollzog sich eine wahrnehmbare Verschiebung: Schwarze deutsche Literatur wurde sichtbar und trat aus der ihr zugeschriebenen Nische heraus. Selbstbewusst bildete sie in den drei Tagen das Zentrum der Aufmerksamkeit.
Diese Verschiebung stellt eine Selbstermächtigung, ein Empowerment, dar. Initiiert und kuratiert wurde das Literaturfestival von Sharon Dodua Otoo. Otoo gewann im Jahr 2016 den angesehenen Bachmannpreis und ihr im Jahr 2021 erschienener Roman Adas Raum wurde hoch gelobt. Mit Adas Raum hat Otoo ein Ausrufezeichen gesetzt, das schreit, seht her, was in der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur alles möglich ist. So lobt Hanna Engelmeier in der Süddeutschen Zeitung die “filigrane Konstruktion eines Romans, der formal auf Brüche, Auslassungen und Suggestionen setzt und damit dem Publikum erfreulich viel Eigenarbeit dabei zutraut” (Engelmeier 2021). Und auch die sechs Kurzgeschichten des Literaturfestivals trauen dem Publikum einiges zu: Sie erklären nicht alles, sondern sowohl die Jury als auch das Publikum sind immer wieder dazu angehalten, selbst Verbindungen herzustellen.
Beeindruckt von der Vielfalt der Kurzgeschichten frage ich mich, wie viele Schwarze Autor*innen ich noch nicht kenne, die zu Hause, in Cafés oder auf einer Parkbank schreiben und wunderbare Texte erschaffen. Das Schwarze Literaturfestival macht sehr deutlich, was diesem Land, das sich unaufhörlich mit großem Stolz als Heimat der Dichter*innen und Denker*innen erzählt, doch alles durch seine Ignoranz und seine rassifizierenden Ausschlüsse entgeht.
Die Reaktion des Publikums zeigt mir in diesen Tagen, wie sehr sich viele Menschen nach literarischen Texten sehnen, die andere Perspektiven, Geschichten, Ästhetiken und Themen enthalten. Auch Sharon Dodua Otoo betont in einem Interview, dass Diversität in der Literatur für die gesamte Gesellschaft bereichernd ist: “Es wird unterschätzt, dass auch Menschen, die zur sogenannten Dominanzgesellschaft gehören, von diverser Literatur profitieren. Die unterschiedlichen Geschichten und Perspektiven sind für uns alle wichtig” (Caldart 2022). Das Schwarze Literaturfestival hat einen Raum geschaffen, in dem diese vielfältigen Geschichten und Perspektiven diskutiert werden konnten.
Es ist nicht die Aufgabe von Schwarzen Autor*innen, einem weißen Publikum Rassismuserfahrungen näher zu bringen. Dafür sind bereits genug Anti-Rassismus-Ratgeber in den letzten Jahren erschienen. Aus den Gesprächen mit Menschen aus dem Publikum und deren Reaktionen auf das Literaturfestival nehme ich etwas ganz anderes mit: die Begeisterung und die Freude an sowie das Ergriffensein von Schwarzer deutscher Literatur. Auch ich spüre während des Festivals viele Emotionen zugleich. Sei es, weil mich ein Text nachdenklich macht, ich Neues lerne, ich begeistert bin von der Poetik einer anderen Autorin oder mich das Ende eines anderen Textes schockiert. Ist es nicht genau das, was gute Literatur ausmacht?
Während der Planung des Literaturfestivals empfand ich den Festivaltitel Resonanzen als etwas abstrakt. Nach den drei Tagen kann ich aber verstehen, warum Otoo sich dafür entschieden hat. Ich war noch nie gut in Physik, aber finde die Vorstellung eines Körpers, der durch Energiezufuhr selbst zu schwingen beginnt, ein schönes Bild. Denn auch während des Literaturfestivals habe ich diese Schwingungen gespürt, die sich von Mensch zu Mensch—und Herz zu Herz—übertragen haben. Das Literaturfestival hat Resonanzen und Verbindungen geschaffen. Zwar waren die Texte der sechs Autor*innen sehr unterschiedlich—Schwarze deutsche Literatur ist vielfältig!—und doch sind sie miteinander verbunden. Sie sind Teil einer Schwarzen Literaturtradition, die über Deutschland hinausgeht. Die Texte bilden eine Community, die Teil einer größeren Gemeinschaft ist: die der afrikanischen Diaspora. Diese ist heterogen und gibt seit Jahrhunderten Wissen, Kunst und Geschichte(n) von Generation zu Generation weiter.
Otoo spricht in einem Interview von einem “Resonanzraum” (Caldart 2022) und beschreibt die Idee zum Festival so: “Mir geht es darum zu überlegen, was sich die Geschichten gegenseitig und im Hinblick auf andere literarische Werke, andere afrodiasporische Texte erzählen. Das ist für mich Resonanz: Wenn eine Schwarze Person einen Text schreibt und Würdigung in einem Raum findet, weil Lesende wissen, was gemeint ist, worauf der Text Bezug nimmt, an was er erinnert” (Caldart 2022). Resonanzen sind somit die Folge eines vielschichtigen Zusammenspiels von Verbindungen, Bezügen, gemeinsamen Wissen, Austausch, Anerkennung und Erinnerungen.
Das bringt mich zum Impulswort “Erbe.” Denn, so wird mir nach dem Literaturfestival bewusst, nicht nur die Autor*innen sind Erb*innen, die eine Schwarze Literaturtradition mitgestalten, sondern auch ich bin eine Erbin. Die Anwesenheit von Nouria Asfaha und Aminata Cissé Schleicher macht mir bewusst, dass ich kaum Kontakt mit älteren Generationen Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland habe. Das muss sich ändern. Denn auch ich baue auf den Kämpfen von Schwarzen Aktivist*innen auf und bin dankbar dafür, dass sie an mich ein so reiches Erbe weitergeben. Ich sehe es daher auch als meine Aufgabe an, dieses Erbe, das zur deutschen Geschichte und Gesellschaft gehört, vor der Vergessenheit zu bewahren.
Als ich im Zug zurück nach Hause sitze, muss ich an die Schwarze deutsche Dichterin, Wissenschaftlerin und Aktivistin May Ayim denken. Es gibt einen Film über sie, der ihr Leben und Schaffen porträtiert, und der Hoffnung im Herz (1997) heißt. Der Filmtitel ist dem Gedicht “nachtgesang” entnommen, das das Ende einer Liebe, das Loslassen wie auch einen Neuanfang thematisiert. Ich sehe das Schwarze Literaturfestival als einen Anfang, dem ein gewisser Zauber innewohnt. Auch ich trage nun wieder Hoffnung im Herz.
Caldart, Isabella. “Türen öffnen – Interview mit Sharon Dodua Otoo über das Schwarze Literaturfestival ‘Resonanzen’”. 54 books, https://www.54books.de/tueren-oeffnen-interview-mit-sharon-dodua-otoo-ueber-das-schwarze-literaturfestival-resonanzen/ (Accessed June 23, 2022).
Engelmeier, Hanna. “Die alles verbindenden Dinge”. Süddeutsche Zeitung, https://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/rezension-sharon-dodua-otoo-adas-raum-identitaetspolitik-1.5220018 (Accessed June 23, 2022).
Her View From Work: One Professor’s Thoughts on Burnout and Questions of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Juliane Schicker (Carleton College)
During the 2022 winter term at my home institution, Carleton College, the hallways were filled with an atmosphere of a particularly tough exhaustion. The majority of faculty, students, and staff seemed tired, overwhelmed, and on edge. As an academic who is also a mother of a young child, I felt the same, and was also painfully aware that the current global situation has been weighing on a lot of people heavier than usually. Carleton’s inhabitants are no strangers to intense stress, but the last months have made it all a lot harder, at least for me: we are dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its ramifications for especially female caregivers and People of Color, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, legislation that endangers the rights of trans children and pregnant women, and the ongoing “racism pandemic” with another act of “hate-filled domestic terrorism” in Buffalo, NY, last week.
In my search for ways to combat my stressful situation, and as a result of my research into and teaching about the lives of working women in German-speaking countries from around 1900 until today, I want to focus in this post on the growing culture of overwhelm and overwork especially at institutions of higher learning. I will share my own experiences with burnout and that of some of my students to draw attention to the intersection of burnout and questions of inclusion, diversity, and equity. With this reflection, I hope to contribute to a critical and systematic approach to combating burnout and its detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of faculty and students.
The Jewish German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger was one of the first to describe cases of physical or mental collapse that were a result of overwork. Through his research, the concept of burnout entered the realm of psychological diagnoses in 1974. One step beyond the feeling of temporary exhaustion, burnout robs the person of the freeing feeling that accomplishments provide, and traps them in a cycle of being chronically overwhelmed. Potential symptoms one may experience include fatigue and loss of joy, but also resentment and the inability to hand over work to others. Dean Spade, Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law, assembled an informative list of feelings and symptoms one may experience when burned out in a post he published on his blog in 2019.
Even though we have been aware of burnout for a while now, this illness is not included in the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, which means that getting medical help tailored to one’s struggles with burnout becomes much harder, if not impossible. Eve Ettinger, writer and educator in D.C., questions the terminology of burnout and suggests exploring how what we experience especially now sounds much more like complex post-traumatic stress disorder (or CPTSD, which is a medical condition in the DSM-5). This concept was defined in 1988 by the American psychiatrist Judith Herman and expresses the continuing exposure to certain traumatic experiences. As someone who has suffered from PTSD because of domestic violence, I see the connections between stress and trauma clearly.
I believe that we must share individual and collective experiences of the symptoms these possible diagnoses entail, so that people do not struggle in silence on their own, but can enter a shared space to seek and offer support. I am a white, female tenure-track professor at Carleton, in what is considered to be one of the better positions in academia, which seems to suggest that I should be more in control over my well-being. I spend around 190 hours in an average year in the classroom, which is less than many other academics report, and I get paid a better salary for it. I have a continuing contract with the prospect of earning tenure at a college that has an endowment of over 1 billion dollars and can meet 100 percent of every student’s demonstrated financial need after they are accepted. We have a sufficient budget for student workers who help organize events, grade homework, and can support us with research. My home department is as supportive as can be, and my immediate colleagues (and almost everyone I have encountered so far on campus) are the best I can wish for. I have huge freedoms to determine my own teaching hours and course topics, and I also receive resourceful support for my teaching and research.
In this seemingly ideal environment for the profession I chose, I have faced many of the feelings described in the literature on burnout—before and after I became a mother two years ago. I have pushed myself more and more into the direction of being constantly overwhelmed despite or precisely because of my life-long passion and enthusiasm for teaching and researching. Most of my evenings and weekends have been used for catching up on work that I was unable to get done during the traditional work week, and free-time activities are now devoted to very rewarding but also sometimes challenging “in-home childcare” of a young toddler. Pandemic parenting and pandemic care-giving in general contain a particularly tricky angst, as I never know whether my child’s daycare will be available tomorrow or whether my back-up babysitters are willing to come in when my kid is too sick for daycare but not too sick to hang out with someone else than me (and fortunately tested negative for Covid). Family support is not available for emergency situations, as is the case for so many academics who have had to move away for graduate school and academic positions. The headline of Amil Niazi’s article about pandemic parenting expresses my current feelings in this context perfectly: “Omicron Means Parents Are Doing It All Again, Except This Time Dead Inside.” My daughter is still too young to get vaccinated, so after so much hope for a “new normal,” seeing the rest of the world move on feels dreadful. But I must move on if I want to keep up. A primal scream of sheer mental and physical exhaustion is often what I do quietly inside--others scream loudly in communion.
Normal toddler-parenting already saddles parents with a lot of uncertainties, among other reasons because young kids get sick a lot before they can develop an immune system that doesn’t keep them home every other week for a few days or longer. A household with two full-time working parents is a privilege, and also makes this situation often quite challenging. My partner and I love our jobs, though, and affording basic childcare in this country requires both of our salaries (and possibly a third). In addition, we are also commuting an hour to work in different directions, which takes longer and is more stressful during the winter because the snowy road conditions are often dangerous. One could argue that I could just increase the amount of childcare my daughter receives from other care-givers so I can work more, but I want to actually spend time with her, too! I don’t buy into the notion that’s floating around in some of my friends’ circles that it’s “normal” for working parents to see their child(ren) only for brief breakfasts and dinners during the week. My mother would remind me that we are “lucky” nowadays as there were even weekly daycares in the German Democratic Republic, the country I grew up in, that catered especially to single working mothers employed in shift work during the first few decades of the country’s existence. Seeing his daughter for only an hour or so on most workdays is actually the case for my partner, but I believe that parents who want to spend more time with their children while they also hold a job should be able do so without guilt or shame. So, I try.
In addition to being a good parent and partner, I also want to be an engaged teacher-scholar. My personal image of my profession comes partly from my background of having grown up in a family of teachers and university professors. From a very young age, I have witnessed my parents’ deep and time-consuming commitment to their students, which included working long hours and intertwining family life with their jobs. My current home institution and North American academia in general also expect me to be a particular kind of educator: Students at Carleton can “talk with [professors] outside of class, mingle with them at campus events, and attend informal gatherings in their homes.” As a “respected scholar” who exemplifies this behavior, I should also encourage students to take part in my research and offer them enthusiastic learning opportunities. Some of these opportunities, such as senior thesis (or “comps”) presentations happen on the weekend for some departments on campus. Of course, I want my students to learn and enjoy their time in the classroom, which both helps their personal and professional development and also justifies the existence of our small German program, and, with that, my job and that of my colleagues. I still believe that I can change the lives of my students (and maybe the world?) with the material we discuss. So, I make myself available as best as I can, follow the research, give and receive feedback, stay up-to-date on the news and social movements, and am currently in the process of tenure-review—a moment of justification and evaluation that is rewarding but stressful. In addition, I provide service to the college and the profession, which entails administrative duties, and my involvement with certain initiatives, such as the Critical German Blog on our German program website. These commitments include more education on my part, particularly when it comes to anti-racism measures and equitable classroom practices. I must and want to contribute to the profession, my own interests, and also the interests of society at large if I hope to continue on my professional path. So, I try.
Especially in the last weeks of the winter term here at Carleton, however, I have come to the realization that I cannot just try to survive each day and week, precisely because I want to have a long and fulfilling working life at my institution. The whirlwind of Carleton’s ten-week terms is something students endure for four years, but faculty do it in groundhog-like repetition. The rather short break between winter and spring term (seven days and two weekends) adds to the pressures of the final stretch of the winter term and makes me anxious about my ability to prepare my spring class(es) in time. Could I dare to schedule a “true break” into these days as well?
I have been overstretching myself in my professional life for a while now but particularly during the last two years, which has reduced my patience, frustration tolerance, creativity, and ability to produce quality work. In my private life, I have had a hard time switching into “recharge” mode because work has creeped into my free time more than usual. The gnawing feeling of overwhelm at work has been joined by somewhat “underwhelming” opportunities for leisure activities in the past years. Enjoying my free-time could offset the negative experiences I have with burnout, but this has become hard work as well. Currently, I thrive from my daughter’s funny personality and from the energy I get in the classroom: Exhilarating discussions about a primary text, the “aha” moment that students share when we successfully digest a particularly difficult passage from a research paper, and the casual conversations I have at weekly lunch tables or after class that tell me more about the worlds I don’t know. I have two wonderful colleagues who support me in any way they can (giving me feedback on this blog post, for example), and—not a given in today’s college landscape—my administration has helped me as well when they, for example, reduced my committee load for a year.
My experiences of overwork and overwhelm seem to echo many of those that students at Carleton describe to me not only in student hours, but also in their assignments, especially after the pandemic complicated their lives. In my courses, I often read about their families, their friends, their free-time activities (or lack thereof) and have the privilege to also witness the production of creative texts that lay open their profound hardships and burdens. They have described their emotions becoming flatter, their enthusiasm decreasing. Their willingness and/or ability to actually do something—for class or leisure—let alone with other people, has waned for some to the unrecognizable in the last two years. While they are often unable to meet all the expectations their classes put on them to their satisfaction, they are also unable to relax from these expectations. They have had a hard time finding the creativity to engage in something they enjoy. Since coming to Carleton around seven years ago, I have often heard students say that they succumbed to the strategy of “just surviving until break”—a strategy I have adopted as well.
Before my students arrived at Carleton, many had already tried for a long time to stand out from the crowd to get into a prestigious college (and later into grad school or into a fulfilling job). Students have been working to “get an edge,” which often entailed taking harder classes and/or more extracurriculars than others, hoping to amass social and human capital that can be used to get into the “right” groups of people, to have the “correct” number of prerequisites to get into certain classes, or to simply be able to academically and emotionally survive at Carleton. Here, the ominous deadline of four years of college, divided into twelve terms of often awfully quickly passing ten-week terms is ever present, particularly during advising days when professors may ask about students’ ideas for a major, their wishes to go on an Off-Campus Study program, or their future plans in general. In the background loom other, more general but not less influential stressors, such as financial burdens, academic expectations of certain classes and one’s own preparation for them, mental health challenges, experiences with discrimination off and on campus, and troubles at home and in the world. I have often heard a student tell me they have to reduce their sleep significantly because of an assignment in one of their classes. Carleton’s campus has so much to do and so that free-time, too, can become a chore and students not only have to decide between finishing a paper and sleeping one more hour, but also between sleep and social commitments that can increase their social and cultural capital but could also allow them to unplug and relax. To all of this, life adds the search for the “perfect job,” one you love so much that work becomes play. But then you have to be careful that you don’t end up working too much in that job, too. All of this pressure turns into anxieties about the future that pile onto the anxieties of the present.
While burnout can affect any person, how it ultimately plays out is a matter of a person’s positionality in society, as described, for example, in the CRIAW / ICREF’s Intersectionality Wheel: Specified for women and girls, the Intersectionality Wheel expresses how people experience different forms of oppression and inequality that effect their position in certain systems, institutions, structures, and socio-economic and political practices. Seen through this lens, burnout is a question of equity, diversity, and inclusion. For socio-economic practices, Ettinger puts it so aptly: “Who gets to call in as burned out seems to be correlated to a person’s class-based access to resources”—if you are not “rich” in resources, you cannot just stop what you are doing to combat burnout, you have to put food on the table under the roof you hopefully have, now or for the prospect of a richer future. I am able to write this post because I am allocating some of my (paid) research time to this type of public scholarship since it intersects with what I have been researching in the past. Others are impoverished when it comes to resources such as time, access to financial capital, institutional support, a care network, a flexible work schedule, networking opportunities, or that roof over their heads. This lack of resources often hits Black, Brown, and Indigenous members of our society as well as women, especially women of color, the hardest.
Many of my students at Carleton are time impoverished, which leads to 61.8% of students getting adequate sleep only three or fewer days a week (only 6.1% get adequate sleep 6-7 days a week), as the Boynton Health Report found in 2018 (10). Dealing with anxiety and depression, the two most frequently reported mental health diagnoses on campus, becomes harder without adequate sleep (6). Available data for Carleton was not listed in racial categories, which is not uncommonas the majority of knowledge about mental health on campuses is derived primarily from non-Hispanic white students (NHW). Kodish et al. found that Latinx and Multiracial students were “significantly more likely to be in a more severe depression category, relative to NHW students, and Black/African American students were marginally significantly more likely to be in a more severe depression category” (273). Similar findings were reported for anxiety and suicidality. Stress also arises because of discrimination, which happens at Carleton because of race to 37.3% of male and 27.2% of female students (31). As a predominantly white campus, Carleton is home to 59.6% white students (non-Hispanic), which the Fall Student Enrollment Profile shows that is compiled each year by Carleton’s Institutional Research and Assessment team. As a point of reference, undergraduates nationwide who say they are not white represent 46.2% of all students (10). In 2018/19, Carleton had 4.8% Black students, 8.2% American Indian or Alaskan Native, 8.2% Asian, 8% Hispanic, no Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, and 6.9% students with two or more races (1). Besides discrimination based on race or skin color, Boynton Health Report also found that roughly 16.5% of all students have experienced discrimination because of their education or income level (10). In the educational context, some students have been able to front-load their career with AP or other pre-college courses, which allowed them to skip over some classes, but those who did not have the chance to take these classes have less freedom to explore the curriculum and may feel they stand out as lacking knowledge and skills. Many students take on a campus job to meet the requirements of their financial aid package. Students deal with these time-consuming aspects of their college experience here while also trying to figure out how college actually works.
Fitting our work as faculty and students into the traditional 40-hour work week seems impossible, and this number has already been questioned a lot. The increased burnout of workers and students has only been one factor for businesses, scholars, and many others to rethink their commitment to overwork. Ironically, the needs of capitalism have also inspired this quest: 8% of the national healthcare outlays is spent on the effects of burnout. Companies without provisions against burnout have higher turnover, lower productivity, higher healthcare costs (sometimes 50% higher) than organizations that offer a lower-pressure environment. It seems to become clearer that it can’t be the person themselves who needs to “do more self-care,” “take a few days off,” “take care of their health,” “learn to set boundaries,” or “not overcommit” as seen in posts such as Kathleen Curtis’s “Beating Burnout: An Online Survival Guide for College Students.” More and more people advocate that the system itself must be held accountable for fostering a burnout culture.
In this context of systemic problems in need of systemic solutions, I want to more closely consider the connections between burnout and faculty and students from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds. Lack of time, emotional support, financial means, exposure to discriminations and mental health issues among other aspects affect the ability of people to combat personal stressors so they can counter a culture where it seems to count as a badge of honor to have slept the fewest hours among your peers. People experiencing burnout cannot just “stop whining” and “fix” themselves so they can “fit in” with the people around them, as I heard some people talk about burnt-out members of our campus community. Getting out of burnout currently requires people to find a way to gain access to already scarce resources. Intersectionality plays a crucial role here: Those who experience racism, ableism, sexism, classicism, and other forms of discrimination are likely already running low on resources and are at an increased risk of burnout through their place of work or study, which, by its nature, exposes people to more discriminations.
While companies—and, by extension, universities—can retain their workers and students when they provide an environment that supports an anti-burnout culture, many work places struggle with a systemic solution to burnout. With the help of my colleagues as well as some support from my administration, I have taken some steps to combat my burnout and that of my students, and I hope that these changes can rise to small but impactful systemic solutions to the problem. Considering our program’s goals, I have aimed my efforts at 1) balancing my work and life, 2) making my campus experience and that of my colleagues and students a positive one, 3) retaining students, faculty, and staff, and 4) taking the onus of working against burnout a little away from the individual and putting it more on the institution. Implementing changes like the following has, honestly, temporarily increased my faculty workload, which sounds, and is indeed, counter-productive. However, I did not know how else to proceed to slowly feel small but impactful effects on my well-being while I am writing this post. For a list of references from which I received inspiration, see below.
In my workplace,
In my private life,
With this, I hope to keep creating a climate where we want to work toward the goal of improving each other’s lives with the skills we have to offer; and where, for all our goals, we more closely consider how systemic problems need systemic solutions, particularly when it comes to the connections between burnout and students and faculty from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds.
Bernstein, Amy, Amy Gallo, and Emily Caulfield. Harvard Business Review’s Women at Work, podcast audio, 2018–2022, https://hbr.org/2018/01/podcast-women-at-work.
Boynton Health, University of Minnesota. “Carleton College 2018 College Student Health Survey Report.” Carleton College, 2018, https://d31kydh6n6r5j5.cloudfront.net/uploads/sites/292/2020/03/Carleton___College_Student_Health_Survey_Summary_2018.pdf.
Burnett, Bill and Dave Evans. Designing Your Life: How To Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
“Course Workload Estimator 2.0.” Wake Forest University, not dated, https://cat.wfu.edu/resources/tools/estimator2/.
“Critical German Studies.” Carleton College, 2022, https://www.carleton.edu/german/critical-german-studies/.
Curtis, Kathleen. “Beating Burnout: An Online Survival Guide for College Students.” EDUMED, 12 July 2021, https://www.edumed.org/resources/college-student-burnout-survival/.
Ettinger, Eve. “Have We Been Thinking About Burnout All Wrong.” Bustle, 7 March 2022, https://www.bustle.com/wellness/burnout-definition-what-we-get-wrong?fbclid=IwAR0kpOKB4N9tJBJmeTq5BlBc98nMObTEpmYhjthIReJe8wEHPi-ntdW1QlU.
Evans, Elrena and Caroline Grant (eds.). Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. New Brunswick, NJ, et al.: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, And How It Can Transform Schools And Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2019.
“Feminist Intersectionality and GBA+.” Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, no date, https://www.criaw-icref.ca/our-work/feminist-intersectionality-and-gba/.
Hartley, Gemma. Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2018.
Institutional Research and Assessment. “Fall Student Enrollment Profile.” Carleton College, 22 April 2019. https://d31kydh6n6r5j5.cloudfront.net/uploads/sites/292/2020/02/CDS_Web_Summary_Trends_2018_19.pdf, p. 1.
Kodish, Tamar et al. “Enhancing Racial/Ethnic Equity in College Student Mental Health Through Innovative Screening and Treatment.” Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, vol. 49 (2022): 267–282. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34505211/.
Kurtz, Adam. “Do what you love [...].” Twitter, 6 March 2019, https://twitter.com/adamjk/status/1103367035650797569?lang=en.
Lederman, Doug. “Turnover, Burnout and Demoralization in Higher Ed.” Inside Higher Ed, 4 May 2022, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/05/04/turnover-burnout-and-demoralization-higher-ed.
Margolis, Jaclyn. “Should We End the 40-Hour Workweek?” Psychology Today, 11 Oct. 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shifting-workplace-dynamics/202110/should-we-end-the-40-hour-workweek.
Martin, Douglas. “Herbert Freudenberger, 73, Coiner of ‘Burnout,’ Is Dead.” New York Times, 5 Dec. 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/12/05/nyregion/herbert-freudenberger-73-coiner-of-burnout-is-dead.html.
Mills, Kim I. “‘We Are Living in a Racism Pandemic,‘ Says APA President.” American Psychological Association, 29 May, 2020. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/05/racism-pandemic.
Moss, Jennifer. “Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People.” Harvard Business Review, 11 Dec. 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people.
Nagoski, Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2019.
Niazi, Amil. “Omicron Means Parents Are Doing It All Again, Except This Time Dead Inside.” Romper, 7 Jan. 2022, https://www.romper.com/parenting/here-we-go-again-omicron-edition.
Rainey, Malik. “Gunman Kills 10 at Buffalo Supermarket in Racist Attack.” New York Times, 14 May, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/05/14/nyregion/buffalo-shooting?smid=url-share.
Robinson, Bryan E. #Chill: Turn Off Your Job and Turn On Your Life. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2019.
Spade, Dean. “Burnout: What It Is and Some Ways to Address It In Ourselves and In Organizations.” Dean Spade, 25 Sept. 2019, http://www.deanspade.net/2019/09/25/burnout-what-it-is-and-some-ways-to-address-it-in-ourselves-and-in-organizations/.
“Standout Faculty.” Carleton College, 2022, https://www.carleton.edu/admissions/explore/education/faculty/.
Blum, Susan D. and Alfie Kohn (ed.). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (And What To Do Instead). Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2020.
Santos, Laurie. The Happiness Lab, podcast audio, 2022–2022. https://www.happinesslab.fm/.
Wenner Moyer, Melinda. “COVID Parenting Has Passed the Point of Absurdity.” The Atlantic, 20 Jan. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/01/covid-parenting-challenges-stress/621322/.
Kiley Kost (Carleton College)
DDGC's Mutual Aid group formed after DDGC's second town hall meeting on the Crisis of Labor and Graduate Education in German Studies in late 2020. Since then, our group has worked together virtually to develop a mutual aid infrastructure that responds to the immediate needs of our colleagues and works toward creating sustainable and equitable working conditions in and around German Studies. Mutual aid is the practice of providing direct support—in any form—to members of a community from members of that same community. As a mutual relationship, community members supply assistance and resources to each other and are empowered to ask for help when needed. DDGC mutual aid group members Emily Frazier-Rath and Maggie Rosenau outline how the precarious labor conditions and lack of structural support in our field make mutual aid a necessity in their impressive and comprehensive blog post on the topic from May 2021.
Our mutual aid group has worked together to mindfully develop a non-hierarchical organizational structure that fosters mutual support from within. In this post, I outline our group’s structure and organizing principles to offer a model for other collectives who wish to work together in a meaningful and effective way. We aim to share the very resources that we have developed and consider this itself a gesture of mutual aid.
How can our organization’s structure be useful as a model for other groups?
Our mutual aid working group is currently made up of seven members: Paul Dobryden, Emily Frazier-Rath, Kiley Kost, Ervin Malakaj, Nichole Neuman, Maggie Rosenau, and Beverly Weber (Derek Price was an essential group member from the start and recently stepped away). Each member shares equal responsibility and power; there is no chairperson, no treasurer, no secretary. Instead, duties are dispersed equally and equitably among participants.
When our group first formed, our initial discussions concerned the politics and logistics of running a mutual aid group and setting up its infrastructure. In addition to looking at examples of mutual aid groups, we read and discussed Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next), which was particularly instrumental in thinking through how mutual aid might restructure relations in our network as well as developing our organizational structure in a non-hierarchical manner. We had many conversations about the politics of mutual aid and about how we hoped to relate to each other and our broader community. A guiding question for our conversations was: How might our group’s relational practice generate new structures of community and better relations in our field more broadly?
Thoughtful discussions and meaningful reflection created the framework for how we engage in mutual aid, informed the political position from which we act, and provided the groundwork for our cohesive group. We also conducted an initial survey to determine the needs and resources of people affiliated with German Studies. Derek Price outlined the results of the survey with data visualizations in a blog post from June 2021. After establishing our organizing principles, our main task has been to monitor the requests for mutual aid that are submitted through the request form.
Each week two members are responsible for checking the email account and responding to any requests we received through the form. These communication pairs change every week according to a communications schedule shared with the group. During the beginning stages of our mutual aid group, we came up with a clear protocol for responding to requests and created a workflow to keep track of requests, which is updated by the pair in charge of email that week. Because of the collective nature of our group, we can easily adapt if a certain member needs to step away from the group and prioritize other parts of their life.
Since we formed our group in December 2020, we have held monthly virtual meetings. Between these meetings, we share updates, ideas, and related information in our slack channel. For each meeting, we rotate the meeting facilitator, the person who schedules and hosts the meeting, and a notetaker. Our regular meeting schedule has both allowed our group to respond to the needs of our colleagues in/near German Studies and has served as a space for our group to make meaningful connections with each other in an entirely virtual space.
At the start of each meeting, we always make time to check in with the group and share any news. We also grapple with difficult questions about the politics of mutual aid, including the following:
The questions above have come to inform programming in our mutual aid group and the DDGC network in general. As a collective, we have found that one way to support each other is to create strong relationships in the group and come together before acute needs arise. In practice, this emerges in our monthly meetings and additional virtual gathering focused on intentional community building. Beverly Weber, a member of our group who is also a trained facilitator for restorative justice, led us through a group discussion that allowed us to strengthen our group for the sake of community, rather than as a response to an incident or need. The DDGC community get-togethers organized around labor justice serve to build community in a similar manner.
We have built our collective intentionally and have prioritized conscious collaboration in our work. If you are interested in joining the Mutual Aid working group, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are looking for more members to take part in this important work for our community.
Frazier-Rath, Emily, and Maggie Rosenau. “Mutual Aid in our German Studies Communities: Why and How to Do Collective Organizing and Care Work in Academia.” DDGC Blog. May 25, 2021. https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog/mutual-aid-in-our-german-studies-communities-why-and-how-to-do-collective-organizing-and-care-work-in-academia. Accessed May 11, 2022.
Price, Derek. “Reflections on the DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group Survey: What do People Need, and What can We Provide?” DDGC Blog. June 1, 2021, https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog/reflections-on-the-ddgc-mutual-aid-action-group-survey-what-do-people-need-and-what-can-we-provide. Accessed May 11, 2022.
Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next). New York: Verso, 2020.
The Black German Heritage Research Association (BGHRA), the Diversity, Decolonization, and German Curriculum collective (DDGC), and the Coalition of Women in German (WiG) leadership express our support of and solidarity with trans peoples within our institutions and fields, our local communities, and beyond. It has been another devastating few months of anti-trans rhetoric and anti-trans legislation, in the US, in Germany, and in other parts of the world. These forms of hostility have been accompanied by physical violence targeting trans people.
We are saddened to see that some putative feminists have been the source of some of this anti-trans rhetoric. As just one example, recent articles in the magazine EMMA and its online publications reframe gender-affirming care as self-hatred or as recourse to gender stereotypes. Such initiatives demean the activism and identities of trans activists and their allies as a “trend” that potentially threatens cisgender women and girls. This damaging and inflammatory rhetoric perpetuates linguistic violence that is echoed by news media and radical right politicians, who appropriate and applaud such rhetoric.
Anti-trans rhetoric has concrete material effects and intersects powerfully with racism and white supremacy: it perpetuates the targeting of trans people for physical violence; contributes to the ways that trans communities become particularly vulnerable communities living in unstable housing, under criminalization or immigration-related surveillance, inside jails or prison; and consequently also impacts how trans people are disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
We condemn such anti-trans violence, which frequently goes hand in hand with other forms of hostility against historically and structurally marginalized peoples. As we oppose the growing anti-trans sentiment in Europe, we must also recognize the place from which many of us live and work in North America. In particular the US has seen a wave of anti-trans laws and policies proposed and enacted in recent months. As is the case in Europe and elsewhere, this structural violence against trans people is not new; rather, it is part of a history of pain that in our time finds expression in new iterations. These numerous legislative attempts, and many successes, actively criminalize trans people and their potential support networks. Most recently, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for investigations of parents supportive of their trans children, falsely claiming that their support for gender-affirming medical care constitutes child abuse. This directive threatens these childrens’ networks of care, which include parental as well as medical and psychological care. And, while the particular legislation in Texas wasn’t ultimately approved, investigations had already begun and concrete harms already been perpetuated. The violent sentiment behind the proposed requirement that individuals use the bathroom according to sex listed on birth certificate guides new anti-trans legislation. These and other legislative and policy matters actively limit the participation of trans people in various public settings, including students in many school and campus activities. Physical violence, exclusion from public settings, the trauma experienced through anti trans initiatives, and exclusion from accessing health resources (including psychological resources) all provide barriers to self-actualization.
In the field of German studies, there remains much work to be done to support our trans colleagues and students. Trans German studies has traditionally been allocated a space on the margins of the field, if it is mentioned at all. The histories, cultural and social practices, as well as lived experiences of trans people deserve representation in curricula, at conferences, and scholarly publications. Trans scholars deserve material support structures that afford them the resources and working contexts in which they can conduct their work.
We are grateful for the work being done by trans activists, scholars, teachers, and students that combats these histories of exclusion and violence. We will continue to learn from their work and will support it and the people who do it in various ways from the positions which we occupy. Below, we outline a call to action list for our organizations’ members and supporters that variously align with the principles our three organizations represent.
Call to Action
Scholarship and Teaching
Contact your Public Officials
Share Resources Regularly and Ask Those in Your Networks to Do the Same
As the devastating news about Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine emerges, we mourn with the peoples of Ukraine. International experts and Ukrainian local organizers, municipal officials, and community organizations have long warned that this attack is an eventuality. We join our colleagues around the world who condemn Russia’s intentional and unprovoked harm to Ukraine’s population. And we express our solidarity with all those who oppose this war, as well as with its targets and victims.
There was a wager circulating in recent decades that empires and colonizers had moved away from large-scale territorial aggressions, toward “softer” means—cyber, cultural, and economic. This invasion shows that imperialists reserve the recourse to both paleo- and neocolonial forms, that they relinquish nothing with the passing of time. Misogyny, white supremacy, antisemitism, homophobia, and classic nationalism are still the tried-and-true friends of would-be invaders. Resistance to these things in 2022 must also mean resistance to military occupation, to the stealing of lands, to social death as well as to imminent danger to life and limb.
In alignment with our DDGC Guiding Principles, we offer this list of action items to our broader DDGC community and those beyond. With it, we hope to mobilize a collective force intended to counteract both this invasion and various iterations of imperialism globally as well as its permutations in our own local contexts:
Jason Groves (University of Washington, Seattle)
It is an understatement to say that debates in memory studies in Germany and German studies were invigorated in 2021 by the publication of the German translation of Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. But as much as this book and the topic of multidirectional memory warrant the renewed attention they have received, the positioning of ensuing responses and so many debates can be stultifying and unnecessarily combative. At its best, memory studies models, to cite the editors of Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness somewhat out of context, those “practices of reading and listening that create new possibilities for thinking of, caring for, and talking to one another” that work such as Rothberg’s seeks to foster (15).
I am attempting to develop such practices as something of an amateur and not as an established scholar in the field of memory studies. They grow out of the experience of re-reading Paul Celan’s 1959 poetry volume Sprachgitter (Language Mesh), one of the most consequential attempts to reflect on the historical and cultural ruptures of the Shoah in lyrical language, alongside several recent books in Black feminist and ecological thought, including Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and Tiffany Lethabo King’s The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations in Black and Native Studies. Following thus perhaps unlikely pairing, and prompted by the March 2021 DDGC conference where I first presented this work, I found myself reading Celan’s poems otherwise, holding pauses and placing stresses differently than in previous passes that I and others have made. What began as an act of reading and enunciating otherwise has opened out into broader matters of breath and breathing, of memory and remembering, matters which are informed by recent developments in memory studies, Holocaust studies, genocide studies, Celan studies, Black studies, and environmental studies. If I single out memory studies in my title, it is from a position on the periphery where I can observe this field touching all of these others.
The question that opened my presentation on this topic at the 2021 DDGC conference and that I’m still grappling with today runs like this: how does Paul Celan’s call to enunciate literary art with “the acute accent of the present” (“den Akut des heutigen”) (3:190) play out in the “continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” (14) to which Christina Sharpe attests in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being? Upon further reflection and study, another question arose: why would Celan’s recognition and commemoration of other histories of violence matter? In other words, why place this stress on the poems of a Czernowitz-born (now Chernivtsi), Paris-residing, German-language Jewish poet? Black Germans and queer Black Germans in particular are actively pursuing the “wake work” of repairing and resisting centuries of anti-Blackness, as Tiffany Florvil has indefatigably shown, for instance in “Black Germans and New Forms of Resistance” and “Queer Memory and Black Germans.” May Ayim offers a far more explicit and urgent articulation than Celan of overlapping histories of anti-Black and antisemitic racism in a European context in the poem “deutschland im herbst” (Ayim 68–70). Listening to hear how Celan’s German-language poems are haunted by the Middle Passage is perhaps less obvious than how they could be haunted by the German genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama people, to which Zoé Samudzi calls our attention in “In Absentia of Black Study.” I can’t say with certainty that my work does not play into the deprioritization of living communities undergoing ongoing dispossession. What is more, neither Celan nor I write from a position in the wake, and so I do not position my work as wake work, that is, “a theory and a praxis of Black being in the diaspora” (Sharpe 19). But as I live in the U.S. and work as a literary scholar, I am compelled to think through how the ongoing disaster of North American slavery manifests in how and what I read. I am also compelled to mark the startling resonances between Sharpe’s wake work and Celan’s diasporic poetics in the wake of the Shoah; moreover, and speaking of resonances, I also want to provoke an encounter between the Jewish Shoah and The Black Shoals in search of any point of edgelessness between the two—and to do so by extending and expanding the Black shoals’ slowing and disruptive effects, while being mindful of the ever-present danger of appropriating and displacing.
A few months after the DDGC conference in March of 2021, poet Rachel Zolf published No One’s Witness, a remarkable essay animated by the argument that “it is impossible to confront Celan’s poetry, and the Nazi holocaust in general, without confronting transatlantic slavery and its afterlives amid ongoing colonialism” (5). In Zolf’s assessment, Black studies “charts a field of thought that perhaps makes it possible to start understanding these irreducible, incalculable three lines by Celan [“No one / bears witness for / the witness”] as an index of the im/possibility of witnessing and witnessing witnessing” (5). I only want to add that the im/possibility of confronting multiple histories in Celan’s poetry is not only true for these three lines. Black studies makes other indexes and other prosodies possible in other poems as well.
Zolf’s argument draws on a discourse of multidirectional remembrance, without naming it as such, that has been extensively elaborated by Michael Rothberg in Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonization. Reading Celan today means, for me, attending to his poems’ multidirectional memory, defined by Rothberg as “the way collective memories emerge in dialogue with each other and with the conditions of the present” (20). (See Lauren Hansen’s “Multidirectional Memory as Decolonial Pedagogical Practice in German Studies” in the DDGC volume for other pedagogical implications of this book.) As both Rothberg and Sharpe acknowledge, remembrance of the Shoah can and does sometimes have the opposite effect of erasing other histories of dispossession and genocide, thus preventing dialogue and solidarity from emerging. But Rothberg does document how many prominent early responses to the Nazi genocide—by W. E. B. Du Bois, Charlotte Delbo, André Schwarz-Bart, Aimé Césaire—placed it “on a conceptual continuum with colonialism and antiblack racism” and in doing so participated in a discourse of “multidirectional remembrance” that developed up through the decolonization movements in European colonies in the early 1960s (23). Celan does not figure into Rothberg’s study, but the composition of Sprachgitter in 1958–59 in Paris and during the Algerian War of Independence, could offer another case study.
Recent environmental and planetary turns in memory studies make it possible to see the implications of Rothberg’s work for matters of environmental justice (Craps et al.). Rothberg’s account of a postwar “countertradition in which remembrance of the Holocaust intersects with the legacies of colonialism and slavery and ongoing processes of decolonization” (xiii) resonates in recent decolonial accounts of the Anthropocene. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin have defined the Anthropocene as beginning “with widespread colonialism and slavery” and as “a story of how people treat the environment and how people treat each other” (18). (Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene” develop this narrative substantially.) Resonating is not the same as dialoging, yet it is possible to point to an emerging countertradition in which, to synthesize the two definitions, remembrance of the ecological legacies of colonialism and slavery and ongoing processes of decolonization intersects with remembrance of the Holocaust. No comprehensive account of such a countertradition exists, but one could point to the existence of such in Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene and its discussion of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as Heather Anne Swanson’s “The Banality of the Anthropocene.” But following Rachel Zolf, I want to suggest that Black studies also makes a confrontation with this countertradition in Celan possible.
Offshore is one place where some of these intersections might take place. Offshore is where, as Tiffany Lethabo King argues in the opening pages of The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations in Black and Native Studies, it becomes apparent that genocide and slavery cannot be contained. King elaborates the edgelessness in a context specific to North American history, where the Black shoals are the figurative sandbars that theoretically and methodologically impede the widespread practice of positing “land and labor as the primary frames from which to theorize coloniality, anti-Indigenism, and anti-Black racism” (11). Though the Black shoal is conceptually dynamic and subjected to continual revision throughout King’s book, it is firmly situated in Black diaspora studies within and around the Atlantic. And yet, the shoal also manifests in the form of a shoaling effect: “a disruption in the movement and the flow—of time and space reflected in and narrated by Western disciplinary formations and their seminal texts” (1–2). As such, the shoal is evoked most vividly in its liminality. Simultaneously land and sea, the Black shoal crosses over entrenched paradigms in Black diaspora studies and Native studies, as ocean-centered and land-centered respectively, while also contesting the grammar of “settler” colonial studies in North America. It instead proposes a grammar of “conquest” to expose the ongoing acts of violence to which Indigenous and Black people are subjected.
Can the disrupting, impeding, and slowing effects of the Black shoals (and The Black Shoals) be limited to the histories and the disciplinary formations explored within King’s book? The genocide of European and Mediterranean Jews does not enter into the dialogic space of The Black Shoals, and there are many ways in which an attempt to insert it into this space would decenter its Black and Indigenous voices and thereby participate in the “series of appropriations, displacements, and disappearances” that the book seeks to expose and disrupt (70). King sites the dialogue “off the shores of White academic and political discourse” as a way “to continue ongoing conversations, and create new ones, among Black and Native peoples within and outside the academy” (35). Still, on the periphery of these conversations, and perhaps beyond the scope of the book, there are other ongoing conversations that are, or should be, impacted by the Black shoal. In German studies, for example, or Holocaust studies, or Celan studies. Just as The Black Shoals promises to pull settler colonial studies offshore in order to make it contend with Black thought, so too does it hold the potential to pull German studies offshore, both in archival terms (a wetter archive, a weather archive) and in disciplinary terms (their unexamined terracentrism, their Eurocentrism).
This is where I turn to Celan. On the shore, at low tide, in the poem “Low Tide” (“Niedrigwasser”) from Sprachgitter, looking at nearshore and offshore life: barnacles, limpets, and crabs, as well as shoal-like formations. Also: looking at wind-markings in the grey silt. One verse in particular—“Wind- / markings in the grey / silt” (“Wind- / zeichnung im grauen / Schlick”) (1: 193)—makes it possible to glimpse the horrors (“die Grauen”) of Auschwitz far from the banks of the Vistula river, the river that was mobilized to carry tons upon tons of ashes from the crematoriums away, eventually to the Gulf of Gdansk, where the river empties into what Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls “the one inseparable ocean” (11). The poem’s discretion does not allow for any unequivocal reference to this specific geographic location, but its tracing of “loose solute” (“das Gelöste”) in the gray/horrific silt of a shoal-like “hook” (“Haken”) of land remembers, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, this fraught history, which has also contaminated the language of the littoral zone (1: 193).
Uta Werner’s Textgräber: Paul Celans geologische Lyrik, opened my eyes and ears to these environmental and planetary legacies of Nazism in Celan’s poetry; Sharpe, King, Gumbs, Florvil, and Samudzi opened them to other legacies of violence exposed by “Low Tide.” Those nearshore and offshore sediments and inhabitants of that hostile environment do not only mediate the historical trauma of Auschwitz. Regarding the Middle Passage and the afterlives of slavery, Sharpe, drawing on the biogeochemical concept of residence time, observes that “because nutrients cycle through the ocean, the atoms of those people who were thrown overboard are out there in the ocean even today” (40). In the ocean, Sharpe writes, they, like us, “are alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine. […] they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time” (19). Sharpe does not pursue all material implications of this biochemical form of the unresolved unfolding of the Middle Passage. Those atoms might not only be out there in the ocean but also in the exoskeletons of crustaceans and marine organisms, which take in sodium and other “loose solutes” and then secrete those in the form of shells, like those that populate Celan’s poem. Alexis Pauline Gumbs makes precisely this connection in the speculative documentary M Archive: After the End of the World, published two years after In The Wake. In the introductory section, “From the Lab Notebooks of the Last Sections,” a critical Black marine biologist suggests “that there may be a causal relationship between the bioluminescence in the ocean and the bones of the millions of transatlantic dead” which is “a signal to remember the character of calcium. the meaning of the presence of magnesium. both of which catalyze bioluminescence” (11). Continuing, this researcher sorting artefacts after the end of the world writes, “the bones are there as fine as sand, the marrow like coral to itself, the magnesium and calcium has infiltrated the systems of even the lowest filter feeders. so any light that you find in the ocean right now cannot be separated from the stolen light of those we [those critical Black marine biologists] long for every morning” (11).
Keeping in mind the residence time of the wake, and the archive of the ocean documented by the critical Black marine biologists, I want to suggest that “Low Tide” commemorates both the unresolved unfolding of Auschwitz and, if inadvertently and involuntary, the unresolved unfolding of the Middle Passage. The poem does so—as in the writings of Sharpe and Gumbs—in the grey silt, in the fine sand, in the coarse sand, in the loose solute, in the calcium carbonate shells of the living crustaceans, as well as in the Nazified German language and in the “impassible silence” (“unbefahrbares Schweigen”) with which the poem closes (1: 193). Memory is multidirectional and multispecies in the poem. Celan does not explicitly acknowledge the disaster of Black subjection, but the reader of Sharpe and Gumbs might sense how the poem registers the climate of anti-Blackness in which it takes place. The poem is speechless about these other histories of violence, but it also holds a space for their speechlessness. As trauma studies scholar Shoshana Felman reminds us, “the speaking subject constantly bears witness to a truth that nonetheless continues to escape him, a truth that is, essentially not available to its own speaker” (27).
Whether or not Celan explicitly acknowledges that these disparate histories speak and seep together, whether or not he explicitly commemorates these multiple voices, the way in which he commemorates the Jewish and anti-Jewish ecologies of Auschwitz—environmentally, ecologically, geologically, biogeochemically, planetarily, linguistically—means that they cannot be entirely demarcated from the Black and anti-Black ecologies of the Middle Passage.
It’s crucial that an account of the poem shows more than Black and Jewish bodies in residence time and their “un/survival,” to draw on another of Sharpe’s terms (14). The poem is also about survival, afterlives, and multispecies futurities. As commemorative as Celan’s shoreline ecologies are, the poem also attests to a speculative multispecies future, as made legible in the tracks of the sand crab, tomorrow, and with them a testimony to the possibility of life in the ongoing ruination left in the wake of Auschwitz and the Middle Passage. The imagination of marine life as a site of resistance to, or liberation from, anti-Jewishness, let alone anti-Blackness, is extremely tentative in the poem. Here, again, Black study is precursory, and the tradition of “Black hydropoetics,” for which Joshua Bennett has made a preliminary sketch, offers a space to imagine the historical reach of anti-Blackness as well as Black persistence and fugitive possibility. That tradition might also help to expose forms of Jewish persistence and possibility in Celan’s lyric, underwater or otherwise.
Celan’s “Niedrigwasser” and an English translation can be found here.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. Viking Press, 1964.
Ayim, May. blues in schwarz weiss. Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1995.
Bennett, Joshua. “‘Beyond the Vomiting Dark’: Toward a Black Hydropoetics.” Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field, edited by Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne. University of Iowa Press, 2018, 102–117.
Celan, Paul. Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden. Edited by Beda Alleman and Stefan Reichert with Rudolf Bücher. Suhrkamp, 1983.
Craps, Stef, et al. “Memory Studies and the Anthropocene: A Roundtable.” Memory Studies 11.4 (2018): 498–515.
Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16.4 (2017): 761–780.
Felman, Shoshana. “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching.” American Imago 48.1 (1991): 13–73.
Florvil, Tiffany “Queer Memory and Black Germans.” New Fascism Syllabus, June 8, 2021. http://newfascismsyllabus.com/opinions/queer-memory-and-black-germans/.
Florvil, Tiffany. “Black Germans and New Forms of Resistance.” Black Perspectives, AAIHS, May, 17, 2021. https://www.aaihs.org/black-germans-and-wake-work/.
Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. M Archive: After the End of the World. Duke University Press, 2018.
Hansen, Lauren. “Multidirectional Memory as Decolonial Pedagogical Practice in German Studies.” Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 251–267.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.
King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals. Duke University Press, 2019.
King, Tiffany Lethabo, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith, eds. Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness. Duke University Press, 2020.
Lewis, Simon L., and Mark A. Maslin. The Human Planet. Yale University Press, 2018.
Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford University Press, 2009.
Samudzi, Zoé. “In Absentia of Black study.” New Fascism Syllabus, May 30, 2021.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
Swanson, Heather Anne. 2017. “The Banality of the Anthropocene.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, February 22, 2017. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/the-banality-of-the-anthropocene.
Werner, Uta. Textgräber. Paul Celans geologische Lyrik. Fink, 1998.
Zolf, Rachel. No One’s Witness: A Monstrous Poetics. Duke University Press, 2021.
The DDGC Blog has been one of the main outlets for discussions, ideas, and insights generated by members of the DDGC Collective. Since its inception in May 2017, the blog has grown in scope and continues to shift to accommodate the needs of the community. In an attempt to expand its reach and also to better account for the various conversations it hopes to stage, the current editors would like to recruit two (2) scholars to join the editorial collective of the blog.
What does the position of editorial collective member entail?
In essence, it means facilitating a venue for scholars and students to share their insights about German studies, its various shapes and permutations, and the many challenges and opportunities it holds for the people it brings together.
The two editorial collective members would work with the blog editors to
Who would be a great person for this position?
We are eager to work with scholars who care about the work the DDGC collective has done in the first five years of its existence and who care about the collective’s future. We welcome scholars both with existing experience in editing or those interested in gaining experience editing a scholarly outlet. As such, we welcome expressions of interest from scholars whose work aligns with any aspect of German studies at any station of their career (i.e., grad students, contingent faculty, under-/unemployed, TT/T, etc.).
How to express interest in the position.
Send an email in which you outline your interest (and, if applicable, your experience that would support your work) in the position along with a CV to both Regine Criser (email@example.com) and Ervin Malakaj (firstname.lastname@example.org) by January 31. Don’t hesitate to be in touch if you have any other questions about the position or the work of the DDGC Collective.
Olivia Albiero (San Francisco State University)
Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam (University of British Columbia)
Over the last decade comics studies has succeeded in establishing itself in German studies (or maybe it is the other way around?), having generally become an accepted field of study in our discipline. This has resulted in a growing number of individual and collaborative interventions in both fields, ranging from scholarly publications to conference activities. For instance, the GSA Comics Studies Network, which launched in 2018, is garnering increasing visibility due to its steady presence at the annual GSA convention, where it offers a space for fruitful intellectual exchange between German comics scholars and anyone interested in researching, teaching and writing about comics. However, even though many German programs are eager to incorporate German comics into their curricula, tracking the important intersections between German studies and comics studies in our research and teaching is not as simple as it seems, with “Why comics in German studies?” still a question posed to German comics scholars and educators across the United States and Canada. Yet, by exploring the history of the form, its position in debates on the representation of the Holocaust, its interventions in narrating East German history, and its foregrounding of experiences of migration and displacement, the intersections between German studies and comic studies becomes abundantly clear. Moreover, comics and graphic novels serve as authentic and accessible material in the (German language) classroom. Finally, in light of the modality’s combined use of text and image, graphic literature opens up new possibilities for the representation of lived and historic experience, while fostering visual literacy by pointing the viewer’s attention to how representation itself works through the form’s acknowledgement of its own construction.
The following thus outlines these points of intersection, demonstrating the essential position of comics studies in German studies to introduce scholars in our discipline to some of the intellection and pedagogical intersections for adopting graphic literature into their teaching and research.
In 1992, an essential shift occurred in transatlantic comic culture, when Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for his work in Maus (1980–1991). After being serialized in Françoise Mouly and Spiegelman’s RAW from 1980 onwards, the first six chapters of Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale were published in 1986 as a collective volume by Pantheon, while the latter five chapters were published in Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles in 1991. Spiegelman’s series was inspired by a short comic also entitled “Maus” that he published in 1972, but it was this later return to the graphic recounting his father’s experience as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor that drew the attention of academics to the affordances of the comics medium for the first time, positioning the graphic novel as an important feature of contemporary culture from that point forward. While Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories(1978) is generally credited with popularizing the graphic novel, it was not until Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize that this new genre of sequential art truly made its mark (Hatfield, 2005, xi). Forever changing the medium’s relationship with history, Maus opened the floodgates to the possibility of comics addressing serious subject matter (Nijdam, 2015, 142).
With Spiegelman’s retelling of his father’s survival of Auschwitz, Maus rendered comic books culturally legible and legitimate in ways that had been previously inconceivable (Hatfield xi). Moreover, by recounting his father’s experiences of the Holocaust using a combination of text, image, and auto/biography, Maus publicly redefined the medium’s potential through its engagement in the German tradition of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, while prompting important popular and scholarly debates on the ethics of representing the Holocaust (Nijdam & Schallié, 2020, 185). Maus has since emerged as an important entry point for debating the ethics and possibilities of Holocaust representation. For example, Marianne Hirsch’s 1992 article “Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory” explores the role of photography in Maus, providing the scholarly foundation for her subsequent work on postmemory. Moreover, Andreas Huyssen’s “Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman with Adorno” constitutes another important early example of how German studies discourses intersect with comics studies.
Maus’s multi-generational memoir laid the groundwork for German-language graphic novels to similarly tackle the difficult task of depicting Holocaust experience. For example, Reinhard Kleist’s Der Boxer: Die wahre Geschichte des Hertzko Haft (2012), which follows the personal story of Holocaust survivor Hertzko, who emigrated to the United States and became a professional boxer with the name of Harry Haft, shares many parallels with its predecessor. Much like the serialized history of Spiegelman’s work, Der Boxer also originally appeared as comic strips in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, before being published as a collected volume. Moreover, the father-son narrative returns in Kleist’s graphic novel, which portrays Alan Scott Haft and his father Hertzko on a car ride as they look for the latter’s adolescent love, Leah, during a family vacation in Florida. Positioning Hertzko’s biography alongside the historical, collective events of National Socialism highlights how Kleist’s work portrays the long-term trauma of Holocaust survivors and translates it into visually forceful representations of violence and dehumanization (Albiero 14).
More recently, another graphic novel has emerged to make important interventions in Holocaust discourses, again showcasing the potentialities of narrating the past via text-image experimentation and the affordances of sequential art. German-American illustrator Nora Krug’s Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home (2018) offers new perspectives on German guilt and culpability through the verbal-visual modalities of the graphic novel format. In a work that is both memoir and scrapbook, Krug unpacks and interrogates the silence that pervaded her family history for generations, addressing difficult questions about German individual and collective responsibility. Combining animal and landscape imagery, hand-drawings, and comics with altered and excerpted photographs and postcards, collected objects, and cultural references, Belonging illuminates the intellectual, emotional, and ethical work being carried out by younger generations in attempts to come to terms with a past they can only access indirectly. Moreover, through its visual-verbal modalities, Krug’s graphic work also addresses larger questions on what it means to be German and what belonging and Heimat—which is the title of the German translation—have come to signify in both individual and collective terms.
East German Studies
While German-language comics have only recently begun to examine the history of the Holocaust, graphic novels have emerged as an essential forum for the examination of East German experience over the past two decades. In 2009, in particular, which marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, three graphic novels were published exploring personal experiences of the history of East Germany: Simon Schwartz’s drüben! recounts his parents’ decision to leave East Germany in the 1980s; Claire Lenkova’s Grenzgebiete, a children’s storybook in comics form, helps young readers understand the divided nation that defined their parents’ generation; and, lastly, Flix’s (Felix Görmann) Da war mal was…is a collection of humorous anecdotes from both sides of the Wall. Directed at the generation of children and young adults who might have witnessed the collapse of the GDR but are too young to understand the complexity of their country’s division, these three publications visualized the experience of living in East Germany through the eyes of the children that grew up there. They presented the state’s oppressive politics and contradictions through anecdotes about daily life in the GDR, while also relating historically accurate facts through footnotes. Drüben!, Grenzgebiete, and Da war mal was…launched a movement that has since evolved into a new genre of the German graphic novel. Then, as more comics thematizing East Germany began to appear, what started as a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2009, quickly turned into a trend in the representation of East German experience. Today, there are over twenty graphic novels that retell the history of the GDR, with more coming out each year. While not all of the authors of this emergent genre of graphic literature are themselves East German, many of these comics artists have important ties to the GDR. Yet others are capitalizing on the interest in graphic literature that thematizes East German experience, which sometimes leads to the production of narratives that are better positioned to receive mainstream attention than offer a nuanced engagement with GDR history.
In addition to recounting personal memories as well as historical processes, this body of graphic literature features elements that integrate other categories of historical documentation and narrativization. These comics thereby draw upon other genres of historical writing to lend an air of authenticity to their stories, while simultaneously commenting on the process of historical writing itself. Susanne Buddenberg and Thomas Henseler’s Berlin: Geteilte Stadt (2012), for example, recounts five stories that took place during the GDR, capturing several East German citizens’ attempts to resist and escape the repressive communist regime. Yet, what makes this text remarkable is the way it sets a subjective historical narrative in dialog with historical artifacts and archival documents. By embedding maps, photographs, and paintings contemporary to the GDR on its pages, Buddenberg and Henseler offer the documentation necessary to situate their comic renditions of historical narratives in the real, while also allowing the physical evidence of history to interact with the subjective and artistic stylizations of these same events and themes (Nijdam 2020b, 180–181). This is particularly true with regards to the concluding “On location” (“Vor Ort”) section of every chapter, which enables the reader to trace the depicted events in the physical space of modern Berlin. By adding a contemporary photograph of the same site as well as public transportation information, Berlin: Geteilte Stadt invites the reader to embark on a journey of discovery, re-imagining these stories through the monuments and landmarks that remain and attest to Berlin’s Cold War division.
In light of the form’s ability to capture complex stories with limited intrusiveness, comics and graphic novels have become increasingly entrusted with the representation of human rights issues. Over the last half decade, in particular, comics and graphic novels thematizing forced displacement have emerged as an important space for the representation of refugee and migrant experience. Written from the subjective perspective of refugees, artists, and volunteers working in the community, these so-called “refugee comics” promote awareness of the Syrian emergency and the forced migration of many others people living in conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with a number of these projects emerging in collaboration with human rights organizations (Nijdam 2021a).
Including works such as Reinhard Kleist’s Der Traum von Olympia (2015) and “Kawergosk – 5 Sterne” (2016), Olivier Kluger’s in Dem Krieg Entronnen: Begegnungen Mit Syrern Auf Der Flucht (2017), Gaby von Borstel and Peter Eickmeyer’s Liebe deinen Nächsten: Auf Rettungsfahrt im Mittelmeer an Bord der Aquarius (2017), and Ali Fitzgerald’s Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe (2018), these comics offer new perspectives on the experience of millions of forcibly displaced people currently on the move. For example, they shift the typical focus of media campaigns on migrant experience to tell stories about the complex issues facing migrants from a single person’s perspective, rendering the typical objects of media representation the narrating subjects of their own narrative. Then, through breakdown (the artist’s process of turning a story into an image sequence) and closure (the reader’s participation in the meaning-making of the narrative by way of the gutter) comics weave the past, the present, and the socio-political context together into a cohesive narrative (Nijdam 2021b). They thereby render migration experiences legible through the medium’s ability to present complex narratives and nuance via the form’s verbal-visual modes of representation and juxtaposition. As a result, comics on forced migration foster empathy and compassion for the lives of potentially millions of refugees via the story of one individual or group of migrants (Ogier). In Der Traum von Olympia: Die Geschichte von Samia Yusuf Omar, for example, Reinhard Kleist focuses on the biography of the Somali Olympic athlete Samia Yusuf Omar and her fatal crossing of the Mediterranean in 2012. By centering the narrative around Samia’s personal story, this work renounces a nameless narrative and humanizes a story of escape that often remains untold when the individual experiences are concealed behind numbers (Albiero 15). Moreover, in terms of social-justice aesthetics, the visual cues of ethnicity, gender, class, religion and ability are not easily flattened into single-issue subjects, making comics fundamentally intersectional, while the history of the form itself asks readers to question assumptions, stereotypes, and the impact of specific narrative strategies and visual representations strategies on social justice issues (Nijdam 2021b).
In fact, cartooning itself offers an appealing compromise in its ability to represent individuals anonymously, “making it easier for subjects to give testimony fully and candidly,” while affording these same individuals the specificity required to demonstrate their humanity (Ogier 2018). Moreover, refugee and migrant comics interrupt static media images and the threats these forms of documentation may pose to vulnerable subjects (Rifkind 2017, 649; Chute 2016, 17). There can be consequences for refugees who give testimony on their living circumstances and the oppression and violence they encounter. Evidence of unlawful residence or undocumented habitation in migrant encampments on their journey to seek asylum—such as that offered by photography—could in fact jeopardize that very process, while putting the friends and family that remained behind in peril. It is therefore crucial that the forms giving voice to the hardships of refugee life also do not lead to more persecution (Ogier 2018). Illustration provides an alternative for individuals who wish to document their experience but cannot risk being identified, while the comics form itself provides these displaced people with an audience for their stories (Ogier 2018). Comics on global forced migration thus render the experience of forced migration legible without dangerous consequences, while also making this material accessible to younger readers and individuals who do not typically follow the news media.
Moreover, unlike the photojournalism of these same conflict zones, comics and cartoonists often approach the subjects of their stories with an audio recorder and a sketchbook, limiting the use of cameras to only capture images that later provide the source material for their drawing. Rather than serving as documents themselves, photography therefore functions as a point of reference for the artists, who then translate its images into comics, remediating what they witnessed onto the blank page or into digital space. Further, especially in works of comics journalism, artists visually and verbally address their presence in the scene, along with their positionality and the ethical implications of their representations. So, while photography seeks to mask the mediated nature of its documentation, comics acknowledge the subjective nature of observation, positioning the artist as an agent in cultivating the narrative through the constructed nature of their art.
However, while the affordances of the comic medium allow for a social-justice-oriented representation of forced migration, the power relations of comics on refugee experience are fraught. Even though some of these stories are co-authored by refugees and artists (e.g. Alphabet des Ankommens, Mertikat et al.’s Temple of Refuge), many of them are drawn by Western cartoonists or based on their work with migrants or their testimonies (Rifkind 2017, 648). They are therefore typically—and also not unproblematically—not by refugees themselves but about refugees. Representing these stories thus demands an explicitly ethical engagement with migrant subjects and their experiences in order to avoid a colonial, fetishized or traumatizing rendering of the narrative. By marking their presence as observers and reporters, comics artists like Reinhard Kleist in “Kawergosk – 5 Sterne” and Olivier Kluger’s in Dem Krieg Entronnen endeavor to identify and articulate their responsibility towards the people, places, and politics they choose to report on and their rendering of these complex stories. With images possessing the potential to make visible as much as re-stigmatize, as Kate Polak (2017) writes in Ethics in the Gutter, “[o]ur representations of history have consequences, and those representations have the possibility of deploying empathy and identification in a variety of ways that make us see a situation through different points of view” (15). These ethical considerations become particularly important when the drawn subjects belong to groups that have been traditionally underrepresented, intentionally misrepresented, or ignored in the media.
Considered within the context of German studies, comics and graphic novels allow scholars and educators to engage with key questions of the ethics of representation that are at the core of our discipline. They facilitate entry points into cultural and historical debates and, through their visual and narrative elements, render them accessible to a wider audience, which includes undergraduate readers. In their relationships to and against photography, film, and literature, comics also offer vantage points for transmedial evaluations on the affordances and limitations of different media in engaging culturally, politically, and historically with the representation of people, places, and events. Moreover, when incorporated into our language and culture courses, comics hone students’ ability to read closely, think critically, and write analytically by asking them to combine and articulate their understanding of visual and verbal elements. Finally, through the work of closure, comics require students to be accountable in the meaning-making of these texts, bridging the gaps between panels and pages with their own interpretations and analyses. Comics are therefore an important tool in developing students’ visual literacy skills. In light of the pictorial turn in information (and misinformation) dissemination, the researching, writing, and teaching about comics should become increasingly important in humanities and social sciences education.
Albiero, Olivia (2019). “When Public Figures Become Comics. Reinhard Kleist’s Graphic Biographies”. In: DIEGESIS. Interdisciplinary E-Journal for NarrativeResearch/Interdisziplinäres E-Journal für Erzählforschung 8.1, pp.6-23.
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Chute, Hillary L. (2016), Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, Harvard UP.
Eisner, Will (1978, 1996). A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. DC Comics.
Fitzgerald, Ali (2018). Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe. Fantagraphics.
Flix (2009). Da war mal was… : Erinnerungen an hier und drüben. Carlsen.
Mouly, Françoise and Art Spiegelman (1989–1991). RAW. Penguin Books.
Mouly, Françoise and Art Spiegelman (1980–1986). RAW. Raw Books & Graphics.
Hatfield, Charles (2005). Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature . UP of Mississippi.
Hirsch, Marianne (1992-3). “ Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory .” Discourse 15.2, pp. 3 – 29 .
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