Olivia Albiero (San Francisco State University)
Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam (University of British Columbia)
Over the last decade comics studies has succeeded in establishing itself in German studies (or maybe it is the other way around?), having generally become an accepted field of study in our discipline. This has resulted in a growing number of individual and collaborative interventions in both fields, ranging from scholarly publications to conference activities. For instance, the GSA Comics Studies Network, which launched in 2018, is garnering increasing visibility due to its steady presence at the annual GSA convention, where it offers a space for fruitful intellectual exchange between German comics scholars and anyone interested in researching, teaching and writing about comics. However, even though many German programs are eager to incorporate German comics into their curricula, tracking the important intersections between German studies and comics studies in our research and teaching is not as simple as it seems, with “Why comics in German studies?” still a question posed to German comics scholars and educators across the United States and Canada. Yet, by exploring the history of the form, its position in debates on the representation of the Holocaust, its interventions in narrating East German history, and its foregrounding of experiences of migration and displacement, the intersections between German studies and comic studies becomes abundantly clear. Moreover, comics and graphic novels serve as authentic and accessible material in the (German language) classroom. Finally, in light of the modality’s combined use of text and image, graphic literature opens up new possibilities for the representation of lived and historic experience, while fostering visual literacy by pointing the viewer’s attention to how representation itself works through the form’s acknowledgement of its own construction.
The following thus outlines these points of intersection, demonstrating the essential position of comics studies in German studies to introduce scholars in our discipline to some of the intellection and pedagogical intersections for adopting graphic literature into their teaching and research.
In 1992, an essential shift occurred in transatlantic comic culture, when Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for his work in Maus (1980–1991). After being serialized in Françoise Mouly and Spiegelman’s RAW from 1980 onwards, the first six chapters of Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale were published in 1986 as a collective volume by Pantheon, while the latter five chapters were published in Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles in 1991. Spiegelman’s series was inspired by a short comic also entitled “Maus” that he published in 1972, but it was this later return to the graphic recounting his father’s experience as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor that drew the attention of academics to the affordances of the comics medium for the first time, positioning the graphic novel as an important feature of contemporary culture from that point forward. While Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories(1978) is generally credited with popularizing the graphic novel, it was not until Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize that this new genre of sequential art truly made its mark (Hatfield, 2005, xi). Forever changing the medium’s relationship with history, Maus opened the floodgates to the possibility of comics addressing serious subject matter (Nijdam, 2015, 142).
With Spiegelman’s retelling of his father’s survival of Auschwitz, Maus rendered comic books culturally legible and legitimate in ways that had been previously inconceivable (Hatfield xi). Moreover, by recounting his father’s experiences of the Holocaust using a combination of text, image, and auto/biography, Maus publicly redefined the medium’s potential through its engagement in the German tradition of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, while prompting important popular and scholarly debates on the ethics of representing the Holocaust (Nijdam & Schallié, 2020, 185). Maus has since emerged as an important entry point for debating the ethics and possibilities of Holocaust representation. For example, Marianne Hirsch’s 1992 article “Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory” explores the role of photography in Maus, providing the scholarly foundation for her subsequent work on postmemory. Moreover, Andreas Huyssen’s “Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman with Adorno” constitutes another important early example of how German studies discourses intersect with comics studies.
Maus’s multi-generational memoir laid the groundwork for German-language graphic novels to similarly tackle the difficult task of depicting Holocaust experience. For example, Reinhard Kleist’s Der Boxer: Die wahre Geschichte des Hertzko Haft (2012), which follows the personal story of Holocaust survivor Hertzko, who emigrated to the United States and became a professional boxer with the name of Harry Haft, shares many parallels with its predecessor. Much like the serialized history of Spiegelman’s work, Der Boxer also originally appeared as comic strips in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, before being published as a collected volume. Moreover, the father-son narrative returns in Kleist’s graphic novel, which portrays Alan Scott Haft and his father Hertzko on a car ride as they look for the latter’s adolescent love, Leah, during a family vacation in Florida. Positioning Hertzko’s biography alongside the historical, collective events of National Socialism highlights how Kleist’s work portrays the long-term trauma of Holocaust survivors and translates it into visually forceful representations of violence and dehumanization (Albiero 14).
More recently, another graphic novel has emerged to make important interventions in Holocaust discourses, again showcasing the potentialities of narrating the past via text-image experimentation and the affordances of sequential art. German-American illustrator Nora Krug’s Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home (2018) offers new perspectives on German guilt and culpability through the verbal-visual modalities of the graphic novel format. In a work that is both memoir and scrapbook, Krug unpacks and interrogates the silence that pervaded her family history for generations, addressing difficult questions about German individual and collective responsibility. Combining animal and landscape imagery, hand-drawings, and comics with altered and excerpted photographs and postcards, collected objects, and cultural references, Belonging illuminates the intellectual, emotional, and ethical work being carried out by younger generations in attempts to come to terms with a past they can only access indirectly. Moreover, through its visual-verbal modalities, Krug’s graphic work also addresses larger questions on what it means to be German and what belonging and Heimat—which is the title of the German translation—have come to signify in both individual and collective terms.
East German Studies
While German-language comics have only recently begun to examine the history of the Holocaust, graphic novels have emerged as an essential forum for the examination of East German experience over the past two decades. In 2009, in particular, which marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, three graphic novels were published exploring personal experiences of the history of East Germany: Simon Schwartz’s drüben! recounts his parents’ decision to leave East Germany in the 1980s; Claire Lenkova’s Grenzgebiete, a children’s storybook in comics form, helps young readers understand the divided nation that defined their parents’ generation; and, lastly, Flix’s (Felix Görmann) Da war mal was…is a collection of humorous anecdotes from both sides of the Wall. Directed at the generation of children and young adults who might have witnessed the collapse of the GDR but are too young to understand the complexity of their country’s division, these three publications visualized the experience of living in East Germany through the eyes of the children that grew up there. They presented the state’s oppressive politics and contradictions through anecdotes about daily life in the GDR, while also relating historically accurate facts through footnotes. Drüben!, Grenzgebiete, and Da war mal was…launched a movement that has since evolved into a new genre of the German graphic novel. Then, as more comics thematizing East Germany began to appear, what started as a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2009, quickly turned into a trend in the representation of East German experience. Today, there are over twenty graphic novels that retell the history of the GDR, with more coming out each year. While not all of the authors of this emergent genre of graphic literature are themselves East German, many of these comics artists have important ties to the GDR. Yet others are capitalizing on the interest in graphic literature that thematizes East German experience, which sometimes leads to the production of narratives that are better positioned to receive mainstream attention than offer a nuanced engagement with GDR history.
In addition to recounting personal memories as well as historical processes, this body of graphic literature features elements that integrate other categories of historical documentation and narrativization. These comics thereby draw upon other genres of historical writing to lend an air of authenticity to their stories, while simultaneously commenting on the process of historical writing itself. Susanne Buddenberg and Thomas Henseler’s Berlin: Geteilte Stadt (2012), for example, recounts five stories that took place during the GDR, capturing several East German citizens’ attempts to resist and escape the repressive communist regime. Yet, what makes this text remarkable is the way it sets a subjective historical narrative in dialog with historical artifacts and archival documents. By embedding maps, photographs, and paintings contemporary to the GDR on its pages, Buddenberg and Henseler offer the documentation necessary to situate their comic renditions of historical narratives in the real, while also allowing the physical evidence of history to interact with the subjective and artistic stylizations of these same events and themes (Nijdam 2020b, 180–181). This is particularly true with regards to the concluding “On location” (“Vor Ort”) section of every chapter, which enables the reader to trace the depicted events in the physical space of modern Berlin. By adding a contemporary photograph of the same site as well as public transportation information, Berlin: Geteilte Stadt invites the reader to embark on a journey of discovery, re-imagining these stories through the monuments and landmarks that remain and attest to Berlin’s Cold War division.
In light of the form’s ability to capture complex stories with limited intrusiveness, comics and graphic novels have become increasingly entrusted with the representation of human rights issues. Over the last half decade, in particular, comics and graphic novels thematizing forced displacement have emerged as an important space for the representation of refugee and migrant experience. Written from the subjective perspective of refugees, artists, and volunteers working in the community, these so-called “refugee comics” promote awareness of the Syrian emergency and the forced migration of many others people living in conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with a number of these projects emerging in collaboration with human rights organizations (Nijdam 2021a).
Including works such as Reinhard Kleist’s Der Traum von Olympia (2015) and “Kawergosk – 5 Sterne” (2016), Olivier Kluger’s in Dem Krieg Entronnen: Begegnungen Mit Syrern Auf Der Flucht (2017), Gaby von Borstel and Peter Eickmeyer’s Liebe deinen Nächsten: Auf Rettungsfahrt im Mittelmeer an Bord der Aquarius (2017), and Ali Fitzgerald’s Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe (2018), these comics offer new perspectives on the experience of millions of forcibly displaced people currently on the move. For example, they shift the typical focus of media campaigns on migrant experience to tell stories about the complex issues facing migrants from a single person’s perspective, rendering the typical objects of media representation the narrating subjects of their own narrative. Then, through breakdown (the artist’s process of turning a story into an image sequence) and closure (the reader’s participation in the meaning-making of the narrative by way of the gutter) comics weave the past, the present, and the socio-political context together into a cohesive narrative (Nijdam 2021b). They thereby render migration experiences legible through the medium’s ability to present complex narratives and nuance via the form’s verbal-visual modes of representation and juxtaposition. As a result, comics on forced migration foster empathy and compassion for the lives of potentially millions of refugees via the story of one individual or group of migrants (Ogier). In Der Traum von Olympia: Die Geschichte von Samia Yusuf Omar, for example, Reinhard Kleist focuses on the biography of the Somali Olympic athlete Samia Yusuf Omar and her fatal crossing of the Mediterranean in 2012. By centering the narrative around Samia’s personal story, this work renounces a nameless narrative and humanizes a story of escape that often remains untold when the individual experiences are concealed behind numbers (Albiero 15). Moreover, in terms of social-justice aesthetics, the visual cues of ethnicity, gender, class, religion and ability are not easily flattened into single-issue subjects, making comics fundamentally intersectional, while the history of the form itself asks readers to question assumptions, stereotypes, and the impact of specific narrative strategies and visual representations strategies on social justice issues (Nijdam 2021b).
In fact, cartooning itself offers an appealing compromise in its ability to represent individuals anonymously, “making it easier for subjects to give testimony fully and candidly,” while affording these same individuals the specificity required to demonstrate their humanity (Ogier 2018). Moreover, refugee and migrant comics interrupt static media images and the threats these forms of documentation may pose to vulnerable subjects (Rifkind 2017, 649; Chute 2016, 17). There can be consequences for refugees who give testimony on their living circumstances and the oppression and violence they encounter. Evidence of unlawful residence or undocumented habitation in migrant encampments on their journey to seek asylum—such as that offered by photography—could in fact jeopardize that very process, while putting the friends and family that remained behind in peril. It is therefore crucial that the forms giving voice to the hardships of refugee life also do not lead to more persecution (Ogier 2018). Illustration provides an alternative for individuals who wish to document their experience but cannot risk being identified, while the comics form itself provides these displaced people with an audience for their stories (Ogier 2018). Comics on global forced migration thus render the experience of forced migration legible without dangerous consequences, while also making this material accessible to younger readers and individuals who do not typically follow the news media.
Moreover, unlike the photojournalism of these same conflict zones, comics and cartoonists often approach the subjects of their stories with an audio recorder and a sketchbook, limiting the use of cameras to only capture images that later provide the source material for their drawing. Rather than serving as documents themselves, photography therefore functions as a point of reference for the artists, who then translate its images into comics, remediating what they witnessed onto the blank page or into digital space. Further, especially in works of comics journalism, artists visually and verbally address their presence in the scene, along with their positionality and the ethical implications of their representations. So, while photography seeks to mask the mediated nature of its documentation, comics acknowledge the subjective nature of observation, positioning the artist as an agent in cultivating the narrative through the constructed nature of their art.
However, while the affordances of the comic medium allow for a social-justice-oriented representation of forced migration, the power relations of comics on refugee experience are fraught. Even though some of these stories are co-authored by refugees and artists (e.g. Alphabet des Ankommens, Mertikat et al.’s Temple of Refuge), many of them are drawn by Western cartoonists or based on their work with migrants or their testimonies (Rifkind 2017, 648). They are therefore typically—and also not unproblematically—not by refugees themselves but about refugees. Representing these stories thus demands an explicitly ethical engagement with migrant subjects and their experiences in order to avoid a colonial, fetishized or traumatizing rendering of the narrative. By marking their presence as observers and reporters, comics artists like Reinhard Kleist in “Kawergosk – 5 Sterne” and Olivier Kluger’s in Dem Krieg Entronnen endeavor to identify and articulate their responsibility towards the people, places, and politics they choose to report on and their rendering of these complex stories. With images possessing the potential to make visible as much as re-stigmatize, as Kate Polak (2017) writes in Ethics in the Gutter, “[o]ur representations of history have consequences, and those representations have the possibility of deploying empathy and identification in a variety of ways that make us see a situation through different points of view” (15). These ethical considerations become particularly important when the drawn subjects belong to groups that have been traditionally underrepresented, intentionally misrepresented, or ignored in the media.
Considered within the context of German studies, comics and graphic novels allow scholars and educators to engage with key questions of the ethics of representation that are at the core of our discipline. They facilitate entry points into cultural and historical debates and, through their visual and narrative elements, render them accessible to a wider audience, which includes undergraduate readers. In their relationships to and against photography, film, and literature, comics also offer vantage points for transmedial evaluations on the affordances and limitations of different media in engaging culturally, politically, and historically with the representation of people, places, and events. Moreover, when incorporated into our language and culture courses, comics hone students’ ability to read closely, think critically, and write analytically by asking them to combine and articulate their understanding of visual and verbal elements. Finally, through the work of closure, comics require students to be accountable in the meaning-making of these texts, bridging the gaps between panels and pages with their own interpretations and analyses. Comics are therefore an important tool in developing students’ visual literacy skills. In light of the pictorial turn in information (and misinformation) dissemination, the researching, writing, and teaching about comics should become increasingly important in humanities and social sciences education.
Albiero, Olivia (2019). “When Public Figures Become Comics. Reinhard Kleist’s Graphic Biographies”. In: DIEGESIS. Interdisciplinary E-Journal for NarrativeResearch/Interdisziplinäres E-Journal für Erzählforschung 8.1, pp.6-23.
Buddenberg, Susanne and Thomas Henseler (2012). Berlin: Geteilte Stadt. Avant Verlag.
Buddenberg, Susanne and Thomas Henseler (2012). Berlin: A City Divided. Avant Verlag.
Chute, Hillary L. (2016), Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, Harvard UP.
Eisner, Will (1978, 1996). A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. DC Comics.
Fitzgerald, Ali (2018). Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe. Fantagraphics.
Flix (2009). Da war mal was… : Erinnerungen an hier und drüben. Carlsen.
Mouly, Françoise and Art Spiegelman (1989–1991). RAW. Penguin Books.
Mouly, Françoise and Art Spiegelman (1980–1986). RAW. Raw Books & Graphics.
Hatfield, Charles (2005). Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature . UP of Mississippi.
Hirsch, Marianne (1992-3). “ Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory .” Discourse 15.2, pp. 3 – 29 .
Huyssen, Andreas (2000). “ Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman with Adorno .” New German Critique 81, pp. 65 – 82 .
Kleist, Reinhard (2012). Der Boxer : Die Überlebensgeschichte des Hertzko Haft. Carlsen.
Kleist, Reinhard (2014). The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft. SelfMadeHero.
Kleist, Reinhard (2015). Der Traum von Olympia: Die Geschichte von Samia Yusuf Omar, Carlsen.
Kleist, Reinhard (2016). An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar, SelfMadeHero.
Kleist, Reinhard (2016). “‘Kawergosk - 5 Sterne’, eine Comicreportage von Reinhard Kleist.” arte, 10 March. Accessed 20 August 2020.
Krug, Nora (2018). Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home. Scribner.
Krug, Nora (2018). Heimat: Ein deutsches Familienalbum. Penguin Verlag.
Kugler, Olivier (2017). Dem Krieg Entronnen: Begegnungen Mit Syrern Auf Der Flucht. Edition Moderne.
Kugler, Olivier (2018). Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees. Penn State University Press.
Lenkova, Claire (2009). Grenzgebiete: Eine Kindheit zwischen Ost und West. Gerstenberg.
Mertikat, Flexi et al. (2021). Temple of Refuge. Egmont Comic Collection.
Nijdam, Elizabeth “Biz” (2015). “Coming to Terms with the Past: Teaching German History with the Graphic Novel.” In: Class, Please Open Your Comics: Essays on Teaching with Graphic Narratives, Matthew Lee Miller (ed), McFarland, pp. 143 – 54.
Nijdam, Elizabeth “Biz” (2020a). “The Social Justice Work of German Comics and Graphic Literature,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, special issue “The Social Justice Work of German Comics and Graphic Literature,” 56.4., pp. 191-211.
Nijdam, Elizabeth “Biz” (2020b) “Towards a Graphic Historicity: Representing the East German Past in the German Graphic Novel,” In: New Europe: Intersections and Reflections, Martha Kuhlman and Jose Alaniz (eds), University of Leuven Press.
Nijdam, Elizabeth “Biz”, (2021a) “How Comics Shed Light into Refugee Border Crossing Experiences,” The Conversation, June 15th, 2021 (for World Refugee Day).
Nijdam, Elizabeth “Biz”, (2021b)“The Smartphone Aesthetics of Mobility in Kate Evans’ Threads and Reinhard Kleist’s An Olympic Dream,” Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture (forthcoming, fall 2021).
Nijdam, Elizabeth “Biz” and Charlotte Schallié (2020) “Editors’ Notes”, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, special issue:“The Social Justice Work of German Comics and Graphic Literature,” 56.4., pp. 185-190.
Ogier, Poppy (2018). “Picturing Refugees: Why Comics Are So Effective at Telling Refugees’ Stories.” Newsdeeply.com, June 26. Accessed 12 June 2021.
Polak, Kate (2017). Ethics in the Gutter: Empathy and Historical Fiction in Comics. Ohio State UP.
Rifkind, Candida (2017), “Refugee Comics and Migrant Topographies,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 32.3, pp. 648-654.
Schwartz, Simon (2009). drüben! avant-verlag.
Schwartz, Simon (2015). The Other Side of the Wall. Graphic Universe.
Spiegelman, Art (1986). Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. Pantheon.
Spiegelman, Art. (1991). Maus: A Survivor’s Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon.
von Borstel, Gaby and Peter Eickmeyer (2017). Liebe deinen Nächsten: Auf Rettungsfahrt im Mittelmeer an Bord der Aquarius.Splitter Verlag.
We, the members of the DDGC collective, wish to reaffirm our commitment to center the humanity of colleagues placed into contingent precarity at institutions of higher learning. We decry regimes of oppressions that confine and underpin the adjacent disciplines of German studies and German-language teaching. In this post, members of the Ethical Hiring Action Group, together with the members of the DDGC steering committee and 2021 Labor Justice Town Hall Organizing Committee, pledge an ongoing commitment to labor justice. Looking inward at our own practices, we outline a series of considerations and guidelines to take into account when distributing information about available positions on our DDGC listserv.
The Crisis of Humanity in the Humanities
At its heart, the adjunctification and contingency of faculty at institutions of higher learning is becoming a crisis of humanity. Looking into the situation of higher ed faculty, the AAUP noted in 2018 that “the majority of faculty members are contingent workers who work without the protection of tenure.” They identify the percentage of faculty members who are not tenured or tenured track as reaching 73% in 2016. As they note, this overwhelming percentage of contingent, adjunct, and graduate student labor are by the nature of their appointments not granted academic freedom or stability and traditionally are not allowed to participate in conversations or decision-making processes relevant to their own working conditions.
In addition to these inequities, the AAUP’s 2020 data snapshot highlights how long-lasting disparities adversely affect women faculty and faculty of color. Although women comprise 47% of full-time faculty (as opposed to 32% in 1991), for example, they occupy the majority of non tenure-track appointments. A consideration of salary reveals how the issue encompasses economics, as “salaries for full-time women faculty members are approximately 81.2 percent of men’s with women earning $79,368 and men earning $97,738 on average.” The AAUP’s 2020 report highlights how underrepresentation of faculty hires specifically targets Latinx and Black colleagues through systemic racism(s). Their 2020 inquiry reveals, for example, that Latinx and Black faculty make up a mere 12.9% of full-time appointments although these individuals constitute an estimated 32.6% of the United States population between the ages of 24 and 64.
These data confirm that now (as ever) is the time to reaffirm the full humanity of all underrepresented and undercompensated colleagues, mentors, and friends in higher educational sectors.
Reaffirming the Humanity of Job Seekers
Reflecting on the ethics of hiring within this system, we begin with a list of information helpful to candidates perusing job ads. We maintain that listing the following up-front in job ads should be considered the bare minimum. These baseline expectations are inspired by the MLA’s Guidelines for Search Committees and Job Seekers.
Your job ad should list clear expectations and communication about:
We recognize that transparency and clear communication are crucial and inform each candidate’s decision-making (whether to apply, what to ask for with an offer, whether to take an offer) regarding the position. While we are aware of administrative guidelines that sometimes prohibit listing all of these items, we encourage search chairs to use the MLA guidelines and this document to push back against such policies. Applying for positions takes a considerable amount of time and resources for applicants, and so up-front, clear, and transparent information is paramount.
On the Positionality of Positions
In addition to transparency, we suggest each hiring committee reflect on their own positions of advocacy as they relate to hiring and contingent labor. We provide further considerations for each point, should this be lacking.
DDGC List Posting Guidelines
Our collective thrives through exchange and community. At the same time, we recognize that we each play a part in continuing—or countering—patterns of exploitations and contingency. To that end, we encourage all DDGC members to regard the DDGC listserv as an important tool that can help us reaffirm the humanity of contingent colleagues and job seekers. As such, we have created a list of things for you to consider before posting job advertisements via the list.
You can post a job ad on the DDGC List if it, at the minimum, meets the following:
You should not post an ad on the DDGC List if it is:
We will update these guidelines as necessary and welcome your input on how to improve the space. Contact: ddgcconnect [at] gmail [dot] com or one of the DDGC Steering Committee members.
The DDGC is not only committed to a labor justice movement in German Studies but is also proud to support its student, contingent, underrepresented, unemployed, and underemployed members. Countering the effects created by skewed dynamics associated with elitist, economic, and class-based violence requires more than performative utterances of support and consolation. Such a commitment brings us to consider practices of hiring and employment for those contingent and adjunct colleagues among us and our own complicity in upholding such structures of oppression and violence.
We hope that these guidelines will give programs another resource to use as they advocate for fewer contingent positions and more equitable hiring practices at their institutions. With your help and through our collective engagement, we can push for humane and humanity-nurturing practices in the humanities and language teaching.
AAUP. Data Snapshot: Contingent Faculty in US Higher Ed. October 2018.
AAUP. Data Snapshot: Full-time Women Faculty and Faculty of Color. December 2020.
MLA. Guidelines for Search Committees and Job Seekers.
Oct 25, 2021 04:00 PM, Pacific Daylight Time
Two generative town hall gatherings in 2020 dedicated to the job market crisis in German studies have yielded a number of important frameworks in DDGC. We were inspired by the critical energies and the collective drive that followed these gatherings and are hosting their next installment. We are anticipating two town halls for 2021, the second one being conceived as a follow-up and to be scheduled at a later date.
The 2021 town halls will have a focus on labor justice, broadly conceived. They will bring together graduate students, contingent faculty, under- or unemployed scholars, TT/T faculty, higher ed administrators, and staff in North American German studies (and related fields). Each event will feature presentations by select action groups that emerged from the 2020 town halls, as well as statements developed by scholars in precarious working contexts about the pressing issues they face throughout the field.
Following the presentations, all attendees will be placed in breakout rooms to share their concerns. Here, the focus will be to foreground the perspectives of graduate students, contingent faculty, as well as under- or unemployed scholars. The ultimate aim is to develop action items grounded in their experience. Some questions we hope to explore: What would a German studies labor justice movement look like? What insights about how existing structures of oppression operate throughout our field (and academia broadly) are vital for such a movement?
The town halls, as is the case with all other DDGC programming, will follow the DDGC Guiding Principles: https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/guiding-principles.html.
Poll in Anticipation of the Town Hall
In order to refine our programming for the town hall but also to shape ongoing conversations about labor justice in German studies, we would like each registrant as well as people interested in the event but unable to attend to fill out a short survey.
Richmond Embeywa (University of Arizona)
Alexandra Johnson (University of Arizona)
Janice McGregor (University of Arizona)*
“I had less than 48 hours to book a flight, make my way to the airport, and return to the US.” (Alexandra Johnson)
Mere hours after European travel restrictions were announced by the (then) Trump administration due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, international and global offices on US university campuses instituted immediate and wide-reaching study abroad program closures. In a matter of hours, US-based college students participating in study abroad programs all over the world were told by their US-based institutions that their programs were canceled.
Email notifications from their US institution’s international and global offices required that they make arrangements to return to the US. Immediately.
For many students, difficult moments and decisions followed. As a faculty member, graduate student, and undergraduate student working and studying at the same US-based institution, we were in very different positions on March 11, 2020 when word of study abroad program closures reached our inboxes. Almost 15 months later, we have reflected on two language, culture, and identity issues that heavily impacted our interactions and decisions last spring and summer.
bell hooks notes that “language is also a place of struggle” (hooks, 1989, 28). Consequently, what people actually do (or do not do) with language always affects real lives. With this in mind, we have brought together our stories in hopes of finding other ways to talk about all aspects of study abroad—ways that avoid harm.
As an international doctoral student in our institution’s dual PhD/DPhil graduate program (US/Germany), I was in the midst of my year abroad at our German partner institution at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I contested the US institution’s requirement that all study abroad students return immediately by recourse to the nature and funding structure of my graduate program. The year-long program in Germany I had pursued was, in fact, not canceled—at least, not on the German side—and I was unwilling to leave behind the stipend, housing, and comprehensive health insurance offered by the German institution. Not only was I in Germany with my spouse and young child when the announcement was made, I was also ineligible to receive similar support in the US until my re-enrollment as a graduate student with TA stipend in the following academic year. As non-US citizens, my spouse and I were also unsure about our ability to re-enter the US during this time, because my spouse did not yet have her US visa in hand and US embassies and consulates were about to suspend all visa appointments indefinitely. In the end, with the support of my graduate program advocates, we were able to remain in Germany and I was able to finish my academic year.
My family and I stayed in Germany due in part to the immigration uncertainties that often accompany my travel experiences. These are uncertainties that tend to go unremarked in the literature and in talk around study abroad and international experiences in many departments. Yet we have to navigate them all the same. Even in non-pandemic times, as international students, we often need weeks or months to sort out our visas and extend passports when planning our (re-)entry into the US and other countries. In March 2020, email communications from the US-based international office did not seem to make room for a range of possible situations that students—but especially international students—might be dealing with in the face of an ask to return and reintegrate unexpectedly. And since my spouse (a Brazilian citizen) and child (a US citizen) had accompanied me to Germany, our conceptualizations of “home” and “going home” were understandably fraught. Our greatest concern was our collective health, security, and well-being, which did not seem to be priorities for the US institution.
I am a US citizen and undergraduate student who was doing a fully funded study abroad year in Germany at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, supported through my US-based institution and the Federation of German-American Clubs (FGAC). What began as confusion quickly turned into chaos: According to the FGAC and my German institution, I could stay in Germany. According to my US institution, I had to return or I might risk losing my academic credits, full-ride scholarships, and access to financial aid. I reluctantly flew back to the US on March 14, relying heavily on the support of my parents to do so. I continued with the courses I was taking in Germany via live online instruction with a nine-hour time difference. During this time, I was also required to enroll in additional coursework at my US-based institution to maintain enrollment. Weeks later, I learned that the full-ride scholarships my US institution had threatened to cut off were never actually in jeopardy. At the end of the US academic year, I decided to return to Germany and complete my year there.
Upon deciding to come “home”—a concept I already struggle with as someone who has lived in many places—I found that my experience departing Germany and returning to the US, even as a citizen, involved dealing with major health concerns, rerouted flights, and unexpected costs. Right before leaving Germany, I spoke with a study abroad advisor who informed me about a $500 stipend that my US-based institution was allocating for each student to support their return. The stated reasoning for requiring students to return to the US was that the university thought it was better to be “safe at home.” Yet I had been well supported by the resources to which I had access in Germany (i.e., a monthly scholarship stipend and comprehensive health insurance). Not only were the costs incurred during my return to the US much higher than $500, being forced to travel through busy airports in a global pandemic under the guise of “safety”—particularly given the fact that I am immunocompromised—further complicated my already tricky relationship with the concept of “home”. This experience reminded me that notions of “home” and “safety” do not always overlap.
The COVID-19 pandemic began in the middle of a typical Spring semester. As an assistant professor of German Studies and intercultural competence and an applied linguist who conducts research in study abroad, I was preparing to co-lead a study abroad program that summer. The program, of course, would soon be canceled.
My interest in study abroad reflects interconnected practical, pedagogical, and scholarly points: I want students to experience life and language learning/use in different areas of the German-speaking world and enjoy helping them accrue enough credits so that they can major/minor in German Studies. As a researcher, leading study abroad programs also means that I have opportunities for data collection. Finally, running summer programs helps ensure that (especially contingent and 9-month) faculty earn a summer income.
Critical questions about how study abroad approaches language (e.g., immersion is best!), culture (e.g., as linked to nation states), and identity (e.g., there’s “good” students who are willing to communicate and “bad” students who are not) have been emerging around study abroad for many years.
US institutions brought study abroad programs to a complete halt effective March 13, 2020 with the announcement of the travel ban on travelers from Europe by the Trump administration. However, for many of our students (and international partners), study abroad continued in the form of emergency travel, the need to manage suddenly-cut-off relationships from a distance, and questions about lost courses and the transfer of credits completed and in process. Many questions about the lived experiences of our students during these (and other) times remain unaddressed, as the stories above have highlighted:
Study abroad is often marketed as an enriching endeavor that fosters lifelong memories and relationships and facilitates the development of intercultural competence (and in language programs—language proficiency). Although many US-based universities claim to prepare students for “global-readiness,” our experiences reveal that US-based institutions may not be prepared to operate multilingually and interculturally themselves. In being told to return to the US, we witnessed how the onus was put entirely on students to navigate divergent global systems and any additional uncertainties, whether linguistic and/or intercultural. For example, when Alexandra wanted to call her study abroad advisor to talk on the phone about returning to the US, the response she received was “let me know which American phone number will work best for you.” When Richmond communicated his wish to remain in Germany, he initially encountered great resistance, even though returning to the US would have meant leaving behind a monthly stipend, housing allowance, and health insurance.
Study Abroad: For Whom?
We recognize through our experiences with study abroad in the time of COVID-19 that certain assumptions about language, culture, and identity are continually re-woven into the foundational brickwork of US study abroad, as capital flows and brand protection stand tall above most other concerns. Yet language, culture, and identity are not fixed or static, but tied up in an interconnected web of individual moves, relationships with others, and the systems and structures in which we all study and work. Harm is all but a fait accompli when conceptions of “home” and “abroad” go unexamined by those who harness them, and especially when institutions communicate to distressed study abroaders that the language of risk management is more important than their own well-being.
As we settle into the later stages of the global pandemic, we urge language educators and study abroad advisors to proceed with care as they turn back to study abroad. To avoid doing further harm, we are fully committed to approaching our own study abroad programming in a way that prioritizes community well-being, trust, and justice.
Are you involved in promoting, designing, and/or leading study abroad programs? As students, teachers, and scholars, we offer the follow suggestions:
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. South End Press, 1989.
McGregor, Janice. “Study Abroad Otherwise.” Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies, edited by Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 157–176.
Reflections on the DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group Survey: What do People Need, and What Can We Provide?
The DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group was constituted in December 2020 with the intention of creating a DDGC Mutual Aid Network. During the initial meetings, we deliberated how to get started with our work. We recognized the dire need for a network of professional, personal, social, material, and financial support for people in and around German studies. But we wondered: how we could determine what those needs are, and how could we create a system to address them? Furthermore, we asked ourselves, how could we be sure that the network we wanted to build would be able to meet those needs?
To better understand the needs and capacities of people in German studies, we created a survey. The survey was based on two important questions: What do you need? What can you provide? We allowed participants to answer these questions by selecting categories of aid from a pre-written list, and we also included questions prompting participants to submit offers and needs that we had not considered. Once we were happy with the survey format, we circulated it between January 25 and February 12, 2021, through as many professional and social networks as possible. By the end of this period, we had received a total of 111 anonymous responses.
In this blog post, we want to outline some results from this survey, offer our perspective on what these results might mean, and invite other people in and around German studies to think with us about how to design a network that will meet the needs our survey revealed. By sharing these findings, we acknowledge our own biases that we had in designing the survey and hope to open up a conversation about how to make the DDGC Mutual Aid Network a resource that can respond to the real needs of people in and around German studies.
The first survey question asked, “What do you need?” This question allowed participants to select any number of needs from a list that we had written in advance. Below is a chart showing some of the categories that ranked the highest, by count, out of our 111 responses.
There are a few things to note about the results of this first question. One is that support for research dominates the top categories. Respondents articulated a need for writing groups, editing/proofreading, and access to research materials. Another interesting result is the high count of responses in the “None of the above” category (in a 3-way tie for 4th place). When we were reviewing the results of this survey as a group, we puzzled over this result for a while. What did this mean? Which group(s) might be consistently choosing this response? We came up with several hypotheses. Did colleagues in more stable positions feel bad about asking for help? Did people feel bad in general about asking for help? Or perhaps, did people have other forms of “helping” in mind when they filled out the survey? Did the historical and cultural prevalence of “charity,” a form of helping which tends to ossify distinctions between those who offer and those who receive help, overdetermine participants’ thinking about what mutual aid is? In a year of multiple, overlapping crises (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Black and police violence, mass unemployment, the stress of emergency online-teaching, and a dismal job market, to name a few), it seemed to us very unlikely that so many of our colleagues were really unaffected.
Ultimately, given the structure of our survey, we could not come to a definitive answer on this question. But this should not come as a surprise, either: the concept of mutual aid is a radical redefining of how we relate to each other, how we understand ourselves, our needs, and our capacities. Decades of institutional, organizational, and social structures, which encourage us to hide our material, social, emotional, financial, and professional needs, have harmed our capacity to actually acknowledge our vulnerabilities and ask for help. We ultimately saw this result as further evidence that the work of mutual aid is not just one of organizing, but of unlearning old habits which isolate us from each other, which encourage competition over cooperation and support, and which trap us in endless loops of rationalizing our own situation as “not really all that bad.” For a detailed analysis of these factors, see Emily Frazier-Rath and Maggie Rosenau’s recently published DDGC Blog Post.
What is radical about mutual aid is the way it makes us confront the fact that we all need something, we all have something we can give, and that we all deserve better. As Dean Spade notes in his book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next) (2020), “collective spaces, like mutual aid organizing, can give us opportunities to unlearn conditioning and build new skills and capacities. By participating in groups in new ways and practicing new ways of being together, we are both building the world we want and becoming the kind of people who could live in such a world together” (17). Changing relations among people brought together under the auspices of German studies through a mutual aid framework will take time and energy to enact. We hope that these first discussions around what this would look like in our time will usher in a more just future.
The second survey question asked “What can you offer?” Again, participants could select any number of needs from a list that we had written in advance. Below is a chart showing some of the categories that ranked the highest, by count, out of our 111 responses.
As can be seen above, the top responses to this question are higher counts than most of the counts for “needs” in the previous question (the highest count for “needs” was 41 for “Writing Group,” while 8 of the top categories of “offers” were a count of 41 or higher). Offers to support colleague’s teaching were the most common, followed by offers pertaining to professionalization (CV/resume, mentorship, mock interviews). Interestingly, we also see more categories related to material and financial needs (financial assistance, meal-trains), in contrast to the previous question. As to why offers differ from needs in these ways, there are many possible explanations. Perhaps people in German studies feel better prepared to offer teaching and research assistance, or see those skills as the most important ones they imagine others might need. Or, perhaps, in a particularly busy and stressful year, these kinds of offers feel “feasible,” the kinds of support that participants feel they could commit to offering. Others may see different trends in these results, and we hope that you will share your perspectives with us as we build our mutual aid network.
Top Needs Compared with Top Offers
One helpful way of determining the capacity of our network to meet needs is to compare the “top needs” with the “top offers” from the survey. The chart below compares a more limited selection of the “biggest needs” against the “biggest offers,” showing where needs and offers are approximately equal, where offers greatly exceed need, and where needs greatly exceed offers, by count. One fortunate tendency that can be seen here is that offers almost always exceed needs, meaning that our network would quite often be able to provide what people need.
Conversely, there seems to be a disconnect, especially around teaching, between what people need and what they feel they could offer: in general, participants are very willing to help with teaching-related needs, but few participants believed they would request that kind of aid. To reiterate a point above, these discrepancies in our survey results might reflect more on the organization of our profession than they represent what people really need, if they knew they could or even should ask for it. While one might read this chart and assume that financial assistance was a low-priority need for our network, it could also be that we just do not have any experiences of helping each other, financially, to draw on when thinking about what we might need when prompted.
Needs and Offers Proposed by Survey Participants
In two separate questions, we also allowed survey participants to submit needs and offers that we had not thought of in advance. These questions yielded important results, while also pointing to some weaknesses in our survey design. Below are a few examples (presented in summary) of the kinds of offers and needs that participants submitted.
As we work toward building a platform for requesting and offering mutual aid, we will be incorporating categories for these participant-submitted offers and needs.
Ultimately, the analysis and reflections here are a starting point for a broader conversation about what a mutual aid network for people in and around German studies could look like. One thing, however, is very clear: there is a great amount of need, and a great number of people who want to help. As we continue the process of building our network, we aim to foster a community and dialogue around mutual aid, reducing the stigma that surrounds vulnerability in our field and supporting people in and around German studies.
For more information and updates about the DDGC Mutual Aid Network, check our Mutual Aid Action Group webpage. If you have thoughts, suggestions, needs, or want to get involved, please email us at ddgc.mutualaid [at] gmail [dot] com.
Frazier-Rath, Emily, and Maggie Rosenau. “Mutual Aid in our German Studies Communities: Why and How to Do Collective Organizing and Care Work in Academia.” DDGC Blog. May 25, 2021. https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog-submission-info.html. Accessed May 31, 2021.
Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next). New York: Verso, 2020.
Mutual Aid in Our German Studies Communities: Why and How to do Collective Organizing and Care Work in Academia
Emily Frazier-Rath, PhD (Davidson College)
Maggie Rosenau, PhD (University of Colorado Denver, University of Denver, & Anderson Language and Technology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder)
Founded in 1966 to address the needs of the underserved and systemically oppressed Black community in Oakland, California—and later far beyond the state—the Black Panther Party of Self Defense originated in order to provide meals to the hungry. It also provided transportation to the sick and elderly, other forms of support to differentially situated members of Black communities across the country, and instituted a “copwatch” in an effort to prevent and challenge police violence. (Organizations like Copwatch emerged again after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2015. See their website here for more information.) At a time when institutions, governments, and formal aid organizations systematically kept Black people out of decision-making bodies; when calls for resources were ignored or diminished; and as gatekeepers have regulated and dictated who is worthy of getting help, the Black Panthers have intervened, giving space and voice to vulnerable people struggling to survive.
Likewise, sick and disabled trans and queer BIPOC have organized collective care for decades (Piepzna-Samarasinha). As Alexia Arani writes, “Long before COVID-19, many TQPoC [Trans Queer People of Color] were redistributing wealth, sharing meals, offering rides, and opening up our homes, while struggling to gain the support we need in the face of rampant racialized, gendered violence and structural inequalities” (2020, 655). Amid the pandemic, however, as more people are awakening to the importance of community care, Black community and disabled knowledge is receiving increased attention and consideration. The experiential knowledge TQPoC have cultivated on forming networks of mutual care for themselves and others have come into view as valuable models for those now experiencing the debilitating effects of neoliberalism and the pandemic.
The mutual aid work of the Black Panthers and TQPoC community organizers serve as examples of what is possible despite and in the face of structural barriers, frustratingly complicated and ineffective bureaucracies, and violent institutions. In his 2020 book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), Dean Spade writes that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “ordinary people are feeling called to respond in their communities, creating bold and innovative ways to share resources and support vulnerable neighbors. This survival work, when done in conjunction with social movements demanding transformative change, is called mutual aid” (Kindle Locations 58–60).
With this piece, we want to make the case for mutual aid in academia more generally, and in our German Studies communities more particularly.
What is Mutual Aid?
A mutual aid network is a network in which people share their skills and resources in solidarity to strengthen their community. Such a network assumes that all members have something to offer, but also that every member is differentially subject to various forms of vulnerability and power.
You can find more detailed information about mutual aid in these three resources:
The DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group has been discussing what a mutual aid network can do to address the needs of the German Studies community, and our academic communities as a whole. We have taken a great deal of our inspiration from groups and communities like the Black Panthers, Rock Medicine, The Common Ground Collective, and Sins Invalid, as well as the organizational work led by Rad Comms Network.
Why Do We Need Mutual Aid in Academia?
Mutual aid must have a place in academia so long as our institutions rely upon the labor and money of vulnerable populations made more vulnerable through their association with colleges and universities. There is hope in mutual aid. There is also the framework and action needed to build the kinds of institutions we actually want—ones that ultimately serve us all.
It cannot be overstated that academic institutions are in crisis. Just as women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled individuals have begun to finally gain access to a several hundred years-old institution, the neoliberalization of the academy has begun to increasingly rely upon and benefit from precarious labor, further stratifying already stubborn hierarchies. Between 1975 and 2015, the percentage of tenure line faculty decreased from 45% of the labor force in postsecondary education to 30%. During this same 40-year period, the percentage of the labor force identified as contingent rose from 55% to 70% (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). Our institutions and their gatekeepers have exacerbated precarious conditions for people at all levels. This includes people who hold contingent positions--adjuncts, VAPs, lecturers, postdocs, TAs, clinical professors, professors of practice, and others—in addition to essential service workers (e.g., food service, maintenance, and custodial staff). Students from underserved and historically excluded communities, including graduate students, are also among those experiencing precarity. Un- and underemployment, anti-minimum/pro-starvation wages, high tuition, and inflated rent prices further a severe increase in multiple insecurities and uncertainty.
The corporatization of higher education is working really well for those at the top and harming those of us who are doing education—teachers and learners. Labor conditions play a significant role in an instructor’s effectiveness in the classroom: teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott succinctly describe the contours of academic precarity in their 2019 book, The Gig Academy, as follows:
Non-tenure-track faculty members, now 70 percent of the faculty within US higher education, average pay of $22,400 for teaching eight courses, making less than most fast-food workers and often with less job security and benefits than fast-food workers. (1)
The poor material conditions under which gig academics work—i.e., low wages, no benefits or healthcare, no opportunities to build curriculum, no access to funding for research or participation in conferences—become serious barriers not only to productivity and effectiveness levels the corporate university desires and expects, but also to living dignified lives (for more info on this, see this political, conceptual art project that invites emotional processing on the harm academia causes).
A very candid and important mentoring up discussion:
Dr. Melissa Johnson talks about the realities of contingent labor, how COVID has been a “good thing” for gig-academics, offers advice on how to support our most exploited colleagues, and how to change a system that is hurting us all.
There is hope here, however, as groups like Tenure for the Common Good have advocated for increased job security, improved and meaningful support, and changes to hiring practices amid the pandemic and the abolishment of what they call the “casualization of labor.” There is hope in the mobilization and uproar around the decisions of many--many, many (William and Mary, University of Kansas, and Guilford College to name three)—institutions currently in the process of firing faculty members (or, in euphemistic terms, refusing to renew contracts of long-standing faculty members), weakening tenure, and closing programs. But again, these efforts cannot be the work of a few.
To be sure, administrators are using students as scapegoats to justify exploitative policies (e.g., increasing or rejecting demands to decrease course loads, even if only temporarily to account for the lost time and increased stress during the pandemic), while also refusing to do anything about student debt and gig contracts. And, lest we think that reaching tenure is equivalent to obtaining immunity, colleges and universities are finding ways to justify getting rid of tenured professors and their programs.
Indeed, the very shape of our universities is changing as a result of austerity measures (see also this news about William and Mary) and corruption. And the neoliberalization and profitization of our institutions of higher education is supported by dark monies. Corporations like Koch Industries, for example, pay an exorbitant amount to protect private education, not public interests.
Elizabeth Stelle, an employee and representative of The Commonwealth Foundation, a self-described right-wing think-tank, recently advocated for a $0 minimum wage. (This is unsurprising considering that Charles Koch of Koch Industries sits on the board). Other university donors, such as billionaire businessman Sam Zell, do not believe college students (whose labor is grossly undervalued and undercompensated) should receive COVID-19 relief checks. In an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February shortly after the GameStop Controversy, Zell shared that he believed a lot of the money used to buy GameStop and other low-cost stocks in an effort to drive the stock’s price upwards came from stimulus check money (the second stimulus check), sent to American families before January 15.
Angering many on Wall Street, the attempts by everyday people to artificially inflate the worth of GameStop and other beloved companies revived conversations about power and the distribution of wealth in this country, as well as who gets to manipulate the market, when, and for what purpose. The disconnect he worries about is between a business’ worth and its stock cost. He seems less worried about the disconnect between what he goes on to say and reality. Zell says, “You know, unless you’re in the restaurant, transportation, hotel business, etc., the economy is in real good shape,” and so he was not a proponent of the stimulus checks sent out due to the fact that they could bring back inflation. (“Billionaire Real Estate Investor Sam Zell on Market Volatility amid Coronavirus Fears.” CNBC, 5 Mar. 2020.) The people shaping our institutions are out of touch with the realities of the people who make up these institutions; their aims are not ours.
There is hope and arenas of action here, however. Organizations like Unkoch my Campus exist to expose the way donors have weaponized philanthropy in order to protect private interest over the common good. But these efforts cannot be the work of a few.
Academia has failed us all and has failed some of us much more than others. According to a study by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 3 out of 5 students (there were approximately 200,000 respondents who are attending 202 colleges and universities in 42 states) are experiencing basic needs insecurity during the pandemic; 44% of those at 2-yr. institutions and 38% of those at 4-yr. institutions are experiencing food insecurity; 15% at 2-yr. and 11% at 4-yr. institutions are experiencing housing insecurity as a result of the pandemic; and, the basic needs gap between Black and white individuals is 19%. We also know that depending on where students are from and where they are living, they face various and vast disparities in terms of access to resources and opportunities.
It is for this reason that activists have lauded the addition of a basic needs statement in the syllabus and a welcome survey to start off a class, which not only signals to students that we indeed see them as whole people, but aims to normalize the act of asking for and getting help. The area of trauma-informed teaching and care work has also gained much needed attention over the course of the last year.
How Do We Agitate for Change in German Studies?
We have to work for the changes we deserve and begin living and working in ways that align with our visions for just presents and futures. For us, this means acknowledging the working and learning conditions for German Studies. Financial insecurity among our faculty, staff, and students is the norm, not the rare exception. Precarity within the field is rampant: our relationships to our institutions are constantly in question; the futures of the field and of our place(s) within it are unknown; insecurity has been normalized and even celebrated (e.g., Rob Jenkins’s 2014 discussion about how some adjuncts “relish the intellectual stimulation of teaching a couple nights a week”); and, we continue to work in ways that foster and perpetuate various forms of racisms, xenophobia, ableism, sexism and misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia.
The sooner we accept these problems instead of spending energy to justify or ignore them, the sooner we can work together to hospice the institution that is not serving us and build one that does (see Andreotti, et al. for information on ‘hospicing’). Mutual aid calls us to:
1. Engage in Direct Action
We must support our existing unions and join one when the opportunity presents itself. We need to push for unionization where there is resistance and stand in solidarity with frontline and essential workers on our campuses and beyond.
2. Normalize and Politicize Our Needs
So often we attach ourselves to shame. And shame attaches itself to some of us more than to others. We need to address why this is. Those of us who live in poverty need not be ashamed—the system has failed us. How can we get comfortable asking for financial support? How can we help others get comfortable asking for financial support? Collective action and organization are ways to mitigate the precariousness that has shaped our lives; moving our private realities as they are related to our chosen professions into the public sphere is necessary if we want to change the conditions under which we work and live. We must share our stories and normalize asking for and getting help.
3. Mentor Up & Listen / Act
Based on information gathered from a survey administered by the DDGC Mutual Aid Network in February, there is serious need and desire in German Studies for socialization, pain sharing, and mentoring up—i.e., sharing, listening, and learning about each other’s needs and suggested ways to help.
The survey revealed contingent and graduate student workers’ deep need for tenured and tenure-track faculty to listen and understand the conditions under which we are living. The following are some concrete actions that securely situated faculty allies can engage in.
Because so many of us experience isolation within our departments, have no time off, have limited or no funding or access to institutional benefits, have no healthcare, and are on semester-only contracts, departments should, at minimum, follow the guidelines developed by Julie Shoults. In her MLA 2021 talk, “Incorporating Contingent Faculty into the Campus Community,” Shoults challenges department leaders to:
Inclusion and recognition are also vital. Shoults suggests that tenured allies need to:
Being contingent today comes with a plethora of unique challenges not faced by those who now have tenure and being contingent during a pandemic is even more unimaginable for many whose positions are stable. Colleagues on the tenure-track or with tenure would do well to:
Departments can also consider some equalizing (and not so equalizing) effects of COVID-19. Remote teaching and learning conditions have taught us a lot about in/accessibility. As directors begin thinking about how to sustain and improve their programs, they might consider:
This year, many of us who are disabled, sick, and/or underemployed have emphasized how critical remote work accommodations are for us. We have been able to maintain patch-worked teaching situations (and albeit not universally ideal, this has been lifesaving for many), as well as attend and present at national and international conferences. To be sure, disabled academics have long demanded for many of the kinds of inclusion and access the pandemic has afforded us, and we would all do well to listen to these thoughtful concerns and learn from their collective experiential knowledge.
But much more needs to be done to narrow the divide between well-intentioned tenured faculty and the contingent faculty that work aside them.
4. Offset Precarity through Care Work
Academics in more secure positions may believe that to contribute to structural change they might best situate themselves in higher administrative positions. But it is also possible to engage in care work that avoids reinforcing hierarchical structures by joining a union, organizing a mutual aid chapter, or getting involved in advocacy work to address issues like ethical hiring practices, alternatives to traditional student evaluations, and better distribution of resources.
5. Distribute Knowledge and Wealth and Opportunity
There are many ways to distribute and share resources within our institutions. Creativity and compassion will drive our efforts. Mentors should be informing students what and where resources (e.g., funding, TA-ships, writing groups, collaborative projects) can be found. Some scholars, for example, are allowed to “co-sponsor” colleagues’ work (e.g., research trips, academic conference presentation) by giving money to people and projects if aligned with their institutional funding structure. Getting creative about funding resources and how they are used is one practical way to redistribute financial resources and support graduate student, adjunct, or contingent faculty research. We can strengthen our community and connect with each other in other (financial) ways too. Are you a scholar who has extra research funding? Pay for a graduate student’s conference fees by inviting them as a real or honorary “co-presenter.” Your department wants to support Black German studies on your campus? Fund (or secure funding) to sponsor a TA or RA position, which would contribute to organizations like the Black German Heritage Research Association (BGHRA). What else is possible?
What Can We Imagine and Enact for Equitable Futurities?
Mutual aid is about addressing present needs in direct, manageable, and sustainable ways. Though we are starting with what is most proximate—our German Studies communities--we are not alone in our endeavors. We deserve better than how we are being asked to exist right now. There are needs to address and coalitions to build, and there are futures to scheme. The DDCG Mutual Aid Network’s goal is to help organize and mobilize within our institutions (as discussed above) as well as outside of them. There are people in our community who need shelter, who need help paying for life-saving prescriptions or basic eye and dental care. Others could use a few bucks to help with rent, food, utilities, graduate student fees, vehicle maintenance to be able to get to work, and the several hundreds of dollars in parking fees gig academics must allocate out of starving wages to each university in order to teach at those institutions.
There are also so many of us right now who could use a supportive, engaging, inspiring, and uplifting community in- and outside of German Studies. As we move into the summer months, needs will shift as contracts or as 9-month pay cycles come to an end. And we in the DDGC Mutual Aid Network are learning how to address these urgent and existential needs. As we roll out our next plans, it will no longer be an option to say “I’m good! I’m secure/stable/situated/sound. I’m not in need.” All of us are in need in one way or another. We recognize that this means for some gaining access to spaces where “mentoring up” can happen. We all need to hear the lived experiences of the most vulnerable in our communities and learn how to engage in solidarity to enact more hopeful and equitable futurities. And, until our profession changes, until our institutions implode, and until something saturated with inclusion is built not out of the rubble but in spite of it, our collective work must embrace care.
Alumni Connections: Melissa Johnson. Uploaded by U-M Department of History, April 20, 2021. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McCt37eXSVE&ab_channel=U-MDepartmentofHistory.
andreadbryant. “@DDGCtweets @TheGSA @womeningerman Can We Remind Everyone to NOT Circulate Exploitative, Precarious Jobs and Postdoc Positions on the List-Serves? Thank You!” Twitter, 10 May 2021.
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“Billionaire Real Estate Investor Sam Zell on Market Volatility amid Coronavirus Fears.” CNBC, 5 Mar. 2020.
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“Contingent Faculty Positions.” AAUP, https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency. Accessed 21 May 2021.
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De Loggans, Regan. Let’s Talk: Mutual Aid. n.d. https://mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/LOGGANS-mutual-aid-zine.pdf.
Flaherty, Colleen. “‘The Gig Academy.’” Inside Higher Ed, 10 Oct. 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/10/10/you%E2%80%99ve-heard-gig-economy-what-about-gig-academy.
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“German 2020-2021.” Academic Jobs Wiki, https://academicjobs.wikia.org/wiki/German_2020-2021. Accessed 21 May 2021.
Goldrick-Rab, Sara. Beyond the Food Pantry: Spreading the Word - Supporting Students’ Basic Needs with a Syllabus Statement and Welcome Survey. The Hope Center, 9 Dec. 2020,
“Graphics.” JUSTSEEDS, Justseeds.org. Accessed 21 May 2021.
“History of the Black Panther Party.” People’s Kitchen Collective, http://peopleskitchencollective.com/panthers-history. Accessed 21 May 2021.
Hogan, Claire, and Callie Booth. “Students Unite in Support of NTE Language Professors.” The Flat Hat, 4 Apr. 2021,https://flathatnews.com/2021/04/04/students-unite-in-support-of-nte-language-professors/.
Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Trends in the Academic Labor Force, 1975
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Jenkins, Rob. “Straight Talk About ‘Adjunctification.’” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 Dec. 2014, https://www.chronicle.com/article/straight-talk-about-adjunctification/.
Kezar, Adrianna J., Daniel T. Scott, and Tom DePaola, The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press, 2019.
Kokobobo, Ani. “The Fight for the University of Kansas.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 Jan. 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-fight-for-the-university-of-kansas.
Mintz, Steven. “The Adjunctification of Gen Ed.” Inside Higher Ed, 12 Jan. 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/adjunctification-gen-ed-0.
Newsom, John. “‘Heartbreaking’: Guilford College to Make Deep Cuts to Its Academic Majors and Faculty.” News & Record, 6 Nov. 2020, https://greensboro.com/news/local/education/heartbreaking-guilford-college-to-make-deep-cuts-to-its-academic-majors-and-faculty/article_7755e64e-1f88-11eb-8cf0-4743eb7847ae.html.
Perrett, Tom. “How Charles Koch Is Buying Credibility with Academic Investments.” DeSmog, 12 Sept. 2020, https://www.desmog.com/2020/09/12/charles-koch-academic-george-mason-utah-state-university/.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.
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“Rep. Malcom Kenyatta and Rep. John Galloway Shut down Commonwealth Foundation on Minimum Wage.” Pennsylvania Spotlight, 18 Mar. 2021, http://www.paspotlight.org/2021/rep-malcom-kenyatta-and-rep-john-galloway-shut-down-commonwealth-foundation-on-minimum-wage/.
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Shoults, Julie. Incorporating Contingent Faculty into the Campus Community. MLA 2021 Convention, Virtual Meeting.
Smith, Zoë. “Demand W&M Arts & Sciences Commit to All Our Faculty.” Change.Org, https://www.change.org/p/students-demand-w-m-arts-sciences-commit-to-all-our-faculty-c1aa799b-f609-4f5e-b831-29b833595733. Accessed 21 May 2021.
Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Verso, 2020, https://rbdigital.rbdigital.com.
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Organizations and Further Resources
Academic Mutual Aid Foundation
Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA)
Common Grounds Collective
DDGC Action Groups
Disabled Academic Collective
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief
Radical Communicators Network
Tenure for the Common Good
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice
Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning (Blog)
Unkoch My Campus
Visionary Futures Collective
DDGC joined forces with our comrades at BGHRA and DDFC to issue a joint statement and call to action in support of trans and nonbinary people. You can find the complete statement here. Please visit the website to add your name to the statement. Consider reaching out to your scholarly association and ask its leadership team to draft up their own statement and plan for action in support of trans and nonbinary people.
Below is an excerpt from the statement.
“The three collectives vehemently condemn the rising transphobia and acts of anti-trans violence in the United States and throughout the world as well as the more than 100 pieces of anti-trans legislation that are being heard in more than 30 states this legislative session, which are a part of the 195+ anti-LGBTQ+ bills currently being considered by states across the country. We further recognize that the number of coordinated legislative attacks against trans people is unprecedented while simultaneously understanding the long historical arch of oppression and violence in which these acts are situated (see for example Gill-Peterson, 2018; Knisely & Paiz, 2021; Malatino, 2020).
We maintain that there is an ethical imperative to uphold the rights and dignity of trans people in schools and, thus, in our broader communities and society. And we maintain that any call for diversity and inclusion (e.g., ACTFL, 2019) must include unequivocal support for trans rights and gender justice. These assertions are particularly poignant for us as scholars, educators, and students of language; our identities --who we are as groups and individuals-- are inseparable from the language we use and from the affordances and constraints we experience in our interactions with others (see Darvin & Norton, 2015; Knisely, 2021a, 2021b; Knisely & Paiz, 2021). To the same degree, our success as language learners and users is measured in and by our successful interactions with others (see for example work by Uju Anya). We believe that a person’s ability to thrive and to succeed should not depend upon the extent to which they do or do not conform to gender norms.”
The following letter was sent to the leadership of the College of William and Mary.
Dear Provost Agouris,
Dean Donoghue Velleca,
Vice Provost Stock,
We were appalled to learn that Dean Maria Donoghue Veneca has informed at least twelve non-tenured faculty members from the Government, Modern Languages, Theatre, and other departments that the school is unwilling to commit to offering a contract for the next academic year. These departments, and the subjects they teach, are a core part of a strong liberal arts education; their faculty are key to the strong reputation William & Mary enjoys as an institution of excellence in undergraduate teaching.
We stand in solidarity with the many members of the William & Mary student body, faculty, staff, alumni, and others who have called on the administration to issue contracts for these valued members of the William & Mary faculty. Delaying contracts increases the already serious employment and life insecurity for these workers, prohibits them from preparing adequately for their future employment, and harms instruction at the college by either eliminating courses or restricting the ability to prepare for courses. Moreover, these departments employ faculty who rely on visas to continue their work - and these visas are endangered by delayed contracts.
It is no coincidence that many of the programs targeted are programs in the Humanities, while others are key to preparing students for a future as global citizens. Again and again the pandemic has been used as an excuse to gut the very core of liberal arts education by reducing or eliminating programs in the Humanities. These programs prepare students for the kind of critical and creative thinking, oral and writing communication, and problem-solving skills necessary to address the biggest problems facing the world today, including the transnational emergence of new white supremacist movements, ongoing racism and other effects of imperialism and colonialism, and climate change. Training in history, literatures, arts, languages, philosophy, religious studies, and more all provide students necessary skills to grapple with today’s “big questions.”
Yet, these programs have been targeted for defunding, partly because of long-existing, false myths that students who study these areas will not be employed or will not earn adequately in the future, and partly because of profound public misunderstandings about what Humanities courses do. Above all, work in the Humanities asks students to grapple with their understanding of human events and processes; understand how to find and interpret the evidence necessary to inform that understanding; learn how to relate to, live with, and engage with other people; and to grapple with and continually rethink the values and ethics that inform our actions.
Programs that teach languages and cultures have been particularly targeted. Key findings of the 2019 Making Languages our Business report by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), which surveyed 1,200 U.S. employers, note that:
We would like to further point out that the teaching and learning of language cannot be separated from culture. Thus, language departments and their curricular offerings are integral to institutional commitments to increase diversity and foster global competence. Your own mission statement attests to this fact, as it claims the following core outcomes of a Humanities education as institutional values: “cultivate compassionate global citizens” ; “embrace diverse peoples and perspectives” ; “foster deep human connection” ; “engage with individuals and communities both near and far” ; “engage diverse perspectives” (William & Mary Vision, Mission, Values).
Experiencing different cultures through language provides needed tools for understanding, navigating and participating in “communities near and far” (by preparing our students for interaction with people of diverse cultural backgrounds). As recent studies, including those by the Modern Languages Association reveal, the study of new languages further enables critical reflection of one’s own culture(s): “While [students] gain an appreciation for the world outside [their] own, contact with other cultures will give [them] new perspectives on [their] own language, culture, and society” (MLA “Language Study in the Age of Globalization).
To consider not renewing the contracts of our dedicated colleagues – whose curricular and co-curricular offerings are central to your institution’s mission, fulfill a number of university requirements and are deemed essential by former and current students – based on a perceived lack of curricular need is incomprehensible and directly contradicts your institution’s stated vision and values.
We urge you to secure the future of your institution’s reputation as well as the real efficacy of William & Mary as a top place for undergraduate education. We further urge you to offer longer-term contracts and more secure positions to these faculty in the future. Only by better working to secure the conditions of working and learning in our educational institutions can we also prepare our students to address the immense challenges that they face both in their local communities and as global citizens.
American Association of Teachers of German (AATG)
Austrian Studies Organization (ASA)
Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA)
Canadian Association of University Teachers of German (CAUTG)
Coalition of Women in German (WiG)
Diversity, Decolonization, & the German Curriculum Collective (DDGC)
German Studies Association (GSA)
The following are excerpts or transcripts from presentations given as part of a roundtable titled, “Teaching German and Germanic Languages in the Age of White Supremacy,” which was held January 9, 2021, as part of programming for the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA). The session was organized by Adrienne Merritt under the auspices of the MLA Germanic Philology and Linguistics Forum.
Adrienne Merritt (St. Olaf College)
I’d like to begin with a land acknowledgement.Today we are speaking from the unseated homelands of the Wahpekute Band of the Dakota Nation in Minnesota (St. Olaf College), the ancient homelands of the Lenni-Lenape people (Princeton University), the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people (University of British Columbia), and the lands of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.We thank them for their stewardship and strength, and recognize the historical and current injustices that continue to enact violence and trauma on the Dakota, Lenni-Lenape, Musqueam, and Aboriginal peoples.
I’d like to start my own portion of the event with a quote from Arundhati Roy:
"Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to
a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing
for a return to “normality,” trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to
acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible
despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for
ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically,
pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world
anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred,
our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.
And ready to fight for it" (Roy 2020).
For me, this citation is very powerful for a variety of reasons, not just because of how current it is—i.e., the things that we struggle with in this COVID-reality—but when we’re looking through the lens of white supremacy, this concept of dead ideas, of dead weight that we are carrying, the suggestion of being willing and able to break with the past and imagine our world anew holds within it an emphasis on imagining, of imagining where our paths might lead. And so when we’re thinking about teaching in the age of white supremacy, I think that imagination is a key aspect. I think that we cannot think about moving forward until we take stock of what white supremacy means, not just within our fields or disciplines, but how those fields have been constructed over time through the language that we use, with a particular focus on both the use and misuse of language.
I am not speaking just of propaganda, which many of us can point to quite clearly, but the concept of fake news. When we’re thinking about a Trump presidency, of having to actually confront what we might consider fake news, of doing research, of asking not only our students but also the general public, to think about their consumption of news (and what that means, how that is presented, how to move forward) with how we will present and position ourselves in our personal and professional lives. I think the end of this quote—“and ready to fight for it”—is significant. To confront and discuss white supremacy is something active, not just thinking from an antiracist or antifascist perspective, but as educators we are willing to take risks in order to make change. And this is where I think smaller groups and collectives, such as the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Collective and the Coalition of Women in German, are really trying to work toward different ways of structuring German studies and challenging current practice, rather than upholding it as the status quo.
The next quote I include points to how I think about moving forward and ways that we might institute change. This quote is taken from James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew” (1962). Baldwin writes,
"[White men] are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not
understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that
black men are inferior to white men.
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it
very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be
committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts
of most white Americans is the loss of their identity" (Baldwin 1963, 20).
I think that this is something that we saw most clearly at the Capitol and the ways that language has figured in terms of a resistance, of a loss. That there is a loss of identity, that there is a loss of something when we start to name whiteness for what it is. Which leads me to my next quote, taken from another piece by Baldwin from his “Letter in a Region of my Mind”, also from 1962. Baldwin states there, “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (43).
Part of the reason I’m bringing up these quotes is because I want to make explicit that this is a discourse with a long history. We’re talking about this in 2021, but the reality is that this extends back so many centuries. Going back to Roy’s comment about “imagining other futures,” it can be quite difficult to find ways to imagine because white supremacy has infiltrated aspects of our daily and professional lives.
For me, taking stock of this and moving forward, and thinking about this, is that it’s all in a name, it’s exposing white supremacy. Of course Sara Ahmed has written “The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” as well as the “The Phenomenology of Whiteness,” where she has talked about some of these things. I would like to revise the language she uses slightly to reduce the harm inherent in the ableist connotation of “the invisibility of whiteness.” I would instead term it “naming whiteness.” I think that it’s important to name whiteness where it exists, rather than solely focusing on naming racism (and I’m taking cues from bell hooks in particular here). When I’m approaching white supremacy and aspects of whiteness in German studies as I’m teaching, in reality I don’t teach German studies; rather I teach in general white German studies because that is what I have learned—but we don’t call it that. Thinking about the impact of white supremacy in our disciplines, and thinking about the texts we assign, the presence of whiteness there and white supremacy, the languages that we utter—even the fact that I’m speaking English is an extension of white supremacy and colonialism—but also I think about the ways that critique and reflection, especially personally reflection, can be used as used as instruments of activism and discovery. I can tell students about the presence of white supremacy. I can even show them. But until there is an element of reflection, that message may be missed and most likely will not be internalized.
Encouraging students to think about the ways in which white supremacy impacts the Self, rather than simply focusing on the Other, is a way of confronting the presence of white supremacy and how it permeates throughout our lives and histories. Through the discussion of whiteness and fostering critical inquiry on this topic, students are encouraged to approach potential futures, imagining futures where whiteness and white supremacy are no longer centered and, I might say, omnipresent. When we are pushed to think about different ways of speaking and ways that we might combat whiteness and white supremacy, those imagined futures can start to take shape. In many ways, my points listed above connect to Audre Lorde’s famous quote: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you” (2007, 41). By naming whiteness, we dispel the silence that has insulated white supremacy and white-centered discourses and disciplines and begin to recognize that no one benefits from white supremacy.
Course Revision in the Age of White Supremacy
While I have discussed my approach and opinion about teaching in the age of white supremacy, I find it crucial to not simply rely upon vague talking points but also concrete examples. I’d like to provide two examples of courses that I’ve revised while keeping critical race theory and naming white supremacy in mind. These are courses that I inherited, which many of us do. The first is a course that was broadly conceptualized as a German media course for advanced undergraduate German students. For me, approaching this course meant asking myself what I mean by “German media” and how can I actually confront aspects of white supremacy and the centering of whiteness in this course while also talking about media and related theory. In many ways, I sought to trace the trail of white supremacy and whiteness through the lens of media in Germany, of thinking about the concepts of orality and reading, reading groups, readership, publishing, and how these practices have impacted whose voices are readily and more easily consumed and whose have been sidelined. It involved asking questions about which groups have been included (and excluded) in “standard” German studies courses, whose works have been privileged and centered, and which have been marginalized and dubbed “elective” or optional.
I wanted to confront the non-neutrality of newspapers and magazines and expose the various ways that voices that have been marginalized sought out new avenues to publish and circulate their works to the public. In thinking about the longue dureée of this development of media practice, I begin with Gutenberg and Luther. I then discussed critical media practice as a mode through which social critique is disseminated (Karl Kraus was the example I used). I also wanted to address the connection between media and propaganda. For me it was crucial to outline and establish the point that the history of media, in fact its very origins, are connected to aspects of propaganda and supremacy—first a normalized Christian identity and then a white, German one. Media helped to develop and standardize the language of that identity and provided the means to bring that media into the daily lives of German-speakers.
The second example is another inherited course offered in the German department but one that fulfills a general education requirement and attracts high enrollment, as well as students from many disciplines. The fairy tales and folklore course needed to be Eurocentric—as per the catalog description and the requirement it fulfilled—but I aimed to broaden the conversation to include texts and discourses from outside the borders of Europe, and certainly beyond German-speaking countries. I focused on the following points while revising the course structure and content:
In addition to the course content and structure, I felt it necessary to mirror my revised approach in the aesthetics of the syllabus, emphasizing care and concern for a variety of viewpoints, while simultaneously increasing representation of non-white, Germanic cultures.
I included specific mention of concern for mental health and stress. I spent time to reflect upon and meaningfully integrate a land acknowledgement, positionality statement, and clear objectives for the course that prioritized tasks. In addition and in an attempt to push back against normalized forms of academic discourse and expectation, I stated which sections were crucial to reading and which were more optional on the course Moodle page, demystifying objectives but also letting students know that I recognized the specific difficulties of trying to live, work, and learn during the age of COVID-19.
As a closing thought, I’d like to point out that there isn’t one way to teach during the age of white supremacy but it is crucial that discussion of whiteness and naming white supremacy remains an active part of our curricula (should we focus on white-authored works) or turns away from centering whiteness (should we focus on marginalized-identity authored works).
Adam Oberlin (Princeton University)
In response to the quotation from James Baldwin cited by Adrienne: if it is difficult to act on what you know, how much harder when you don't know! The following is a something of a call to action, recognizing that the call should not be universal and that the burden of immersing oneself in a morass of extremism is not evenly borne, so maybe not you personally, and maybe not fair, in a sense, to anyone, but certainly a needed direction in several fields. The more we can share the better.
Recent positive developments in medievalism studies notwithstanding, there remains overall a lag and at times a lack of understanding in the field(s) under discussion today, e.g., German studies, medieval studies, medievalism studies, and, frankly, the humanities generally (though some, as David notes, have made more strides than others in some areas).
As a first principle, you cannot fight what you do not know, and we are collectively rather bad at knowing the limits of our ignorance in this particular area—2016 both was and was not the watershed moment we imagine it to be.
The stakes are not simply large, but all-encompassing: if the common direction of the radical right is toward fascism, if, as Walter Benjamin notes, “[a]lle Bemühungen um die Ästhetisierung der Politik gipfeln in einem Punkt. Dieser eine Punkt ist der Krieg[,]” we are not only speaking about defending the ‘proper’ understanding of the past or contextualizing symbols, figures, events, peoples, and concepts in the service of reducing or eliminating ‘misuse’ or ‘appropriation’ (506). We are speaking about preventing the further radicalization of our students, our communities, our nations, and our world. To that end, a few points:
Of particular importance: this is not a struggle against ‘bad’ history, historiography, linguistics, biology, literary criticism, etc., that can be remedied by educating students or the broader public about ‘good’ history, historiography, linguistics, biology, literary criticism, etc. If we think it is, we have missed the point entirely and failed already in the admittedly limited capacity we may have to shape public opinion. This is certainly about internal historiographies, on the one hand, but I think a useful and perhaps even vital intervention is the notion that it is indeed more about a shared storyworld, a narratological phenomenon with very real implications in the sociological reality of subcultures, and here is precisely where a concrete task with real-world implications CAN be taken up in the academic humanities.
Medieval studies in this sense must always already be medievalism studies. Let's Take as an example Thor’s Hammer, a symbol employed generally by Norse neopagans and reconstructionalists, fans of several genres of heavy metal, white supremacist gangs incarcerated and outside of the prison system, non-white supremacist pagans as part of prison outreach programs designed to combat the former, military service members in the USA thanks for another outreach project after the acceptance of Ásatrú as a valid religion by the US armed forces, and some people, I suppose, who simply think it looks cool. The wider context within which such a symbol must be interpreted is not typically difficult to determine provided one apprehends that distinct and sometimes overlapping groups use the same symbols with the same intended signification but different ideological backgrounds. In the case of the hammer, most possible interpretations will by definition involve identification with and pride in Nordic heritage and/or identification with the pre-Christian religious practices of Germanic Europe. That Varg Vikernes wearing Thor’s Hammer can only be interpreted through a white nationalist, white supremacist, radical traditionalist, esoteric lens requires knowing who he is, what he has done, and what he currently represents. Someone on the street wearing the same jewelry while sporting the shirt of Vikernes’ solo act Burzum, or perhaps of the Viking metal band Amon Amarth, presents more questions than immediate answers, whose dimensions may or may not change from place to place (e.g., the public perception of and messaging from Ásatrúar in Iceland is hardly the same as in North America). Similar and detailed analyses of runes can give rise to further questions about identity and culture, appropriation and misuse, pre-modern history, and medievalism generally, as well as particularly the twentieth-century esoteric adaptations that form both the pop-cultural patina and national socialist legacy lurking under the surface.
While teaching Germanic languages, literatures, and cultures in a pre-modern or modern context requires experience with the manifold and heterogenous expressions of the past and its symbolism, the benefits of looking into some of the darker or stranger corners of the world are many. If the goal is to reveal to students not simply that symbols are being misused by the obvious villains, but also how to identify, probe, and question various uses tangential or adjacent to them, as well as bring them into dialogue both with pop-cultural phenomena deemed ‘safe’ and the philosophical, political, and other writings that inform their journey from the Middle Ages to the twenty first century, it is to our advantage not to stop at the low-hanging fruit and journalistic buzzwords that have largely defined the past five years of medievalist commentary in formal and informal settings. This is not to disparage some of the excellent and informative work that has been done for wider audiences, but to mention that we have only begun to investigate the interconnectedness of the contemporary narratives that cannot be subsumed under the period-centric interests of medievalists, nor ignore the work of sociologists on subcultures, narratologists on storyworlds, or a host of others on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, nationalism, decolonization, and contemporary anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, anti-pluralistic political movements. You cannot fight what you do not recognize, after all. My hope is that deeper engagement with the moving, changing strands of symbolic, historical, and other types of 'misuse' can provoke questions and debate about the limits of engagement with the past, who tells which stories, what ownership means, whether concepts such as ‘reclamation’ are even possible, let alone desirable, and more—at the level of the highest good, maybe even steer someone away from paths better left untrodden.
Maureen Gallagher (The Australian National University)
Like many, I have spent the past days glued to social media and news feeds, taking in the shocking images from Washington, DC, the image of the Confederate flag being proudly marched through the halls of Congress a reminder of the frailty of democracy and the persistence of white supremacy. The iconography of these events is by now familiar—American flags, the Gadsden flag, Trump flags, hats, and t-shirts, military uniforms and insignia—but also horned helmets, Thor’s hammer tattoos, and Camp Auschwitz shirts. In a panel on Thursday, Nahir Otaño Gracia of the University of New Mexico remarked, “Medieval Studies is compatible with white supremacy,” but so, I would argue, is German studies. After all, this disturbing iconography points not to a generic Medieval past, but to a specifically Germanic past that white supremacists claim ownership of. It is also this German past that Illinois Congresswoman Mary Miller referenced in a speech on Wednesday (January 6, 2021) when she quoted Adolf Hitler--“Whoever has the youth has the future”—and noted he “was right on one thing.”
I’ve been thinking about the relationship of this panel to the MLA presidential theme, “persistence.” While we have seen increased boldness and visibility from white supremacists, white supremacy, of course, isn’t new. It is persistent, and we are not the first generation of Germanists to be teaching in its shadow. In 1846, a group of linguists, historians, folklorists, literary and legal scholars gathered for the first Germanistentag in Frankfurt. This was not only an important event in the history of the German nation (many delegates would later go on to serve in the Frankfurt National Assembly in 1848) but in our discipline. Randall Halle noted in his 2017 GSA speech that it is arguably the founding moment of German studies. At this meeting, historical painter Wilhelm Lindenschmit presented to Jacob Grimm his book, Die Räthsel der Vorwelt, oder: Sind die Deutschen eingewandert? in which he argued, “Der deutsche Mensch allein ist der wirkliche weisse Mann” (46). There is no evidence Lindenschmit or his ideas had much of an impact on the meeting, but I mention this as one example among many of the embeddedness of discourses of whiteness with discourses of Germanness.
Both the nation and whiteness are persistent constructs that shape our field. For all we might talk about intercultural and transnational contexts, much of our field is still wedded to the national context of Germany, a fact borne out by a cursory glance at textbooks, program descriptions, and syllabus reading lists. Further, many German programs without adequate funding rely on the German Embassy’s Campus Weeks program to fund or supplement their co-curricular programs, thereby participating directly in the German government’s foreign cultural and educational policy. For more on this point, I encourage you to read Sigrid Weigel’s report “Transnational Foreign Cultural Policy – Beyond National Culture.” On the persistence of whiteness, I invite you to look at research from Dianna Murphy and Seo Young Lee published in the 2019 ADFL Bulletin, which shows that German remains the whitest modern language discipline, with 84.6% of BA degrees awarded to non-Hispanic white students.
The question then, is how we build a discipline that is incompatible with white supremacy. As a first step, we must work to decenter whiteness and disrupt the normative connection between Germanness and whiteness. We should cultivate and maintain close alliances with fields like history, women’s and gender, queer studies, Jewish studies, and critical race and ethnic studies and place an emphasis on studying and teaching the history (and present) of racism, antisemitism, and fascism. We must be mindful of the images and arguments we use to market German studies and the language we use to describe our programs and justify their existence to continue to resist neoliberalization and easy or monolithic understandings of the Germanophone world. We should also continue to free ourselves of ideas of canonicity, coverage, and just what it is that a German major “has to” have read or be able to do.
We should seek out methods for doing German studies in ways that center minoritized voices and perspectives and resist dominant ideas of whiteness. In my Black Germany course, we begin with works by Noah Sow (Deutschland Schwarz Weiß, 2008) and Tupoka Ogette (exit RACISM, 2017) that introduce concepts like white privilege, white fragility, everyday and structural racism, police violence, and racial profiling in accessible language. This serves the dual purpose of foregrounding the voices and experiences of People of Color in Germany—all primary and secondary literature, with only one or two exceptions, is written by PoCs—and enabling students to think through their own subject positions in relation to both Germany and Australia, a country that defines itself as multicultural but until the 1970s maintained official “White Australia” immigration policies. Another approach is that taken by Obenewaa Oduro-Opuni of the University of Arizona in her presentation in the Language and Literature Program Innovation Room at the 2021 MLA conference. In her “Black Studies approach to the 18th century,” she brings slave plays like August von Kotzebue’s The Negro Slaves (1796) into conversation with other works from the Age of Goethe as a way of centering abolitionist discourses. Yet another example is from Jamele Watkins of the University of Minnesota, who, in centering works by women, queer, Black, and Jewish authors, has constructed a survey of modern German literature without texts from what might be called “majority” German authors.
It is necessary, as well, to think of this work from the very first semester of our German curriculum. Relying solely on textbooks is inadequate to disrupt the normative connection between Germanness and whiteness. Multiliteracies approaches offer one promising alternative (see, for example, Jennifer Redmann’s recent essay in the ADFL Bulletin).Grenzenlos Deutsch, a project I have been involved with since 2016, is an online German curriculum designed to offer flexibility, diversity, accessibility, and a social justice approach to German. In focusing on Austria, it decenters the national context of Germany, and as an open educational resource, it is available at no cost to anyone with an internet connection. Even a gesture as simple as sourcing more diverse images (using public domain images and illustrations from sources like the Gender Spectrum Collection, Black Illustrations, Nappy, or the resources listed here and here) can be an important first step.
Before I conclude, I want to highlight three pressure points or potential problems that can impede this work:
To conclude I would like to note that recent events have almost overshadowed that this week marks sixteen years since the death of Oury Jalloh in police custody in Dessau, and we remain without answers and without justice for his killing. The case of Jalloh is one of many examples of state violence against Black and brown bodies in German contexts. In 2017 a delegation of the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent visited Germany to investigate the status of Black people in Germany, and in their report they note the widespread racial profiling, racism, and disparate access to education, work, housing, and healthcare faced by People of Color there. This reality—the reality of white supremacy, racism, and the interlinked histories of anti-Black racism and oppression in Germany and the United States—must remain at the center of what we do as we work to decenter whiteness, dismantle white supremacy and create a more just world. It is clear to me that to achieve these monumental tasks we must work together to create communities in our classrooms, departments and campuses that cultivate an ethics of care and shared norms and values and place at their center the idea that Black Lives Matter.
David Gramling (University of British Columbia)
I’d like to start with a thought from the writer and labor columnist Kim Kelly, who—reflecting on the siege of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021—writes: “It costs a lot of money to fund this fascist bullshit. Don’t lay the blame solely on the lazy avatar of the ‘blue collar Trump voter.’ There were lawyers and CEOs and a judge’s son leading the charge. One of them took her private jet out to storm the Capitol!”
I’d add to Kim Kelly’s thoughts that it didn’t just take a lot of money to fund this fascist bullshit, but a lot of education and curricular enabling. Here in Canada, we have at the moment an organization called Students for Western Civilization, which is not some grassroots movement, but an astroturf, glossy, very well-funded so-called student group, which curates itself around Aryan and Nazi aesthetics and combines these with all the additional contemporary tools of white grievance culture. This is what their very well-funded promotional materials say about them: “SWC advocates for the rights, interests and identity of European-Canadians by promoting viewpoint diversity in academia and the media; combating anti-white discrimination; fighting anti-white hate speech; and preserving and enhancing our cultural heritage.”
If the medieval historian David Perry asked us in 2017, “What happens when Neo-Nazis Lay Claim to your Field,” I don’t think German studies has stepped up to this question honestly. Classicists have, and medievalists have, along of course with Indigenous and ethnic studies which have been doing it all along. The Society for Classical Studies and the Medieval Society of America have undertaken quite frank measures to figure out how their fields, and the way they teach them, open up an interactive space of symbolic projection where learners can play out white supremacist fantasy. Where they can take what they’ve learned from Game of Thrones and 8chan and legitimate it in our world with a few modules on the Crusades, some group projects on Old High German heroic verse, some creative experimenting Fraktur typesetting, some lectures on so-called German military history and a bit of reactionary modernism, and now the news of the restoration of the Berliner Schloss with all its colonial holdings.
What they end up with is precisely the emergent, dynamic emotional experience that Robert Paxton describes in his “anatomy of fascism” book. It excites and awakens white supremacy as a space of uncompromising emotional possibility, in an age desiccated by the ruins and atomization of neoliberalism. So the mob at the US Capitol the other day not only had private jet owners, lawyers, judges’ kids, and CEOs kids in it, but also German majors, minors, so-called heritage learners, and also students who gave us their student credit hours in our large gen-ed lecture classes on emotionally fascinating topics. Some of them took German 1 just long enough to pronounce Deutsch with a Nazi accent as Deitsch. Some, previously, had gone to schools with Western Civ style programs or Humane Letters programs that sought to restore a sense of core, historically shared ethical values in their student body.
All of these codes and signals and idioms have added up to a powerful and opportunistic myth today, in Roland Barthes sense, upon which those learners and their families can project almost anything they want. It becomes a vague reservoir of semiotic and sense-making potential, not entirely different in its psychic intensity than Germanic medieval imagery and Roman classicism were for fascist-curious kids in the early 20th century.
And it is the presence of this semiotic basis, and not its absence, that made for instance the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt a potential student learning outcome. The point for me is that we teachers and instructors are 100% responsible for that psychic intensity, in quite the same way that firearms instructors are responsible for teaching how exactly firearms kill and maim. It’s a sober responsibility, not an alarmist one, and not a distraction from our so-called “real work.” This is now our primary, and not secondary, realm of attention and concern. We are either mythologizers or de-mythologizers; there is no in-between for us now.
But as far as I know, unlike the affirmative developments in classics and medieval studies, our foremost national and international organizations that deal with German and other colonial and fascist legacies have not taken responsibility for this fascist and supremacist semiotic potential that brought siege to the seat of US representative democracy on Wednesday. Instead, in the worse case, we’ve sent two of our highest profile Germanists to serve on Mike Pompeo’s white supremacist curriculum committee. In the best case, our marketing has relied on diversity- and inclusion-based multiculturalism. This does about as little to combat white supremacy in its explicit and implicit structures as does calling the colonial Berliner Schloss a “Forum.”
But because of what I call the enrolment-supremacist complex, we have been hedging our bets on this for decades, low-key afraid of alienating anyone. Not wanting to alienate crypto-nationalist heritage agendas and their money while in the same breath NOT acknowledging Black Germans and Black adoptees from Germany as heritage learners too. Not wanting to acknowledge that German-Americans and German-Canadians are settler colonials involved in Indigenous displacement and genocide and not just emigrants and Auslandsdeutsche. And really doubling down on a wealth-driven rationale for studying German with notions of German as the “strongest economy in Europe,” without regard to the decades and decades of labor by People of Color and labor migrants to make that economy possible at all.
So I think our national orgs and our departmental curricula really need to take a cue from the good work of the Society for Classical Studies and openly ask ourselves, without thinking AT ALL about enrolments for once:
This isn’t navel-gazing. It’s our responsibility as teachers and as a field. And we are LATE to the discussion, despite many serious efforts in the 1990s to do much of this work, which petered out because of lack of institutional support and the sheer and persistent power of white supremacist neo-conversative culture wars, and of course white supremacy has never ceded power willingly.
I note in closing that this past week, the American Association of Teachers of German has passed, for the first time in their 100-year history, an amendment to their organization’s constitution, to introduce an Equity Officer into their volunteer Executive Leadership. I think, once that position is filled, these three questions from the SCS would be a great place for that serious and hopeful work in the organization to commence.
Ansley, Frances Lee. “Stirring the Ashes: Race Class and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship.” Cornell Law Review74.6 (1989): 994–1073.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. London: Michael Joseph, 1963.
Benjamin, Walter. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980.
Lindenschmit, Wilhelm. Die Räthsel der Vorwelt, oder: Sind die Deutschen eingewandert? Mainz: Seifert, 1846.
Merritt, Adrienne. “A Question of Inclusion: Intercultural Competence, Systemic Racism, and the North American German Classroom.” Diversity and Decolonization in the German Curriculum, eds. Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj. New York: Palgrave, 2020. 177–196.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossings Press, 2007.
Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” Department of African American Studies. Princeton University. May 1, 2020. https://aas.princeton.edu/news/pandemic-portal. Accessed: March 3, 2021.
Monday, November 16, 2020, 3:30-5:00pm (Pacific)
Event Moderators: Emily Frazier-Rath, Gizem Arslan, Derek Price, Andrea Bryant.
Event Organizers and Notetakers: Patrick Ploschnitzki, Rosemarie Peña, David Gramling, Ervin Malakaj, Beverly Weber, Maria Stehle, Hannah Eldridge.
Contents of this Document
Context, Attendance, Protocol, Purpose, and Next Steps
Paradigm Problems & Conditions We Face Now
General Commitments and Principles shared among attendees
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