Sarah Vandegrift Eldridge (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)
German thinkers play crucial roles in the development of notions of “self” that view identity as unique, internal, and fairly immutable (though subject—pun intended—to various forms of development). This notion of self is also related to the establishment of scientized biological racism, to religious belief as internal and personal (a matter of “the heart” as much as to institutions and practices), and to conceptions of gender as ‘natural’ and inherent rather than acquired and performed. While these latter paradigms have been historicized (and thus also largely debunked in intellectual discourse), Western societies still tend to adhere to a view of selfhood not too far from these eighteenth-century origins—although scholars at least since the 1960s have critiqued this model of selfhood as complicit in naturalizing systems of oppression to the point of invisibility in the daily lives of ordinary human beings. These post-deconstructionist critiques of selfhood are important and useful, but they often do not do much more than upend value systems, making the establishment of modern individualism a story of decline rather than triumph. They do very little to decenter the entire idea of a unique, interior self. New approaches to eighteenth-century studies can illuminate the extent to which individual identities are, and always have been, socially constructed and relationally situated—in much the same way that modern social and critical movements currently push us to understand them. This understanding of identity insists on the acknowledgment of the empirical qualities that make up the self, but without giving up on the notion of some space for agency within those frameworks and influences.
My research asks specifically what attending to the kinds of selves that appear in eighteenth-century literature—especially non-canonical literature, which has received hardly any scholarly attention at all, still less of it positive—can tell us about the emergence of models of selfhood. It contends that doing so opens up new possibilities for both reading literature and thinking about ethical engagements in our own, twenty-first-century lives. In the German-speaking context, a conscious sense of belatedness and lack of political unity gives rise to discourses of an emerging “modern” self that are especially highly theorized and frequently self-reflexive. Both in broader Enlightenment discourse (philosophy, linguistics, political theory) and in the emerging literary discourse around the novel, eighteenth-century German thinkers observed developments in states around them (especially France and England) and used these observations to conceive of models of selfhood, and of linguistic and cultural unity, that were applicable to a German context. These reflections combined with a scientific paradigm shift in models of generation to arrive, by the turn of the nineteenth century, at a concept of identity as organic, natural, and autopoietic; this model was canonized, on the literary scene, in the genre of the Bildungsroman.
At the same time, however, the literary market and the reading public were expanding rapidly, and so-called trivial literature remained a messy, complex hybrid of old and new ideas. Twenty-first century readers, returning to German novels of the early-to-mid-eighteenth century, encounter a strange and unfamiliar reading experience. As Wolfram Malte Fues writes in one of the only recent studies to explore non-canonical eighteenth-century novels in detail:
"The narrative styles and the perspectives on self and world that express themselves in them spring forward and backward, outward, sideways, as if the narrators, on the developmental path of their narration, were worried about losing something which likewise only remains in their reach if they continue to pursue it. […] Economics, morals, law, politics, art, science/knowledge, sexuality, the core areas of the self-forming bourgeois society, stand immediately next to each other in these mostly biographically or autobiographically plotted narratives, and follow one another so purely and recklessly that it is as if the moral subject forgot the economic one and the sexual subject forgot the moral one. […] The more the texts fragment according to their external and internal form, the more rhizomatically they proliferate into each other" (74).
These narratives thus make the composite nature of eighteenth-century selves highly visible, including the occasional incompatibility of their relational elements. The protagonists of courtly and political novels express themselves by means of their external effects, whether in politics or in gallant love, with the odd outcome that the measure of morality is success. The journeying subjects of imitations of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe establish their anthropological status as European colonizers over and against the native inhabitants, women, Muslims, and Jews that populate the world of eighteenth-century adventure. From these novels in all their weirdness it emerges that, far from being a “universal subject,” the white, straight, cisgender, upper-middle class or upper-class male individual is socially shaped, relationally embedded, and as and empirically located as the rest of us.
Beyond simply historicizing the emergence of conceptions of self from prior models of identity, examining literary texts in detail can show us how the “modern self,” described in terms of depth, uniqueness, and relative unchangeability, is itself a social construct. That is, we, as modern subjects, have been trained and socialized to grasp our own selves in this way—but this conception is neither natural nor necessary. If we attend to the ways Western culture since the Enlightenment has taught us to believe that we are beings with an essential, individual core, we can also attend to the facets of society and culture, of education and socialization, of indoctrination and resistance, that in fact make up our composite selves.
Here, the ethical stakes of eighteenth-century German studies come into play: we can acknowledge what has shaped us (for good and ill), and reflect on what sources we choose to engage with and allow to form our own socially-turned selves. We can also read and understand those sources differently. One might, for example, read Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with less attention to paths of individual development and more attention to forms of mutual care and affiliation. Or one might choose to uncover and analyze numbers of the increasingly popular entertaining novels to ask, with curiosity and without condescension, why they resonated with eighteenth-century readers—and to ask which of these resonances ought to be discarded and which might still be relevant and carry ethical weight today. On this model, it matters deeply what communities—of literary works, scholarship, and in non-academic life—we surround ourselves with, and how we act within them.
A very short and very lightly annotated bibliography:
Birkhold, Matthew. Characters Before Copyright: The Rise and Regulation of Fan Fiction in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Oxford 2019. –Interdisciplinary history of the German book market and norms around intellectual property and fictional characters that helps challenge old models of authorship.
Eldridge, Sarah Vandegrift. “Narrative Direction: Novel Form and the Experience of Contingency in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,” in: Eldridge and C. Allen Speight, eds. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Philosophy. Oxford 2020, pp. 54-77. –Attempt to re-empiricize the “aesthetic subject” of Goethe’s Bildungsroman and ask questions about contingency in human life.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. “The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology,” in: Katherine M. Faull, ed. Anthropology and the German Enlightenment: Perspectives on Humanity. Lewisburg, 1995, pp. 201-41. –Re-examination of the formative role of racist thought in Kant’s thought broadly conceived.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Malden/Oxford, 1997. –Important collection and situation of key European texts on race from the long eighteenth century.
Fues, Wolfram Malte. Die annullierte Literatur: Nachrichten aus der Romanlücke der deutschen Aufklärung.Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2017. –Detailed study of non-canonical German literature from 1680-70.
Kittler, Friedrich. “Über die Sozialisation Wilhelm Meisters,” in: Gerhard Kaiser und Friedrich A. Kittler, eds. Dichtung als Sozialisationspiel. Studien zu Goethe und Gottfried Keller. Göttingen 1978. S. 13-124. –Classic deconstructionist critique of the subject and its formation, although unfortunately attached to an Oedipal framework.
Müller-Sievers, Helmut. Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800. Stanford 1997. –Reading of epigenetic/organicist turn across German discourses at the end of the eighteenth century.
Saine, Thomas P. The Problem of Being Modern: Or The German Pursuit of Enlightenment from Leibniz to the French Revolution. Detroit 1997. –Account of the ripple effect of seventeenth-century scientific developments in eighteenth-century philosophy and religion.
Tautz, Birgit. Reading and Seeing Ethnic Differences in the Enlightenment: From China to Africa. New York 2007. –Important global account of European conceptions of and relationships to non-European cultures.
Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven 2006. –Thorough history of eighteenth-century models of selfhood and paradigm shift in the 1770s-80s; specifically about the Anglo-American tradition but with some insights that apply in other national contexts.
Zantop, Susanne. Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870. Chapel Hill, 1997. –Important debunking of the false notion that because Germany was late to acquire colonies, it lacked a racist, imperialist “colonial imagination.”
Zhang, Chunjie. Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism. Evanston 2017. –Exploration of non-European agency and contributions to and in German thought from 1756-1835.
In appreciation and defense of international students in German Studies and beyond
A promise of solidarity from DDGC, WiG, the GSA, BGHRA, and the CAUTG Social Justice Committee,
15 July 2020
Today we, teachers and researchers in German Studies, share the relief our students and friends feel at seeing the new restrictions on the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), issued by the United States Department of State and ICE on July 6, 2020, rescinded without further delay. We recognize that this rescindment would not have been forthcoming from the federal government, were it not for a timely and expensive suit supported by over 200 colleges and universities across the country. We are grateful for everyone—aides, researchers, lawyers, plaintiffs, food delivery workers, officers of the court, and family members—who unexpectedly sacrificed a week of summer, during this pandemic, to head off a punitive policy that ought never have been conceived in the first place.
We further recognize that such punitive policies will likely continue to be introduced and implemented, damaging our schools’, students’, and communities’ well-being over the coming months, and that we will soon need to rely again on these colleagues’ unflinching and courageous work to defeat the next such policy. We see clearly that the federal government is engaged in a chaotic shock strategy, designed to distract and divide us in a moment already marred by fear, pain, impoverishment, and hopelessness. We will not fall for it, if you won’t. We will never leave our students and friends defenseless and isolated, whether or not they hold US citizenship, permanent resident status, one kind of visa versus another, or documentation of any kind. We will stand by them today and permanently—in our institutional actions, teaching, and public work.
The Diversity, Decolonization and the German Curriculum collective, the Coalition of Women in German, the German Studies Association Committee for the Initiative on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, the Black German Heritage and Research Association, and the Social Justice Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers of German join with one another in rejecting the spirit of punishment and intimidation that these recent policies represented. We also endorse the statement issued by our colleagues at the Modern Language Association, the statement by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the letter by the American Historical Association outlining the damage and harm that these types of proposed restrictions cause.
We will learn from this moment, and we will not forget it, even as it brings us and our fellows, friends, and students momentary relief. We know that more and more judges are currently being confirmed by the US Senate who would gladly support policies that instill fear in students and sow enmity for generations to come. The intent and effect of the attempted SEVP restrictions (together with the recent restrictions on J and HB-1 visas) were always a xenophobic exclusion of international students from college and university life in the United States, as well as increased coercive strategy to force our colleges and universities into in-person courses despite the public health train wreck this would ensure.
Despite the rescindment, many of the schools in which we teach are already feeling the devastating effects of these clustered and disruptive decisions, as our international students make the difficult choice to defer or cancel their participation in our programs, given the uncertainty they face both in terms of visas and in terms of US responses to Covid-19. Our international scholars and students play central, courageous roles as teachers and researchers in our communities. They provide integral contributions to intellectual life at all levels and in all areas of our academic communities. As a consequence of recent visa restrictions, institutions of higher education face significant barriers to fulfilling their research and teaching missions. Meanwhile, students in locations with insecure internet access or who are in insecure living conditions find themselves excluded from participation in college and university courses if they cannot travel to the US. Furthermore, any action that potentially leads to spikes in Covid-19 (such as in-person classes held when it is unsafe to do so) will disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities in the United States. The evidence continues to pile up showing the ways in which Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are more severely affected by the spread of the virus (recently summarized in this New York Times article) - Black and Latinx people are three times more likely to become infected and twice as likely to die.
In other words, these visa restrictions and other recent changes in immigration policy mobilize bald-faced xenophobic ideas about who legitimately belongs in our intellectual and research communities, and perpetuate racist inequities that once again target the lives of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people. They impugn the invaluable contributions made to our research (and, of course, overall society) by international scholars and students. They threaten to decimate the standing of US colleges and universities in the world.
In the coming weeks and months, we call on all of our institutions of learning to reject such restrictions as these outright, and instead to work to honor and defend the vital international intellectual exchange which our institutions have fostered over the decades to uplift research, teaching, innovation, and transnational collaboration.
By Domenic DeSocio (University of Michigan)
Do queer ways of teaching German exist? Judging from the state of conventional postsecondary German language courses, the answer would seem to be “no.” It is rare to find a language course with “queer” as its primary topic. Equally uncommon are textbooks that provide perspectives of LGBTQI2S+ folk and design grammar, vocabulary, and cultural instruction around queer experiences. If queer experiences find expression in such materials or approaches, they are part of a “social justice” addendum to other, ostensibly more central lessons, and are treated as an afterthought. To illustrate to what extent interest in queer approaches to German instruction is institutionalized, one only need to search past issues of Die Unterrichtspraxis to see that only one article was published on queer pedagogy in German—and this article focuses on graduate education. This disconcerting phenomenon is not limited to German Studies. Numerous instructors, particularly those of English as a Second Language, have for decades criticized the erasure of queerness in foreign and second language instruction. Cynthia D. Nelson, for example, has questioned the discrepancy between the increasingly vibrant queerness of contemporary public life and the “monosexualizing tendencies that permeate…language education,” demonstrating how heteronormative instruction limits “our collective efforts to foster multilingualism and multiliteracies” (2006, 1). As Anthony J. Liddicoat emphasizes, this absence of queerness is more than an innocuous oversight: when it is absent, it establishes heterosexuality and its cultural norms as uncontested and universal, inhibiting our students’ acquisition of cultural and linguistic sensitivity, nuance, and precision (2009, 191).
Eager to puncture this exclusionary state, I designed and taught an original fourth-semester German language course at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the final unit in my department’s language sequence, titled “Queer German Cultures.” My course cohesively integrated language instruction with entirely queer content and non-heteronormative teaching methods, begging the question: What if we created a German curriculum in which queerness is the starting point of instruction, in which queer genders, sexualities, identities, and practices imbue all aspects of our teaching German? In an environment in which the many shades of queerness were the norm—and not just cisgender gay men and women, as is often the case—my goals were twofold: to offer students both a wide overview and a deep dive into LGBTQI2S+ German cultures and histories, and to further sharpen their foreign-language and analytical skills. The result has been to show that queer issues and materials traditionally seen as irrelevant to language learning—and often deemed “challenging” or “controversial”—can in fact enhance students’ learning rather than to deter or distract from it.
When colleagues ask why I created a course entirely composed of LGBTQI2S+ voices, I respond: because queer people exist! This answer informs how I approach non-heteronormative pedagogies: I help students look at, think about, and speak the German language while centering the lived experiences of queer folk. It means inquiring into what it would entail to speak German queerly, to look critically at the language’s history and structure outside of binaries, fixed identities, and positions of power, and to query how speakers experiment with strict gender and case systems. It prompts us to investigate the ways in which the marginalized, of any kind, always have and continue to innovate and reinvent the German language, while also reflecting on our own roles in this process. Non-heteronormative ways of teaching, following Ashley R. Moore, examine “sexual matters (identities, norms, relationships) within everyday patterns of thinking, speaking, learning, and working, with a view to understanding the complex sociosexual dimensions and meanings that are part of day-to-day interactions, cultural practices, and social structures” (2016, 104). In practice, this means not only alerting teachers and students to German-speaking queer communities but also giving them the tools to transform their ways of thinking critically about and acting upon difference; queer pedagogy is about theory and action. For instance, in a typical classroom where students’ personal lives are common topics, it is not uncommon for queer students to have their identities grammatically “corrected”: a female-presenting student who speaks about her “Freundin” (girlfriend) may be corrected by her instructor to say “Freund” (boyfriend) under the mistaken assumption that all women desire men and that the student hasn’t learned grammatical gender distinctions. As a result, the student must then come out and correct her instructor, an awkward disruption of power in the classroom and a potentially harmful moment of disclosure, or be forced to adopt a heterosexual identity for the sake of the activity (see Djavadghazaryans 2020). If we adhere to a communicative approach to language learning, moments like these are anathema to such a philosophy: we need to set the conditions to allow students to do just that, to communicate at ease about themselves.
Alongside creating space for students to feel supported, talk openly, and experiment with expression in German—thereby empowering their language acquisition—non-heteronormative pedagogies also enhance student acquisition of fundamental skills at the core of foreign language instruction. As instructors of foreign languages and cultures, one of our goals is to teach students the tools to understand difference and leverage it to create new ways of inhabiting the world. Implementing queer-focused perspectives and teaching methods encourages students to acquire a linguistic sensitivity that will serve them in contemporary settings in which a diversity of identities and backgrounds is the norm, as well as giving them a feel for nuance and a level of linguistic precision crucial for becoming advanced speakers of the language. Accordingly, we should view non-heteronormative pedagogies as more than just adding queers to the syllabus; rather, it entails a reevaluation of teaching mentalities and practices toward the benefit of all students.
Nonetheless, how and what do we select to teach? As I began to conceptualize my course, I settled on a chronological format from the mid-nineteenth century—the beginnings of an organized homosexual emancipation movement in Germany—to the present day. This provides students a degree of familiarity and orientation, for most of them are broadly familiar with the timeline of major events in modern German history—except we would be retelling it from the perspective of LGBTQI2S+ folk. Each week in the semester treated a decade of the last 150 years, highlighting main figures, cultural products, events, or social developments. I strove for a wide array of media, genres, and types of materials, encompassing both “high” and “low” culture, from novels to paintings to films, music, and comics, and spanning gender, sexuality, race, religion, geography, and class. This embedded format allowed me to de-marginalize queer histories by not only showing their significance to canonical German history but also by demonstrating rich histories of their own. To teach World War I, for example, I centered my lesson on Bruno Vogel’s 1929 novel Alf, a romance about sexual-political awakening among proletarian teenage soldiers. To obtain an original perspective on the recent refugee “crisis” in Europe, students watched and discussed interviews of queer Arab refugees in Germany.
This emphasis on queer cultural materials—how people use and produce words and linguistic meaning in their lived experiences—determined how I then taught the bread and butter components of foreign language instruction. For each weekly unit, I culled forty to fifty vocabulary words from the assigned materials, selecting words pertinent to our discussions or otherwise useful to one’s daily use of German. In doing so, students would build up a large trove of vocabulary that arose naturally from the cultural materials and their speaking of German in class. I proceeded similarly with grammar. Each week’s lesson was tailored to what the assigned materials did well in this regard. In a week on lesbian portraiture during the Weimar Republic, the lesson focused on the adjective endings necessary to describe art. While reading political statements by Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent homosexual activist of pre-Nazi Germany, we studied the frequent use of the passive voice in these legalistic texts. A unit on gay and lesbian nightlife functioned as a lesson in describing the city as well as asking for and giving directions. This relationship between content and language instruction effectively demonstrated to students that queerness pertains to ordinary aspects of daily life and not only sex.
To conclude, I will sketch what I consider to be the most successful component of this integrated teaching approach in my course. Over the course of the semester, students worked on a multistep project about gay and lesbian nightlife and community spaces in Weimar-era Berlin. It was a scaffolded project, meaning that each week students completed an assignment that comprised the next step in the project. The burden of the work was thereby distributed over many weeks, and the units built upon one another. As a foundation, students learned the vocabulary and grammar necessary for this project over several weeks: adjectives and case endings during the Weimar visual art unit to describe the bars, clubs, and community spaces; commands and descriptive language to describe how one navigates the city and these spaces. The first of the two major components of the project was to design a digital map to recreate the queer infrastructure of the past city. Students were given individualized worksheets with lists of historical queer establishments and internet links to conduct research about them. Their task was to research these spaces and then plot their location with brief descriptions on a customizable Google map. They then would combine their individual maps to create one comprehensive map. Our discussion about what we learned from this map would serve as the basis for students to construct an argument about queer topography for the second component of the project, a twenty-minute-long presentation. These presentations combined written text and audiovisual material, such as photos of the establishments or clips of popular music played or sung in theses spaces, to present original theses about the importance of public spaces and cities for queer communities and identities.
This project had several goals, and it stands as exemplary of the teaching approach I am offering in this paper. Linguistically, students were expected to wield advanced vocabulary, grammar, and syntax to address complex questions and themes. Furthermore, students would come away with a deeper understanding of interwar German history through the example of queer Berlin. The project unearthed a past that has been almost entirely erased by Nazi persecution, the destruction of war, gentrification, and a homophobic historical tradition, thereby illustrating how centering queerness can lead to alternative paths of knowledge production—paths cleared by students themselves by creating maps, conducting research, and analyzing information. They thereby practiced important skills of finding and formulating information in their own words and then constructing original arguments thereout. Students were motivated by the responsibility placed on them as both learners and generators of knowledge. It offered them a stake in the continuous evolution of German, even as learners of the language, while revealing to them the power they had to institute change through intellectual pursuit.
I wish to emphasize that the future of German as a foreign language may lie in this fertile intermingling of language instruction and critical pedagogies, be it non-heteronormative, post-colonial, critical race-based, or through the lens of ability. Rather than overwhelming other aspects of language education like grammar and vocabulary instruction, the recasting of German language pedagogy through queerness has led to an exceptionally high level of student learning and enthusiasm—100% of students gave the course five out of five points for these two criteria on an end-of-semester self-assessment. As one student commented, a queer focus unexpectedly “managed to make a class which I was only moderately interested in at the beginning of the semester into one of my favorite courses.” These hybrid courses, revolutionizing the ways we conceptualize and teach languages, open up new horizons for students and teachers alike to capture interests and demonstrate the significance of foreign languages in contemporary higher education.
Djavadghazaryans, Angineh. “’Please Don’t Gender Me!’ Strategies for Inclusive Language Instruction in a Gender-Diverse Campus Community.” Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies. Eds. Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj. New York: Palgrave, 2020. 269–287.
Liddicoat, Anthony J. “Sexual Identity as Linguistic Failure: Trajectories of Interaction in the Heteronormative Language Classroom.” In: Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 8, no. 2–3 (2009): 191-202.
Moore, Ashley R. “Inclusion and Exclusion: A Case Study of an English Class for LGBT Learners.” In: TESOL Quarterly 50, no. 1 (2016): 86–108.
Nelson, Cynthia D. “Queer Inquiry in Language Education.” In: Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 5, no. 1 (2006): 1–9.
“Schwule Flüchtlinge in der Schweiz.” YouTube, uploaded by SRF Virus, September 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyH8C_m7Zes.
“Schwul, verfolgt, geflohen: Ibrahim flüchtete aus dem Libanon.” YouTube, uploaded by flutertv, March 21, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exANL1PTsNA.
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.
We want to amplify your ideas. Have an idea for a short or long post? We'd be glad to talk about it and help you get it published.