By Todd Heidt (Knox College)
In this post, I’ll argue that inclusive pedagogies and curricular design at the introductory level must become the norm in German Studies so that we can accurately represent German-speaking cultures and serve our students. Inclusive pedagogies should be thoughtfully crafted to not exoticize or tokenize, but to normalize the representation of minoritized individuals in German-speaking cultures in each of our classes and throughout our curricula.
I’ll frame this argument with reference to two key demographic realities which will shape German Studies classrooms now, in a few years, and over the coming decades. On one hand, German-speaking Europe will only become more diverse as long-present (yet largely invisible) residents with a Migrationshintergrund and newcomers migrating in our global era make these German-speaking spaces their home.[i] On the other hand, the demographic make-up of the United States is rapidly changing, and higher education is finally seeing significant change in enrollments by traditionally underrepresented students. These changes provide a tremendous opportunity for Germanists teaching in the US context, but failure to address these developments poses, I argue, even greater risks for the future of our discipline. While my examples focus on the introductory level, I believe these conclusions could be extended to intermediate and advanced coursework as well.
Diversity and Inclusion in the German Classroom
I fully acknowledge that first “diversity” and later “inclusion” have been ongoing concerns in our field for at least 30 years. In 1989, the AATG established a Task Force to formulate recommendations on promoting minorities in German Studies (Peters 5), resulting in an issue of Unterrichtspraxis dedicated to this topic in 1992. Today, this work has been taken over by AATG’s Alle lernen Deutsch initiative. The GSA inaugurated a Black Diaspora Studies Network in 2016. This group of scholars, as well as the scholarly collective Diversity and Decolonization and the German Curriculum, have worked through informal channels such as social media, as well as in formal channels in established conferences and by organizing their own conferences. Yet, when I poll colleagues informally at the GSA and ACTFL, even those colleagues at highly diverse institutions very often report that student populations in German courses remain overwhelmingly white. While I applaud the initiatives of the last 30 years, I must also acknowledge that their effects on the field have been quite limited. We have much more work to do to make fundamental changes to German Studies in the US. Student bodies have become more diverse on our campuses and German-speaking cultures have become more diverse than ever before However, our courses continue to attract a smaller and smaller proportion of our campuses, a proportion which is also demographically quite homogeneous. Why could this be? I believe the answer lies in our curricula.
Our curricula, from elementary language books to advanced seminars, have too often featured examples which have treated diversity or multiculturalism, in the words of Priscilla Layne, “perfunctor[ily], like one is just trying to get in their mandatory two servings of diversity for the semester” (Layne 2019). I wouldn’t argue that we as a discipline consciously and purposefully treat diversity in this manner, and I certainly didn’t mean to exclude voices in my own classes. Yet, I ultimately found that I was excluding groups; moreover, I was doing so despite factual evidence of the diverse nature of Germany’s past and present. I had become acculturated to a vision of German Studies which was an artificially limited and carefully curated presentation of “German Culture.”
The problem this poses is that such prevailing norms (and perfunctory treatment of minoritized identities) in our curricula can and do reiterate the trope of German-speaking Europe as normatively white and culturally monolithic, rendering non-white individuals as “eternal new-comers” (xx) and non-white speakers of European languages (such as German) as people who “again and again appear as a curious contradiction, never quite becoming unspectacular and commonplace” (xxv) as argued by Fatima El-Tayeb.
This takes place in a particularly pointed fashion at the introductory level. For those interested in putting hard numbers on these trends, you might see Darren Ilett’s 2009 article in Die Unterrichtspraxis, “Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Textbooks.” While Ilett finds trends toward diversity as a problem on one hand, and diversity as a given on the other, his analysis provides insights into quantitative (i.e., number of images) and qualitative (i.e., analysis of images, culture notes, etc.) presentation of Others. Ilett found that minoritized individuals are often highlighted in the context of culture clashes or problems “caused” by the arrival of migrants. Even in images, Ilett notes that individuals visually marked as Muslim and Other are spatially separated in the composition, for example, appearing as a homogeneous group of Muslim women in headscarves who are physically separate from the larger, “German” crowd behind them (55). I am unaware of similar studies analyzing the representation of women, LGBTQ identifying individuals, able-bodied individuals and others, but I would venture to say that the majority of our books primarily represent white people of a certain socio-economic class and physical ability. (Ironically, it is often the very point of our upper-level culture courses to problematize such cultural trends and representations. However, this self-critical perspective seems to only recently have significantly impacted the publishing market for US German language textbooks with projects such as Grenzenlos Deutsch and Klett’s Impuls Deutsch.) Generally, introductory textbooks tend to not address debates around such recent cultural debates as gendered pronouns in German. Families are often presented as the heteronormative family unit and we must supplement even with information such as “sich scheiden lassen,” “Halbgeschwister” or “gleichgeschlechtliche Ehe.” Treatment of minoritized racial and ethnic groups is often completely overlooked, with no attempt to present appropriate vocabulary or discuss racial dynamics. This sends a clear signal to students as they enter the German curriculum and likely is the beginning of an exit-ramp out of our programs for minoritized students.
More Accurate Representation Offers Key Opportunities
By including diverse groups in our cultural history, and in all of our teaching materials, we can achieve a number of key goals.
Engaging with such topics not only more accurately reflects the complexities and identities often simplified under the monolithic rubric of “German culture,” but also provides us with an opportunity to make our own relevance more clear to students, colleagues, and administrators. In the coming years, this will only become more important.
The Future of Our Classrooms
Historically, we have been an area of study for white students, often with a heritage connection. That heritage connection is frequently quite tenuous: a last name, yet neither a familiarity with the language or culture from home, as in my own case. But reliance upon a white student body (pun intended) for our classes will in the very near future mean excluding a plurality of student identities on our campuses. Nathan Grawe, an economist who focuses on higher education enrollment, predicts that a combination of fertility decline around the time of the 2008 financial crisis and migration patterns will make the US college-going population less white in just a few years’ time (Grawe 2019). The National Center for Education Statistics agrees, projecting significant increases in enrollments for students of color. Their 2018 report, “Projections of Education Statistics to 2026,” charts the following trends. Between 2015 and 2026, enrollments in US institutions of higher education can be expected to change as follows. Enrollments will:
Now, given the historically stark imbalance in enrollment between whites and other races, we could choose to minimize this. However, enrollment by Black and Hispanic students is predicted to exceed 40% of the entire US higher education enrollments in the next several years. Hard numbers like this are much more difficult to come by for the LGBTQ community. We already know that the majority of those enrolled in higher ed are women, not men, a trend now deeply entrenched in the US. In our current cultural climate, even our majority students are increasingly passionate about discussions of gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, and more.
There are, essentially, two ways in which to interpret these realities. The first may strike some as rather self-serving and cynical: Given these coming realities, if German studies fails to become relevant to the lived experiences of a broad spectrum of student identities, we can only expect falling enrollment numbers. We further imperil the state of German studies. We will see further closures of departments and programs. Such arguments, of course, center the importance of tenured and tenure-track faculty and decenter the importance of German Studies as a vibrant field of inquiry with which we would like students at post-secondary institutions to engage. In our current era, I feel more compelled than ever to argue for the tremendous importance of language and cultural study. I believe that should be our guiding force.
The second interpretation is less commonly articulated, but I think cuts more to the core of the issue. If German Studies fails to teach a broad range of identities in German-speaking Central Europe and beyond in our curricula, and if our classes fail to enroll a broad spectrum of student identities here in the US, then we must accept two obvious conclusions. First, German Studies would be teaching an artificially monolithic image of “German culture,” one which we actively choose not to problematize in spite of our Cultural Studies training, and one which frequently omits People of Color in German-speaking Central Europe in direct contradiction of fact. Second, we would accept the fact that we as a discipline are not interested in teaching 40% of the students in our nation — a 40% which consists of non-White students. We would have to face the reality that we as educators would have chosen to reach out to, educate and mentor only White students.
Ultimately, each of us must decide which culture(s) we teach and which students we reach out to, recruit, and work to retain. And we must make a sober assessment of those choices and our motivations for them. As humanists, we have been trained to uncover truths which have often been obscured by cultural prejudice, power relations, and the power of an inertia-driven status quo. These are some of our highest ideals and greatest motivations. I think it is time we apply precisely that training to our curricula, especially at the introductory level, more thoroughly.
de Brey, C., Musu, L., McFarland, J., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Diliberti, M., Zhang, A., Branstetter, C., and Wang, X. “Indicator 20: Undergraduate Enrollment.” Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018 (NCES 2019–038). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. February 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_REB.asp. Accessed March 1, 2020.
El-Tayeb, Fatima. European Others. Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Grawe, Nathan. “How Demographic Change is Transforming the Higher Ed Landscape.” HigherEdJobs.com, February 18, 2019. Accessed March 1, 2020.
Hussar, W.J., and Bailey, T.M. Projections of Education Statistics to 2026(NCES 2018–019). U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. April 2018. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018019.pdf. Accessed March 1, 2020.
Ilett, Darren. “Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Textbooks,” Unterrichtspraxis 42.1 (2009): 50–59.
Layne, Priscilla. “Keynote: Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Conference,” St. Olaf College. March 1, 2019. https://www.stolaf.edu/multimedia/play/?e=2655. Accessed March 30, 2020.
Peters, George F. Ed. Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German. Special Issue Focus on Diversity 25.3 (1992).
—. “Dilemmas of Diversity: Observations on Efforts to Increase Minority Participation in German.” ADFL Bulletin 25.2 (Winter 1994), 5–11.
[i]The German government does not track race in its statistics due to the history of violence and genocide against minorities. However, trends in migration are tracked by the Statistisches Bundesamt here: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Gesellschaft-Umwelt/Bevoelkerung/Migration-Integration/_inhalt.html.
by David Gramling (University of Arizona)
In March 2019, I joined up with a lovely group of people who teach German around the world—some old friends, others whom I’d met just hours prior—in writing an Open Letter to the AATG, with the subtitle “A Ten-Point Program of the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Collective.” The letter was conveyed to the Board of Directors of the American Association of Teachers of German on April 16, 2019, with an accompanying cover letter. Over the next several days, the Open Letter’s Ten-Point Program garnered approximately 250 signatures of support from teachers and researchers around the world, in German and in other fields, like French and Anthropology. We asked the AATG Board, our primary but not exclusive addressee, to take several months to read and reflect on the letter, rather than responding quickly or out of reflex. We knew the letter was complex, difficult, and likely to arouse emotions ranging from hope and relief to anger and umbrage—which it did. (See the bottom of this post for some unedited examples.)
But sheer provocation for its own sake was no one’s goal with the Letter, at least among the people I’d been working alongside in the drafting of it. Sincerity and clarity of purpose informed our mood and our ways of working while writing it, as did a sense of obligation to the 70 individual German teachers who had contributed the initial ideas from which the Letter was crafted. Simply put, we did not believe 2019 was a year for mincing words, for hedging one’s bets, for seeking favor for favor’s sake, or for holding back about the experiences we’d undergone and witnessed—as students, teachers, and organizational members over the decades. We thought it was time for some good old critical friendship, and we mustered this spirit as best as we could.
Learners become Teachers
Many of us had grown up in the 1990s amid the promissory glow of institutional diversity initiatives and were on intimate terms with the habits of language, interaction, and recruitment that came with them. Some of us, back then as students, had indeed sought out (or been recruited to) German as a safe harbor at school, exactly because we’d come to see the German language classroom—accurately or inaccurately, as this expectation may have turned out to be for us—as a comparatively open and welcoming place for difference and exploration, and one enduringly committed to justice and historical redress.
For many of us, the inspiring luster of those mid-1990s visions of German as a critical, constructive workshop for diversity and difference had been gradually rubbed off in the 2000s amid the general resurgence of, or re-acquiescence to, nationalism in Europe and North America. For others among us, that emancipating luster had never existed in the first place, and yet we’d pursued German, despite the racism, ableism, sexism, homo/transphobia, and classism we were to endure in the process of learning it successfully.
Whatever the case, most of us who contributed to the Letter profoundly loved something about Germanophone languages, cultures, politics, people, social relations, history, poetics, music, and art, and still do. There was a general sense among the writers, though, that something had gone amiss along the way in how our representative organizations claimed to be positively impacting our work, when many of the actual local outcomes we were witnessing around us suggested otherwise. As twenty-first-century teachers, we’d been vigorously schooled on the notion that we ought to be focusing in our own classrooms on learning “outcomes,” rather than merely on our heartfelt efforts. And in many of our experiences, the outcomes or “institutional impacts” of AATG had been somewhere between painful and meager, even when we’d been deeply involved in the Association. This had quietly puzzled many of us for a long time.
We knew vaguely from the early 1990s of urgent efforts at reform in AATG, with the establishment of the Committee on the Recruitment and Retention of Minorities, for instance, but we’d also heard about how this reform moment had turned out to be something of a “dream deferred” or an “unfunded mandate,” which successive AATG leaderships devolved ambivalently to “the membership.” We’d come to suspect that organizations like the AATG had, at some point, made a tacit—maybe even unspoken—decision to re-enroll the boosterism of ethnonationalist interests, funding, and structures of feeling, even when those interests held many of us implicitly or explicitly in their crosshairs, as People of Color, queer people, Muslims and Jewish people, and as former refugees or immigrants.
Knowing that associations are always made up of human beings and little else, we wanted to ask for the AATG’s honest position on these difficult questions, and we were willing to help out if they found they were in a bind of some kind between competing interests—say, a conflict between state-funded messaging about German heritage and multiculturalism, on the one hand, and the actual experiences of diverse learners of German, on the other. Those answers still haven’t quite come, and we’ve been meanwhile rerouted again and again by the Association’s leadership to its Mission Statement. As one AATG spokesperson suggested to us, to seriously engage with us on particular aspects of the substance of the Letter “could be seen as a form of favoritism.”
Expect a Long Haul
Had COVID-19 not, in recent months, quarantined the work of nearly all teachers and learners around the planet, a re-release of the Open Letter on its one-year anniversary in April 2020 would have seemed suitable. A single one-off Letter in 2019, without circling back to assess progress and lessons learned, simply wouldn’t do—and still won’t. When we sent the Letter, we half-expected the AATG Board would counter it reflexively with many of the hard-ball tactics of nonrecognition, redirection, and containment endemic to any long-established institution whose first priority tends to be reasserting its authoritativeness in the face of critique. We foresaw, too, that the organization would likely want to redirect our attentive appreciation to its variety of ad hoc diversity-targeting sub-initiatives, and also to its precarious status as the sole champion of K-16 German language teaching in North America—in short, into exhibits of its previous demonstrations of effort. But what had long concerned us was not the organization’s recorded efforts, but its persistent exclusionary impacts, large and small, as we’d experienced them, in an era that desperately called for community, solidarity, justice, and skepticism toward state (i.e., government) agendas.
Those of us who contributed to the writing of the Open Letter—and there were concentric circles of eight, twenty, seventy, and 250 writers involved at various stages of its circulation—know that we’re in this for a long haul, and that many of the suggestions we’ve made will take our entire careers to realize. We tried not to cynically predict, in April 2019, what kind of reactions the Letter would arouse, because we understood how that kind of strategic brinkmanship was exactly the type of interactional habit we wanted to help break in our field. As best we could, we wrote collectively, vividly, and honestly.
Because of the nature of the setting in which the writing took place, there were some noteworthy omissions in the Letter. I personally wish, for instance, that a) we’d been able to address the Letter to the German Studies Association and the Austrian Studies Association, and to do so in a differentiated manner, b) that we had been more prepared in that particular moment in 2019 to foreground the work of pre-K to 12th grade teachers in public and private schools, regardless of whether this work benefitted tertiary education purposes later on, c) that we’d shown more awareness to differences in experience among the urban and rural US, Canada, and Mexico, and in other international settings where German is being taught, and d) that we’d more adequately addressed the crushing adjunctification and casualization of our profession worldwide, indicating some consequent principles for professional leadership amid such a deluge of labor injustices. These points quickly became part of my own personal learning curve, as I considered further action related to the Letter and the German Studies field more generally.
Over Fall 2019, the AATG Board responded to the Open Letter with a consistently cautious bonhomie, as well as with one invite to attend its annual Convention for a discussion, which we did. But it became clear over the winter subsequent that the Letter’s deep concerns about AATG’s governance structure, organizational behavior, underwriting of ethnonationalism, and ambivalence toward racist and exclusionary effects on members didn’t fit into the leadership’s self-conception and agenda at this time.
One consistent response refrain was that AATG is “after all, a member-driven organization.” Indisputable on the face of it, this nonperformative label suggested to us two undercurrents at once: first, that the Board sought to be seen mostly as an impartial umpire amid the variously motivated interests of its members, rarely deciding it needs to take a stand on a tough question that might adversely impact budget—for instance, turning away funding that abets ethnonationalist propaganda at the expense of young People of Color, or saying ‘nein, danke’ to member activities that seek to instill a nostalgic, exclusive version of Germanness, while using organizational resources to do so.
Secondly, “member-driven, after all” seemed to telegraph the notion, likely true in a handful of contexts, that some AATG members are simply not that interested in dealing with how racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and ability difference matters to those of us impacted by it, and certainly not interested whatsoever in “decolonizing” anything—least of all, German. It is even quite plausible that some individual members of AATG, still or increasingly so, see the German classroom as a place where ethnonational feelings about Germanness or Swissness or Austrianness should be able to be cultivated and savored, without “too” much circumspection as to which learners’ experiences get idealized or excluded in the process. As far as I understand, though, the Open Letter wasn’t so much designed to change the minds of such members as it was to suggest that leadership’s decision-making ought not be “driven” by them, even in part.
In recent years, many of us have also been hearing about internal disputes in the field of Classics, for instance, where talk about race and ethnicity is seen in some quarters as unduly raining on the parade of an already beleaguered and underappreciated field. Scholars like Rebecca Futo Kennedy have documented how this kind of backlash discourse against “diversity” has spilled across the scholarly sphere devoted to the study of Classical Antiquity and, relatedly, how young white nationalists have found their way into Classics classrooms in part because those classrooms feel to them like a “safe space” for their views.
Especially in an era of enrollment declines, it is uniquely crucial for the German teaching profession to recommit to the fact that it bears a special burden—with no statute of limitation—to fend off, and indeed eradicate, emerging white nationalists’ attempts to functionalize the language-and-culture classroom for their emotional or political thirsts. “Heritage” must be conceived throughout our professional discussions as a differentiated and diverse experience, applying far more intimately, say, to African American adoptees from Germany after World War II that to someone like me, whose ancestors left Lower Franconia for Central Wisconsin in the 1840s. Even if these concerns don’t strike all AATG members as ‘their job,’ our representative organizations cannot be allowed to equivocate or pander on these points, with a view to keeping ethnonationalists and their membership dues in the tent. Our organizations’ budgets should be completely exhausted before they take one cent of a white nationalist sympathizer’s development money, under the vague auspices of “heritage.”
Over the past year since the Open Letter was shared, I’ve noticed in some of the responses to it a worrying tone of rebuke or ennui about the call for serious, uncynical, outcomes-focused work around diversity within our profession. A professor of Second Language Acquisition and Teaching (SLAT) myself, I’ve started to identify this kind of dynamic with the shorthand “SLAT-washing”—i.e., the use of the presumed liberality of the foreign language teaching and learning setting to disguise forms of culturalism and ethnonationalism that are generally considered to be beyond the pale in, say, history or social studies curricula. It is tempting indeed—in the Trump era, and now with COVID—to yearn to show North American learners a more functional, “better nationalism,” as it appears to be being administered by the German federal government. But many of us who contributed to this letter have met the brute force of that same nationalism on German streets we no longer dare to walk alone.
We’ll see you next year!
COVID-19 will continue being a disaster for many of us teachers, and for most of our students and programs. It is plainly revealing areas of our profession’s infrastructure that have been hollowed out before our eyes, year after year, and papered over with coerced optimism. We can’t even begin to mourn what we will further lose in the next 18 months of contraction and carpet-bagging in our schools and communities, though the furloughs and firings have already started their roll-out. But this strange time does give us another opportunity to confront, rather than merely defend or deflect, what it is that takes place in our names at our “member-driven” organizations, and what we permit to count as business-as-usual there. When we’re feeling idled, or defeated, as many of us feel now, that’s exactly the right moment to talk together at length about the kind of core principles we really want guiding our profession’s work in the coming 25 years, inconvenient as those princples may seem at the moment. The habit of compromising, in the hope of being made whole later on, seems to have yielded us and our students ever less. Soon enough we may need to begin from the ground up with something new.
As befitting this grievous and disorienting pandemic moment, it makes sense to postpone the reissue of the Open Letter by one year, to April 16, 2021, while we continue to ponder these questions, care for each other, and love our multilingual world as best we can. There’s so much to think about and dialogue about till then with one another. In lieu of a reissue of the Letter, we wish to share some of the responses colleagues around the world shared with us about why it was they chose to sign, or not sign, the Open Letter in April 2019. We thank those colleagues for sharing their honest, critical friendship with us. Here are some of the (unedited, unabridged) comments, so far:
by Regine Criser (University of North Carolina, Asheville) &
Ervin Malakaj (University of British Columbia)
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched, disrupted, and changed nearly every aspect of our lives. It has emphasized and increased the divisions and inequities inscribed into whatever has come into view as normality. Those of us who have for long been suspicious and victims of normality are eager, more now than before, to push for meaningful change and refuse to continue or even to return to business-as-usual. The pandemic has cast into sharp focus how serving the status-quo is not the only modus in which we can operate. In fact, we have seen that rapid change to accommodate pressing needs is possible—that bureaucracy and red tape can be circumvented when those in power deem it necessary and important enough. Or, more importantly, when individuals bond together and demand change.
When the DDGC emerged in 2016, it sought to challenge inequitable structures. It was driven by the collective’s refusal (and inability) to accept things as they are. The system in place was broken, for it obstructed access and caused so much harm to many. It remains broken today. With the system we mean the academy, our institutions, departments, programs, scholarly associations, and subdisciplines. We also mean all the pressures through which the system makes itself legible on different bodies in different ways depending on privilege. We will be glad to see the violent system expire as new, just structures emerge.
The values of the DDGC are as important now than ever. Where do we turn when we realize that for Germanists, as for everyone else, suffering is unevenly distributed at a time of crisis? What does this realization mean for our work? What does it mean for our institutions? How do we move forward? As a collective, we have aimed to center care in the way we operate in the present and plan for the future. And care remains central in how we relate to the pandemic as well as the attendant issues it reveals about and poses for our discipline.
Care for Ourselves
We know that remote teaching, virtual classrooms, asynchronous and synchronous engagement with students and colleagues are exhausting on their own. This exhaustion is compounded by this pandemic and for many of us by increased caregiving responsibilities and the decrease of external support. More than ever before, work, home, and family have collapsed into one space and all seem to require our attention simultaneously.
Writing about the stultifying, arresting, and traumatizing effects the pandemic has had on the world, Arundhati Roy notes that “our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture” (2020, n.p.). We recognize that the impulse to cling to the past and hope for its return might offer some solace in desperate times: when so much of our time and energy is claimed by unideal working conditions; when those around us are losing their jobs and are facing tight budgets for the foreseeable future; when our friends and family are falling sick—or worse. However, in tandem with Roy, we recognize that such hopes of a return to normalcy are insufficient because “the rupture exists” (n.p.). It is a reality from which there is no return.
Notwithstanding the pain it has brought about, this rupture creates openings. New paths emerge that can lead us forward. As Roy notes, this rupture "offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. [...] Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it" (n.p.).
This is a tall order. And lots of organizing in various corners of the world is underway to usher in change akin to the one Roy imagines for these desperate times. But in light of the crushing burden of anxiety, restlessness, and fatigue characterizing so much of our daily struggle, how can we be or become ready for such change? What do we need to support this change?
For us, as it did for so many before us, this positioning for change begins with self-care. Much has been shared about the importance of self-care during this time of extraordinary uncertainty. One only needs to browse social media outlets for inspirational quotes gently asking us to “keep calm” and “soothe our soul.” Our inspiration comes not from a contextless quote captured in a stylized instagram-ready square. Rather, we draw on the work of and are severely indebted to a long tradition of queer women of color critique.
In “A Burst of Light, Living with Cancer,” Audre Lorde famously asserted, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (2017, 130). Reading this sentence, Sara Ahmed has noted its prowess. “It is a much-loved, much cited sentence. It is an arrow, which acquires its sharpness from its own diction” (Ahmed 2017, 237). The sentence, and the knowledge it indexes, has reverberated through POC, feminist, and queer communities. Lorde wrote the sentence in a diary after she found out she has cancer (for a second time) and that death is approaching. She wrote from the perspective of a queer woman of color living in a world hostile to queers of color. The realization that for her death was on the horizon fuses in her writing with the devastation of the realization that not all bodies are meant to survive. As Ahmed notes, the sentence contains within it the critical impulse behind the realization that "when you are not supposed to live, as you are, where you are, with whom you are with, then survival is a radical action; a refusal not to exist until the very end; a refusal not to exist until you do not exist. We have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires the death or removal of others. Sometimes: to survive in a system is to survive a system" (237).
What do we need to survive? To live on? A search for answers to these questions sometimes, as Ahmed notes, leads people to be suspicious of the ultimate goal of the project of self-care, for “self-care gets dismissed too quickly as neo-liberalism and individualism” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.). But self-care has other potential. As Ahmed notes, “in the hands of Lorde, caring for one’s self is about how we inhabit our fragile bodies that have capacities that can be exhausted; it is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.). This is a self-care that is not just about the self. “Caring for oneself is also about caring for others, that important work, often painful, that practical and domestic work, of maintaining the conditions for each other’s existence” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.).
In this spirit, we ask again: what do you need to survive? The answer to this question will be different for each one of us, for, as stated above, suffering is not equally distributed. But the key here is that you might not need to answer this question alone. For if self-care should also be about the caring of others, then through mutual self-care we can find a way forward. This is the cornerstone of (our) community and even more important now that we have lost the luxury of proximity.
We were so very heartened to see such gestures of care register in our immediate circles. People reaching out to check on their friends, their comrades, their family. And reaching out to check on others is reaching inward to check on ourselves. But being the recipient of such a message of care is, to a certain extent, also a marker of privilege. There are so many who are left out. There are so many who are or feel alone. Have you reached out to them today? Do you know who they are? What help can you offer and how can we collectively help one another survive? And how can we make asking for help easier, even normal for everyone, no matter if they are already part of our circle or not?
Care for our Institutions
We recognize that the ability to look beyond the immediate existential needs of this moment is a privilege that not all of us who are part of this community share. However, we believe that the pandemic urges us to take stock of what is working, what is possible, what is desirable, and to what kind of work environment and world we want to return to once we can.
Self-care is vital for compassion and criticality, two concepts particularly relevant for the work we do in DDGC. Higher education – take, for instance, how it structures the experiences of graduate school, the job market, and peer review – is not structured around kindness and compassion. In fact, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick has noted, it nurtures a “competitive individualism,” which “contradicts – and in fact undermines – all of the most important communal aspects of life within our institutions of higher education” (2019, 27). Many of us have resisted this competitive culture and the core of our collective is intentionally in opposition to the power hierarchies and competitive mindset of the academy. The current rupture of our day-to-day lives has shown how imperative it is to center kindness and compassion in our engagement with students, colleagues, and ourselves. Moving forward, we believe that centering such a practice of compassion that grows out of critical self-care into a habit of mind and action could alter our institutions long-term and for the better.
While we would argue that none of us will move forward from this pandemic unchanged, we also know that its impact is harshest for those among us who were already more vulnerable because of their minoritized status in the academy: faculty of color, faculty with disabilities, contingent faculty members, and faculty who are caregivers are among those who will be most affected. Aside from the mental and physical toll this rupture will take, their professional labor as measured in service, teaching, and scholarly productivity—the latter being a prized marker of value and success in the academy—will be negatively impacted long-term.
To this end, many institutions have already extended the tenure clock and promotion timelines; however, it is likely that the disruptions in scholarly productivity will last longer than measurable by a semester or a year. This casts the concessions imagined by current administrators and advocates as insufficient and reminds especially those of us with tenure and long-term employment of our task to ensure that mechanisms are in place to support and protect faculty for many years to come.
Moreover, while plans for tenure-track and tenured faculty were presented rather quickly and in relative unison across institutions, contingent labor issues remain largely unresolved to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our communities. The proposals that have so far been publicized, have mainly excluded adjuncts, VAPs, lecturers, and even graduate students from institutional recovery plans. What is worse, we have seen examples of contracts not being renewed, previous offers rescinded, or durations of appointments being shortened, which left people without income and reduced access to health insurance. Those contingent faculty who are able to continue at their institutions are faced with increases of labor through the shift to emergency remote instruction for the spring and to online courses for the summer term. Many contingent faculty depend on the extra income that summer teaching can offer and are now faced with the labor intensive development of online classes at a time when they are already overburdened.
Contingent faculty are at the core of many of our programs.Their financial insecurity and increased workload requires our immediate attention and deserves our uncompromised support. Even more than before, these labor concerns need to be at the center of the work that our scholarly associations are undertaking over the next months and years. Free webinars and resource sites are important and have supported faculty in finding their footing in what is for many the new arena of remote instruction. We are grateful for the collaborative energies that have emerged in various social media outlets, which have supported the emergency transition to online. At this point, however, the precaritization of German studies as articulated in the dependence on contingency of so much of the professional staff of our field requires the critical attention of all national and international collectives and scholarly associations. Contingency has been a major issue in German studies before the pandemic; because of the pandemic, however, contingency will become more prevalent over the next few years. Moving forward, we believe that our scholarly associations will have a duty to center questions of labor and become major sites for collective organizing that demands and institutes fair working conditions for all.
The anxieties of the present at times feel like insurmountable issues, especially if we lack the resources that permit us to catch our breath and look at the world beyond ourselves. However, we still need to organize and envision the German studies of the future, a field which adequately and accurately reflects and nurtures our intellectual missions and personal lived experiences. While we attend to the needs of ourselves, our students, our colleagues, our institutions right in front of us in this moment, we can also continue to come together to envision the German studies that could emerge from this rupture.
What Care Means for Members of DDGC
Mark Beirn (Washington University in St. Louis): “It has been like looking at the world through bifocals seeing my faculty stressed at varying levels adjusting to working online from their own homes with kids+parents+pets around, while my grad school colleagues adjust a greater amount of unstructured time in a place that isn't really home, far away from loved ones. For the grad students, we've established a drop-in Zoom Cafe from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to share stories, ask questions, and make art work. For those students who are still awestruck by their faculty, they are now seeing them as real humans, which is a welcome change.”
Benita Blessing (Oregon State University): “I am so grateful for the opportunity to keep teaching, whatever form it takes and whatever happens to the syllabus. It is not just my students who need the routine and interaction.”
Sonja Fritzsche (Michigan State University): “I have turned all of my meetings into check-in meetings. The leadership faculty development has turned into what leadership in a time of crisis looks like. The task force on non-tenure track pathways at the college today is now focused on a discussion of how these faculty are faring at the institution. The college inclusive practices committee meeting tomorrow will be about a DEI focused discussion on impacts.”
Maureen Gallagher (University of Notre Dame): “I was really struck by how much of the messaging from my college focused on two contradictory messages: that everything was business as usual and we all need to “make the best” to continue to do our teaching and research, even in spite of library and laboratory closures; and that nothing was business as usual and we needed to go out of our way to find new ways to build community and connect with our students, particularly seniors who are struggling with the abrupt end to their senior year. We are called upon to act like everything is normal and continue with our research and teaching, incorporate new technologies and pedagogies at the drop of a hat, connect with students in new ways and come up with new programming ideas. All with no promise of a tenure-clock extension for the untenured faculty members or an extension of funding for graduate students. All with no acknowledgement of the inherent inequity between tenured and tenure-track faculty and adjuncts and other NTT faculty. There was certainly almost no consideration given to how we were feeling and that we might need space and extra support to come to terms with everything—increased caregiving responsibilities for some, increased isolation for others, increased anxiety for everyone. There has been no discussion that some of us are likely to get sick or need to be caring for those who are sick. I described it on a post below as a “collective delusion” we seem to be operating under that things will continue on as if everything as normal, as if we can and should all stay productive and juggle these additional responsibilities with fewer resources and no additional compensation long term.”
Adrienne Merritt (Washington and Lee University): “Care means taking the time to reinvest, particularly when you put effort and energy into activism and advocacy, whether on a personal or professional level. Care reminds me of caritas, a love for all humankind, but it’s a reminder that we are each of us part of that group, meaning that depleting ourselves for the sake of others or something we find significant will falter. Care, therefore, means multidirectional support for the good/ advancement of the community.”
Evan Torner (University of Cincinnati): “Academia is lots of invisible carework, in addition to what we do for our elders, partners, and children. Grad students and undergrads have different needs, as do staff, administrators, and colleagues, and EVERYONE is on edge in a crisis, with different needs all manifesting themselves at once.”
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Fitzgerald, Adam. “Sara Ahmed: ‘Once We Find Each Other, So Much Else Becomes Possible.’” Literary Hub. April 10, 2017. https://lithub.com/sara-ahmed-once-we-find-each-other-so-much-else-becomes-possible/. Accessed April 10, 2020.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light and Other Essays. Mineola: ixia Press, 2017.
Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” Financial Times, April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca. Accessed April 10, 2020.
Editorial Collective & Submission Information
The DDGC Blog is edited by an editorial collective. For more info about the collective and extensive submission information, click here.
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