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: