Sarah Vandegrift Eldridge (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)
German thinkers play crucial roles in the development of notions of “self” that view identity as unique, internal, and fairly immutable (though subject—pun intended—to various forms of development). This notion of self is also related to the establishment of scientized biological racism, to religious belief as internal and personal (a matter of “the heart” as much as to institutions and practices), and to conceptions of gender as ‘natural’ and inherent rather than acquired and performed. While these latter paradigms have been historicized (and thus also largely debunked in intellectual discourse), Western societies still tend to adhere to a view of selfhood not too far from these eighteenth-century origins—although scholars at least since the 1960s have critiqued this model of selfhood as complicit in naturalizing systems of oppression to the point of invisibility in the daily lives of ordinary human beings. These post-deconstructionist critiques of selfhood are important and useful, but they often do not do much more than upend value systems, making the establishment of modern individualism a story of decline rather than triumph. They do very little to decenter the entire idea of a unique, interior self. New approaches to eighteenth-century studies can illuminate the extent to which individual identities are, and always have been, socially constructed and relationally situated—in much the same way that modern social and critical movements currently push us to understand them. This understanding of identity insists on the acknowledgment of the empirical qualities that make up the self, but without giving up on the notion of some space for agency within those frameworks and influences.
My research asks specifically what attending to the kinds of selves that appear in eighteenth-century literature—especially non-canonical literature, which has received hardly any scholarly attention at all, still less of it positive—can tell us about the emergence of models of selfhood. It contends that doing so opens up new possibilities for both reading literature and thinking about ethical engagements in our own, twenty-first-century lives. In the German-speaking context, a conscious sense of belatedness and lack of political unity gives rise to discourses of an emerging “modern” self that are especially highly theorized and frequently self-reflexive. Both in broader Enlightenment discourse (philosophy, linguistics, political theory) and in the emerging literary discourse around the novel, eighteenth-century German thinkers observed developments in states around them (especially France and England) and used these observations to conceive of models of selfhood, and of linguistic and cultural unity, that were applicable to a German context. These reflections combined with a scientific paradigm shift in models of generation to arrive, by the turn of the nineteenth century, at a concept of identity as organic, natural, and autopoietic; this model was canonized, on the literary scene, in the genre of the Bildungsroman.
At the same time, however, the literary market and the reading public were expanding rapidly, and so-called trivial literature remained a messy, complex hybrid of old and new ideas. Twenty-first century readers, returning to German novels of the early-to-mid-eighteenth century, encounter a strange and unfamiliar reading experience. As Wolfram Malte Fues writes in one of the only recent studies to explore non-canonical eighteenth-century novels in detail:
"The narrative styles and the perspectives on self and world that express themselves in them spring forward and backward, outward, sideways, as if the narrators, on the developmental path of their narration, were worried about losing something which likewise only remains in their reach if they continue to pursue it. […] Economics, morals, law, politics, art, science/knowledge, sexuality, the core areas of the self-forming bourgeois society, stand immediately next to each other in these mostly biographically or autobiographically plotted narratives, and follow one another so purely and recklessly that it is as if the moral subject forgot the economic one and the sexual subject forgot the moral one. […] The more the texts fragment according to their external and internal form, the more rhizomatically they proliferate into each other" (74).
These narratives thus make the composite nature of eighteenth-century selves highly visible, including the occasional incompatibility of their relational elements. The protagonists of courtly and political novels express themselves by means of their external effects, whether in politics or in gallant love, with the odd outcome that the measure of morality is success. The journeying subjects of imitations of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe establish their anthropological status as European colonizers over and against the native inhabitants, women, Muslims, and Jews that populate the world of eighteenth-century adventure. From these novels in all their weirdness it emerges that, far from being a “universal subject,” the white, straight, cisgender, upper-middle class or upper-class male individual is socially shaped, relationally embedded, and as and empirically located as the rest of us.
Beyond simply historicizing the emergence of conceptions of self from prior models of identity, examining literary texts in detail can show us how the “modern self,” described in terms of depth, uniqueness, and relative unchangeability, is itself a social construct. That is, we, as modern subjects, have been trained and socialized to grasp our own selves in this way—but this conception is neither natural nor necessary. If we attend to the ways Western culture since the Enlightenment has taught us to believe that we are beings with an essential, individual core, we can also attend to the facets of society and culture, of education and socialization, of indoctrination and resistance, that in fact make up our composite selves.
Here, the ethical stakes of eighteenth-century German studies come into play: we can acknowledge what has shaped us (for good and ill), and reflect on what sources we choose to engage with and allow to form our own socially-turned selves. We can also read and understand those sources differently. One might, for example, read Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with less attention to paths of individual development and more attention to forms of mutual care and affiliation. Or one might choose to uncover and analyze numbers of the increasingly popular entertaining novels to ask, with curiosity and without condescension, why they resonated with eighteenth-century readers—and to ask which of these resonances ought to be discarded and which might still be relevant and carry ethical weight today. On this model, it matters deeply what communities—of literary works, scholarship, and in non-academic life—we surround ourselves with, and how we act within them.
A very short and very lightly annotated bibliography:
Birkhold, Matthew. Characters Before Copyright: The Rise and Regulation of Fan Fiction in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Oxford 2019. –Interdisciplinary history of the German book market and norms around intellectual property and fictional characters that helps challenge old models of authorship.
Eldridge, Sarah Vandegrift. “Narrative Direction: Novel Form and the Experience of Contingency in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,” in: Eldridge and C. Allen Speight, eds. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Philosophy. Oxford 2020, pp. 54-77. –Attempt to re-empiricize the “aesthetic subject” of Goethe’s Bildungsroman and ask questions about contingency in human life.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. “The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology,” in: Katherine M. Faull, ed. Anthropology and the German Enlightenment: Perspectives on Humanity. Lewisburg, 1995, pp. 201-41. –Re-examination of the formative role of racist thought in Kant’s thought broadly conceived.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Malden/Oxford, 1997. –Important collection and situation of key European texts on race from the long eighteenth century.
Fues, Wolfram Malte. Die annullierte Literatur: Nachrichten aus der Romanlücke der deutschen Aufklärung.Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2017. –Detailed study of non-canonical German literature from 1680-70.
Kittler, Friedrich. “Über die Sozialisation Wilhelm Meisters,” in: Gerhard Kaiser und Friedrich A. Kittler, eds. Dichtung als Sozialisationspiel. Studien zu Goethe und Gottfried Keller. Göttingen 1978. S. 13-124. –Classic deconstructionist critique of the subject and its formation, although unfortunately attached to an Oedipal framework.
Müller-Sievers, Helmut. Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800. Stanford 1997. –Reading of epigenetic/organicist turn across German discourses at the end of the eighteenth century.
Saine, Thomas P. The Problem of Being Modern: Or The German Pursuit of Enlightenment from Leibniz to the French Revolution. Detroit 1997. –Account of the ripple effect of seventeenth-century scientific developments in eighteenth-century philosophy and religion.
Tautz, Birgit. Reading and Seeing Ethnic Differences in the Enlightenment: From China to Africa. New York 2007. –Important global account of European conceptions of and relationships to non-European cultures.
Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven 2006. –Thorough history of eighteenth-century models of selfhood and paradigm shift in the 1770s-80s; specifically about the Anglo-American tradition but with some insights that apply in other national contexts.
Zantop, Susanne. Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870. Chapel Hill, 1997. –Important debunking of the false notion that because Germany was late to acquire colonies, it lacked a racist, imperialist “colonial imagination.”
Zhang, Chunjie. Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism. Evanston 2017. –Exploration of non-European agency and contributions to and in German thought from 1756-1835.
A promise of solidarity from DDGC, WiG, the GSA, BGHRA, and the CAUTG Social Justice Committee,
15 July 2020
Today we, teachers and researchers in German Studies, share the relief our students and friends feel at seeing the new restrictions on the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), issued by the United States Department of State and ICE on July 6, 2020, rescinded without further delay. We recognize that this rescindment would not have been forthcoming from the federal government, were it not for a timely and expensive suit supported by over 200 colleges and universities across the country. We are grateful for everyone—aides, researchers, lawyers, plaintiffs, food delivery workers, officers of the court, and family members—who unexpectedly sacrificed a week of summer, during this pandemic, to head off a punitive policy that ought never have been conceived in the first place.
We further recognize that such punitive policies will likely continue to be introduced and implemented, damaging our schools’, students’, and communities’ well-being over the coming months, and that we will soon need to rely again on these colleagues’ unflinching and courageous work to defeat the next such policy. We see clearly that the federal government is engaged in a chaotic shock strategy, designed to distract and divide us in a moment already marred by fear, pain, impoverishment, and hopelessness. We will not fall for it, if you won’t. We will never leave our students and friends defenseless and isolated, whether or not they hold US citizenship, permanent resident status, one kind of visa versus another, or documentation of any kind. We will stand by them today and permanently—in our institutional actions, teaching, and public work.
The Diversity, Decolonization and the German Curriculum collective, the Coalition of Women in German, the German Studies Association Committee for the Initiative on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, the Black German Heritage and Research Association, and the Social Justice Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers of German join with one another in rejecting the spirit of punishment and intimidation that these recent policies represented. We also endorse the statement issued by our colleagues at the Modern Language Association, the statement by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the letter by the American Historical Association outlining the damage and harm that these types of proposed restrictions cause.
We will learn from this moment, and we will not forget it, even as it brings us and our fellows, friends, and students momentary relief. We know that more and more judges are currently being confirmed by the US Senate who would gladly support policies that instill fear in students and sow enmity for generations to come. The intent and effect of the attempted SEVP restrictions (together with the recent restrictions on J and HB-1 visas) were always a xenophobic exclusion of international students from college and university life in the United States, as well as increased coercive strategy to force our colleges and universities into in-person courses despite the public health train wreck this would ensure.
Despite the rescindment, many of the schools in which we teach are already feeling the devastating effects of these clustered and disruptive decisions, as our international students make the difficult choice to defer or cancel their participation in our programs, given the uncertainty they face both in terms of visas and in terms of US responses to Covid-19. Our international scholars and students play central, courageous roles as teachers and researchers in our communities. They provide integral contributions to intellectual life at all levels and in all areas of our academic communities. As a consequence of recent visa restrictions, institutions of higher education face significant barriers to fulfilling their research and teaching missions. Meanwhile, students in locations with insecure internet access or who are in insecure living conditions find themselves excluded from participation in college and university courses if they cannot travel to the US. Furthermore, any action that potentially leads to spikes in Covid-19 (such as in-person classes held when it is unsafe to do so) will disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities in the United States. The evidence continues to pile up showing the ways in which Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are more severely affected by the spread of the virus (recently summarized in this New York Times article) - Black and Latinx people are three times more likely to become infected and twice as likely to die.
In other words, these visa restrictions and other recent changes in immigration policy mobilize bald-faced xenophobic ideas about who legitimately belongs in our intellectual and research communities, and perpetuate racist inequities that once again target the lives of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people. They impugn the invaluable contributions made to our research (and, of course, overall society) by international scholars and students. They threaten to decimate the standing of US colleges and universities in the world.
In the coming weeks and months, we call on all of our institutions of learning to reject such restrictions as these outright, and instead to work to honor and defend the vital international intellectual exchange which our institutions have fostered over the decades to uplift research, teaching, innovation, and transnational collaboration.
By Domenic DeSocio (University of Michigan)
Do queer ways of teaching German exist? Judging from the state of conventional postsecondary German language courses, the answer would seem to be “no.” It is rare to find a language course with “queer” as its primary topic. Equally uncommon are textbooks that provide perspectives of LGBTQI2S+ folk and design grammar, vocabulary, and cultural instruction around queer experiences. If queer experiences find expression in such materials or approaches, they are part of a “social justice” addendum to other, ostensibly more central lessons, and are treated as an afterthought. To illustrate to what extent interest in queer approaches to German instruction is institutionalized, one only need to search past issues of Die Unterrichtspraxis to see that only one article was published on queer pedagogy in German—and this article focuses on graduate education. This disconcerting phenomenon is not limited to German Studies. Numerous instructors, particularly those of English as a Second Language, have for decades criticized the erasure of queerness in foreign and second language instruction. Cynthia D. Nelson, for example, has questioned the discrepancy between the increasingly vibrant queerness of contemporary public life and the “monosexualizing tendencies that permeate…language education,” demonstrating how heteronormative instruction limits “our collective efforts to foster multilingualism and multiliteracies” (2006, 1). As Anthony J. Liddicoat emphasizes, this absence of queerness is more than an innocuous oversight: when it is absent, it establishes heterosexuality and its cultural norms as uncontested and universal, inhibiting our students’ acquisition of cultural and linguistic sensitivity, nuance, and precision (2009, 191).
Eager to puncture this exclusionary state, I designed and taught an original fourth-semester German language course at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the final unit in my department’s language sequence, titled “Queer German Cultures.” My course cohesively integrated language instruction with entirely queer content and non-heteronormative teaching methods, begging the question: What if we created a German curriculum in which queerness is the starting point of instruction, in which queer genders, sexualities, identities, and practices imbue all aspects of our teaching German? In an environment in which the many shades of queerness were the norm—and not just cisgender gay men and women, as is often the case—my goals were twofold: to offer students both a wide overview and a deep dive into LGBTQI2S+ German cultures and histories, and to further sharpen their foreign-language and analytical skills. The result has been to show that queer issues and materials traditionally seen as irrelevant to language learning—and often deemed “challenging” or “controversial”—can in fact enhance students’ learning rather than to deter or distract from it.
When colleagues ask why I created a course entirely composed of LGBTQI2S+ voices, I respond: because queer people exist! This answer informs how I approach non-heteronormative pedagogies: I help students look at, think about, and speak the German language while centering the lived experiences of queer folk. It means inquiring into what it would entail to speak German queerly, to look critically at the language’s history and structure outside of binaries, fixed identities, and positions of power, and to query how speakers experiment with strict gender and case systems. It prompts us to investigate the ways in which the marginalized, of any kind, always have and continue to innovate and reinvent the German language, while also reflecting on our own roles in this process. Non-heteronormative ways of teaching, following Ashley R. Moore, examine “sexual matters (identities, norms, relationships) within everyday patterns of thinking, speaking, learning, and working, with a view to understanding the complex sociosexual dimensions and meanings that are part of day-to-day interactions, cultural practices, and social structures” (2016, 104). In practice, this means not only alerting teachers and students to German-speaking queer communities but also giving them the tools to transform their ways of thinking critically about and acting upon difference; queer pedagogy is about theory and action. For instance, in a typical classroom where students’ personal lives are common topics, it is not uncommon for queer students to have their identities grammatically “corrected”: a female-presenting student who speaks about her “Freundin” (girlfriend) may be corrected by her instructor to say “Freund” (boyfriend) under the mistaken assumption that all women desire men and that the student hasn’t learned grammatical gender distinctions. As a result, the student must then come out and correct her instructor, an awkward disruption of power in the classroom and a potentially harmful moment of disclosure, or be forced to adopt a heterosexual identity for the sake of the activity (see Djavadghazaryans 2020). If we adhere to a communicative approach to language learning, moments like these are anathema to such a philosophy: we need to set the conditions to allow students to do just that, to communicate at ease about themselves.
Alongside creating space for students to feel supported, talk openly, and experiment with expression in German—thereby empowering their language acquisition—non-heteronormative pedagogies also enhance student acquisition of fundamental skills at the core of foreign language instruction. As instructors of foreign languages and cultures, one of our goals is to teach students the tools to understand difference and leverage it to create new ways of inhabiting the world. Implementing queer-focused perspectives and teaching methods encourages students to acquire a linguistic sensitivity that will serve them in contemporary settings in which a diversity of identities and backgrounds is the norm, as well as giving them a feel for nuance and a level of linguistic precision crucial for becoming advanced speakers of the language. Accordingly, we should view non-heteronormative pedagogies as more than just adding queers to the syllabus; rather, it entails a reevaluation of teaching mentalities and practices toward the benefit of all students.
Nonetheless, how and what do we select to teach? As I began to conceptualize my course, I settled on a chronological format from the mid-nineteenth century—the beginnings of an organized homosexual emancipation movement in Germany—to the present day. This provides students a degree of familiarity and orientation, for most of them are broadly familiar with the timeline of major events in modern German history—except we would be retelling it from the perspective of LGBTQI2S+ folk. Each week in the semester treated a decade of the last 150 years, highlighting main figures, cultural products, events, or social developments. I strove for a wide array of media, genres, and types of materials, encompassing both “high” and “low” culture, from novels to paintings to films, music, and comics, and spanning gender, sexuality, race, religion, geography, and class. This embedded format allowed me to de-marginalize queer histories by not only showing their significance to canonical German history but also by demonstrating rich histories of their own. To teach World War I, for example, I centered my lesson on Bruno Vogel’s 1929 novel Alf, a romance about sexual-political awakening among proletarian teenage soldiers. To obtain an original perspective on the recent refugee “crisis” in Europe, students watched and discussed interviews of queer Arab refugees in Germany.
This emphasis on queer cultural materials—how people use and produce words and linguistic meaning in their lived experiences—determined how I then taught the bread and butter components of foreign language instruction. For each weekly unit, I culled forty to fifty vocabulary words from the assigned materials, selecting words pertinent to our discussions or otherwise useful to one’s daily use of German. In doing so, students would build up a large trove of vocabulary that arose naturally from the cultural materials and their speaking of German in class. I proceeded similarly with grammar. Each week’s lesson was tailored to what the assigned materials did well in this regard. In a week on lesbian portraiture during the Weimar Republic, the lesson focused on the adjective endings necessary to describe art. While reading political statements by Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent homosexual activist of pre-Nazi Germany, we studied the frequent use of the passive voice in these legalistic texts. A unit on gay and lesbian nightlife functioned as a lesson in describing the city as well as asking for and giving directions. This relationship between content and language instruction effectively demonstrated to students that queerness pertains to ordinary aspects of daily life and not only sex.
To conclude, I will sketch what I consider to be the most successful component of this integrated teaching approach in my course. Over the course of the semester, students worked on a multistep project about gay and lesbian nightlife and community spaces in Weimar-era Berlin. It was a scaffolded project, meaning that each week students completed an assignment that comprised the next step in the project. The burden of the work was thereby distributed over many weeks, and the units built upon one another. As a foundation, students learned the vocabulary and grammar necessary for this project over several weeks: adjectives and case endings during the Weimar visual art unit to describe the bars, clubs, and community spaces; commands and descriptive language to describe how one navigates the city and these spaces. The first of the two major components of the project was to design a digital map to recreate the queer infrastructure of the past city. Students were given individualized worksheets with lists of historical queer establishments and internet links to conduct research about them. Their task was to research these spaces and then plot their location with brief descriptions on a customizable Google map. They then would combine their individual maps to create one comprehensive map. Our discussion about what we learned from this map would serve as the basis for students to construct an argument about queer topography for the second component of the project, a twenty-minute-long presentation. These presentations combined written text and audiovisual material, such as photos of the establishments or clips of popular music played or sung in theses spaces, to present original theses about the importance of public spaces and cities for queer communities and identities.
This project had several goals, and it stands as exemplary of the teaching approach I am offering in this paper. Linguistically, students were expected to wield advanced vocabulary, grammar, and syntax to address complex questions and themes. Furthermore, students would come away with a deeper understanding of interwar German history through the example of queer Berlin. The project unearthed a past that has been almost entirely erased by Nazi persecution, the destruction of war, gentrification, and a homophobic historical tradition, thereby illustrating how centering queerness can lead to alternative paths of knowledge production—paths cleared by students themselves by creating maps, conducting research, and analyzing information. They thereby practiced important skills of finding and formulating information in their own words and then constructing original arguments thereout. Students were motivated by the responsibility placed on them as both learners and generators of knowledge. It offered them a stake in the continuous evolution of German, even as learners of the language, while revealing to them the power they had to institute change through intellectual pursuit.
I wish to emphasize that the future of German as a foreign language may lie in this fertile intermingling of language instruction and critical pedagogies, be it non-heteronormative, post-colonial, critical race-based, or through the lens of ability. Rather than overwhelming other aspects of language education like grammar and vocabulary instruction, the recasting of German language pedagogy through queerness has led to an exceptionally high level of student learning and enthusiasm—100% of students gave the course five out of five points for these two criteria on an end-of-semester self-assessment. As one student commented, a queer focus unexpectedly “managed to make a class which I was only moderately interested in at the beginning of the semester into one of my favorite courses.” These hybrid courses, revolutionizing the ways we conceptualize and teach languages, open up new horizons for students and teachers alike to capture interests and demonstrate the significance of foreign languages in contemporary higher education.
Djavadghazaryans, Angineh. “’Please Don’t Gender Me!’ Strategies for Inclusive Language Instruction in a Gender-Diverse Campus Community.” Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies. Eds. Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj. New York: Palgrave, 2020. 269–287.
Liddicoat, Anthony J. “Sexual Identity as Linguistic Failure: Trajectories of Interaction in the Heteronormative Language Classroom.” In: Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 8, no. 2–3 (2009): 191-202.
Moore, Ashley R. “Inclusion and Exclusion: A Case Study of an English Class for LGBT Learners.” In: TESOL Quarterly 50, no. 1 (2016): 86–108.
Nelson, Cynthia D. “Queer Inquiry in Language Education.” In: Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 5, no. 1 (2006): 1–9.
“Schwule Flüchtlinge in der Schweiz.” YouTube, uploaded by SRF Virus, September 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyH8C_m7Zes.
“Schwul, verfolgt, geflohen: Ibrahim flüchtete aus dem Libanon.” YouTube, uploaded by flutertv, March 21, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exANL1PTsNA.
Today we, the steering committee of the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) collective, express solidarity with the international protests against anti-Black racism and police murders of Black people. We grieve Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and many other Black lives taken by police brutality in recent months. We say the names of just some of the Black lives that have been taken by government-driven institutional violence and neglect in Germany: Oury Jalloh, William Tonou-Mbobda, Rooble Warsame, Christy Schwundeck, Yaya Jabbie, Laya Alama-Condé; in Switzerland: Mike Ben Peter, Lamin Fatty, Hervé Mandundu; in Austria: Marcus Omofuma, Cheibani Wague, Edwin Ndupu. We join all families and communities gathered to demand justice as they – yet again – call on people everywhere to recognize how deeply interwoven anti-Black racism is into the very fabric of contemporary life. They demand due process and, in fact, have begun to dismantle the structures that uphold racism and white supremacy.
As international protests already signal, racism circulates transnationally, and confronting and dismantling systemic racism is work in which every person has to engage. As scholars, public intellectuals, and community organizers have shown time and again, racism is entangled in European culture and history. White supremacy emerged from European thought and colonial practice, and has long informed various segments of European cultural, social, and intellectual life. This includes all educational institutions. These have played a central role in developing, sanctioning, and implementing structural racism. To this day, educational institutions continue to replicate the very structures of injustice that uphold racism.
Our goal as educators and researchers is to work towards dismantling white supremacy and the racist conditions that are the source of ongoing suffering and death in Black communities. At this moment this work needs to expose the centuries of oppression of Black people that permeates every arena of our professional and personal lives. Let us also simultaneously amplify the voices of Black scholars, activists, writers, and artists in achieving this aim. We commit to listening and learning from the experiences and scholarship of our Black colleagues, most recently via #BlackInTheIvory and #PublishingPaidMe. Their testimonials should guide how we confront the structures of our respective institutions and how we challenge the epistemologies and ontologies that shape the discourses of our field(s).
We recognize that the current pandemic merely amplifies existing inequities and racist violence. The Black activists and communities who are leading the international protests are further exposing themselves to danger in their fight for a better future. To Black members of our community, we pledge to join and amplify the collective call for transformation and justice. To those associated with our collective who are not Black, we call on you to take action against all forms of violence against Black people and agitate for structural change in your own respective communities and professional contexts.
As the steering committee, we commit to doing the work of learning and educating about the ways white supremacy structures German studies and the university, and invite you to join our efforts. Part of this work means recognizing the intersections among anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Muslim racism, and settler colonialism at work in the current moment. Here, it is important to acknowledge that prioritizing Black epistemologies and scholarship does not detract from other struggles to affirm BIPOC work generally. All of this work requires recognizing how the global heterocapitalist system as a superstructure has developed out of white supremacy and anti-Black racism since, at latest, the 15th century CE.
The commitments and considerations outlined in this statement will continue to form the basis for the mission of the DDGC collective, out of which will grow other commitments to foreground diverse, decolonial, anticolonial, and BIPOC scholarship and teaching more broadly. They will inform our discussions, programming, and future planning. Moreover, they will be the basis for our collective’s advocacy work in German studies. We invite you to join in holding us and each other accountable for upholding these commitments in each of our personal and professional lives over the coming years and decades.
The DDGC Steering Committee
By Todd Heidt (Knox College)
In this post, I’ll argue that inclusive pedagogies and curricular design at the introductory level must become the norm in German Studies so that we can accurately represent German-speaking cultures and serve our students. Inclusive pedagogies should be thoughtfully crafted to not exoticize or tokenize, but to normalize the representation of minoritized individuals in German-speaking cultures in each of our classes and throughout our curricula.
I’ll frame this argument with reference to two key demographic realities which will shape German Studies classrooms now, in a few years, and over the coming decades. On one hand, German-speaking Europe will only become more diverse as long-present (yet largely invisible) residents with a Migrationshintergrund and newcomers migrating in our global era make these German-speaking spaces their home.[i] On the other hand, the demographic make-up of the United States is rapidly changing, and higher education is finally seeing significant change in enrollments by traditionally underrepresented students. These changes provide a tremendous opportunity for Germanists teaching in the US context, but failure to address these developments poses, I argue, even greater risks for the future of our discipline. While my examples focus on the introductory level, I believe these conclusions could be extended to intermediate and advanced coursework as well.
Diversity and Inclusion in the German Classroom
I fully acknowledge that first “diversity” and later “inclusion” have been ongoing concerns in our field for at least 30 years. In 1989, the AATG established a Task Force to formulate recommendations on promoting minorities in German Studies (Peters 5), resulting in an issue of Unterrichtspraxis dedicated to this topic in 1992. Today, this work has been taken over by AATG’s Alle lernen Deutsch initiative. The GSA inaugurated a Black Diaspora Studies Network in 2016. This group of scholars, as well as the scholarly collective Diversity and Decolonization and the German Curriculum, have worked through informal channels such as social media, as well as in formal channels in established conferences and by organizing their own conferences. Yet, when I poll colleagues informally at the GSA and ACTFL, even those colleagues at highly diverse institutions very often report that student populations in German courses remain overwhelmingly white. While I applaud the initiatives of the last 30 years, I must also acknowledge that their effects on the field have been quite limited. We have much more work to do to make fundamental changes to German Studies in the US. Student bodies have become more diverse on our campuses and German-speaking cultures have become more diverse than ever before However, our courses continue to attract a smaller and smaller proportion of our campuses, a proportion which is also demographically quite homogeneous. Why could this be? I believe the answer lies in our curricula.
Our curricula, from elementary language books to advanced seminars, have too often featured examples which have treated diversity or multiculturalism, in the words of Priscilla Layne, “perfunctor[ily], like one is just trying to get in their mandatory two servings of diversity for the semester” (Layne 2019). I wouldn’t argue that we as a discipline consciously and purposefully treat diversity in this manner, and I certainly didn’t mean to exclude voices in my own classes. Yet, I ultimately found that I was excluding groups; moreover, I was doing so despite factual evidence of the diverse nature of Germany’s past and present. I had become acculturated to a vision of German Studies which was an artificially limited and carefully curated presentation of “German Culture.”
The problem this poses is that such prevailing norms (and perfunctory treatment of minoritized identities) in our curricula can and do reiterate the trope of German-speaking Europe as normatively white and culturally monolithic, rendering non-white individuals as “eternal new-comers” (xx) and non-white speakers of European languages (such as German) as people who “again and again appear as a curious contradiction, never quite becoming unspectacular and commonplace” (xxv) as argued by Fatima El-Tayeb.
This takes place in a particularly pointed fashion at the introductory level. For those interested in putting hard numbers on these trends, you might see Darren Ilett’s 2009 article in Die Unterrichtspraxis, “Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Textbooks.” While Ilett finds trends toward diversity as a problem on one hand, and diversity as a given on the other, his analysis provides insights into quantitative (i.e., number of images) and qualitative (i.e., analysis of images, culture notes, etc.) presentation of Others. Ilett found that minoritized individuals are often highlighted in the context of culture clashes or problems “caused” by the arrival of migrants. Even in images, Ilett notes that individuals visually marked as Muslim and Other are spatially separated in the composition, for example, appearing as a homogeneous group of Muslim women in headscarves who are physically separate from the larger, “German” crowd behind them (55). I am unaware of similar studies analyzing the representation of women, LGBTQ identifying individuals, able-bodied individuals and others, but I would venture to say that the majority of our books primarily represent white people of a certain socio-economic class and physical ability. (Ironically, it is often the very point of our upper-level culture courses to problematize such cultural trends and representations. However, this self-critical perspective seems to only recently have significantly impacted the publishing market for US German language textbooks with projects such as Grenzenlos Deutsch and Klett’s Impuls Deutsch.) Generally, introductory textbooks tend to not address debates around such recent cultural debates as gendered pronouns in German. Families are often presented as the heteronormative family unit and we must supplement even with information such as “sich scheiden lassen,” “Halbgeschwister” or “gleichgeschlechtliche Ehe.” Treatment of minoritized racial and ethnic groups is often completely overlooked, with no attempt to present appropriate vocabulary or discuss racial dynamics. This sends a clear signal to students as they enter the German curriculum and likely is the beginning of an exit-ramp out of our programs for minoritized students.
More Accurate Representation Offers Key Opportunities
By including diverse groups in our cultural history, and in all of our teaching materials, we can achieve a number of key goals.
Engaging with such topics not only more accurately reflects the complexities and identities often simplified under the monolithic rubric of “German culture,” but also provides us with an opportunity to make our own relevance more clear to students, colleagues, and administrators. In the coming years, this will only become more important.
The Future of Our Classrooms
Historically, we have been an area of study for white students, often with a heritage connection. That heritage connection is frequently quite tenuous: a last name, yet neither a familiarity with the language or culture from home, as in my own case. But reliance upon a white student body (pun intended) for our classes will in the very near future mean excluding a plurality of student identities on our campuses. Nathan Grawe, an economist who focuses on higher education enrollment, predicts that a combination of fertility decline around the time of the 2008 financial crisis and migration patterns will make the US college-going population less white in just a few years’ time (Grawe 2019). The National Center for Education Statistics agrees, projecting significant increases in enrollments for students of color. Their 2018 report, “Projections of Education Statistics to 2026,” charts the following trends. Between 2015 and 2026, enrollments in US institutions of higher education can be expected to change as follows. Enrollments will:
Now, given the historically stark imbalance in enrollment between whites and other races, we could choose to minimize this. However, enrollment by Black and Hispanic students is predicted to exceed 40% of the entire US higher education enrollments in the next several years. Hard numbers like this are much more difficult to come by for the LGBTQ community. We already know that the majority of those enrolled in higher ed are women, not men, a trend now deeply entrenched in the US. In our current cultural climate, even our majority students are increasingly passionate about discussions of gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, and more.
There are, essentially, two ways in which to interpret these realities. The first may strike some as rather self-serving and cynical: Given these coming realities, if German studies fails to become relevant to the lived experiences of a broad spectrum of student identities, we can only expect falling enrollment numbers. We further imperil the state of German studies. We will see further closures of departments and programs. Such arguments, of course, center the importance of tenured and tenure-track faculty and decenter the importance of German Studies as a vibrant field of inquiry with which we would like students at post-secondary institutions to engage. In our current era, I feel more compelled than ever to argue for the tremendous importance of language and cultural study. I believe that should be our guiding force.
The second interpretation is less commonly articulated, but I think cuts more to the core of the issue. If German Studies fails to teach a broad range of identities in German-speaking Central Europe and beyond in our curricula, and if our classes fail to enroll a broad spectrum of student identities here in the US, then we must accept two obvious conclusions. First, German Studies would be teaching an artificially monolithic image of “German culture,” one which we actively choose not to problematize in spite of our Cultural Studies training, and one which frequently omits People of Color in German-speaking Central Europe in direct contradiction of fact. Second, we would accept the fact that we as a discipline are not interested in teaching 40% of the students in our nation — a 40% which consists of non-White students. We would have to face the reality that we as educators would have chosen to reach out to, educate and mentor only White students.
Ultimately, each of us must decide which culture(s) we teach and which students we reach out to, recruit, and work to retain. And we must make a sober assessment of those choices and our motivations for them. As humanists, we have been trained to uncover truths which have often been obscured by cultural prejudice, power relations, and the power of an inertia-driven status quo. These are some of our highest ideals and greatest motivations. I think it is time we apply precisely that training to our curricula, especially at the introductory level, more thoroughly.
de Brey, C., Musu, L., McFarland, J., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Diliberti, M., Zhang, A., Branstetter, C., and Wang, X. “Indicator 20: Undergraduate Enrollment.” Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018 (NCES 2019–038). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. February 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_REB.asp. Accessed March 1, 2020.
El-Tayeb, Fatima. European Others. Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Grawe, Nathan. “How Demographic Change is Transforming the Higher Ed Landscape.” HigherEdJobs.com, February 18, 2019. Accessed March 1, 2020.
Hussar, W.J., and Bailey, T.M. Projections of Education Statistics to 2026(NCES 2018–019). U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. April 2018. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018019.pdf. Accessed March 1, 2020.
Ilett, Darren. “Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Textbooks,” Unterrichtspraxis 42.1 (2009): 50–59.
Layne, Priscilla. “Keynote: Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Conference,” St. Olaf College. March 1, 2019. https://www.stolaf.edu/multimedia/play/?e=2655. Accessed March 30, 2020.
Peters, George F. Ed. Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German. Special Issue Focus on Diversity 25.3 (1992).
—. “Dilemmas of Diversity: Observations on Efforts to Increase Minority Participation in German.” ADFL Bulletin 25.2 (Winter 1994), 5–11.
[i]The German government does not track race in its statistics due to the history of violence and genocide against minorities. However, trends in migration are tracked by the Statistisches Bundesamt here: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Gesellschaft-Umwelt/Bevoelkerung/Migration-Integration/_inhalt.html.
by David Gramling (University of Arizona)
In March 2019, I joined up with a lovely group of people who teach German around the world—some old friends, others whom I’d met just hours prior—in writing an Open Letter to the AATG, with the subtitle “A Ten-Point Program of the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Collective.” The letter was conveyed to the Board of Directors of the American Association of Teachers of German on April 16, 2019, with an accompanying cover letter. Over the next several days, the Open Letter’s Ten-Point Program garnered approximately 250 signatures of support from teachers and researchers around the world, in German and in other fields, like French and Anthropology. We asked the AATG Board, our primary but not exclusive addressee, to take several months to read and reflect on the letter, rather than responding quickly or out of reflex. We knew the letter was complex, difficult, and likely to arouse emotions ranging from hope and relief to anger and umbrage—which it did. (See the bottom of this post for some unedited examples.)
But sheer provocation for its own sake was no one’s goal with the Letter, at least among the people I’d been working alongside in the drafting of it. Sincerity and clarity of purpose informed our mood and our ways of working while writing it, as did a sense of obligation to the 70 individual German teachers who had contributed the initial ideas from which the Letter was crafted. Simply put, we did not believe 2019 was a year for mincing words, for hedging one’s bets, for seeking favor for favor’s sake, or for holding back about the experiences we’d undergone and witnessed—as students, teachers, and organizational members over the decades. We thought it was time for some good old critical friendship, and we mustered this spirit as best as we could.
Learners become Teachers
Many of us had grown up in the 1990s amid the promissory glow of institutional diversity initiatives and were on intimate terms with the habits of language, interaction, and recruitment that came with them. Some of us, back then as students, had indeed sought out (or been recruited to) German as a safe harbor at school, exactly because we’d come to see the German language classroom—accurately or inaccurately, as this expectation may have turned out to be for us—as a comparatively open and welcoming place for difference and exploration, and one enduringly committed to justice and historical redress.
For many of us, the inspiring luster of those mid-1990s visions of German as a critical, constructive workshop for diversity and difference had been gradually rubbed off in the 2000s amid the general resurgence of, or re-acquiescence to, nationalism in Europe and North America. For others among us, that emancipating luster had never existed in the first place, and yet we’d pursued German, despite the racism, ableism, sexism, homo/transphobia, and classism we were to endure in the process of learning it successfully.
Whatever the case, most of us who contributed to the Letter profoundly loved something about Germanophone languages, cultures, politics, people, social relations, history, poetics, music, and art, and still do. There was a general sense among the writers, though, that something had gone amiss along the way in how our representative organizations claimed to be positively impacting our work, when many of the actual local outcomes we were witnessing around us suggested otherwise. As twenty-first-century teachers, we’d been vigorously schooled on the notion that we ought to be focusing in our own classrooms on learning “outcomes,” rather than merely on our heartfelt efforts. And in many of our experiences, the outcomes or “institutional impacts” of AATG had been somewhere between painful and meager, even when we’d been deeply involved in the Association. This had quietly puzzled many of us for a long time.
We knew vaguely from the early 1990s of urgent efforts at reform in AATG, with the establishment of the Committee on the Recruitment and Retention of Minorities, for instance, but we’d also heard about how this reform moment had turned out to be something of a “dream deferred” or an “unfunded mandate,” which successive AATG leaderships devolved ambivalently to “the membership.” We’d come to suspect that organizations like the AATG had, at some point, made a tacit—maybe even unspoken—decision to re-enroll the boosterism of ethnonationalist interests, funding, and structures of feeling, even when those interests held many of us implicitly or explicitly in their crosshairs, as People of Color, queer people, Muslims and Jewish people, and as former refugees or immigrants.
Knowing that associations are always made up of human beings and little else, we wanted to ask for the AATG’s honest position on these difficult questions, and we were willing to help out if they found they were in a bind of some kind between competing interests—say, a conflict between state-funded messaging about German heritage and multiculturalism, on the one hand, and the actual experiences of diverse learners of German, on the other. Those answers still haven’t quite come, and we’ve been meanwhile rerouted again and again by the Association’s leadership to its Mission Statement. As one AATG spokesperson suggested to us, to seriously engage with us on particular aspects of the substance of the Letter “could be seen as a form of favoritism.”
Expect a Long Haul
Had COVID-19 not, in recent months, quarantined the work of nearly all teachers and learners around the planet, a re-release of the Open Letter on its one-year anniversary in April 2020 would have seemed suitable. A single one-off Letter in 2019, without circling back to assess progress and lessons learned, simply wouldn’t do—and still won’t. When we sent the Letter, we half-expected the AATG Board would counter it reflexively with many of the hard-ball tactics of nonrecognition, redirection, and containment endemic to any long-established institution whose first priority tends to be reasserting its authoritativeness in the face of critique. We foresaw, too, that the organization would likely want to redirect our attentive appreciation to its variety of ad hoc diversity-targeting sub-initiatives, and also to its precarious status as the sole champion of K-16 German language teaching in North America—in short, into exhibits of its previous demonstrations of effort. But what had long concerned us was not the organization’s recorded efforts, but its persistent exclusionary impacts, large and small, as we’d experienced them, in an era that desperately called for community, solidarity, justice, and skepticism toward state (i.e., government) agendas.
Those of us who contributed to the writing of the Open Letter—and there were concentric circles of eight, twenty, seventy, and 250 writers involved at various stages of its circulation—know that we’re in this for a long haul, and that many of the suggestions we’ve made will take our entire careers to realize. We tried not to cynically predict, in April 2019, what kind of reactions the Letter would arouse, because we understood how that kind of strategic brinkmanship was exactly the type of interactional habit we wanted to help break in our field. As best we could, we wrote collectively, vividly, and honestly.
Because of the nature of the setting in which the writing took place, there were some noteworthy omissions in the Letter. I personally wish, for instance, that a) we’d been able to address the Letter to the German Studies Association and the Austrian Studies Association, and to do so in a differentiated manner, b) that we had been more prepared in that particular moment in 2019 to foreground the work of pre-K to 12th grade teachers in public and private schools, regardless of whether this work benefitted tertiary education purposes later on, c) that we’d shown more awareness to differences in experience among the urban and rural US, Canada, and Mexico, and in other international settings where German is being taught, and d) that we’d more adequately addressed the crushing adjunctification and casualization of our profession worldwide, indicating some consequent principles for professional leadership amid such a deluge of labor injustices. These points quickly became part of my own personal learning curve, as I considered further action related to the Letter and the German Studies field more generally.
Over Fall 2019, the AATG Board responded to the Open Letter with a consistently cautious bonhomie, as well as with one invite to attend its annual Convention for a discussion, which we did. But it became clear over the winter subsequent that the Letter’s deep concerns about AATG’s governance structure, organizational behavior, underwriting of ethnonationalism, and ambivalence toward racist and exclusionary effects on members didn’t fit into the leadership’s self-conception and agenda at this time.
One consistent response refrain was that AATG is “after all, a member-driven organization.” Indisputable on the face of it, this nonperformative label suggested to us two undercurrents at once: first, that the Board sought to be seen mostly as an impartial umpire amid the variously motivated interests of its members, rarely deciding it needs to take a stand on a tough question that might adversely impact budget—for instance, turning away funding that abets ethnonationalist propaganda at the expense of young People of Color, or saying ‘nein, danke’ to member activities that seek to instill a nostalgic, exclusive version of Germanness, while using organizational resources to do so.
Secondly, “member-driven, after all” seemed to telegraph the notion, likely true in a handful of contexts, that some AATG members are simply not that interested in dealing with how racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and ability difference matters to those of us impacted by it, and certainly not interested whatsoever in “decolonizing” anything—least of all, German. It is even quite plausible that some individual members of AATG, still or increasingly so, see the German classroom as a place where ethnonational feelings about Germanness or Swissness or Austrianness should be able to be cultivated and savored, without “too” much circumspection as to which learners’ experiences get idealized or excluded in the process. As far as I understand, though, the Open Letter wasn’t so much designed to change the minds of such members as it was to suggest that leadership’s decision-making ought not be “driven” by them, even in part.
In recent years, many of us have also been hearing about internal disputes in the field of Classics, for instance, where talk about race and ethnicity is seen in some quarters as unduly raining on the parade of an already beleaguered and underappreciated field. Scholars like Rebecca Futo Kennedy have documented how this kind of backlash discourse against “diversity” has spilled across the scholarly sphere devoted to the study of Classical Antiquity and, relatedly, how young white nationalists have found their way into Classics classrooms in part because those classrooms feel to them like a “safe space” for their views.
Especially in an era of enrollment declines, it is uniquely crucial for the German teaching profession to recommit to the fact that it bears a special burden—with no statute of limitation—to fend off, and indeed eradicate, emerging white nationalists’ attempts to functionalize the language-and-culture classroom for their emotional or political thirsts. “Heritage” must be conceived throughout our professional discussions as a differentiated and diverse experience, applying far more intimately, say, to African American adoptees from Germany after World War II that to someone like me, whose ancestors left Lower Franconia for Central Wisconsin in the 1840s. Even if these concerns don’t strike all AATG members as ‘their job,’ our representative organizations cannot be allowed to equivocate or pander on these points, with a view to keeping ethnonationalists and their membership dues in the tent. Our organizations’ budgets should be completely exhausted before they take one cent of a white nationalist sympathizer’s development money, under the vague auspices of “heritage.”
Over the past year since the Open Letter was shared, I’ve noticed in some of the responses to it a worrying tone of rebuke or ennui about the call for serious, uncynical, outcomes-focused work around diversity within our profession. A professor of Second Language Acquisition and Teaching (SLAT) myself, I’ve started to identify this kind of dynamic with the shorthand “SLAT-washing”—i.e., the use of the presumed liberality of the foreign language teaching and learning setting to disguise forms of culturalism and ethnonationalism that are generally considered to be beyond the pale in, say, history or social studies curricula. It is tempting indeed—in the Trump era, and now with COVID—to yearn to show North American learners a more functional, “better nationalism,” as it appears to be being administered by the German federal government. But many of us who contributed to this letter have met the brute force of that same nationalism on German streets we no longer dare to walk alone.
We’ll see you next year!
COVID-19 will continue being a disaster for many of us teachers, and for most of our students and programs. It is plainly revealing areas of our profession’s infrastructure that have been hollowed out before our eyes, year after year, and papered over with coerced optimism. We can’t even begin to mourn what we will further lose in the next 18 months of contraction and carpet-bagging in our schools and communities, though the furloughs and firings have already started their roll-out. But this strange time does give us another opportunity to confront, rather than merely defend or deflect, what it is that takes place in our names at our “member-driven” organizations, and what we permit to count as business-as-usual there. When we’re feeling idled, or defeated, as many of us feel now, that’s exactly the right moment to talk together at length about the kind of core principles we really want guiding our profession’s work in the coming 25 years, inconvenient as those princples may seem at the moment. The habit of compromising, in the hope of being made whole later on, seems to have yielded us and our students ever less. Soon enough we may need to begin from the ground up with something new.
As befitting this grievous and disorienting pandemic moment, it makes sense to postpone the reissue of the Open Letter by one year, to April 16, 2021, while we continue to ponder these questions, care for each other, and love our multilingual world as best we can. There’s so much to think about and dialogue about till then with one another. In lieu of a reissue of the Letter, we wish to share some of the responses colleagues around the world shared with us about why it was they chose to sign, or not sign, the Open Letter in April 2019. We thank those colleagues for sharing their honest, critical friendship with us. Here are some of the (unedited, unabridged) comments, so far:
by Regine Criser (University of North Carolina, Asheville) &
Ervin Malakaj (University of British Columbia)
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched, disrupted, and changed nearly every aspect of our lives. It has emphasized and increased the divisions and inequities inscribed into whatever has come into view as normality. Those of us who have for long been suspicious and victims of normality are eager, more now than before, to push for meaningful change and refuse to continue or even to return to business-as-usual. The pandemic has cast into sharp focus how serving the status-quo is not the only modus in which we can operate. In fact, we have seen that rapid change to accommodate pressing needs is possible—that bureaucracy and red tape can be circumvented when those in power deem it necessary and important enough. Or, more importantly, when individuals bond together and demand change.
When the DDGC emerged in 2016, it sought to challenge inequitable structures. It was driven by the collective’s refusal (and inability) to accept things as they are. The system in place was broken, for it obstructed access and caused so much harm to many. It remains broken today. With the system we mean the academy, our institutions, departments, programs, scholarly associations, and subdisciplines. We also mean all the pressures through which the system makes itself legible on different bodies in different ways depending on privilege. We will be glad to see the violent system expire as new, just structures emerge.
The values of the DDGC are as important now than ever. Where do we turn when we realize that for Germanists, as for everyone else, suffering is unevenly distributed at a time of crisis? What does this realization mean for our work? What does it mean for our institutions? How do we move forward? As a collective, we have aimed to center care in the way we operate in the present and plan for the future. And care remains central in how we relate to the pandemic as well as the attendant issues it reveals about and poses for our discipline.
Care for Ourselves
We know that remote teaching, virtual classrooms, asynchronous and synchronous engagement with students and colleagues are exhausting on their own. This exhaustion is compounded by this pandemic and for many of us by increased caregiving responsibilities and the decrease of external support. More than ever before, work, home, and family have collapsed into one space and all seem to require our attention simultaneously.
Writing about the stultifying, arresting, and traumatizing effects the pandemic has had on the world, Arundhati Roy notes that “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” (2020, n.p.). We recognize that the impulse to cling to the past and hope for its return might offer some solace in desperate times: when so much of our time and energy is claimed by unideal working conditions; when those around us are losing their jobs and are facing tight budgets for the foreseeable future; when our friends and family are falling sick—or worse. However, in tandem with Roy, we recognize that such hopes of a return to normalcy are insufficient because “the rupture exists” (n.p.). It is a reality from which there is no return.
Notwithstanding the pain it has brought about, this rupture creates openings. New paths emerge that can lead us forward. As Roy notes, this rupture "offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. [...] 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 next. 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" (n.p.).
This is a tall order. And lots of organizing in various corners of the world is underway to usher in change akin to the one Roy imagines for these desperate times. But in light of the crushing burden of anxiety, restlessness, and fatigue characterizing so much of our daily struggle, how can we be or become ready for such change? What do we need to support this change?
For us, as it did for so many before us, this positioning for change begins with self-care. Much has been shared about the importance of self-care during this time of extraordinary uncertainty. One only needs to browse social media outlets for inspirational quotes gently asking us to “keep calm” and “soothe our soul.” Our inspiration comes not from a contextless quote captured in a stylized instagram-ready square. Rather, we draw on the work of and are severely indebted to a long tradition of queer women of color critique.
In “A Burst of Light, Living with Cancer,” Audre Lorde famously asserted, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (2017, 130). Reading this sentence, Sara Ahmed has noted its prowess. “It is a much-loved, much cited sentence. It is an arrow, which acquires its sharpness from its own diction” (Ahmed 2017, 237). The sentence, and the knowledge it indexes, has reverberated through POC, feminist, and queer communities. Lorde wrote the sentence in a diary after she found out she has cancer (for a second time) and that death is approaching. She wrote from the perspective of a queer woman of color living in a world hostile to queers of color. The realization that for her death was on the horizon fuses in her writing with the devastation of the realization that not all bodies are meant to survive. As Ahmed notes, the sentence contains within it the critical impulse behind the realization that "when you are not supposed to live, as you are, where you are, with whom you are with, then survival is a radical action; a refusal not to exist until the very end; a refusal not to exist until you do not exist. We have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires the death or removal of others. Sometimes: to survive in a system is to survive a system" (237).
What do we need to survive? To live on? A search for answers to these questions sometimes, as Ahmed notes, leads people to be suspicious of the ultimate goal of the project of self-care, for “self-care gets dismissed too quickly as neo-liberalism and individualism” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.). But self-care has other potential. As Ahmed notes, “in the hands of Lorde, caring for one’s self is about how we inhabit our fragile bodies that have capacities that can be exhausted; it is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.). This is a self-care that is not just about the self. “Caring for oneself is also about caring for others, that important work, often painful, that practical and domestic work, of maintaining the conditions for each other’s existence” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.).
In this spirit, we ask again: what do you need to survive? The answer to this question will be different for each one of us, for, as stated above, suffering is not equally distributed. But the key here is that you might not need to answer this question alone. For if self-care should also be about the caring of others, then through mutual self-care we can find a way forward. This is the cornerstone of (our) community and even more important now that we have lost the luxury of proximity.
We were so very heartened to see such gestures of care register in our immediate circles. People reaching out to check on their friends, their comrades, their family. And reaching out to check on others is reaching inward to check on ourselves. But being the recipient of such a message of care is, to a certain extent, also a marker of privilege. There are so many who are left out. There are so many who are or feel alone. Have you reached out to them today? Do you know who they are? What help can you offer and how can we collectively help one another survive? And how can we make asking for help easier, even normal for everyone, no matter if they are already part of our circle or not?
Care for our Institutions
We recognize that the ability to look beyond the immediate existential needs of this moment is a privilege that not all of us who are part of this community share. However, we believe that the pandemic urges us to take stock of what is working, what is possible, what is desirable, and to what kind of work environment and world we want to return to once we can.
Self-care is vital for compassion and criticality, two concepts particularly relevant for the work we do in DDGC. Higher education – take, for instance, how it structures the experiences of graduate school, the job market, and peer review – is not structured around kindness and compassion. In fact, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick has noted, it nurtures a “competitive individualism,” which “contradicts – and in fact undermines – all of the most important communal aspects of life within our institutions of higher education” (2019, 27). Many of us have resisted this competitive culture and the core of our collective is intentionally in opposition to the power hierarchies and competitive mindset of the academy. The current rupture of our day-to-day lives has shown how imperative it is to center kindness and compassion in our engagement with students, colleagues, and ourselves. Moving forward, we believe that centering such a practice of compassion that grows out of critical self-care into a habit of mind and action could alter our institutions long-term and for the better.
While we would argue that none of us will move forward from this pandemic unchanged, we also know that its impact is harshest for those among us who were already more vulnerable because of their minoritized status in the academy: faculty of color, faculty with disabilities, contingent faculty members, and faculty who are caregivers are among those who will be most affected. Aside from the mental and physical toll this rupture will take, their professional labor as measured in service, teaching, and scholarly productivity—the latter being a prized marker of value and success in the academy—will be negatively impacted long-term.
To this end, many institutions have already extended the tenure clock and promotion timelines; however, it is likely that the disruptions in scholarly productivity will last longer than measurable by a semester or a year. This casts the concessions imagined by current administrators and advocates as insufficient and reminds especially those of us with tenure and long-term employment of our task to ensure that mechanisms are in place to support and protect faculty for many years to come.
Moreover, while plans for tenure-track and tenured faculty were presented rather quickly and in relative unison across institutions, contingent labor issues remain largely unresolved to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our communities. The proposals that have so far been publicized, have mainly excluded adjuncts, VAPs, lecturers, and even graduate students from institutional recovery plans. What is worse, we have seen examples of contracts not being renewed, previous offers rescinded, or durations of appointments being shortened, which left people without income and reduced access to health insurance. Those contingent faculty who are able to continue at their institutions are faced with increases of labor through the shift to emergency remote instruction for the spring and to online courses for the summer term. Many contingent faculty depend on the extra income that summer teaching can offer and are now faced with the labor intensive development of online classes at a time when they are already overburdened.
Contingent faculty are at the core of many of our programs.Their financial insecurity and increased workload requires our immediate attention and deserves our uncompromised support. Even more than before, these labor concerns need to be at the center of the work that our scholarly associations are undertaking over the next months and years. Free webinars and resource sites are important and have supported faculty in finding their footing in what is for many the new arena of remote instruction. We are grateful for the collaborative energies that have emerged in various social media outlets, which have supported the emergency transition to online. At this point, however, the precaritization of German studies as articulated in the dependence on contingency of so much of the professional staff of our field requires the critical attention of all national and international collectives and scholarly associations. Contingency has been a major issue in German studies before the pandemic; because of the pandemic, however, contingency will become more prevalent over the next few years. Moving forward, we believe that our scholarly associations will have a duty to center questions of labor and become major sites for collective organizing that demands and institutes fair working conditions for all.
The anxieties of the present at times feel like insurmountable issues, especially if we lack the resources that permit us to catch our breath and look at the world beyond ourselves. However, we still need to organize and envision the German studies of the future, a field which adequately and accurately reflects and nurtures our intellectual missions and personal lived experiences. While we attend to the needs of ourselves, our students, our colleagues, our institutions right in front of us in this moment, we can also continue to come together to envision the German studies that could emerge from this rupture.
What Care Means for Members of DDGC
Mark Beirn (Washington University in St. Louis): “It has been like looking at the world through bifocals seeing my faculty stressed at varying levels adjusting to working online from their own homes with kids+parents+pets around, while my grad school colleagues adjust a greater amount of unstructured time in a place that isn't really home, far away from loved ones. For the grad students, we've established a drop-in Zoom Cafe from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to share stories, ask questions, and make art work. For those students who are still awestruck by their faculty, they are now seeing them as real humans, which is a welcome change.”
Benita Blessing (Oregon State University): “I am so grateful for the opportunity to keep teaching, whatever form it takes and whatever happens to the syllabus. It is not just my students who need the routine and interaction.”
Sonja Fritzsche (Michigan State University): “I have turned all of my meetings into check-in meetings. The leadership faculty development has turned into what leadership in a time of crisis looks like. The task force on non-tenure track pathways at the college today is now focused on a discussion of how these faculty are faring at the institution. The college inclusive practices committee meeting tomorrow will be about a DEI focused discussion on impacts.”
Maureen Gallagher (University of Notre Dame): “I was really struck by how much of the messaging from my college focused on two contradictory messages: that everything was business as usual and we all need to “make the best” to continue to do our teaching and research, even in spite of library and laboratory closures; and that nothing was business as usual and we needed to go out of our way to find new ways to build community and connect with our students, particularly seniors who are struggling with the abrupt end to their senior year. We are called upon to act like everything is normal and continue with our research and teaching, incorporate new technologies and pedagogies at the drop of a hat, connect with students in new ways and come up with new programming ideas. All with no promise of a tenure-clock extension for the untenured faculty members or an extension of funding for graduate students. All with no acknowledgement of the inherent inequity between tenured and tenure-track faculty and adjuncts and other NTT faculty. There was certainly almost no consideration given to how we were feeling and that we might need space and extra support to come to terms with everything—increased caregiving responsibilities for some, increased isolation for others, increased anxiety for everyone. There has been no discussion that some of us are likely to get sick or need to be caring for those who are sick. I described it on a post below as a “collective delusion” we seem to be operating under that things will continue on as if everything as normal, as if we can and should all stay productive and juggle these additional responsibilities with fewer resources and no additional compensation long term.”
Adrienne Merritt (Washington and Lee University): “Care means taking the time to reinvest, particularly when you put effort and energy into activism and advocacy, whether on a personal or professional level. Care reminds me of caritas, a love for all humankind, but it’s a reminder that we are each of us part of that group, meaning that depleting ourselves for the sake of others or something we find significant will falter. Care, therefore, means multidirectional support for the good/ advancement of the community.”
Evan Torner (University of Cincinnati): “Academia is lots of invisible carework, in addition to what we do for our elders, partners, and children. Grad students and undergrads have different needs, as do staff, administrators, and colleagues, and EVERYONE is on edge in a crisis, with different needs all manifesting themselves at once.”
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Fitzgerald, Adam. “Sara Ahmed: ‘Once We Find Each Other, So Much Else Becomes Possible.’” Literary Hub. April 10, 2017. https://lithub.com/sara-ahmed-once-we-find-each-other-so-much-else-becomes-possible/. Accessed April 10, 2020.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light and Other Essays. Mineola: ixia Press, 2017.
Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” Financial Times, April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca. Accessed April 10, 2020.
Julia Ruck (Webster Vienna Private University)
After my graduate studies in the U.S., I returned to Vienna to teach German and Linguistics at an American university. The students at my university have lived all over the world; only a minority is American or Austrian. Quite a few have learned German in different educational settings in the past, some intend on staying in Austria, others will disperse all over the world again. As truly diverse as the student population at my university is in terms of their social identities, almost all of them have one disheartening thing in common: their experiences of discrimination by being marked as illegitimate users of German in their daily lives in Vienna. These experiences are shaped by pressures to ‘finally learn proper German’ expressed by public authorities and parts of the general public.
Many students at my university find themselves in a system that too often makes them feel marginalized, powerless, and stifled in their interactions in Vienna. It is one of my central aims to try to give students a sense of belonging, agency, and a voice in the sometimes difficult social and political context in which they are using German. In this regard, Claire E. Scott’s (2019) post on this blog, which discussed the connections between affect and power structures, resonated with me. It reminded me of insights from The Multilingual Subject, in which Claire Kramsch (2008) showcases the pivotal role of emotions and subjectivities in individuals’ multilingual practices. Tim McNamara (2019) writes about his language learning process in similar terms: “the learning of each language has had an important meaning for me as a person, and has been both an expression of, and a force for change of my sense of self” (p. 100). McNamara as well as many other applied linguists working within discursive approaches to language learning have pointed out the crucial role of discourses shaping both the language and the subjects who learn and use it.
In this sense, public discourses on language in Austria may impact how learners in the country relate to German. In a talk on discursive constructions of national identity, Ruth Wodak (2018) highlights how language can act as a gatekeeper. Language – or rather the results of standardized proficiency tests – becomes an indicator of who deserves to be in the country and who does not. Horner and Weber (2017) critique such testing regimes, which tie residence status to the passing of standardized language tests, as a neo-colonial practice. The so-called integration agreement, which legally binds non-EU citizens residing in Austria to learn German, was initially introduced by a right-wing government in 2003, legally refined several times since, and complemented by an ‘Orientierungs- und Wertetest’ (in a multiple-choice format!)in 2017 (Österreichischer Integrationsfonds, n.d.). While experts in professional organizations (e.g., ÖDaF (2017), Netzwerk Sprachenrechte (n.d.)) have been critiquing these practices, the public outcries tend to quickly abate after each reform. These policies have considerably shaped the public discourse on integration in Austria and perceptions on what it takes to ‘deserve’ to reside in the country.
This polemic sociopolitical climate that gives rise to troubling language policies in Austria leave me concerned. If language learning has such a deep emotional impact on one’s identity, how can we, as teachers, mitigate the sometimes deeply hurtful acts of discrimination that students experience when using German? In my courses, I try to provide a platform where students can share their affective reactions to their experiences of discrimination in order to, as Scott (2019) writes, dismantle the institutional injustices and the pain that one experiences in being subjugated to them. One of the challenges that I face in this process is, as Scott also points out, the seeming impossibility to change these structures. Therefore, my goal is to have students build knowledge around and critically analyze linguistic policies and attitudes that affect them, engage with alternative narratives, and offer them a protected environment in which they can share their own experiences.
One example to do so is through a critical analysis of teaching materials endorsed by the Austrian government that aim to “prepare learners to get acquainted not only with the German language but also with the rules and opportunities upon which our common life in Austria is based” (Dengler et al., 2018, p. v, my translation). One of the emotionally most negative experiences for students is their regular visit to the immigration and visa authorities in Vienna. In an intermediate/advanced-level German course, I designed a module that focuses on language policies and public migration authorities. In a first step, I work with students on some of the most basic forms (e.g., visa extension forms) that are only available in German and discuss bureaucracy in Austria and elsewhere. As a second step, I work with a chapter in the above-mentioned textbook that aims at preparing migrants for their appointments at the migration offices. The materials offer sample dialogues, vocabulary exercises, as well as an audio recording with advice from a so-called integration advisor on how to prepare for and interact with public authorities. Students work through the material in the classroom and then analyze them with guiding questions based on critical discourse analysis. We discuss students’ first reactions to the materials and their contents, and analyze connotations of specific words that are used. We discuss questions such as the authors’ potential intentions in designing the materials, the intended target audience, and the authors’ underlying beliefs about the audience. As a third step, students write an official letter to the editors in which they, as the target audience, provide their critical opinion on the teaching materials. While many students found the linguistic resources in the materials helpful, many tended to critique the political agenda, paternalistic ideologies, a focus on migrants’ deficits, and the lack of representativeness as compared with their own experiences.
Another approach that I have chosen is to integrate literary and cinematic texts that address personal histories of people with diverse backgrounds. I aim to give students models of multilingual and multicultural users of German who may share some of their experiences and offer alternative subject positions to dominant hegemonic narratives. For example, since many of my students are Russian speakers, I work with an excerpt from Vladimir Vertlib’s (1999) Ich und die Eingeborenen in which the narrator recounts his different subject positions growing up as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants to post-war Vienna. The central theme of the narrator’s history is how his languages have shaped him and his relationships, his affective associations with his languages, the shared collective histories with his different communities, and the empowerment of being able to stand up against discrimination in a society in which he eventually found his place. After reading and analyzing the text, students discuss the narrator’s history and how it relates to their own histories. In a writing project, they compose a fist-person narrative of their own history and experiences as multilingual and multicultural people, choosing from a variety of phrases taken from Vertlib’s text.
To conclude, with these two examples I try to provide students with background knowledge on policies and attitudes they encounter, equip them with tools to critically analyze them, provide them with a venue in which they can learn to express their affective experiences, and have them engage with different multilingual and multicultural users of German.
Some readers may wonder how this is relevant for the German curriculum in the U.S. First, I believe that metalinguistic discussions need to transcend structuralist linguistic analyses and include issues of the intersections of language, identity, and society. One such aspect are linguistic policies and attitudes, which in my eyes form an underrepresented yet important topic in discussions of social and political issues in German-speaking regions in collegiate university curricula. Linguistic policies have a direct impact on people seeking residence in German-speaking countries and shape the public discourse on who is taken to be a legitimate resident. Second, as so many other authors on this blog, I can only reiterate the importance of representing diverse voices of users of German which provide students with ways of identification that many essentializing and homogenizing textbook representations of white, native-speaker, middle-class Germans cannot offer.
Dengler, Stefanie, et al. Linie 1 Österreich A2.2: Deutsch in Alltag und Beruf plus Werte- und Orientierungsmodulen. Stuttgart: Klett, 2018.
Horner, Kristine, and Weber, Jean-Jacques. Introducing Multilingualism. A Social Approach. London: Routledge, 2018.
Kramsch, Claire. The Multilingual Subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
McNamara, Tim. Language and Subjectivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
ÖDaF. Stellungnahme zum Integrationsgesetz. 7 March, 2017.https://www.oedaf.at/site/interessenvertretungsprac/stellungnahmenpresse/article/524.html
Österreichischer Integrationsfonds. (n.d.). Mein Sprachportal. Materialien zur Prüfungsvorbereitung
Scott, Claire E. Why do German Gender Studies matter now? DDGC Blog.https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog/why-do-german-gender-studies-matter-now
Wodak, Ruth. Discourse and National Identities: Austria 1995 – 2005 – 2015[Video]. 4 December, 2018. YouTube. https://youtu.be/ipzkglA2PFE
Netzwerk Sprachenrechte. (n.d.). Stellungnahmen zur Integrationsvereinbarung. http://v004107.vhost-vweb-02.sil.at/tag/iv
Vertlib, Vladimir. "Ich und die Eingeborenen.“ Die Fremde in mir. Lyrik und Prosa der österreichischen Minderheiten und Zuwanderer, ed. Helmut Niederle. Klagenfurt: Hermagoras, 1999. p. 317–320.
The War Tribunal of Literature: Publikumsbeschimpfung (Insulting the Audience) with the Nobel Prize 2019 to Peter Handke
B. Venkat Mani (University of Wisconsin, Madison)
The Nobel Prize in Literature was the fourth of the prize categories established by Alfred Nobel in his will (1895). Nobel intended the award for someone who “had produced the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The task of evaluating contemporary non-European literatures became a source of anxiety for the Nobel Committee set up in Stockholm. The committee found itself woefully inadequate to judge literatures from around the world; two members of the Swedish Academy reportedly “spoke strongly against accepting Nobel’s legacy, for fear that the obligation would detract from the Academy’s proper concerns and turn it into ‘a cosmopolitan tribunal of literature.’"
I reconstructed this story in my book Recoding World Literature. I knew that the cosmopolitan tribunal would also at times turn into a war tribunal in the name of neutrality, giving the prize, for example to Winston Churchill in 1953, for his "mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” This was only done when the committee "felt that a sufficient distance from the candidate’s wartime exploits had been gained, making it possible for a Prize to him to be generally understood as a literary award.”
The Committee today decided to give the Nobel Prize 2019 to the Austrian author Peter Handke, for his "influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” So it seems like members of the Swedish Academy, who probably read Handke in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, collectively thought the following: we gave it to Bob Dylan, who then snubbed the academy, so now let’s indulge in our own Publikumsbeschimpfung and give it to a man who writes with “linguistic ingenuity” about the “human experience” in his trivialization of the genocide, ethnic cleansing, and rape during the Balkan Crisis of the 1990s. In 1999, Salman Rushdie named him the runner-up for "International moron of the year" in the Guardian, for his series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milošević. Handke appeared at Milosevic’s funeral, apparently because he saw what others could not see.
Today, in giving Olga Tokarczuk the Nobel Prize 2018—a formidable feminist author who writes with uncommon facility against the rise of exclusionary ethnonationalism and through the deployment of a wonderful border-poetics, as Dr. Karolina May-Chu has compellingly theorized—the Swedish Academy could have reasserted their credibility after the 2016 fiasco. But no. They chose Peter Handke, who in 2014 wanted the Nobel Prize abolished. It seems like akin to Churchill, now enough distance had been acquired. The public is stupid and forgetful, so we will just sneak this in.
No, we have not forgotten. By choosing Peter Handke, the members of the academy have indulged in an unflinching endorsement of a genocide denier. If they were trying to insult the literary readership, they have insulted themselves. Anyone who is celebrating this award is insulting the very dignity of human beings.
Today is a great day for Olga Tokarczuk, a great day for Polish Literature and World Literature. It’s certainly not a great day for literature in the German language. And an insulting day for the Swedish Academy.
by Didem Uca (Colgate University)
Policy on immigration and asylum is one of the most divisive political issues in the U.S., Germany, and the E.U. Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel, has been both praised and challenged for its humanitarian approach during the height of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015–2016. In contrast, the past two years of the Trump administration’s immigration policy have created an absolute human rights catastrophe characterized by racist, xenophobic, and white supremacist rhetoric and actions. The apparently stark difference between the two countries’ contemporary approaches to migration and asylum can and should be analyzed within the context of historical continuities. In a recent post for this blog, my colleague Gizem Arslan compellingly writes that “[t]he reason is not that German Studies is uniquely suited to engage with migration debates in any narrow sense. Rather, it is that German-speaking thinkers and politicians, European colonial legacies and German-language authors have both formed and challenged the institutions and disciplines that frame migration today.” While I agree with the second part of this conclusion, I would like to argue that German Studies scholars are not only particularly well positioned to engage with migration and its discontents; given the history of German-speaking cultures and the dire situation for migrants and asylum-seekers in the U.S. and worldwide, condemning xenophobic, anti-minority, and racist discourses is also our most solemn duty.
As U.S.-based German Migration Studies scholars, our research on and teaching of German cultural heritage must be informed by insights from Critical Race Theory, Decolonial and Indigenous Studies, and Genocide and Holocaust Studies so that we may work towards drawing sometimes uncomfortable connections between the U.S. and German-speaking contexts. When we hear about the widespread family separation policy implemented by the Trump administration, the racial profiling and detaining of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, the visceral “send her back” rhetoric targeting minoritized individuals, the removal of Latinx Americans’ passports, and the death toll of overcrowding, disease, and neglect at the hands of ICE, we are forced to draw comparisons to the Nazi era; and when such analogies are rejected by other stakeholders, such as the denouncements by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this year, it is our job to reiterate these parallels, as many of our colleagues did in an important open letter. When we say the names of the victims of police brutality and discuss how to address the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of color in the U.S., we must acknowledge how this state of the “new Jim Crow,” to employ civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s term, continues the white supremacy of the “old” Jim Crow, the same policies that, according to comparative legal historian James Q. Whitman, inspired Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. When we listen to countless speeches on the necessity of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, we are reminded of the wall that formerly divided East and West Germany. This must also work in the other direction: How can we teach about Vergangenheitsbewältigungand not demand reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, and more robust support for Native Americans and Japanese internment survivors? Furthermore, how can we accept that families of victims of the Holocaust have had the opportunity to receive reparations whereas the families of victims of the German genocide in Namibia have not?
The Atlantic Ocean, the vast abyss that separates the U.S. from German-speaking Europe, is also what connects the two. To borrow German Migration Studies scholar Leslie Adelson’s term, the “touching tales” of the U.S. and Germany have been carried across these waters in so many ships, from the arrival of the first European settler-colonialists that displaced and led to the genocide of Native American populations to the enslavement of Africans from which German entrepreneurs benefited; from the tragedy of the St. Louis to the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers drowning in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape conditions of war and genocide that have often arisen from or been exacerbated by U.S. and German foreign policy and the profitable international sale of weapons. These shared stories, sent back and forth like messages in glass bottles, demand to be unfurled, read, and retold.
Being U.S.-based German Studies scholars affords us an enormous opportunity and responsibility to draw connections to German-speaking and American legacies that go beyond washing down soft-baked pretzels from an Ohio Aldi with a pint of locally brewed Berliner Weiße. Migration Studies offer a lens through which the historical specificities of a time and place come into sharp relief, but they also serve as an analytical framework that demands diachronic, transnational, intercultural, and multilingual comparison through scrutinizing points of continuity and rupture. Focusing on these commonalities allows us to understand how many of the residents of an Indiana town that cherishes its strong German roots can simultaneously oppose immigration from Central and South America. Relatedly, we can identify the distinct combination of cognitive dissonance and overt racism that has allowed Donald Trump – himself a second and third generation immigrant whose grandfather, Frederick Trump (né Drumpf), came from Germany and struck gold in the American northwest as a brothel and bar owner – to build his base using rhetoric labeling immigrants from the global south as morally reprehensible. The fact that two of Frederick’s early establishments, The Poodle Dog and The White Horse Restaurant and Inn, bring to mind motifs from Goethe and Storm, might be fodder for future German Studies dissertations.
Recent attacks on German Studies, foreign language education, and the humanities have raised the following questions: How do we rethink the humanities curriculum in an anti-humanist academic landscape and an anti-intellectual political landscape? How do we articulate what our fields can do, what students in our fields learn, and why that matters? Responses to these urgent questions have taken the form of the American Association of Teachers of German Alle lernen Deutsch committee, the recent “Re-Imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the Humanities, and the University” conference at Cornell University, and the work of the DDGC. Since we are concerned about bolstering enrollment in our German Studies classrooms, we need to highlight how the lens of German-speaking cultures can expand our understanding of the U.S. and vice versa, not by merely glorifying early German-speaking settlers, but rather, by being honest about how these cultures borrowed from each other to create a grim dual-legacy of genocide and colonialism built on the same xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, and Islamophobic rhetoric that fuels today’s Trump supporters and the AfD. We, as German Studies scholars, whether or not we focus on migration or minorities in our research, must use our voices to loudly speak out against human rights violations and oppression. Furthermore, we must work towards restorative justice by committing to amplifying the voices of marginalized, minoritized, and underrepresented individuals on our syllabi, in our classrooms, in the field, and in our positions of institutional power. By taking an approach to our teaching, research, and advocacy that reflects on these shared histories, presents, and futures, we can show unequivocally why German Migration Studies, and, indeed, German Studies in the broadest sense, matter today.
Adelson, Leslie A. “Touching Tales of Turks, Germans, and Jews: Cultural Alterity, Historical Narrative, and Literary Riddles for the 1990s.” New German Critique, no. 80, 2000, pp. 93–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/488635.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised edition, New Press, 2012.
Arslan, Gizem. “Reframing German Migration Studies: Challenging Institutions and Disciplines.” Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Blog, 2019.
Whitman, James Q. Hitler's American Model The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press, 2017.