Reflections on the DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group Survey: What do People Need, and What Can We Provide?
The DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group was constituted in December 2020 with the intention of creating a DDGC Mutual Aid Network. During the initial meetings, we deliberated how to get started with our work. We recognized the dire need for a network of professional, personal, social, material, and financial support for people in and around German studies. But we wondered: how we could determine what those needs are, and how could we create a system to address them? Furthermore, we asked ourselves, how could we be sure that the network we wanted to build would be able to meet those needs?
To better understand the needs and capacities of people in German studies, we created a survey. The survey was based on two important questions: What do you need? What can you provide? We allowed participants to answer these questions by selecting categories of aid from a pre-written list, and we also included questions prompting participants to submit offers and needs that we had not considered. Once we were happy with the survey format, we circulated it between January 25 and February 12, 2021, through as many professional and social networks as possible. By the end of this period, we had received a total of 111 anonymous responses.
In this blog post, we want to outline some results from this survey, offer our perspective on what these results might mean, and invite other people in and around German studies to think with us about how to design a network that will meet the needs our survey revealed. By sharing these findings, we acknowledge our own biases that we had in designing the survey and hope to open up a conversation about how to make the DDGC Mutual Aid Network a resource that can respond to the real needs of people in and around German studies.
The first survey question asked, “What do you need?” This question allowed participants to select any number of needs from a list that we had written in advance. Below is a chart showing some of the categories that ranked the highest, by count, out of our 111 responses.
There are a few things to note about the results of this first question. One is that support for research dominates the top categories. Respondents articulated a need for writing groups, editing/proofreading, and access to research materials. Another interesting result is the high count of responses in the “None of the above” category (in a 3-way tie for 4th place). When we were reviewing the results of this survey as a group, we puzzled over this result for a while. What did this mean? Which group(s) might be consistently choosing this response? We came up with several hypotheses. Did colleagues in more stable positions feel bad about asking for help? Did people feel bad in general about asking for help? Or perhaps, did people have other forms of “helping” in mind when they filled out the survey? Did the historical and cultural prevalence of “charity,” a form of helping which tends to ossify distinctions between those who offer and those who receive help, overdetermine participants’ thinking about what mutual aid is? In a year of multiple, overlapping crises (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Black and police violence, mass unemployment, the stress of emergency online-teaching, and a dismal job market, to name a few), it seemed to us very unlikely that so many of our colleagues were really unaffected.
Ultimately, given the structure of our survey, we could not come to a definitive answer on this question. But this should not come as a surprise, either: the concept of mutual aid is a radical redefining of how we relate to each other, how we understand ourselves, our needs, and our capacities. Decades of institutional, organizational, and social structures, which encourage us to hide our material, social, emotional, financial, and professional needs, have harmed our capacity to actually acknowledge our vulnerabilities and ask for help. We ultimately saw this result as further evidence that the work of mutual aid is not just one of organizing, but of unlearning old habits which isolate us from each other, which encourage competition over cooperation and support, and which trap us in endless loops of rationalizing our own situation as “not really all that bad.” For a detailed analysis of these factors, see Emily Frazier-Rath and Maggie Rosenau’s recently published DDGC Blog Post.
What is radical about mutual aid is the way it makes us confront the fact that we all need something, we all have something we can give, and that we all deserve better. As Dean Spade notes in his book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next) (2020), “collective spaces, like mutual aid organizing, can give us opportunities to unlearn conditioning and build new skills and capacities. By participating in groups in new ways and practicing new ways of being together, we are both building the world we want and becoming the kind of people who could live in such a world together” (17). Changing relations among people brought together under the auspices of German studies through a mutual aid framework will take time and energy to enact. We hope that these first discussions around what this would look like in our time will usher in a more just future.
The second survey question asked “What can you offer?” Again, participants could select any number of needs from a list that we had written in advance. Below is a chart showing some of the categories that ranked the highest, by count, out of our 111 responses.
As can be seen above, the top responses to this question are higher counts than most of the counts for “needs” in the previous question (the highest count for “needs” was 41 for “Writing Group,” while 8 of the top categories of “offers” were a count of 41 or higher). Offers to support colleague’s teaching were the most common, followed by offers pertaining to professionalization (CV/resume, mentorship, mock interviews). Interestingly, we also see more categories related to material and financial needs (financial assistance, meal-trains), in contrast to the previous question. As to why offers differ from needs in these ways, there are many possible explanations. Perhaps people in German studies feel better prepared to offer teaching and research assistance, or see those skills as the most important ones they imagine others might need. Or, perhaps, in a particularly busy and stressful year, these kinds of offers feel “feasible,” the kinds of support that participants feel they could commit to offering. Others may see different trends in these results, and we hope that you will share your perspectives with us as we build our mutual aid network.
Top Needs Compared with Top Offers
One helpful way of determining the capacity of our network to meet needs is to compare the “top needs” with the “top offers” from the survey. The chart below compares a more limited selection of the “biggest needs” against the “biggest offers,” showing where needs and offers are approximately equal, where offers greatly exceed need, and where needs greatly exceed offers, by count. One fortunate tendency that can be seen here is that offers almost always exceed needs, meaning that our network would quite often be able to provide what people need.
Conversely, there seems to be a disconnect, especially around teaching, between what people need and what they feel they could offer: in general, participants are very willing to help with teaching-related needs, but few participants believed they would request that kind of aid. To reiterate a point above, these discrepancies in our survey results might reflect more on the organization of our profession than they represent what people really need, if they knew they could or even should ask for it. While one might read this chart and assume that financial assistance was a low-priority need for our network, it could also be that we just do not have any experiences of helping each other, financially, to draw on when thinking about what we might need when prompted.
Needs and Offers Proposed by Survey Participants
In two separate questions, we also allowed survey participants to submit needs and offers that we had not thought of in advance. These questions yielded important results, while also pointing to some weaknesses in our survey design. Below are a few examples (presented in summary) of the kinds of offers and needs that participants submitted.
As we work toward building a platform for requesting and offering mutual aid, we will be incorporating categories for these participant-submitted offers and needs.
Ultimately, the analysis and reflections here are a starting point for a broader conversation about what a mutual aid network for people in and around German studies could look like. One thing, however, is very clear: there is a great amount of need, and a great number of people who want to help. As we continue the process of building our network, we aim to foster a community and dialogue around mutual aid, reducing the stigma that surrounds vulnerability in our field and supporting people in and around German studies.
For more information and updates about the DDGC Mutual Aid Network, check our Mutual Aid Action Group webpage. If you have thoughts, suggestions, needs, or want to get involved, please email us at ddgc.mutualaid [at] gmail [dot] com.
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-submission-info.html. Accessed May 31, 2021.
Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next). New York: Verso, 2020.
Mutual Aid in Our German Studies Communities: Why and How to do Collective Organizing and Care Work in Academia
Emily Frazier-Rath, PhD (Davidson College)
Maggie Rosenau, PhD (University of Colorado Denver, University of Denver, & Anderson Language and Technology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder)
Founded in 1966 to address the needs of the underserved and systemically oppressed Black community in Oakland, California—and later far beyond the state—the Black Panther Party of Self Defense originated in order to provide meals to the hungry. It also provided transportation to the sick and elderly, other forms of support to differentially situated members of Black communities across the country, and instituted a “copwatch” in an effort to prevent and challenge police violence. (Organizations like Copwatch emerged again after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2015. See their website here for more information.) At a time when institutions, governments, and formal aid organizations systematically kept Black people out of decision-making bodies; when calls for resources were ignored or diminished; and as gatekeepers have regulated and dictated who is worthy of getting help, the Black Panthers have intervened, giving space and voice to vulnerable people struggling to survive.
Likewise, sick and disabled trans and queer BIPOC have organized collective care for decades (Piepzna-Samarasinha). As Alexia Arani writes, “Long before COVID-19, many TQPoC [Trans Queer People of Color] were redistributing wealth, sharing meals, offering rides, and opening up our homes, while struggling to gain the support we need in the face of rampant racialized, gendered violence and structural inequalities” (2020, 655). Amid the pandemic, however, as more people are awakening to the importance of community care, Black community and disabled knowledge is receiving increased attention and consideration. The experiential knowledge TQPoC have cultivated on forming networks of mutual care for themselves and others have come into view as valuable models for those now experiencing the debilitating effects of neoliberalism and the pandemic.
The mutual aid work of the Black Panthers and TQPoC community organizers serve as examples of what is possible despite and in the face of structural barriers, frustratingly complicated and ineffective bureaucracies, and violent institutions. In his 2020 book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), Dean Spade writes that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “ordinary people are feeling called to respond in their communities, creating bold and innovative ways to share resources and support vulnerable neighbors. This survival work, when done in conjunction with social movements demanding transformative change, is called mutual aid” (Kindle Locations 58–60).
With this piece, we want to make the case for mutual aid in academia more generally, and in our German Studies communities more particularly.
What is Mutual Aid?
A mutual aid network is a network in which people share their skills and resources in solidarity to strengthen their community. Such a network assumes that all members have something to offer, but also that every member is differentially subject to various forms of vulnerability and power.
You can find more detailed information about mutual aid in these three resources:
The DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group has been discussing what a mutual aid network can do to address the needs of the German Studies community, and our academic communities as a whole. We have taken a great deal of our inspiration from groups and communities like the Black Panthers, Rock Medicine, The Common Ground Collective, and Sins Invalid, as well as the organizational work led by Rad Comms Network.
Why Do We Need Mutual Aid in Academia?
Mutual aid must have a place in academia so long as our institutions rely upon the labor and money of vulnerable populations made more vulnerable through their association with colleges and universities. There is hope in mutual aid. There is also the framework and action needed to build the kinds of institutions we actually want—ones that ultimately serve us all.
It cannot be overstated that academic institutions are in crisis. Just as women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled individuals have begun to finally gain access to a several hundred years-old institution, the neoliberalization of the academy has begun to increasingly rely upon and benefit from precarious labor, further stratifying already stubborn hierarchies. Between 1975 and 2015, the percentage of tenure line faculty decreased from 45% of the labor force in postsecondary education to 30%. During this same 40-year period, the percentage of the labor force identified as contingent rose from 55% to 70% (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). Our institutions and their gatekeepers have exacerbated precarious conditions for people at all levels. This includes people who hold contingent positions--adjuncts, VAPs, lecturers, postdocs, TAs, clinical professors, professors of practice, and others—in addition to essential service workers (e.g., food service, maintenance, and custodial staff). Students from underserved and historically excluded communities, including graduate students, are also among those experiencing precarity. Un- and underemployment, anti-minimum/pro-starvation wages, high tuition, and inflated rent prices further a severe increase in multiple insecurities and uncertainty.
The corporatization of higher education is working really well for those at the top and harming those of us who are doing education—teachers and learners. Labor conditions play a significant role in an instructor’s effectiveness in the classroom: teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott succinctly describe the contours of academic precarity in their 2019 book, The Gig Academy, as follows:
Non-tenure-track faculty members, now 70 percent of the faculty within US higher education, average pay of $22,400 for teaching eight courses, making less than most fast-food workers and often with less job security and benefits than fast-food workers. (1)
The poor material conditions under which gig academics work—i.e., low wages, no benefits or healthcare, no opportunities to build curriculum, no access to funding for research or participation in conferences—become serious barriers not only to productivity and effectiveness levels the corporate university desires and expects, but also to living dignified lives (for more info on this, see this political, conceptual art project that invites emotional processing on the harm academia causes).
A very candid and important mentoring up discussion:
Dr. Melissa Johnson talks about the realities of contingent labor, how COVID has been a “good thing” for gig-academics, offers advice on how to support our most exploited colleagues, and how to change a system that is hurting us all.
There is hope here, however, as groups like Tenure for the Common Good have advocated for increased job security, improved and meaningful support, and changes to hiring practices amid the pandemic and the abolishment of what they call the “casualization of labor.” There is hope in the mobilization and uproar around the decisions of many--many, many (William and Mary, University of Kansas, and Guilford College to name three)—institutions currently in the process of firing faculty members (or, in euphemistic terms, refusing to renew contracts of long-standing faculty members), weakening tenure, and closing programs. But again, these efforts cannot be the work of a few.
To be sure, administrators are using students as scapegoats to justify exploitative policies (e.g., increasing or rejecting demands to decrease course loads, even if only temporarily to account for the lost time and increased stress during the pandemic), while also refusing to do anything about student debt and gig contracts. And, lest we think that reaching tenure is equivalent to obtaining immunity, colleges and universities are finding ways to justify getting rid of tenured professors and their programs.
Indeed, the very shape of our universities is changing as a result of austerity measures (see also this news about William and Mary) and corruption. And the neoliberalization and profitization of our institutions of higher education is supported by dark monies. Corporations like Koch Industries, for example, pay an exorbitant amount to protect private education, not public interests.
Elizabeth Stelle, an employee and representative of The Commonwealth Foundation, a self-described right-wing think-tank, recently advocated for a $0 minimum wage. (This is unsurprising considering that Charles Koch of Koch Industries sits on the board). Other university donors, such as billionaire businessman Sam Zell, do not believe college students (whose labor is grossly undervalued and undercompensated) should receive COVID-19 relief checks. In an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February shortly after the GameStop Controversy, Zell shared that he believed a lot of the money used to buy GameStop and other low-cost stocks in an effort to drive the stock’s price upwards came from stimulus check money (the second stimulus check), sent to American families before January 15.
Angering many on Wall Street, the attempts by everyday people to artificially inflate the worth of GameStop and other beloved companies revived conversations about power and the distribution of wealth in this country, as well as who gets to manipulate the market, when, and for what purpose. The disconnect he worries about is between a business’ worth and its stock cost. He seems less worried about the disconnect between what he goes on to say and reality. Zell says, “You know, unless you’re in the restaurant, transportation, hotel business, etc., the economy is in real good shape,” and so he was not a proponent of the stimulus checks sent out due to the fact that they could bring back inflation. (“Billionaire Real Estate Investor Sam Zell on Market Volatility amid Coronavirus Fears.” CNBC, 5 Mar. 2020.) The people shaping our institutions are out of touch with the realities of the people who make up these institutions; their aims are not ours.
There is hope and arenas of action here, however. Organizations like Unkoch my Campus exist to expose the way donors have weaponized philanthropy in order to protect private interest over the common good. But these efforts cannot be the work of a few.
Academia has failed us all and has failed some of us much more than others. According to a study by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 3 out of 5 students (there were approximately 200,000 respondents who are attending 202 colleges and universities in 42 states) are experiencing basic needs insecurity during the pandemic; 44% of those at 2-yr. institutions and 38% of those at 4-yr. institutions are experiencing food insecurity; 15% at 2-yr. and 11% at 4-yr. institutions are experiencing housing insecurity as a result of the pandemic; and, the basic needs gap between Black and white individuals is 19%. We also know that depending on where students are from and where they are living, they face various and vast disparities in terms of access to resources and opportunities.
It is for this reason that activists have lauded the addition of a basic needs statement in the syllabus and a welcome survey to start off a class, which not only signals to students that we indeed see them as whole people, but aims to normalize the act of asking for and getting help. The area of trauma-informed teaching and care work has also gained much needed attention over the course of the last year.
How Do We Agitate for Change in German Studies?
We have to work for the changes we deserve and begin living and working in ways that align with our visions for just presents and futures. For us, this means acknowledging the working and learning conditions for German Studies. Financial insecurity among our faculty, staff, and students is the norm, not the rare exception. Precarity within the field is rampant: our relationships to our institutions are constantly in question; the futures of the field and of our place(s) within it are unknown; insecurity has been normalized and even celebrated (e.g., Rob Jenkins’s 2014 discussion about how some adjuncts “relish the intellectual stimulation of teaching a couple nights a week”); and, we continue to work in ways that foster and perpetuate various forms of racisms, xenophobia, ableism, sexism and misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia.
The sooner we accept these problems instead of spending energy to justify or ignore them, the sooner we can work together to hospice the institution that is not serving us and build one that does (see Andreotti, et al. for information on ‘hospicing’). Mutual aid calls us to:
1. Engage in Direct Action
We must support our existing unions and join one when the opportunity presents itself. We need to push for unionization where there is resistance and stand in solidarity with frontline and essential workers on our campuses and beyond.
2. Normalize and Politicize Our Needs
So often we attach ourselves to shame. And shame attaches itself to some of us more than to others. We need to address why this is. Those of us who live in poverty need not be ashamed—the system has failed us. How can we get comfortable asking for financial support? How can we help others get comfortable asking for financial support? Collective action and organization are ways to mitigate the precariousness that has shaped our lives; moving our private realities as they are related to our chosen professions into the public sphere is necessary if we want to change the conditions under which we work and live. We must share our stories and normalize asking for and getting help.
3. Mentor Up & Listen / Act
Based on information gathered from a survey administered by the DDGC Mutual Aid Network in February, there is serious need and desire in German Studies for socialization, pain sharing, and mentoring up—i.e., sharing, listening, and learning about each other’s needs and suggested ways to help.
The survey revealed contingent and graduate student workers’ deep need for tenured and tenure-track faculty to listen and understand the conditions under which we are living. The following are some concrete actions that securely situated faculty allies can engage in.
Because so many of us experience isolation within our departments, have no time off, have limited or no funding or access to institutional benefits, have no healthcare, and are on semester-only contracts, departments should, at minimum, follow the guidelines developed by Julie Shoults. In her MLA 2021 talk, “Incorporating Contingent Faculty into the Campus Community,” Shoults challenges department leaders to:
Inclusion and recognition are also vital. Shoults suggests that tenured allies need to:
Being contingent today comes with a plethora of unique challenges not faced by those who now have tenure and being contingent during a pandemic is even more unimaginable for many whose positions are stable. Colleagues on the tenure-track or with tenure would do well to:
Departments can also consider some equalizing (and not so equalizing) effects of COVID-19. Remote teaching and learning conditions have taught us a lot about in/accessibility. As directors begin thinking about how to sustain and improve their programs, they might consider:
This year, many of us who are disabled, sick, and/or underemployed have emphasized how critical remote work accommodations are for us. We have been able to maintain patch-worked teaching situations (and albeit not universally ideal, this has been lifesaving for many), as well as attend and present at national and international conferences. To be sure, disabled academics have long demanded for many of the kinds of inclusion and access the pandemic has afforded us, and we would all do well to listen to these thoughtful concerns and learn from their collective experiential knowledge.
But much more needs to be done to narrow the divide between well-intentioned tenured faculty and the contingent faculty that work aside them.
4. Offset Precarity through Care Work
Academics in more secure positions may believe that to contribute to structural change they might best situate themselves in higher administrative positions. But it is also possible to engage in care work that avoids reinforcing hierarchical structures by joining a union, organizing a mutual aid chapter, or getting involved in advocacy work to address issues like ethical hiring practices, alternatives to traditional student evaluations, and better distribution of resources.
5. Distribute Knowledge and Wealth and Opportunity
There are many ways to distribute and share resources within our institutions. Creativity and compassion will drive our efforts. Mentors should be informing students what and where resources (e.g., funding, TA-ships, writing groups, collaborative projects) can be found. Some scholars, for example, are allowed to “co-sponsor” colleagues’ work (e.g., research trips, academic conference presentation) by giving money to people and projects if aligned with their institutional funding structure. Getting creative about funding resources and how they are used is one practical way to redistribute financial resources and support graduate student, adjunct, or contingent faculty research. We can strengthen our community and connect with each other in other (financial) ways too. Are you a scholar who has extra research funding? Pay for a graduate student’s conference fees by inviting them as a real or honorary “co-presenter.” Your department wants to support Black German studies on your campus? Fund (or secure funding) to sponsor a TA or RA position, which would contribute to organizations like the Black German Heritage Research Association (BGHRA). What else is possible?
What Can We Imagine and Enact for Equitable Futurities?
Mutual aid is about addressing present needs in direct, manageable, and sustainable ways. Though we are starting with what is most proximate—our German Studies communities--we are not alone in our endeavors. We deserve better than how we are being asked to exist right now. There are needs to address and coalitions to build, and there are futures to scheme. The DDCG Mutual Aid Network’s goal is to help organize and mobilize within our institutions (as discussed above) as well as outside of them. There are people in our community who need shelter, who need help paying for life-saving prescriptions or basic eye and dental care. Others could use a few bucks to help with rent, food, utilities, graduate student fees, vehicle maintenance to be able to get to work, and the several hundreds of dollars in parking fees gig academics must allocate out of starving wages to each university in order to teach at those institutions.
There are also so many of us right now who could use a supportive, engaging, inspiring, and uplifting community in- and outside of German Studies. As we move into the summer months, needs will shift as contracts or as 9-month pay cycles come to an end. And we in the DDGC Mutual Aid Network are learning how to address these urgent and existential needs. As we roll out our next plans, it will no longer be an option to say “I’m good! I’m secure/stable/situated/sound. I’m not in need.” All of us are in need in one way or another. We recognize that this means for some gaining access to spaces where “mentoring up” can happen. We all need to hear the lived experiences of the most vulnerable in our communities and learn how to engage in solidarity to enact more hopeful and equitable futurities. And, until our profession changes, until our institutions implode, and until something saturated with inclusion is built not out of the rubble but in spite of it, our collective work must embrace care.
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Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Verso, 2020, https://rbdigital.rbdigital.com.
“Social Distancing and Crip Survival: A Disability Centered Response to COVID-19.” Sins Invalid, 19 Mar. 2020, https://www.sinsinvalid.org/news-1/2020/3/19/social-distancing-and-crip-survival-a-disability-centered-response-to-covid-19.
Syrah, Alexandra. “Dear Academia: If You Want Social Justice, Start by Paying Your Adjunct Instructors a Living Wage.” Washington Examiner, 2 Dec. 2020, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/dear-academia-if-you-want-social-justice-start-by-paying-your-adjunct-instructors-a-living-wage.
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. #RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic. Philadelphia, PA, 2021.
The Opportunity Atlas. https://opportunityatlas.org/. Accessed 21 May 2021.
Thorbecke, Catherine. “GameStop Timeline: A Closer Look at the Saga That Upended Wall Street.” ABC News, 13 Feb. 2021.
Towns, Armond R. “Toward a Praxis of the UnKoch: Communication and Western Knowledge.” Communication Education, vol. 69, no. 3, July 2020, pp. 373–83.
Policing the Police: The Copwatch Movement. Uploaded by VICE, October 11, 2018. YouTube,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKRWOeqRWZM&ab_channel=VICE.
What Is Mutual Aid? A Quick Explanation. Uploaded by Cambridge Radical Education Forum, March 15, 2020. YouTube,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RF-6DTX8ztI&ab_channel=CambridgeRadicalEducationForum.
Organizations and Further Resources
Academic Mutual Aid Foundation
Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA)
Common Grounds Collective
DDGC Action Groups
Disabled Academic Collective
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief
Radical Communicators Network
Tenure for the Common Good
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice
Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning (Blog)
Unkoch My Campus
Visionary Futures Collective
DDGC joined forces with our comrades at BGHRA and DDFC to issue a joint statement and call to action in support of trans and nonbinary people. You can find the complete statement here. Please visit the website to add your name to the statement. Consider reaching out to your scholarly association and ask its leadership team to draft up their own statement and plan for action in support of trans and nonbinary people.
Below is an excerpt from the statement.
“The three collectives vehemently condemn the rising transphobia and acts of anti-trans violence in the United States and throughout the world as well as the more than 100 pieces of anti-trans legislation that are being heard in more than 30 states this legislative session, which are a part of the 195+ anti-LGBTQ+ bills currently being considered by states across the country. We further recognize that the number of coordinated legislative attacks against trans people is unprecedented while simultaneously understanding the long historical arch of oppression and violence in which these acts are situated (see for example Gill-Peterson, 2018; Knisely & Paiz, 2021; Malatino, 2020).
We maintain that there is an ethical imperative to uphold the rights and dignity of trans people in schools and, thus, in our broader communities and society. And we maintain that any call for diversity and inclusion (e.g., ACTFL, 2019) must include unequivocal support for trans rights and gender justice. These assertions are particularly poignant for us as scholars, educators, and students of language; our identities --who we are as groups and individuals-- are inseparable from the language we use and from the affordances and constraints we experience in our interactions with others (see Darvin & Norton, 2015; Knisely, 2021a, 2021b; Knisely & Paiz, 2021). To the same degree, our success as language learners and users is measured in and by our successful interactions with others (see for example work by Uju Anya). We believe that a person’s ability to thrive and to succeed should not depend upon the extent to which they do or do not conform to gender norms.”
The following letter was sent to the leadership of the College of William and Mary.
Dear Provost Agouris,
Dean Donoghue Velleca,
Vice Provost Stock,
We were appalled to learn that Dean Maria Donoghue Veneca has informed at least twelve non-tenured faculty members from the Government, Modern Languages, Theatre, and other departments that the school is unwilling to commit to offering a contract for the next academic year. These departments, and the subjects they teach, are a core part of a strong liberal arts education; their faculty are key to the strong reputation William & Mary enjoys as an institution of excellence in undergraduate teaching.
We stand in solidarity with the many members of the William & Mary student body, faculty, staff, alumni, and others who have called on the administration to issue contracts for these valued members of the William & Mary faculty. Delaying contracts increases the already serious employment and life insecurity for these workers, prohibits them from preparing adequately for their future employment, and harms instruction at the college by either eliminating courses or restricting the ability to prepare for courses. Moreover, these departments employ faculty who rely on visas to continue their work - and these visas are endangered by delayed contracts.
It is no coincidence that many of the programs targeted are programs in the Humanities, while others are key to preparing students for a future as global citizens. Again and again the pandemic has been used as an excuse to gut the very core of liberal arts education by reducing or eliminating programs in the Humanities. These programs prepare students for the kind of critical and creative thinking, oral and writing communication, and problem-solving skills necessary to address the biggest problems facing the world today, including the transnational emergence of new white supremacist movements, ongoing racism and other effects of imperialism and colonialism, and climate change. Training in history, literatures, arts, languages, philosophy, religious studies, and more all provide students necessary skills to grapple with today’s “big questions.”
Yet, these programs have been targeted for defunding, partly because of long-existing, false myths that students who study these areas will not be employed or will not earn adequately in the future, and partly because of profound public misunderstandings about what Humanities courses do. Above all, work in the Humanities asks students to grapple with their understanding of human events and processes; understand how to find and interpret the evidence necessary to inform that understanding; learn how to relate to, live with, and engage with other people; and to grapple with and continually rethink the values and ethics that inform our actions.
Programs that teach languages and cultures have been particularly targeted. Key findings of the 2019 Making Languages our Business report by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), which surveyed 1,200 U.S. employers, note that:
We would like to further point out that the teaching and learning of language cannot be separated from culture. Thus, language departments and their curricular offerings are integral to institutional commitments to increase diversity and foster global competence. Your own mission statement attests to this fact, as it claims the following core outcomes of a Humanities education as institutional values: “cultivate compassionate global citizens” ; “embrace diverse peoples and perspectives” ; “foster deep human connection” ; “engage with individuals and communities both near and far” ; “engage diverse perspectives” (William & Mary Vision, Mission, Values).
Experiencing different cultures through language provides needed tools for understanding, navigating and participating in “communities near and far” (by preparing our students for interaction with people of diverse cultural backgrounds). As recent studies, including those by the Modern Languages Association reveal, the study of new languages further enables critical reflection of one’s own culture(s): “While [students] gain an appreciation for the world outside [their] own, contact with other cultures will give [them] new perspectives on [their] own language, culture, and society” (MLA “Language Study in the Age of Globalization).
To consider not renewing the contracts of our dedicated colleagues – whose curricular and co-curricular offerings are central to your institution’s mission, fulfill a number of university requirements and are deemed essential by former and current students – based on a perceived lack of curricular need is incomprehensible and directly contradicts your institution’s stated vision and values.
We urge you to secure the future of your institution’s reputation as well as the real efficacy of William & Mary as a top place for undergraduate education. We further urge you to offer longer-term contracts and more secure positions to these faculty in the future. Only by better working to secure the conditions of working and learning in our educational institutions can we also prepare our students to address the immense challenges that they face both in their local communities and as global citizens.
American Association of Teachers of German (AATG)
Austrian Studies Organization (ASA)
Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA)
Canadian Association of University Teachers of German (CAUTG)
Coalition of Women in German (WiG)
Diversity, Decolonization, & the German Curriculum Collective (DDGC)
German Studies Association (GSA)
The following are excerpts or transcripts from presentations given as part of a roundtable titled, “Teaching German and Germanic Languages in the Age of White Supremacy,” which was held January 9, 2021, as part of programming for the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA). The session was organized by Adrienne Merritt under the auspices of the MLA Germanic Philology and Linguistics Forum.
Adrienne Merritt (St. Olaf College)
I’d like to begin with a land acknowledgement.Today we are speaking from the unseated homelands of the Wahpekute Band of the Dakota Nation in Minnesota (St. Olaf College), the ancient homelands of the Lenni-Lenape people (Princeton University), the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people (University of British Columbia), and the lands of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.We thank them for their stewardship and strength, and recognize the historical and current injustices that continue to enact violence and trauma on the Dakota, Lenni-Lenape, Musqueam, and Aboriginal peoples.
I’d like to start my own portion of the event with a quote from Arundhati Roy:
"Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to
a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing
for a return to “normality,” trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to
acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible
despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for
ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically,
pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world
anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred,
our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.
And ready to fight for it" (Roy 2020).
For me, this citation is very powerful for a variety of reasons, not just because of how current it is—i.e., the things that we struggle with in this COVID-reality—but when we’re looking through the lens of white supremacy, this concept of dead ideas, of dead weight that we are carrying, the suggestion of being willing and able to break with the past and imagine our world anew holds within it an emphasis on imagining, of imagining where our paths might lead. And so when we’re thinking about teaching in the age of white supremacy, I think that imagination is a key aspect. I think that we cannot think about moving forward until we take stock of what white supremacy means, not just within our fields or disciplines, but how those fields have been constructed over time through the language that we use, with a particular focus on both the use and misuse of language.
I am not speaking just of propaganda, which many of us can point to quite clearly, but the concept of fake news. When we’re thinking about a Trump presidency, of having to actually confront what we might consider fake news, of doing research, of asking not only our students but also the general public, to think about their consumption of news (and what that means, how that is presented, how to move forward) with how we will present and position ourselves in our personal and professional lives. I think the end of this quote—“and ready to fight for it”—is significant. To confront and discuss white supremacy is something active, not just thinking from an antiracist or antifascist perspective, but as educators we are willing to take risks in order to make change. And this is where I think smaller groups and collectives, such as the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Collective and the Coalition of Women in German, are really trying to work toward different ways of structuring German studies and challenging current practice, rather than upholding it as the status quo.
The next quote I include points to how I think about moving forward and ways that we might institute change. This quote is taken from James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew” (1962). Baldwin writes,
"[White men] are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not
understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that
black men are inferior to white men.
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it
very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be
committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts
of most white Americans is the loss of their identity" (Baldwin 1963, 20).
I think that this is something that we saw most clearly at the Capitol and the ways that language has figured in terms of a resistance, of a loss. That there is a loss of identity, that there is a loss of something when we start to name whiteness for what it is. Which leads me to my next quote, taken from another piece by Baldwin from his “Letter in a Region of my Mind”, also from 1962. Baldwin states there, “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (43).
Part of the reason I’m bringing up these quotes is because I want to make explicit that this is a discourse with a long history. We’re talking about this in 2021, but the reality is that this extends back so many centuries. Going back to Roy’s comment about “imagining other futures,” it can be quite difficult to find ways to imagine because white supremacy has infiltrated aspects of our daily and professional lives.
For me, taking stock of this and moving forward, and thinking about this, is that it’s all in a name, it’s exposing white supremacy. Of course Sara Ahmed has written “The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” as well as the “The Phenomenology of Whiteness,” where she has talked about some of these things. I would like to revise the language she uses slightly to reduce the harm inherent in the ableist connotation of “the invisibility of whiteness.” I would instead term it “naming whiteness.” I think that it’s important to name whiteness where it exists, rather than solely focusing on naming racism (and I’m taking cues from bell hooks in particular here). When I’m approaching white supremacy and aspects of whiteness in German studies as I’m teaching, in reality I don’t teach German studies; rather I teach in general white German studies because that is what I have learned—but we don’t call it that. Thinking about the impact of white supremacy in our disciplines, and thinking about the texts we assign, the presence of whiteness there and white supremacy, the languages that we utter—even the fact that I’m speaking English is an extension of white supremacy and colonialism—but also I think about the ways that critique and reflection, especially personally reflection, can be used as used as instruments of activism and discovery. I can tell students about the presence of white supremacy. I can even show them. But until there is an element of reflection, that message may be missed and most likely will not be internalized.
Encouraging students to think about the ways in which white supremacy impacts the Self, rather than simply focusing on the Other, is a way of confronting the presence of white supremacy and how it permeates throughout our lives and histories. Through the discussion of whiteness and fostering critical inquiry on this topic, students are encouraged to approach potential futures, imagining futures where whiteness and white supremacy are no longer centered and, I might say, omnipresent. When we are pushed to think about different ways of speaking and ways that we might combat whiteness and white supremacy, those imagined futures can start to take shape. In many ways, my points listed above connect to Audre Lorde’s famous quote: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you” (2007, 41). By naming whiteness, we dispel the silence that has insulated white supremacy and white-centered discourses and disciplines and begin to recognize that no one benefits from white supremacy.
Course Revision in the Age of White Supremacy
While I have discussed my approach and opinion about teaching in the age of white supremacy, I find it crucial to not simply rely upon vague talking points but also concrete examples. I’d like to provide two examples of courses that I’ve revised while keeping critical race theory and naming white supremacy in mind. These are courses that I inherited, which many of us do. The first is a course that was broadly conceptualized as a German media course for advanced undergraduate German students. For me, approaching this course meant asking myself what I mean by “German media” and how can I actually confront aspects of white supremacy and the centering of whiteness in this course while also talking about media and related theory. In many ways, I sought to trace the trail of white supremacy and whiteness through the lens of media in Germany, of thinking about the concepts of orality and reading, reading groups, readership, publishing, and how these practices have impacted whose voices are readily and more easily consumed and whose have been sidelined. It involved asking questions about which groups have been included (and excluded) in “standard” German studies courses, whose works have been privileged and centered, and which have been marginalized and dubbed “elective” or optional.
I wanted to confront the non-neutrality of newspapers and magazines and expose the various ways that voices that have been marginalized sought out new avenues to publish and circulate their works to the public. In thinking about the longue dureée of this development of media practice, I begin with Gutenberg and Luther. I then discussed critical media practice as a mode through which social critique is disseminated (Karl Kraus was the example I used). I also wanted to address the connection between media and propaganda. For me it was crucial to outline and establish the point that the history of media, in fact its very origins, are connected to aspects of propaganda and supremacy—first a normalized Christian identity and then a white, German one. Media helped to develop and standardize the language of that identity and provided the means to bring that media into the daily lives of German-speakers.
The second example is another inherited course offered in the German department but one that fulfills a general education requirement and attracts high enrollment, as well as students from many disciplines. The fairy tales and folklore course needed to be Eurocentric—as per the catalog description and the requirement it fulfilled—but I aimed to broaden the conversation to include texts and discourses from outside the borders of Europe, and certainly beyond German-speaking countries. I focused on the following points while revising the course structure and content:
In addition to the course content and structure, I felt it necessary to mirror my revised approach in the aesthetics of the syllabus, emphasizing care and concern for a variety of viewpoints, while simultaneously increasing representation of non-white, Germanic cultures.
I included specific mention of concern for mental health and stress. I spent time to reflect upon and meaningfully integrate a land acknowledgement, positionality statement, and clear objectives for the course that prioritized tasks. In addition and in an attempt to push back against normalized forms of academic discourse and expectation, I stated which sections were crucial to reading and which were more optional on the course Moodle page, demystifying objectives but also letting students know that I recognized the specific difficulties of trying to live, work, and learn during the age of COVID-19.
As a closing thought, I’d like to point out that there isn’t one way to teach during the age of white supremacy but it is crucial that discussion of whiteness and naming white supremacy remains an active part of our curricula (should we focus on white-authored works) or turns away from centering whiteness (should we focus on marginalized-identity authored works).
Adam Oberlin (Princeton University)
In response to the quotation from James Baldwin cited by Adrienne: if it is difficult to act on what you know, how much harder when you don't know! The following is a something of a call to action, recognizing that the call should not be universal and that the burden of immersing oneself in a morass of extremism is not evenly borne, so maybe not you personally, and maybe not fair, in a sense, to anyone, but certainly a needed direction in several fields. The more we can share the better.
Recent positive developments in medievalism studies notwithstanding, there remains overall a lag and at times a lack of understanding in the field(s) under discussion today, e.g., German studies, medieval studies, medievalism studies, and, frankly, the humanities generally (though some, as David notes, have made more strides than others in some areas).
As a first principle, you cannot fight what you do not know, and we are collectively rather bad at knowing the limits of our ignorance in this particular area—2016 both was and was not the watershed moment we imagine it to be.
The stakes are not simply large, but all-encompassing: if the common direction of the radical right is toward fascism, if, as Walter Benjamin notes, “[a]lle Bemühungen um die Ästhetisierung der Politik gipfeln in einem Punkt. Dieser eine Punkt ist der Krieg[,]” we are not only speaking about defending the ‘proper’ understanding of the past or contextualizing symbols, figures, events, peoples, and concepts in the service of reducing or eliminating ‘misuse’ or ‘appropriation’ (506). We are speaking about preventing the further radicalization of our students, our communities, our nations, and our world. To that end, a few points:
Of particular importance: this is not a struggle against ‘bad’ history, historiography, linguistics, biology, literary criticism, etc., that can be remedied by educating students or the broader public about ‘good’ history, historiography, linguistics, biology, literary criticism, etc. If we think it is, we have missed the point entirely and failed already in the admittedly limited capacity we may have to shape public opinion. This is certainly about internal historiographies, on the one hand, but I think a useful and perhaps even vital intervention is the notion that it is indeed more about a shared storyworld, a narratological phenomenon with very real implications in the sociological reality of subcultures, and here is precisely where a concrete task with real-world implications CAN be taken up in the academic humanities.
Medieval studies in this sense must always already be medievalism studies. Let's Take as an example Thor’s Hammer, a symbol employed generally by Norse neopagans and reconstructionalists, fans of several genres of heavy metal, white supremacist gangs incarcerated and outside of the prison system, non-white supremacist pagans as part of prison outreach programs designed to combat the former, military service members in the USA thanks for another outreach project after the acceptance of Ásatrú as a valid religion by the US armed forces, and some people, I suppose, who simply think it looks cool. The wider context within which such a symbol must be interpreted is not typically difficult to determine provided one apprehends that distinct and sometimes overlapping groups use the same symbols with the same intended signification but different ideological backgrounds. In the case of the hammer, most possible interpretations will by definition involve identification with and pride in Nordic heritage and/or identification with the pre-Christian religious practices of Germanic Europe. That Varg Vikernes wearing Thor’s Hammer can only be interpreted through a white nationalist, white supremacist, radical traditionalist, esoteric lens requires knowing who he is, what he has done, and what he currently represents. Someone on the street wearing the same jewelry while sporting the shirt of Vikernes’ solo act Burzum, or perhaps of the Viking metal band Amon Amarth, presents more questions than immediate answers, whose dimensions may or may not change from place to place (e.g., the public perception of and messaging from Ásatrúar in Iceland is hardly the same as in North America). Similar and detailed analyses of runes can give rise to further questions about identity and culture, appropriation and misuse, pre-modern history, and medievalism generally, as well as particularly the twentieth-century esoteric adaptations that form both the pop-cultural patina and national socialist legacy lurking under the surface.
While teaching Germanic languages, literatures, and cultures in a pre-modern or modern context requires experience with the manifold and heterogenous expressions of the past and its symbolism, the benefits of looking into some of the darker or stranger corners of the world are many. If the goal is to reveal to students not simply that symbols are being misused by the obvious villains, but also how to identify, probe, and question various uses tangential or adjacent to them, as well as bring them into dialogue both with pop-cultural phenomena deemed ‘safe’ and the philosophical, political, and other writings that inform their journey from the Middle Ages to the twenty first century, it is to our advantage not to stop at the low-hanging fruit and journalistic buzzwords that have largely defined the past five years of medievalist commentary in formal and informal settings. This is not to disparage some of the excellent and informative work that has been done for wider audiences, but to mention that we have only begun to investigate the interconnectedness of the contemporary narratives that cannot be subsumed under the period-centric interests of medievalists, nor ignore the work of sociologists on subcultures, narratologists on storyworlds, or a host of others on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, nationalism, decolonization, and contemporary anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, anti-pluralistic political movements. You cannot fight what you do not recognize, after all. My hope is that deeper engagement with the moving, changing strands of symbolic, historical, and other types of 'misuse' can provoke questions and debate about the limits of engagement with the past, who tells which stories, what ownership means, whether concepts such as ‘reclamation’ are even possible, let alone desirable, and more—at the level of the highest good, maybe even steer someone away from paths better left untrodden.
Maureen Gallagher (The Australian National University)
Like many, I have spent the past days glued to social media and news feeds, taking in the shocking images from Washington, DC, the image of the Confederate flag being proudly marched through the halls of Congress a reminder of the frailty of democracy and the persistence of white supremacy. The iconography of these events is by now familiar—American flags, the Gadsden flag, Trump flags, hats, and t-shirts, military uniforms and insignia—but also horned helmets, Thor’s hammer tattoos, and Camp Auschwitz shirts. In a panel on Thursday, Nahir Otaño Gracia of the University of New Mexico remarked, “Medieval Studies is compatible with white supremacy,” but so, I would argue, is German studies. After all, this disturbing iconography points not to a generic Medieval past, but to a specifically Germanic past that white supremacists claim ownership of. It is also this German past that Illinois Congresswoman Mary Miller referenced in a speech on Wednesday (January 6, 2021) when she quoted Adolf Hitler--“Whoever has the youth has the future”—and noted he “was right on one thing.”
I’ve been thinking about the relationship of this panel to the MLA presidential theme, “persistence.” While we have seen increased boldness and visibility from white supremacists, white supremacy, of course, isn’t new. It is persistent, and we are not the first generation of Germanists to be teaching in its shadow. In 1846, a group of linguists, historians, folklorists, literary and legal scholars gathered for the first Germanistentag in Frankfurt. This was not only an important event in the history of the German nation (many delegates would later go on to serve in the Frankfurt National Assembly in 1848) but in our discipline. Randall Halle noted in his 2017 GSA speech that it is arguably the founding moment of German studies. At this meeting, historical painter Wilhelm Lindenschmit presented to Jacob Grimm his book, Die Räthsel der Vorwelt, oder: Sind die Deutschen eingewandert? in which he argued, “Der deutsche Mensch allein ist der wirkliche weisse Mann” (46). There is no evidence Lindenschmit or his ideas had much of an impact on the meeting, but I mention this as one example among many of the embeddedness of discourses of whiteness with discourses of Germanness.
Both the nation and whiteness are persistent constructs that shape our field. For all we might talk about intercultural and transnational contexts, much of our field is still wedded to the national context of Germany, a fact borne out by a cursory glance at textbooks, program descriptions, and syllabus reading lists. Further, many German programs without adequate funding rely on the German Embassy’s Campus Weeks program to fund or supplement their co-curricular programs, thereby participating directly in the German government’s foreign cultural and educational policy. For more on this point, I encourage you to read Sigrid Weigel’s report “Transnational Foreign Cultural Policy – Beyond National Culture.” On the persistence of whiteness, I invite you to look at research from Dianna Murphy and Seo Young Lee published in the 2019 ADFL Bulletin, which shows that German remains the whitest modern language discipline, with 84.6% of BA degrees awarded to non-Hispanic white students.
The question then, is how we build a discipline that is incompatible with white supremacy. As a first step, we must work to decenter whiteness and disrupt the normative connection between Germanness and whiteness. We should cultivate and maintain close alliances with fields like history, women’s and gender, queer studies, Jewish studies, and critical race and ethnic studies and place an emphasis on studying and teaching the history (and present) of racism, antisemitism, and fascism. We must be mindful of the images and arguments we use to market German studies and the language we use to describe our programs and justify their existence to continue to resist neoliberalization and easy or monolithic understandings of the Germanophone world. We should also continue to free ourselves of ideas of canonicity, coverage, and just what it is that a German major “has to” have read or be able to do.
We should seek out methods for doing German studies in ways that center minoritized voices and perspectives and resist dominant ideas of whiteness. In my Black Germany course, we begin with works by Noah Sow (Deutschland Schwarz Weiß, 2008) and Tupoka Ogette (exit RACISM, 2017) that introduce concepts like white privilege, white fragility, everyday and structural racism, police violence, and racial profiling in accessible language. This serves the dual purpose of foregrounding the voices and experiences of People of Color in Germany—all primary and secondary literature, with only one or two exceptions, is written by PoCs—and enabling students to think through their own subject positions in relation to both Germany and Australia, a country that defines itself as multicultural but until the 1970s maintained official “White Australia” immigration policies. Another approach is that taken by Obenewaa Oduro-Opuni of the University of Arizona in her presentation in the Language and Literature Program Innovation Room at the 2021 MLA conference. In her “Black Studies approach to the 18th century,” she brings slave plays like August von Kotzebue’s The Negro Slaves (1796) into conversation with other works from the Age of Goethe as a way of centering abolitionist discourses. Yet another example is from Jamele Watkins of the University of Minnesota, who, in centering works by women, queer, Black, and Jewish authors, has constructed a survey of modern German literature without texts from what might be called “majority” German authors.
It is necessary, as well, to think of this work from the very first semester of our German curriculum. Relying solely on textbooks is inadequate to disrupt the normative connection between Germanness and whiteness. Multiliteracies approaches offer one promising alternative (see, for example, Jennifer Redmann’s recent essay in the ADFL Bulletin).Grenzenlos Deutsch, a project I have been involved with since 2016, is an online German curriculum designed to offer flexibility, diversity, accessibility, and a social justice approach to German. In focusing on Austria, it decenters the national context of Germany, and as an open educational resource, it is available at no cost to anyone with an internet connection. Even a gesture as simple as sourcing more diverse images (using public domain images and illustrations from sources like the Gender Spectrum Collection, Black Illustrations, Nappy, or the resources listed here and here) can be an important first step.
Before I conclude, I want to highlight three pressure points or potential problems that can impede this work:
To conclude I would like to note that recent events have almost overshadowed that this week marks sixteen years since the death of Oury Jalloh in police custody in Dessau, and we remain without answers and without justice for his killing. The case of Jalloh is one of many examples of state violence against Black and brown bodies in German contexts. In 2017 a delegation of the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent visited Germany to investigate the status of Black people in Germany, and in their report they note the widespread racial profiling, racism, and disparate access to education, work, housing, and healthcare faced by People of Color there. This reality—the reality of white supremacy, racism, and the interlinked histories of anti-Black racism and oppression in Germany and the United States—must remain at the center of what we do as we work to decenter whiteness, dismantle white supremacy and create a more just world. It is clear to me that to achieve these monumental tasks we must work together to create communities in our classrooms, departments and campuses that cultivate an ethics of care and shared norms and values and place at their center the idea that Black Lives Matter.
David Gramling (University of British Columbia)
I’d like to start with a thought from the writer and labor columnist Kim Kelly, who—reflecting on the siege of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021—writes: “It costs a lot of money to fund this fascist bullshit. Don’t lay the blame solely on the lazy avatar of the ‘blue collar Trump voter.’ There were lawyers and CEOs and a judge’s son leading the charge. One of them took her private jet out to storm the Capitol!”
I’d add to Kim Kelly’s thoughts that it didn’t just take a lot of money to fund this fascist bullshit, but a lot of education and curricular enabling. Here in Canada, we have at the moment an organization called Students for Western Civilization, which is not some grassroots movement, but an astroturf, glossy, very well-funded so-called student group, which curates itself around Aryan and Nazi aesthetics and combines these with all the additional contemporary tools of white grievance culture. This is what their very well-funded promotional materials say about them: “SWC advocates for the rights, interests and identity of European-Canadians by promoting viewpoint diversity in academia and the media; combating anti-white discrimination; fighting anti-white hate speech; and preserving and enhancing our cultural heritage.”
If the medieval historian David Perry asked us in 2017, “What happens when Neo-Nazis Lay Claim to your Field,” I don’t think German studies has stepped up to this question honestly. Classicists have, and medievalists have, along of course with Indigenous and ethnic studies which have been doing it all along. The Society for Classical Studies and the Medieval Society of America have undertaken quite frank measures to figure out how their fields, and the way they teach them, open up an interactive space of symbolic projection where learners can play out white supremacist fantasy. Where they can take what they’ve learned from Game of Thrones and 8chan and legitimate it in our world with a few modules on the Crusades, some group projects on Old High German heroic verse, some creative experimenting Fraktur typesetting, some lectures on so-called German military history and a bit of reactionary modernism, and now the news of the restoration of the Berliner Schloss with all its colonial holdings.
What they end up with is precisely the emergent, dynamic emotional experience that Robert Paxton describes in his “anatomy of fascism” book. It excites and awakens white supremacy as a space of uncompromising emotional possibility, in an age desiccated by the ruins and atomization of neoliberalism. So the mob at the US Capitol the other day not only had private jet owners, lawyers, judges’ kids, and CEOs kids in it, but also German majors, minors, so-called heritage learners, and also students who gave us their student credit hours in our large gen-ed lecture classes on emotionally fascinating topics. Some of them took German 1 just long enough to pronounce Deutsch with a Nazi accent as Deitsch. Some, previously, had gone to schools with Western Civ style programs or Humane Letters programs that sought to restore a sense of core, historically shared ethical values in their student body.
All of these codes and signals and idioms have added up to a powerful and opportunistic myth today, in Roland Barthes sense, upon which those learners and their families can project almost anything they want. It becomes a vague reservoir of semiotic and sense-making potential, not entirely different in its psychic intensity than Germanic medieval imagery and Roman classicism were for fascist-curious kids in the early 20th century.
And it is the presence of this semiotic basis, and not its absence, that made for instance the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt a potential student learning outcome. The point for me is that we teachers and instructors are 100% responsible for that psychic intensity, in quite the same way that firearms instructors are responsible for teaching how exactly firearms kill and maim. It’s a sober responsibility, not an alarmist one, and not a distraction from our so-called “real work.” This is now our primary, and not secondary, realm of attention and concern. We are either mythologizers or de-mythologizers; there is no in-between for us now.
But as far as I know, unlike the affirmative developments in classics and medieval studies, our foremost national and international organizations that deal with German and other colonial and fascist legacies have not taken responsibility for this fascist and supremacist semiotic potential that brought siege to the seat of US representative democracy on Wednesday. Instead, in the worse case, we’ve sent two of our highest profile Germanists to serve on Mike Pompeo’s white supremacist curriculum committee. In the best case, our marketing has relied on diversity- and inclusion-based multiculturalism. This does about as little to combat white supremacy in its explicit and implicit structures as does calling the colonial Berliner Schloss a “Forum.”
But because of what I call the enrolment-supremacist complex, we have been hedging our bets on this for decades, low-key afraid of alienating anyone. Not wanting to alienate crypto-nationalist heritage agendas and their money while in the same breath NOT acknowledging Black Germans and Black adoptees from Germany as heritage learners too. Not wanting to acknowledge that German-Americans and German-Canadians are settler colonials involved in Indigenous displacement and genocide and not just emigrants and Auslandsdeutsche. And really doubling down on a wealth-driven rationale for studying German with notions of German as the “strongest economy in Europe,” without regard to the decades and decades of labor by People of Color and labor migrants to make that economy possible at all.
So I think our national orgs and our departmental curricula really need to take a cue from the good work of the Society for Classical Studies and openly ask ourselves, without thinking AT ALL about enrolments for once:
This isn’t navel-gazing. It’s our responsibility as teachers and as a field. And we are LATE to the discussion, despite many serious efforts in the 1990s to do much of this work, which petered out because of lack of institutional support and the sheer and persistent power of white supremacist neo-conversative culture wars, and of course white supremacy has never ceded power willingly.
I note in closing that this past week, the American Association of Teachers of German has passed, for the first time in their 100-year history, an amendment to their organization’s constitution, to introduce an Equity Officer into their volunteer Executive Leadership. I think, once that position is filled, these three questions from the SCS would be a great place for that serious and hopeful work in the organization to commence.
Ansley, Frances Lee. “Stirring the Ashes: Race Class and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship.” Cornell Law Review74.6 (1989): 994–1073.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. London: Michael Joseph, 1963.
Benjamin, Walter. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980.
Lindenschmit, Wilhelm. Die Räthsel der Vorwelt, oder: Sind die Deutschen eingewandert? Mainz: Seifert, 1846.
Merritt, Adrienne. “A Question of Inclusion: Intercultural Competence, Systemic Racism, and the North American German Classroom.” Diversity and Decolonization in the German Curriculum, eds. Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj. New York: Palgrave, 2020. 177–196.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossings Press, 2007.
Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” Department of African American Studies. Princeton University. May 1, 2020. https://aas.princeton.edu/news/pandemic-portal. Accessed: March 3, 2021.
Monday, November 16, 2020, 3:30-5:00pm (Pacific)
Event Moderators: Emily Frazier-Rath, Gizem Arslan, Derek Price, Andrea Bryant.
Event Organizers and Notetakers: Patrick Ploschnitzki, Rosemarie Peña, David Gramling, Ervin Malakaj, Beverly Weber, Maria Stehle, Hannah Eldridge.
Contents of this Document
Context, Attendance, Protocol, Purpose, and Next Steps
Paradigm Problems & Conditions We Face Now
General Commitments and Principles shared among attendees
Scholarly Activism: The Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA) and Black German Studies in the United States
By Rosemarie Peña (Black German Heritage and Research Association)
The following is a shortened version of the keynote address Rosemarie Peña delivered November 5, 2020, for the annual Women in German Studies in the UK and Ireland Conference.
My interest in transnational adoption and child migration is inspired by my life experience as a German born, transnational adoptee. It is informed by my early career in adolescent mental health treatment and my service as founding member and president of the Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA). I am also honored to serve on the steering committee of Diversity, Decolonialization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) scholarly collective, and as co-chair of the Executive Committee of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC). As noted on its website, "ASAC promotes understanding of the experience, institution, and cultural representation of domestic and transnational adoption and related practices such as fostering, assisted reproduction, LGBTQ+ families, and innovative kinship formation."
My research focuses on the epigenetic and intergenerational impacts of maternal separation trauma and the complex identity development of persons displaced as children away from their first families and countries of origin. Both my MA thesis and doctoral dissertation are analyses of visual representations of transnational adoption. I approach the multidisciplinary fields in which my work is rooted—Childhood Studies, Adoption Studies, and German Studies—from a social justice perspective. My training in computer networks and web development have proven to be an invaluable asset not only for online community development, but also for my research. I have been an administrator and participant observer in countless adoption-related bulletin boards and virtual forums long before Facebook. Family search resources and genealogy databases preceded the graphical interfaces of the operating systems that are on our computers today. We adoptees have been searching for our first families and origin stories for a very, very long time. In the process, we’ve come to know each other.
Many adoptees reacted viscerally when they learned about the children who were separated from their mothers at the US border. We mourn with the more than five hundred whom we anticipate may never be reunited with their families—at least not during their childhoods. The intensity of the trauma these children are experiencing is irrefutable, and adoptees understand well that no matter the outcome, their lives are forever changed. There will always be a life as it was before and now after separation. It is likely that these Black and Brown children will be funneled through a colorblind adoption process and they will grow up in white families. Adoption is an industry and transnational adoption is lucrative and highly political. The public will certainly demonize the Black and Brown parents and the white adopters will be heralded as saviors. When/if this happens, the children will grow up without racial and cultural mirrors. They will forget their mothers’ faces and voices over time. BUT—their bodies will always remember. When they have lost all cognitive memory of the traumatic separation event, and many will, their limbic systems will never forget.
If adopted, the children will become privileged migrants. They will be naturalized as American citizens and variably assimilate into their adopted families and communities. They will grow up with a rescue narrative rather than their mothers’ recollections of their births and early childhoods. They will learn to be grateful for their adoptive parents and the advantages afforded to them that would not have been possible had they had remained with their genetic kin. The children will adapt differently, depending on how and where they are nurtured in their new families, and in accordance with many other factors including each child’s age, temperament, and emotional constitution. In the best-case scenarios, resilient children will develop healthy attachments within their adoptive families, positive senses of self, and the coping skills necessary to manage the immanent existential shift and their unfathomable grief. They will come to terms with their complex losses. In the worst-case scenarios, the children will develop disorganized attachments. They may suffer physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse in their new families—or, they may simply never feel like they fit in. While the children’s futures have been collectively altered at this moment in history, each child’s experience and response will be unique. Individual cases will inevitably fall somewhere in between the best and worst-case scenarios.
In adolescence, adoptees negotiate their identities differently than their non-adopted peers and many will wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that adoption effectuates and struggle to find their place in the world. Many will long to see themselves reflected in the faces of others who physically resemble them. Though, statistically, adoptees are four times more likely than non-adopted persons to attempt suicide, most fare well by external markers, meaning they will do well in school, go on to live productive lives, and enjoy satisfying social relationships. In adulthood, many will embark on their reunification journeys by searching first for their mothers. When and if they ever reunite with their first families, or return to their countries of origin, they will no longer feel at home there and neither will their children. So much they will have lost is irretrievable.
Though we might quibble about material and contextual distinctions, I argue strongly that the trauma that the children separated from their mothers at the border are enduring is analogous to the Black German or any other adoption context in many important ways. Adoption is not a one-time event, rather it is an ongoing phenomenon with ubiquitous and lifelong implications for the adopted person and their bifurcated family constellations. Today’s adoptees and their families have important advantages over the postwar generation. We understand adoption much better now and contemporary families have the benefit of educational, clinical, and social support services that were unavailable to us and our African American parents during the postwar years. Black German adoptees were early pioneers of transnational adoption and many ideas about what was in children’s best interest in the postwar era are now understood to be harmful. In this regard, the Black German adoptee cohort has been significantly disadvantaged and we are not alone.
Much of the existing literature about transnational adoption, generally, focuses on the Asian contexts, primarily Korean. Kori Graves and Lucy Bland are among if not the first to write about our Black generational peers from the UK and Korea. It is probable that Black Germans have half-siblings in Korea, since the African American GIs were sometimes transferred from Germany to Korea just because they had fathered children. Younger generations of Black adoptees who grew up in the US and Europe, who come from various Asian, Caribbean, and African countries, are also beginning to share their experiences. There are many similarities, especially with respect to how it feels to be Black and adopted with family and cultural roots in other countries.
Most transnational adoptees are social orphans. What this means is that the children had at least one living parent at the time of transfer and possibly siblings. The children were orphaned via juridical processes in the interim between relinquishment and adoption. I am the first to examine the psycho-social aspects of Black German adoption and transcultural reunification through the lens of adoption psychology. I echo Dr. Fatima el Tayeb’s sentiments, as she remarked in her keynote at the 2018 BGHRA Toronto conference that her work is primarily concerned with how it feels to be Black German. My standpoint, however, is that of a Black German American adoptee. So, keeping the postwar cohort’s concerns in mind, in the following I will share my thoughts on:
Why Black German Studies from an International Perspective is Important NOW
Black German Studies, as it emanates from the US, primarily focuses on the life experiences of Black people in Germany. Black German Americans benefit from this knowledge production, and even more so when the books are written by Black people in Germany and are translated into English. Nevertheless, I argue that the burgeoning discipline’s narrow scope is harmful as it perpetuates the myth that Black Germans are fewer in number in diaspora than we are, and it simultaneously erases those living outside of Germany from the discourse. The postwar war generation to which the adoptees belong, comprises not the first, but the largest cohort of dual-heritage children born in the wake of war to German women and Black men on German soil. Many grew up in adoptive families in Denmark, the US, and in the Caribbean. Many non-adopted Black Germans also grew up in the US after the War, and still others immigrated as adults. Black German American children are born every year and adoptees are reconnecting with their families all the time. The Black German diaspora is multicultural, and its members often lead transnational lives. There are Black Germans in the UK, for example, and Black persons with families and cultural roots in the UK who live in Germany. There are Black Germans living elsewhere in Europe, Canada, Africa, and in the Caribbean. We meet local community members at every BGHRA conference in the US, and we met Black Germans in Toronto.
Many people who are socially coded as Black and who are living in the US have recent ancestry and close relatives in Germany. We have no distinctive characteristics or physical attributes, so you may not even recognize those of us who are in your midst. In the US, we are multigenerational and have disparate family backgrounds and cultural roots. We also have children and grandchildren who have interest in their German heritage. Importantly, not all Black Germans living in the US are adopted; and not all of the adoptees were fathered by African American GIs. All Black German Lives Matter to the BGHRA and, for the adoptees, Black German Studies has a special meaning. The field documents a history we were never supposed to know—and one from which we have been effectively and deliberately erased. Yet, here we are, we’re still here. For more than two decades we are collectively in reunion with our first families and in discourse and actuality with Black Germans having a myriad of life experiences in many geographical contexts. The adoptive cohort emerged as a topic of scholarly interest concomitantly with and in response to the transnational community development initiated by Black Germans living in the US. A brief overview of my work thus far will be helpful to explicate further.
In my article published in the journal Genealogy I explain how before WIFI and Facebook William Gage’s archived newsletters offer early insight into the search and reunion activities of German born adoptees, Black and white. Leonie Boehmer, a search consultant and frequent contributor to Gage’s newsletter, warned Black Germans in advance that reunification would not be easy for them. The newsletter also featured stories by and about Black Germans who were adopted or fostered in Germany and who were searching for their fathers in the US.
Dr. Marion Kraft’s edited volume, Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration (2015), which was later translated into English as Children of the Liberation: Transatlantic Experiences and Perspectives of Black Germans of the Post-War Generation (2020), is the first and only transnational anthology devoted solely to the postwar generation. The life narratives coming from the US are few in Kraft’s text and these are neither exemplary nor representative of a collective experience. My chapter, “Stories Matter-Contextualizing Black German American Adoptee Experience(s),” contextualizes Black German adopted childhoods located in Civil Rights era and the Cold War years by contrasting the experiences of the adoptees who grew up on military campuses with those who grew up in civilian communities. My forthcoming essay, “Black Germans: Reunifying in Diaspora,” in Silke Hackenesch’s Making Families Across Race and Nation: The Histories and Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, brings the discussion forward into the postwar generation’s present. My contribution to Hackenesch’s book chronicles the development of an international Black German counter-public over the past twenty years. It is noteworthy that this highly visible counter-public is virtually absent in the flourishing literary canon and is rarely mentioned in German Studies conferences outside of BGHRA. Non-adopted Black German Americans and those who were born in Germany and later migrated to the US are rendered invisible in the field. Nevertheless, many who teach Black German Studies or contribute to the literature have attended and/or presented at our BGHRA conferences. This is active erasure. The adoptive cohort and their generational peers are indeed living history and our reunification after more than half a century is worthy of acknowledgment.
My friend Maria’s story will help me to further illustrate the urgency with which I advocate for a more inclusive Black German Studies. Maria was born in Auerbach, Bayern, in 1948. Her mother died right after childbirth. Maria and her older brother Hermann were left in the care of their grandparents. Relatives convinced the elderly couple to relinquish Maria for transnational adoption. In 2012, I received an email from her cousin Brenda asking if I would help to locate Maria. Hermann missed his sister and wanted so badly to hear from her.
Brenda and I found Maria on her birthday, May 21, 2012, and it meant the world to her that her German brother was looking for her. She had no idea how to search, so she never tried. We became good friends and when Hermann wrote his first letter to Maria, in German, she asked me to help her translate. Maria’s failing health prevented her from attending our conferences, though she was anxious to meet and learn about other Black Germans. So, I sent her books and journal articles. When Hermann couldn’t wait any longer to see his younger sister, he sent her an airplane ticket. Maria had a bad heart and found navigating all the bureaucracy necessary to obtain a passport to be daunting, so she procrastinated. At the age of seventy-one, in June 2019, Maria passed away without ever meeting Hermann or her cousin Brenda. Brenda was the first to notify me of Maria’s death and according to her, Hermann was inconsolable. Though they had been legally dekinned for more than a half century, in Hermann’s heart Maria never stopped being his sister and Maria felt the same way about him. After she passed away, Maria’s granddaughter Tiffany called me to ask what I knew of Maria’s adoption journey. She is determined to write Maria’s biography, and Maria had already advised me that this was her wish before she died. Tiffany also wants to learn German and hopes to study abroad in graduate school someday. I promised I’d help Tiffany to the best of my ability. As Maria’s unrequited reunion and subsequent death explicitly reveals, time is of the essence; the postwar generation is aging. We and our children deserve to know and to be included in our German history during our lifetimes. We are eager to learn about our Black German siblings and the extended family and heritage we left behind.
Why Subjectivities and Positionalities Matter
Over the past two decades I have observed and facilitated many family reunions and have worked tirelessly to engage and reunify the Black diaspora that was ruptured in the postwar years by German racism via the juridical processes of transnational adoption. While the BGHRA encourages the ethical study of Black German life, history, and cultural production, we unequivocally privilege Black German voices as experts of our own life experiences. It matters significantly to us who is conveying our stories, and how we, our families, and our ancestors are being portrayed in them. In German studies, as it is also the case in adoption studies, tensions arise because too often those who shape the academic discourses that have the potential to influence public opinion are not the subjects themselves. In this regard, my work and the work of many other Black German scholars is necessarily political.
It is imperative to note here that three generations of dual-heritage Black German children were already the subjects of twentieth century state-sanctioned research projects that defined us as aberrant beings who are innately inferior to white Germans. The social anthropologists concluded that by virtue of our so-called tainted blood, we are genetically predisposed to mental illness, promiscuity, and criminality. We were depicted as a threat to German society and to ourselves. These ideas contributed to the German mindset that led to the sterilization of many after WWI, and later precipitated our adoptions. It makes perfect sense, then, that Black Germans are deeply concerned about the interpretations of our lives put forth by non-Black German scholars, journalists, and filmmakers—even those who may look like us but are not us. Too often, these well-intentioned efforts don’t correspond to what we are interested in learning about one another and only serve to rub salt into festering wounds and reify old stereotypes and stigma. In the end we are left questioning, “what’s really in all this for us?”
One of the primary reasons I pursued my doctorate was that without a PhD, I knew I would only be research subject. I would never be taken seriously as an expert within the academy. The best I could ever do would be to publish my memoir. But, if I had published what I wrote in the early 2000s, I would surely be ashamed and embarrassed today. If you’ve googled me before attending this talk, at least half of what you think you know about me is false. Much of my story challenges the existing narrative of Black German Adoption, and I reiterate with emphasis that each of our origin, adoption, and reunification stories is unique. There is no collective Black German adoption experience.
Adoptees are often emotionally vulnerable, especially when they are searching. Our knowledge about our early lives in Germany and our feelings about our adoptions are subject to change over time. I have considerable regret, for example, about sharing so much of my personal life publicly, and I am thankful that my families are as supportive as they are. Videos and interviews in which I have participated were sometimes edited in ways that distorted what I intended to convey, what I would really want the world to know—or want my grandchildren and nieces and nephews to read someday. But not everyone is able to earn a doctorate, nor has the time and inclination to write their memoirs. Yet many of us do want to share our stories and to hear those of our peers. This presents an ethical dilemma; one that prevents me from taking on an ethnographic project and also why I no longer speak to the press about my personal life. I ignore requests from anyone who writes to the BGHRA asking for referrals to subjects for their projects, because I firmly believe that my fellow adoptees should own their own stories and that we shouldn’t be collectivized.
Too often adoptees’ experiences are sensationalized for public consumption and only the most heart wrenching stories make the news. We call this adoption porn and the narratives often follow the typical orphan tropes. For example, reunion stories often have either a storybook ending or a tragic one. Family reunification is far more complicated than it is generally portrayed in journalism and media. Once a reporter from the Military Times asked me to help her find four or five interviewees from the postwar generation and I complied. I referred her to both adoptees and non-adoptees, who were delighted to share their positive life experiences. Maria was one of them and, at the time, she was in the honeymoon phase of her reunification. She had just received several albums with dozens of photos of her German family and was anticipating her trip to Germany to visit Hermann. The Military Times article was never published, and the journalist never responded to my requests for a status update after the interviews were completed. I’m sure the responses conflicted with the narrative she had in mind. You can’t begin to fathom the number of offensive requests I’ve received from journalists and scholars over the years, who clearly hadn’t read anything I’d written or much else authored by Black Germans, for that matter. In these requests the writers often refer to the adoptees in derogatory ways and their project proposals, in my estimation, would be more harmful than beneficial to Black Germans and our families. Some of the questions that come through our email simply make no sense at all. For example, I was recently contacted through the BGHRA website by a high school German teacher who wanted to feature Black Germans during their classroom celebration for German Unity Day. They thought it appropriate to ask me what Black Germans eat so they could prepare an authentic meal. Obviously, this person has not yet received a response.
As an accidental gatekeeper, and as an adoption scholar, I prefer to err on the side of over-protection when it comes to our adoptive cohort. My concern is not only for the adoptee, but also for the wellbeing of our cohort and international community. Many of us are family after all. My role models have always been the Black scholars and activists from Germany who precede me, not necessarily in age, but in their scholarly activism. When I was contemplating my dissertation proposal, for example, I mentioned to my friend Noah Sow that I was curious about Black German children’s identity development and was planning to apply for funding to do research in Hamburg. Noah asked me if I planned to move to Hamburg and work with the children, and if not, if I could explain to her exactly how the children in Hamburg would benefit from my study. From then on, my research interest has been pointedly focused on adoptees and Black Germans in the US, my own community within our diaspora.
The BGHRA Vision and Restorative Justice
The BGHRA conferences, therefore, intentionally create a space for multilayered conversations among Black Germans and with the scholars whose academic careers are built around analyzing our collective, individual, and often intimate life experiences. Since described as a watershed event, the inaugural BGHRA conference was attended by many who had been virtually acquainted for over decade on the various social networks. As reflected in the conference theme, “Strengthening Transatlantic Connections,” the event symbolically celebrated the rekinning of Black Germans in diaspora. Scholars Priscilla Layne and S. Marina Jones authored the conference report commemorating the auspicious occasion. The report, photographs, and videos of the keynote and presentations are since archived on the BGHRA website.
On the first morning of the three-day event, a delegation of Black Germans representing the US, Germany, Nigeria, and South Africa met with representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus. The multicultural delegation of persons having diverse relationships to Germany was invited to Capitol Hill by Congressman Alcee Hastings of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Policy Advisor Dr. Mischa Thompson facilitated a conversation about earlier interventions into anti-Black racism in Germany. I spoke to the group about the obstacles confronting those seeking original birth and adoption records. Adoptees were hoping for a centralized mechanism for finding families that would mediate for language, economic, and bureaucratic barriers. Though fully aware that this was not the appropriate forum through which we could realistically expect any direct intervention, I noted then that many adoptees had also expressed a desire for an unfettered path to dual citizenship—US and German—without any complicated legal procedures or economic penalties. We were determined to be acknowledged and wanted Germany to apologize, though I doubted that any of us actually planned on uprooting away from our families in the US and moving back to Germany. These first moments on Capitol Hill defined the political ethos within which the diaspora community officially made a unified public debut. Black German scholarship and activism emanating from Germany in the 1980s indeed paved the way for the adoptees’ voices to be included for the first time in such an important forum. The conversation among the delegates and officials affirmed that the social justice concerns of the Black community in Germany and those of the transnational adoptees are inextricably intertwined.
Predictably, my friend Noah Sow, who also happens to be a well-known activist and author, was our first keynote speaker. The title of her talk was Geteilte Geschichte. She explained to the adoptees in the audience that it is our shared history, which also divided us. Sow explained how the mass deportation of Black German children in the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the isolation of our siblings and peers who were challenged in the aftermath with negotiating a collective identity in a hostile white German society. She said:
You were expelled from your own country because Germans cannot be Black, and you just happened to be: Black Germans. Step by step, we are coming to understand that there is a reason, a link to why our older generations in Germany grew up isolated, alienated from other Black people—with the same pain and the key question that could not and cannot be safely enunciated, ‘You all do not identify with me. Where can I find somebody who does? And whom I can identify with?’ We are coming to understand why this has been so. Why most of the Black German kids in the 1970s and 1980s didn't have anybody to turn to. Because they had taken you away. You would have been our sisters, our mothers, our aunts. Our teachers, our deans, our doctors, our librarians, our social workers, our judges, our pilots, our nurses, our neighbors. We've been missing you a great deal.
Many of us still wonder what Germany would be like today had we not been sent away—if family preservation was prioritized and Germany could have imagined itself as a multicultural nation after the War.
Our most recent conference planned for April 2020 at my home institution, Rutgers University–Camden, was postponed due to the pandemic, but we hope to convene in person when it is safe to travel. It is essential for us to be together in person. Locally, many of our fathers retired from the military at Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base and purchased their homes in the surrounding area in Southern New Jersey. We were so looking forward to introducing our local community to our friends who always travel to be with us. Several of us adoptees attended high school here in New Jersey together, but the secrecy and shame surrounding our adoptions prevented us from sharing our stories when we were teenagers, when we were grappling with our identities. Today we are happily sharing our reunion experiences. I hope they will be present with their newly found siblings so they will be able to share their stories with us and learn more about our history and cultural production when we are again able to convene.
Our plan is also to honor Retired Sgt. 1st Class James Thompson, the 24th Infantry Regiment Association National President, Buffalo Soldiers, and his wife Maria Thompson. This week the couple are celebrating their sixty-fourth anniversary. Mr. Thompson has devoted his professional career to protecting and serving the people of the United States. A proud Buffalo Soldier, he has earned many honors including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his 21 years of military service. The Thompsons and my daughter’s godparents, Mr. and Mrs. Milton and Charlotte Johnson, were featured in Dag Freyer’s Documentary, Breath of Freedom, upon my introduction. These two met in Absam, Tyrol, Austria after the War, where Charlotte was born and raised. Sadly, Oma, as we affectionately call her, passed away shortly after the filming, and Opa is in poor health now, so it is doubtful that he will ever be able to attend our conference. However, we are also inviting Cathy Thompson to share her testimony about growing up Black German and the experience of participating with her family in Freyer’s film. We now look forward to honoring her for her service on the front lines as a nurse during Covid-19. As a dedicated public servant, she is following her father’s footsteps. In one segment in the documentary, the two families, the Thompsons and the Johnsons, appear together around the pool in Thompson’s back yard. Cathy and Patricia, the Johnson’s daughter, are present in the documentary but are never actually interviewed. They are only part of the mise-en-scène: clearly visible but ignored, like so many of us in German Studies. The BGHRA wants to change this.
We, who are institutionally based in the US, are fully aware that we are privileged to do this work in ways that our brothers and sisters in Germany are not and that Black German Studies in the US is yet problematic. The flourishing field is dominated by voices not our own that speak for us and about us. They decide which stories matter and which aspects of our lives are worthy of exploration. Our invisibility suggests that location, and the juridical processes of transnational adoption and migration have magically stripped away our Black German identities. Reclaiming our first families and our erased German heritage is just one of the ways in which US adoptees are now demanding restorative justice. There is much more to come—stay tuned. It is not we who are confused about our identities; it is they who are in denial, who refuse to acknowledge us for who we are, in all our cultural and experiential diversity.
If you followed the German Studies conference season this year, in the US and the UK, which was mostly virtual, you might have noticed that there were several events about Black Germans and Black Germany in the time of Black Lives Matter. Many academic organizations in the US posted statements in support of Black Lives on websites. The BGHRA did not. We exist because Black Lives Matter, so for us it is implicit in our founding. We felt it more appropriate to hold weekly meetings to support Black Scholars in German Studies, whom we were concerned may be struggling after the heinous murder of George Floyd. We plan to reconvene these meetings soon. If you attended these German conferences, you might have also wondered why Black German scholars are so in the minority at these events. My response would be to ask if German Studies is or has ever been a safe intellectual space for us to thrive? We at the BGHRA hope one that day it will be, and that our young people, our children and grandchildren will feel like they belong in your classrooms—wherever you teach. We hope they will soon be learning about our Geteilte Geschichte, our shared and divided history. In closing, however, I implore those of you who do not identify as Black Germans and who are already publishing and teaching about us to thoughtfully consider whether your work is complementing or complicating our reunification in diaspora.
Bland, Lucy. Britain’s “Brown Babies”: The Stories of Children Born to Black GIs and White Women in the Second World War. Manchester University Press, 2019.
Campt, Tina M. “Converging Spectres of an Other within: Race and Gender in Prewar Afro-German History.” Callaloo, vol. 26, no. 2, 2003, pp. 322–41.
El-Tayeb, Fatima. Beyond the Black Paradigm? Afro-Diasporic Strategies in the Age of Neo-Nationalism. Black German Heritage and Research Association, University of Toronto.
Graves, Kori A. A War Born Family: African American Adoption in the Wake of the Korean War. NYU Press, 2020.
Kraft, Marion, editor. Children of the Liberation: Transatlantic Experiences and Perspectives of Black Germans of the Post-War Generation. Peter Lang, 2020.
---, editor. Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration. Unrast, 2015.
Lemke Muniz de Faria, Yara-Colette. “Black German ‘Occupation’ Children: Objects of Study in the Continuity of German Race Anthropology.” Children of World War II the Hidden Enemy Legacy, edited by Kjersti Ericsson and Eva Simonsen. Berg, 2005.
Lemke Muniz de Faria, Yara-Collette. Zwischen Fürsorge und Ausgrenzung: afrodeutsche “Besatzungskinder” im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Metropol, 2002.
Lemke Muniz deFaria, Yara-Colette Lemke Muniz de. “‘Germany’s “Brown Babies” Must Be Helped! Will You?’: U.S. Adoption Plans for Afro-German Children, 1950-1955.” Callaloo, vol. 26, no. 2, Apr. 2003, pp. 342–62.
Peña, Rosemarie. “Bedeutsame Geschichten: Kontextualisierung Der Erfahrung(En) Schwarzer Deutsch-Amerikanischer Adoptierter.” Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration, edited by Marion Kraft. Unrast Verlag, 2015, pp. 223–60.
---. “Black Germans, Reunification and Belonging in Diaspora.” Black Anthology: Adult Adoptees Claim Their Space, edited by Susan Harris O’Connor MSW et al. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
---. “Black Germans: Reunification and Belonging in Diaspora.” Adoption & Culture: The Interdisciplinary Journal of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture, vol. 6, no. 1, 2018, pp. 26–30.
---. “Black Germans: Reunifying in Diaspora.” Making Families Across Race and Nation: The Histories and Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, edited by Silke Hackenesch. Ohio State University Press, 2021.
---. “From Both Sides of the Atlantic: Black German Adoptee Searches in William Gage’s Geborener Deutscher (Born German).” Genealogy, vol. 2, no. 4, Oct. 2018, pp. 13–20.
---. “Stories Matter- Contextualizing Black German American Adoptee Experience(s).” International Adoption in North American Literature and Culture, edited by Mark Shackleton. Palgrave, 2017.
Sow, Noah. Deutschland Schwarz Weiß. Der alltägliche Rassismus. C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 2008.
---. Geteilte Geschichte. Conference, Black German Heritage & Research Association, 21 Aug. 2011.
On October 4th, 2020 as part of the closing of the 44th annual conference of the German Studies Association, Lydia Tang and Patrizia McBride, hosted a roundtable discussion on The Future of German Studies. All panelists were invited to share brief initial remarks to kick-off the larger discussion. In an effort to extend this discussion beyond the conference and those able to participate live, we are sharing below the opening statements of each of the panelists in the order they were given.
We will not try to summarize the at large discussion of that day, but hope that publishing these statements here will initiate a continuation of the exchange, a further probing of the ideas presented below as well as create additional room to explore with a larger audience what the future of German Studies might hold and how we may achieve it.
Assistant Director of Programs, MLA (all views expressed here are my own)
Formerly Lecturer in German at Carleton College and Visiting Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University
In the ninety minutes allotted to our roundtable, we cannot hope to scratch the surface of the issues our discipline is facing this year, as well as those likely to arise in upcoming years. What we hope to accomplish is to create awareness of the different institutional frameworks in which the work of reimagining the discipline is situated. In doing so, this session builds on the 2019 conference “Re-Imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the Humanities, and the University,” organized by Patrizia McBride and Paul Fleming at Cornell University, which brought into sharp focus the extent to which our institutional affiliations shape our perspective on German studies. I am grateful to Patrizia and Paul for the opportunity to build on these conversations, and I am particularly indebted to Patrizia for her willingness to co-organize and co-moderate this GSA session with me.
In addition to the range of institutional perspectives that roundtable participants bring to this discussion, it is important to note that all currently serve or have served in leadership roles in professional organizations, such as GSA, WiG, DDGC, MLA, and ADFL. What can professional organizations do to support vulnerable faculty members and graduate students in this moment of crisis? How can established scholarly organizations collaborate with smaller forums to create lasting change?
Throughout our conversation, we will return to the question of graduate program reform and our responsibilities toward doctoral students—quite literally, the future of German studies. In doing so, we hope to join other colleagues in making the case for the GSA conference as a space not only for research presentations but also for conversations about the profession. The emphasis on graduate education is not meant to suggest German undergraduate programs are unworthy of our attention; quite on the contrary, it recognizes most faculty positions in our field focus primarily, if not exclusively, on teaching undergraduate students, often while shouldering a substantial administrative load as the director of a small language program. The “prestige economy” of doctoral education privileges research and perpetuates the bifurcated curricular and governance models first critiqued thirteen years ago in Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. As a result, their training leaves graduates ill prepared for the realities of teaching German outside the ivory tower—not to mention positions outside the academy.
As we embark on these conversations, I would like to end by pointing to the voices who are missing from our roundtable so that we can be aware of our own blind spots and prioritize questions from members of these groups: adjunct instructors, including part-time faculty members; language program directors and other colleagues whose work focuses primarily on language teaching and pedagogy; German PhDs who, like myself, have left the profession; and current graduate students.
 The conference website documents many of these contributions: https://futurehumanities.wixsite.com/re-imagining/contributors-essays. An expanded version of my own remarks can be found here: https://profession.mla.org/against-smallness-how-successful-language-programs-reimagine-the-humanities/.
 Cf. Leonard Cassuto, “Why We Need a Yelp for Doctoral Programs,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 December 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-we-need-a-yelp-for-doctoral-programs/
Frank and Roberta Furbush Scholar in German Studies
Associate Professor and Chair of German Studies at Grinnell College
A More Comprehensive Approach to German Studies
I cannot predict what the future holds for the interdisciplinary field of German Studies. I doubt we will return to the conditions I enjoyed when I received my undergraduate degree, attended graduate school, and then went on the job market and secured a tenure-track position. Rather than look to the future, I can say that many two- and four-year educational institutions in the United States are in the midst of an existential crisis right now, much earlier than anticipated. There was a drop in undergraduate enrollment across the board in September 2020, and it is particularly troubling that the enrollment of first-time students at two-year institutions dropped by 22.7% at the start of this academic term. This matters because two-year institutions are the pathway to opportunity for students from low-income and diverse backgrounds. Many people would not have earned a doctorate and enjoyed the benefits of increased employment stability, health insurance, and benefits if they hadn’t enrolled in a two-year college first. The wealthy institutions that can survive demographic shifts and the pandemic will probably be okay; those who serve students from more diverse families will have a much tougher time of it. What can the German Studies Association do in light of the dire circumstances today and such a bleak future?
I want to make a couple of simple suggestions: Every time we, as an Association, want to address issues primarily facing graduate education at research institutions, let us say or write “undergraduate and graduate education,” instead. When we frame discussions around research, let us make sure that we also include pedagogy scholarship and ethical mentorship in our deliberations. By shifting the conversation in this small way, the German Studies Association acknowledges our responsibility and investment in the success of all of the students at our institutions, that they thrive and complete their degrees and find meaningful ways of living inside and outside our field. I believe that looking outward and not only inward to our specializations and scholarship could help us go a long way to push for broader participation in higher education and advance racial and economic equality in the United States.
Most students do not enter our classrooms because they want to publish books about canonical writers, political movements, art, or philosophy. Many enroll because they want to speak a new language and only discover how transformational learning German can be in retrospect. It certainly changed my life’s trajectory. Students continue taking our classes because many of the members of the Association teach in smaller departments and foster a nurturing environment for intellectual and personal growth. We care about the whole student. We listen to what they are going through at college and help them navigate the challenges they face in higher education. Our members can be indispensable advocates for the people on our campuses who never enter our classrooms, too. We work to enhance student experience so that all the students on our campus—not just the ones who enroll in German—succeed. It is key in this shared endeavor that many members of the German Studies Association hold leadership roles at our institutions and, more broadly, in the profession. We should push to establish better administrative policy that mitigates bias in recruitment, hiring, and reviews. We should persuade others that supporting local K-12 teachers, as well as the recruitment of undergraduate and graduate students from all backgrounds matters a lot even if it doesn’t improve the numbers in our own campus units. We should ask about the conditions of staff and show perhaps as much concern for the communities that border our campuses as for those living thousands of miles away.
There are some changes I would love to see. Why hasn’t there been more space for scholarship on teaching and for other career pathways at German Studies Association meetings? Could we look to the American Historical Association, for example, as a model for how the German Studies Association might transform itself into a hub for teaching scholarship and practice, advocacy, career preparation, and public engagement? The AHA includes receptions and sessions for undergraduates, graduate students, two-year faculty, K-12 teachers, public historians, and invites back people who completed degrees in history to give talks on their careers at two-year institutions, non-profits, libraries and archives, in government, business, museum education, and higher education administration. The AHA holds sessions on pedagogical best practices, assessment, and experiential learning. How could such a change at future GSA conferences help sustain a conversation about career options for our undergraduates and graduate students so that our teaching and mentorship skills benefit the profession and society broadly? How can social practice and activism be a regular part of our professional conversations as well as undergraduate and graduate teaching and research, which is the case in Art History, Black Studies, or in American Studies?
I cannot predict whether there will be a German Studies Association in twenty-five or fifty years. What will our membership numbers look like if the demographic trends progress in the ways we are witnessing today? I know that we are already working in a field transformed. It is up to the members of the German Studies Association to address the needs of the entire community today.
Assistant Professor of German, Emory University
Co-chair of the MLA Committee on the Status of Grad Students in the Humanities
With three months left to go, it is safe to say that 2020 will be remembered as a time of unprecedented crisis. We are dealing with four pandemics simultaneously: 1) COVID-19; 2) anti-Black racism, police brutality, and white supremacist violence; 3) climate change; and 4) widespread unemployment and economic hardship. These have resulted in huge challenges within academia, from funding shortfalls to radical changes in modes of instruction and campus life, though the most urgent crises within academia, such as graduate education and the systemic exclusion of scholars of color, did not arise as a result of this year but have rather been further exacerbated. In this brief impulse statement, I would like to relay some of the issues of graduate education from my position as a recent graduate, recent job seeker, member of the steering committees of WiG and DDGC, and co-chair of the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities.
Graduate education in the humanities has been in crisis ever since the annual number of doctorates granted began to greatly exceed the number of stable academic jobs. The financial collapse in 2008 created a vacuum of tenure track jobs that has never been recovered. It already seemed grim over the last few years when the market consisted of about 25 tenure track, 15-20 renewable non-tenure track, and 20-30 visiting positions. This year, as of early October, there is only one tenure track job in German, two tenure track jobs for which German is one of the possible areas of focus, and one limited term teaching position. Graduate students have long called for support to pivot to alt-ac or post-ac careers. While some programs offer extensive additional training and professionalization opportunities, students in other programs can only discuss their non-tenure track aspirations in hushed tones.
It is understandable that graduate faculty feel they are not equipped to support graduate students to pursue careers in which they themselves do not have training while also making sure the students reach benchmarks in their programs and academic professionalization. But graduate programs need not look far to provide opportunities for their students to gain important skills and experience to support their future career plans; connect students to opportunities at the university press, library, museum, writing center, center for teaching and learning, undergraduate advising office, study abroad office, or other relevant arenas. Invite alumni from your program to speak with students about how they pursued their career paths. Encourage students to attend (virtual) career fairs and partner with career services to run workshops for how to revise an academic CV into a resume. Draw on networked mentorship structures to assure that students have access to multiple sets of expertise on which to draw when applying to a range of positions.
Even programs that focus solely on training future academics are often outdated and plagued by magical thinking, urging students not to professionalize, despite the incredible expectations they will face on the academic job market. I vividly remember a conversation I had as a graduate student with a high-ranking administrator in the School of Arts and Sciences who told me that “graduate students shouldn’t be worrying about publishing or attending conferences” because a top-tier Ph.D. would be “enough” to obtain a tenure track position. We know that this is simply not true and that graduate students are under increasing pressure to prove their merit as mature academics before ever depositing their dissertations. Whenever possible, revise graduate curricula to allow students to reach benchmarks in the program while also meeting professional goals. For example, can the comprehensive exam requirement be fulfilled by students producing a polished article draft ready to submit for peer review, with the mentorship support to achieve that aim? Think creatively about how to make requirements work for the students rather than the other way around.
The problems sadly go far beyond job training and support. A recent report by the MLA Task Force on Ethics in Graduate Education revealed that graduate education is overwhelmingly characterized by “precarity and sexual harassment but also issues such as mental health challenges, lack of transparency, favoritism and bias, and emotional and material exploitation.” As graduate programs look to adapt to the new set of administrative austerity measures in a continuing and, eventually, a post-COVID landscape, they should make sure that their decisions are made transparently and that they are holding themselves accountable first and foremost to their current students and recent graduates. Furthermore, as our field adapts to this reality, we must boldly prioritize striving toward racial justice, decolonization, and ethical recruitment and hiring within our field.
Associate Professor of German and Chair of the Department of Languages & Literatures, University of North Carolina Asheville
Co-Founder of the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum scholarly collective
I am arriving at the conversation as someone who 7 years ago was hired on a Visiting Assistant Position with the task to renew and revive the two-person German department at a Small Public Liberal Arts College and as someone who is since July of this year the tenured Department Chair. I am not sharing this as a success story, but working in a small German program has convinced me that the future of German Studies will depend on such small programs and how well we prepare our Graduate Students to work in them and how well we support these programs.
The Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum scholarly collective was born because Dr. Ervin Malakaj and I found ourselves in very similar situations at our first positions out of graduate school. And despite the strong graduate programs we both came from and the significant pedagogical training we received, we were not prepared to create a curriculum for the diverse student body we were seeking to attract to our departments. We were also not trained in how to teach Adjective endings at 9:30am, a special topics course at 3pm and a class for the general education requirement in between and how to continue to publish with a 4/4 teaching load and alongside the high-level of student mentoring expected in small programs. And we figured all this out not through the GSA, MLA, or AATG, but because of connections with colleagues and friends in similar positions.
Of course the future of German Studies will depend not only on addressing those issues, but on a large scale envisioning of our discipline and what our role in the academy at large should be. It will depend on our response to the contingency crisis in our field and how it impacts especially those of our colleagues already pushed to the margins.
Based on the participation I have seen at conferences and seminars on this subject, based on who is involved in the scholarly collective it seems that the envisioning of German Studies is not a shared interest across ranks and gender. The future of German Studies, however, will depend on those who hold significant institutional power to get on board or to get out of the way.
George M. Roth Professor of German, Georgetown University
Editor, Gegenwartsliteratur: A German Studies Yearbook
The role of PhD programs in German Studies, i.e., the education of the new generation of German studies scholars and teachers, goes to the heart of the Roundtable’s focus on “The Future of German Studies.” In my initial statement, I therefore addressed the significance of teacher education -- a dimension of graduate programs that despite many interventions from individuals and reports from our professional organizations often does not receive adequate attention and recognition.
Arguably, in the current precarious situation with so many open questions regarding higher education in general and the future of modern language programs in particular, reaffirming the central role of teacher education has become even more important. While it might seem obvious to directors of language programs and scholars of SLA (second language acquisition), I would call on all members of the profession, but especially on scholars of literature and culture, to think about teacher education as intricate part of the intellectual mission of graduate programs and not merely as a necessary ‘add-on’ to scholarly pursuits.
What does this mean on the ground? Close and consistent mentorship throughout a graduate student’s teaching career; exposure to relevant research in SLA in required coursework that goes beyond an introduction to teaching methods; and, perhaps most importantly, opportunities for graduate students to become familiar with thinking about individual courses as part of an articulated four-year undergraduate curriculum. In addition to excellent teaching abilities, the familiarity with curricular design is central for preparing PhD students for the job market as the majority of positions are likely to be located in small German programs that often require a rethinking of the undergraduate curriculum or parts thereof.
Furthermore, approaching a four-year German studies curriculum as dynamic and ever evolving will enable a new generation of German studies scholars to not only envision thematic changes but to implement these changes in meaningful ways. This has gained special relevance with recent concerted efforts to diversify and de-colonize the curriculum in German programs.
Against this backdrop, I want to conclude with two examples of how course and curricular design can be integrated into a graduate program: As final task in the required course “Literacy and Foreign Language Teaching” at Georgetown University, graduate students redesign a course unit at the introductory or intermediate course level by focusing on the integration of language learning and content. For instance, a recent course unit designed by a PhD student focused on public spaces in German cities from a disabilities studies perspective. The second example is a dissertation by one of our PhD students who straddles SLA and cultural studies and who explores how to give adequate attention to the role of Black Germans in German society especially in teaching materials at the lower levels of the curriculum. Both projects exemplify the powerful synergy between SLA research, Cultural and Literary studies, and curriculum innovation.
Johannes von Moltke
President The German Studies Association
Vice President, American Friends of Marbach
This is a discussion that draws on many voices, including those of my co-panelists represented here, but also at GSA events such as the Forum on Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice, or the Queer and Trans German Studies roundtable; at the Cornell conference last year on “Re-imagining the Discipline;” or in op eds and articles, including Lydia Tang’s great piece “Against Smallness.” In adding my perspective, I speak from my experience both at Michigan but also as president of the GSA over the past two years. But bear in mind that a bird’s eye view can also obscure and gloss over important details of the landscape. I should also note that I do not speak on behalf of the GSA and that all opinions are my own.
This session’s title – the future of German Studies – obviously begs the question of our field’s past and present. I won’t go into the former, but I do think it behooves us to take stock of where we find ourselves today if we want our talk about tomorrow, let alone the future, to have any purchase.
By one measure at least, like many other fields, German Studies is presently defunct and has no future. If you look at the jobs wiki, you’ll look in vain for positions in German, Austrian, or even Central European history; under German Studies, as Didem Uca also noted in her remarks, you’ll find three positions, one of them with an “applicant beware” notice in the comments section. In fact, for all the warnings about comments sections, this one should be required reading, if only for the line that this year, you’d have better chances at winning the lottery than landing a job in German Studies. Coupled with the state of the world in every other respect, the feeling of rage that one panelist at the Queer and Trans German Studies roundtable expressed yesterday seems like a most rational response. Others I’ve heard include: worry, depression, anger, despair. These responses come from the people who are the future of the field, if it is to have one. And if we want to talk about that future, we must listen to them.
But what does it mean to listen, let alone to act upon what we’re hearing? Listening and hearing require fora for exchange, places and platforms where people can be heard – and not just comments sections on job wikis. We need institutions that facilitate such listening and that can act. Existing institutions such as the GSA are admittedly sluggish – there’s an inertia built into them, and often for good reasons that I’d be ready to defend (reasons having to do with the relationship between democracy and bureaucracy). That said, I see the GSA as a collaborative project that is invested in creating space for envisioning the future of the discipline not only through conference papers, but also through the interdisciplinary networks, through advocacy, through the creation of support structures such as our Community Fund, through town halls and forums and roundtables or collective blogs such as this one.
Curiously and somewhat counter-intuitively, then, when I look at the present of German Studies through the lens of the GSA, I hear not only rage, anxiety, or worry but also see innovation, collaboration, opportunity. And I see exhilarating, important work being done, as evidenced not only in the award winning books and articles, and the invigorating sessions even at a virtual GSA but also in our members’ public-facing work (for examples, think only of the important contributions on how BLM resonates across the Atlantic, but also on how and to what extent we should turn to the history of Fascism for understanding our global present). More generally speaking, I’ve always been struck by the fact that the GSA has remained stable, and has even grown, over the past few years and in the face of institutional shrinkage, economic pressures, and countervailing experiences in other scholarly associations.
If this picture sounds a bit too rosy against the backdrop of the current job situation and the neoliberal disinvestment from academic learning more generally, I would hope that we’re able to embrace this contradiction rather than whisk it away in favor of either doom and gloom or Panglossian optimism. For both can be true at once: the situation is dire and many of the initiatives I’m seeing are heartening. One doesn’t cancel out the other.
By the same token, I am deeply concerned by institutional responses that involve putting graduate programs on hold. This seems to me short-sighted, and it does the bidding of administrations and legislatures that treat higher education as a zero-sum game, pitting German departments against other language departments, the language departments against other humanities departments, the humanities against STEM fields, always with the unspoken assumption that I can only get my share of the pie if I take it away from you.
Now, I’m not naïve. I understand that we operate under material constraints. I also understand that advocating for maintaining our graduate programs requires a willingness to rethink them, and it requires clear communication with applicants and prospective students about what prospects these programs can and cannot offer.
But let me close by countering the zero-sum model of higher ed with an emphasis on collaboration. As anyone who has been involved in meaningful collaborative projects knows, these are processes in which the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. As such, they form an inherent challenge to any reductionist models of labor and institutional organization. So let’s champion and pursue collaboration, by which I mean some very concrete things: working together across generational lines (I very much hope that we’ll have a graduate caucus in the GSA again in the near future; and I could certainly imagine the same for contingent faculty). I also mean valuing collaborative work in hiring, tenuring, and promotion; creating new collaborative platforms, as modelled by the DDGC or the German Studies Collaboratory. I would include collaboration across tiers of institutions, and emphatically second Vance’s call for turning towards 2-year colleges. And I mean joining forces among existing groups. What I called “sluggish” institutions like the GSA (or the AATG) must constantly reinvent themselves by working together not just with the requisite governmental partners such as the DAAD or the ACF, but also with various and possibly more nimble groups such as our friends at WiG, DDGC, the BGHRA – and others, yet to be created.
Recent discussions at scholarly conferences, on listservs, on various social media platforms, and beyond have yielded important insights about four areas of consideration that should inform our engagement patterns as we continue to think about German studies, its pasts, its present, and its futures. These are:
We invite submissions for the DDGC Blog that touch upon the four areas above. We especially hope to amplify the research and perspectives of graduate students, contingent faculty, and faculty at any stage of their career who belong to a historically and structurally marginalized community in the academy. If you are inspired to write a blog post but don’t feel it aligns with the themes above, not a problem! Reach out and let's chat.
For more info about submissions and contact info: https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog-submission-info.html.
Sharing this on behalf of our comrades at the Multicultural Germany Project at UC Berkeley
Building on existing synergies in the Department of German at the University of California, Berkeley discussed at a recent workshop based on Annika Orich's recent article "Archival Resistance: Reading the New Right." (German Politics & Society. Summer 2020, Vol. 38, Issue 2: 1-34) and Th. W. Adorno's 1967 lecture "Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus," the Multicultural Germany Project (MGP) cordially invites you to submit brief takes responding to the question "Why German Studies Today?"
These short and spiffy takes of approx. 600 words length can be posted as a comment to the Forum page of the Multicultural Germany Project website (mgp.berkeley.edu) or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org to ultimately be published on our mainBlog.
We would also like to invite you to join us in our critical news digest efforts toward the MGP Chronology, posting links to important news and op-ed articles with source information and a very brief commentary to mgp.berkeley.edu/forum.
Looking forward to collaborating with you all!
Deniz Göktürk, Coordinator
Kumars Salehi, Managing Researcher
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