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.