On October 4th, 2020 as part of the closing of the 44th annual conference of the German Studies Association, Lydia Tang and Patrizia McBride, hosted a roundtable discussion on The Future of German Studies. All panelists were invited to share brief initial remarks to kick-off the larger discussion. In an effort to extend this discussion beyond the conference and those able to participate live, we are sharing below the opening statements of each of the panelists in the order they were given.
We will not try to summarize the at large discussion of that day, but hope that publishing these statements here will initiate a continuation of the exchange, a further probing of the ideas presented below as well as create additional room to explore with a larger audience what the future of German Studies might hold and how we may achieve it.
Assistant Director of Programs, MLA (all views expressed here are my own)
Formerly Lecturer in German at Carleton College and Visiting Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University
In the ninety minutes allotted to our roundtable, we cannot hope to scratch the surface of the issues our discipline is facing this year, as well as those likely to arise in upcoming years. What we hope to accomplish is to create awareness of the different institutional frameworks in which the work of reimagining the discipline is situated. In doing so, this session builds on the 2019 conference “Re-Imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the Humanities, and the University,” organized by Patrizia McBride and Paul Fleming at Cornell University, which brought into sharp focus the extent to which our institutional affiliations shape our perspective on German studies. I am grateful to Patrizia and Paul for the opportunity to build on these conversations, and I am particularly indebted to Patrizia for her willingness to co-organize and co-moderate this GSA session with me.
In addition to the range of institutional perspectives that roundtable participants bring to this discussion, it is important to note that all currently serve or have served in leadership roles in professional organizations, such as GSA, WiG, DDGC, MLA, and ADFL. What can professional organizations do to support vulnerable faculty members and graduate students in this moment of crisis? How can established scholarly organizations collaborate with smaller forums to create lasting change?
Throughout our conversation, we will return to the question of graduate program reform and our responsibilities toward doctoral students—quite literally, the future of German studies. In doing so, we hope to join other colleagues in making the case for the GSA conference as a space not only for research presentations but also for conversations about the profession. The emphasis on graduate education is not meant to suggest German undergraduate programs are unworthy of our attention; quite on the contrary, it recognizes most faculty positions in our field focus primarily, if not exclusively, on teaching undergraduate students, often while shouldering a substantial administrative load as the director of a small language program. The “prestige economy” of doctoral education privileges research and perpetuates the bifurcated curricular and governance models first critiqued thirteen years ago in Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. As a result, their training leaves graduates ill prepared for the realities of teaching German outside the ivory tower—not to mention positions outside the academy.
As we embark on these conversations, I would like to end by pointing to the voices who are missing from our roundtable so that we can be aware of our own blind spots and prioritize questions from members of these groups: adjunct instructors, including part-time faculty members; language program directors and other colleagues whose work focuses primarily on language teaching and pedagogy; German PhDs who, like myself, have left the profession; and current graduate students.
 The conference website documents many of these contributions: https://futurehumanities.wixsite.com/re-imagining/contributors-essays. An expanded version of my own remarks can be found here: https://profession.mla.org/against-smallness-how-successful-language-programs-reimagine-the-humanities/.
 Cf. Leonard Cassuto, “Why We Need a Yelp for Doctoral Programs,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 December 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-we-need-a-yelp-for-doctoral-programs/
Frank and Roberta Furbush Scholar in German Studies
Associate Professor and Chair of German Studies at Grinnell College
A More Comprehensive Approach to German Studies
I cannot predict what the future holds for the interdisciplinary field of German Studies. I doubt we will return to the conditions I enjoyed when I received my undergraduate degree, attended graduate school, and then went on the job market and secured a tenure-track position. Rather than look to the future, I can say that many two- and four-year educational institutions in the United States are in the midst of an existential crisis right now, much earlier than anticipated. There was a drop in undergraduate enrollment across the board in September 2020, and it is particularly troubling that the enrollment of first-time students at two-year institutions dropped by 22.7% at the start of this academic term. This matters because two-year institutions are the pathway to opportunity for students from low-income and diverse backgrounds. Many people would not have earned a doctorate and enjoyed the benefits of increased employment stability, health insurance, and benefits if they hadn’t enrolled in a two-year college first. The wealthy institutions that can survive demographic shifts and the pandemic will probably be okay; those who serve students from more diverse families will have a much tougher time of it. What can the German Studies Association do in light of the dire circumstances today and such a bleak future?
I want to make a couple of simple suggestions: Every time we, as an Association, want to address issues primarily facing graduate education at research institutions, let us say or write “undergraduate and graduate education,” instead. When we frame discussions around research, let us make sure that we also include pedagogy scholarship and ethical mentorship in our deliberations. By shifting the conversation in this small way, the German Studies Association acknowledges our responsibility and investment in the success of all of the students at our institutions, that they thrive and complete their degrees and find meaningful ways of living inside and outside our field. I believe that looking outward and not only inward to our specializations and scholarship could help us go a long way to push for broader participation in higher education and advance racial and economic equality in the United States.
Most students do not enter our classrooms because they want to publish books about canonical writers, political movements, art, or philosophy. Many enroll because they want to speak a new language and only discover how transformational learning German can be in retrospect. It certainly changed my life’s trajectory. Students continue taking our classes because many of the members of the Association teach in smaller departments and foster a nurturing environment for intellectual and personal growth. We care about the whole student. We listen to what they are going through at college and help them navigate the challenges they face in higher education. Our members can be indispensable advocates for the people on our campuses who never enter our classrooms, too. We work to enhance student experience so that all the students on our campus—not just the ones who enroll in German—succeed. It is key in this shared endeavor that many members of the German Studies Association hold leadership roles at our institutions and, more broadly, in the profession. We should push to establish better administrative policy that mitigates bias in recruitment, hiring, and reviews. We should persuade others that supporting local K-12 teachers, as well as the recruitment of undergraduate and graduate students from all backgrounds matters a lot even if it doesn’t improve the numbers in our own campus units. We should ask about the conditions of staff and show perhaps as much concern for the communities that border our campuses as for those living thousands of miles away.
There are some changes I would love to see. Why hasn’t there been more space for scholarship on teaching and for other career pathways at German Studies Association meetings? Could we look to the American Historical Association, for example, as a model for how the German Studies Association might transform itself into a hub for teaching scholarship and practice, advocacy, career preparation, and public engagement? The AHA includes receptions and sessions for undergraduates, graduate students, two-year faculty, K-12 teachers, public historians, and invites back people who completed degrees in history to give talks on their careers at two-year institutions, non-profits, libraries and archives, in government, business, museum education, and higher education administration. The AHA holds sessions on pedagogical best practices, assessment, and experiential learning. How could such a change at future GSA conferences help sustain a conversation about career options for our undergraduates and graduate students so that our teaching and mentorship skills benefit the profession and society broadly? How can social practice and activism be a regular part of our professional conversations as well as undergraduate and graduate teaching and research, which is the case in Art History, Black Studies, or in American Studies?
I cannot predict whether there will be a German Studies Association in twenty-five or fifty years. What will our membership numbers look like if the demographic trends progress in the ways we are witnessing today? I know that we are already working in a field transformed. It is up to the members of the German Studies Association to address the needs of the entire community today.
Assistant Professor of German, Emory University
Co-chair of the MLA Committee on the Status of Grad Students in the Humanities
With three months left to go, it is safe to say that 2020 will be remembered as a time of unprecedented crisis. We are dealing with four pandemics simultaneously: 1) COVID-19; 2) anti-Black racism, police brutality, and white supremacist violence; 3) climate change; and 4) widespread unemployment and economic hardship. These have resulted in huge challenges within academia, from funding shortfalls to radical changes in modes of instruction and campus life, though the most urgent crises within academia, such as graduate education and the systemic exclusion of scholars of color, did not arise as a result of this year but have rather been further exacerbated. In this brief impulse statement, I would like to relay some of the issues of graduate education from my position as a recent graduate, recent job seeker, member of the steering committees of WiG and DDGC, and co-chair of the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities.
Graduate education in the humanities has been in crisis ever since the annual number of doctorates granted began to greatly exceed the number of stable academic jobs. The financial collapse in 2008 created a vacuum of tenure track jobs that has never been recovered. It already seemed grim over the last few years when the market consisted of about 25 tenure track, 15-20 renewable non-tenure track, and 20-30 visiting positions. This year, as of early October, there is only one tenure track job in German, two tenure track jobs for which German is one of the possible areas of focus, and one limited term teaching position. Graduate students have long called for support to pivot to alt-ac or post-ac careers. While some programs offer extensive additional training and professionalization opportunities, students in other programs can only discuss their non-tenure track aspirations in hushed tones.
It is understandable that graduate faculty feel they are not equipped to support graduate students to pursue careers in which they themselves do not have training while also making sure the students reach benchmarks in their programs and academic professionalization. But graduate programs need not look far to provide opportunities for their students to gain important skills and experience to support their future career plans; connect students to opportunities at the university press, library, museum, writing center, center for teaching and learning, undergraduate advising office, study abroad office, or other relevant arenas. Invite alumni from your program to speak with students about how they pursued their career paths. Encourage students to attend (virtual) career fairs and partner with career services to run workshops for how to revise an academic CV into a resume. Draw on networked mentorship structures to assure that students have access to multiple sets of expertise on which to draw when applying to a range of positions.
Even programs that focus solely on training future academics are often outdated and plagued by magical thinking, urging students not to professionalize, despite the incredible expectations they will face on the academic job market. I vividly remember a conversation I had as a graduate student with a high-ranking administrator in the School of Arts and Sciences who told me that “graduate students shouldn’t be worrying about publishing or attending conferences” because a top-tier Ph.D. would be “enough” to obtain a tenure track position. We know that this is simply not true and that graduate students are under increasing pressure to prove their merit as mature academics before ever depositing their dissertations. Whenever possible, revise graduate curricula to allow students to reach benchmarks in the program while also meeting professional goals. For example, can the comprehensive exam requirement be fulfilled by students producing a polished article draft ready to submit for peer review, with the mentorship support to achieve that aim? Think creatively about how to make requirements work for the students rather than the other way around.
The problems sadly go far beyond job training and support. A recent report by the MLA Task Force on Ethics in Graduate Education revealed that graduate education is overwhelmingly characterized by “precarity and sexual harassment but also issues such as mental health challenges, lack of transparency, favoritism and bias, and emotional and material exploitation.” As graduate programs look to adapt to the new set of administrative austerity measures in a continuing and, eventually, a post-COVID landscape, they should make sure that their decisions are made transparently and that they are holding themselves accountable first and foremost to their current students and recent graduates. Furthermore, as our field adapts to this reality, we must boldly prioritize striving toward racial justice, decolonization, and ethical recruitment and hiring within our field.
Associate Professor of German and Chair of the Department of Languages & Literatures, University of North Carolina Asheville
Co-Founder of the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum scholarly collective
I am arriving at the conversation as someone who 7 years ago was hired on a Visiting Assistant Position with the task to renew and revive the two-person German department at a Small Public Liberal Arts College and as someone who is since July of this year the tenured Department Chair. I am not sharing this as a success story, but working in a small German program has convinced me that the future of German Studies will depend on such small programs and how well we prepare our Graduate Students to work in them and how well we support these programs.
The Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum scholarly collective was born because Dr. Ervin Malakaj and I found ourselves in very similar situations at our first positions out of graduate school. And despite the strong graduate programs we both came from and the significant pedagogical training we received, we were not prepared to create a curriculum for the diverse student body we were seeking to attract to our departments. We were also not trained in how to teach Adjective endings at 9:30am, a special topics course at 3pm and a class for the general education requirement in between and how to continue to publish with a 4/4 teaching load and alongside the high-level of student mentoring expected in small programs. And we figured all this out not through the GSA, MLA, or AATG, but because of connections with colleagues and friends in similar positions.
Of course the future of German Studies will depend not only on addressing those issues, but on a large scale envisioning of our discipline and what our role in the academy at large should be. It will depend on our response to the contingency crisis in our field and how it impacts especially those of our colleagues already pushed to the margins.
Based on the participation I have seen at conferences and seminars on this subject, based on who is involved in the scholarly collective it seems that the envisioning of German Studies is not a shared interest across ranks and gender. The future of German Studies, however, will depend on those who hold significant institutional power to get on board or to get out of the way.
George M. Roth Professor of German, Georgetown University
Editor, Gegenwartsliteratur: A German Studies Yearbook
The role of PhD programs in German Studies, i.e., the education of the new generation of German studies scholars and teachers, goes to the heart of the Roundtable’s focus on “The Future of German Studies.” In my initial statement, I therefore addressed the significance of teacher education -- a dimension of graduate programs that despite many interventions from individuals and reports from our professional organizations often does not receive adequate attention and recognition.
Arguably, in the current precarious situation with so many open questions regarding higher education in general and the future of modern language programs in particular, reaffirming the central role of teacher education has become even more important. While it might seem obvious to directors of language programs and scholars of SLA (second language acquisition), I would call on all members of the profession, but especially on scholars of literature and culture, to think about teacher education as intricate part of the intellectual mission of graduate programs and not merely as a necessary ‘add-on’ to scholarly pursuits.
What does this mean on the ground? Close and consistent mentorship throughout a graduate student’s teaching career; exposure to relevant research in SLA in required coursework that goes beyond an introduction to teaching methods; and, perhaps most importantly, opportunities for graduate students to become familiar with thinking about individual courses as part of an articulated four-year undergraduate curriculum. In addition to excellent teaching abilities, the familiarity with curricular design is central for preparing PhD students for the job market as the majority of positions are likely to be located in small German programs that often require a rethinking of the undergraduate curriculum or parts thereof.
Furthermore, approaching a four-year German studies curriculum as dynamic and ever evolving will enable a new generation of German studies scholars to not only envision thematic changes but to implement these changes in meaningful ways. This has gained special relevance with recent concerted efforts to diversify and de-colonize the curriculum in German programs.
Against this backdrop, I want to conclude with two examples of how course and curricular design can be integrated into a graduate program: As final task in the required course “Literacy and Foreign Language Teaching” at Georgetown University, graduate students redesign a course unit at the introductory or intermediate course level by focusing on the integration of language learning and content. For instance, a recent course unit designed by a PhD student focused on public spaces in German cities from a disabilities studies perspective. The second example is a dissertation by one of our PhD students who straddles SLA and cultural studies and who explores how to give adequate attention to the role of Black Germans in German society especially in teaching materials at the lower levels of the curriculum. Both projects exemplify the powerful synergy between SLA research, Cultural and Literary studies, and curriculum innovation.
Johannes von Moltke
President The German Studies Association
Vice President, American Friends of Marbach
This is a discussion that draws on many voices, including those of my co-panelists represented here, but also at GSA events such as the Forum on Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice, or the Queer and Trans German Studies roundtable; at the Cornell conference last year on “Re-imagining the Discipline;” or in op eds and articles, including Lydia Tang’s great piece “Against Smallness.” In adding my perspective, I speak from my experience both at Michigan but also as president of the GSA over the past two years. But bear in mind that a bird’s eye view can also obscure and gloss over important details of the landscape. I should also note that I do not speak on behalf of the GSA and that all opinions are my own.
This session’s title – the future of German Studies – obviously begs the question of our field’s past and present. I won’t go into the former, but I do think it behooves us to take stock of where we find ourselves today if we want our talk about tomorrow, let alone the future, to have any purchase.
By one measure at least, like many other fields, German Studies is presently defunct and has no future. If you look at the jobs wiki, you’ll look in vain for positions in German, Austrian, or even Central European history; under German Studies, as Didem Uca also noted in her remarks, you’ll find three positions, one of them with an “applicant beware” notice in the comments section. In fact, for all the warnings about comments sections, this one should be required reading, if only for the line that this year, you’d have better chances at winning the lottery than landing a job in German Studies. Coupled with the state of the world in every other respect, the feeling of rage that one panelist at the Queer and Trans German Studies roundtable expressed yesterday seems like a most rational response. Others I’ve heard include: worry, depression, anger, despair. These responses come from the people who are the future of the field, if it is to have one. And if we want to talk about that future, we must listen to them.
But what does it mean to listen, let alone to act upon what we’re hearing? Listening and hearing require fora for exchange, places and platforms where people can be heard – and not just comments sections on job wikis. We need institutions that facilitate such listening and that can act. Existing institutions such as the GSA are admittedly sluggish – there’s an inertia built into them, and often for good reasons that I’d be ready to defend (reasons having to do with the relationship between democracy and bureaucracy). That said, I see the GSA as a collaborative project that is invested in creating space for envisioning the future of the discipline not only through conference papers, but also through the interdisciplinary networks, through advocacy, through the creation of support structures such as our Community Fund, through town halls and forums and roundtables or collective blogs such as this one.
Curiously and somewhat counter-intuitively, then, when I look at the present of German Studies through the lens of the GSA, I hear not only rage, anxiety, or worry but also see innovation, collaboration, opportunity. And I see exhilarating, important work being done, as evidenced not only in the award winning books and articles, and the invigorating sessions even at a virtual GSA but also in our members’ public-facing work (for examples, think only of the important contributions on how BLM resonates across the Atlantic, but also on how and to what extent we should turn to the history of Fascism for understanding our global present). More generally speaking, I’ve always been struck by the fact that the GSA has remained stable, and has even grown, over the past few years and in the face of institutional shrinkage, economic pressures, and countervailing experiences in other scholarly associations.
If this picture sounds a bit too rosy against the backdrop of the current job situation and the neoliberal disinvestment from academic learning more generally, I would hope that we’re able to embrace this contradiction rather than whisk it away in favor of either doom and gloom or Panglossian optimism. For both can be true at once: the situation is dire and many of the initiatives I’m seeing are heartening. One doesn’t cancel out the other.
By the same token, I am deeply concerned by institutional responses that involve putting graduate programs on hold. This seems to me short-sighted, and it does the bidding of administrations and legislatures that treat higher education as a zero-sum game, pitting German departments against other language departments, the language departments against other humanities departments, the humanities against STEM fields, always with the unspoken assumption that I can only get my share of the pie if I take it away from you.
Now, I’m not naïve. I understand that we operate under material constraints. I also understand that advocating for maintaining our graduate programs requires a willingness to rethink them, and it requires clear communication with applicants and prospective students about what prospects these programs can and cannot offer.
But let me close by countering the zero-sum model of higher ed with an emphasis on collaboration. As anyone who has been involved in meaningful collaborative projects knows, these are processes in which the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. As such, they form an inherent challenge to any reductionist models of labor and institutional organization. So let’s champion and pursue collaboration, by which I mean some very concrete things: working together across generational lines (I very much hope that we’ll have a graduate caucus in the GSA again in the near future; and I could certainly imagine the same for contingent faculty). I also mean valuing collaborative work in hiring, tenuring, and promotion; creating new collaborative platforms, as modelled by the DDGC or the German Studies Collaboratory. I would include collaboration across tiers of institutions, and emphatically second Vance’s call for turning towards 2-year colleges. And I mean joining forces among existing groups. What I called “sluggish” institutions like the GSA (or the AATG) must constantly reinvent themselves by working together not just with the requisite governmental partners such as the DAAD or the ACF, but also with various and possibly more nimble groups such as our friends at WiG, DDGC, the BGHRA – and others, yet to be created.
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