Teaching the Roots of Xenophobia and Paranoia in 5th Semester German: Tina Brenneisen's (PoinT) "Die Hoodies"
Following a presentation on integrating graphic novels into German/German Studies curricula held by my friend and colleague Brett Sterling (University of Arkansas) held during our conference Diversity, Decolonialization and the German Curriculum, I set out to consider more seriously in which ways graphic novels are effective modes to reach pedagogical goals in the German Program at Sam Houston State University. What drew me to the form of the graphic novel in particular is its functionality at different levels of the German/German Studies curriculum. Of course, not all graphic novels can function in the first semester; however, generally there is a place for some graphic novels at any juncture of our curricula.
In this post, I share my experiences integrating Tina Brenneisen's Die Hoodies (2014) in a fifth-semester German language/culture course titled "German Media Cultures." The post provides some background about the course itself, where the unit on Die Hoodies is positioned in the curriculum, and examines the potential of the text to position students to think, talk, and write about xenophobia and paranoia at the intermediate level.
The Text: "Die Hoodies"
Die Hoodies opens with an ominous one-liner evocative of the fairy tale tradition: "Am Anfang waren es nur drei" (5). The line sits positioned below a large frame capturing three figures--ostensibly the main figures of the text--within a locale including a dense forest on the left divided by a road from a house (and the border to a village) on the right. Readers anticipate the next page in hope of more information about the figures. But the visual and textual evidence insists on mystery. To this end, the following pages are ornamented with images capturing the three figures sitting on a bench in a park, chatting with one another, and walking about. As well as this line: "Sie waren etwa fünfzehn, vielleicht auch sechzehn Jahre alt und lungerten auf den Sitzbänken des Spielplatzes am Ende des Dorfes herum" (7).
The first quarter of the book builds on the mystery of the three figures. Though readers believe more information about them will come in subsequent pages, not much more is revealed about them for the remainder of Die Hoodies. Herein lies the potential of the book: the refusal to offer any mitigating information about the figures is a source of discomfort functioning on multiple levels of the text. Because readers don't know where they came from, what their intentions are, and where they will be heading, readers could feel they are an irritation to what seems to be an idyllic rural area. I'd go very far and say that the text even aligns readers with a dangerous perspective: namely, that of naive persons forming prejudiced opinions about those they don't understand. In this sense, the text produces xenophobia in readers and engenders a paranoia about the unknown especially as the group of Hoodies continues to expand and none of the characters in the book seem to know from where they came.
Only later on do readers realize that the story is partially focalized though the experiences of a young child. The effect of this stylistic is a powerful production of discomfort for readers during the reading process, because the recognition that readers were positioned to share the timid xenophobic naiveté of a child creeps up to readers in quite drastic ways. That is, the text's transformative power lies in the evocation of xenophobic moments, which readers are supposed to recognize because they are tasked to participate in thinking patterns resembling xenophobia.
Moreover, the Hoodies are dichotomized from the village people in a number of scenes. Most striking is the discomfort the Hoodies cause for an elderly man, who is irritated by their presence although they seem in no way to interfere with his daily life. He complains to his neighbors about the large group of people loitering in the park and, in a quite drastic series of frames, finally decides to confront the Hoodies. On his way to the section of the park in which they are located, he schemes what he will say to them: "Ich sag's jetzt mal friedlich . . . wenn ihr Jungs und Mädchen bis morgen nicht verswunden seid . . . rückt hier die Polizei an! Und nimmt euch die Personalien auf!" However, as he approaches, he realizes the Hoodies were gone and his energies will have to be wasted. The book offers no explanation for this disappearance and leaves the child through whose perspective the story is focalized wondering what had happened to them, where they had gone, and what they had ever wanted.
The drastic disappearance of the Hoodies heightens the stylistic of the graphic novel, which focuses on rendering the fear of others and making it available for scrutiny. There is an incredible sense of non-closure at the end, because the expectation was that the dramatic preparation of the old man to berate the youths would end up in violence. That material violence had been denied to eager audiences. This denial is intentional because it serves a powerful didacticism keen on illustrating just how easy we succumb to the fear of the Other.
The author of Die Hoodies offers an afterword in which they outline a main thread of their text: "Ich wollte zeigen, wie wenig es braucht, um Menschen zu verunsichern: 1. ein Symbol (der Kapuzenpullover als gewissermaßen säkulare Variante der Burka), 2. dessen massenhafte Präsenz (Hunderte von Hoodieträgern tauchen in einem fast menschenleeren Landstrich auf) und 3. keiner weiß, warum" (85). These three, at times problematic, points offer an outline by which to structure a discussion about the sources of paranoia, effects on social well-being, and possible solutions to it.
The unit itself is three weeks long. The first two weeks in the unit treat the text (in-class reading and other exercises) while the last unit entails in-class writing activities about the text, which culminate in a 1.5 page position paper. The goals for the unit are to review and practice taking a position/stance in German and defending it as well as providing students with an introduction to migration history in Germany. In particular, this entails quick reviews of subordinate clauses, common phrases/structures conducive to articulating opinions, and vocabulary used in the book itself, as well as a brief introductory lecture/exercise on inter/cross/etc. cultural (mis)encounters.
At this point in the semester, students have worked with various generic and medial formats, including short stories, poems, journalistic articles, short films, etc. The focus of the class is to help students navigate through various generic and medial formats in the German-language context. This means that they have worked with both textual and visual material before and are well positioned to deal with a format which draws from both textual and visual material.
I began the text in class. This means that I did not have students read it at home alone but conduct the introduction to the text on the first day of the unit. Excerpting a couple of pages from the book and projecting them on the PPT helped me develop an entry point into the text particularly conducive to the stylistic of xenophobic paranoia. That is, we approach each page very slowly, examining individual components of the textual as well as the visual which contribute to the xenophobic paranoia. We began by answering simple questions and describing the frames of the graphic novel. The point of the simple questions is that they are deceptively simple to answer: the young people in the images are not doing anything particularly wrong in them but they will come to be seen as deviant for this agency in short time.
I find that the images in graphic novels are quite excellent discussion starters, because for each image we can elicit a description, which permits students to recall vocabulary. My initial questions are thus always eliciting description, while at least one of the final questions per slide hopes to get at more abstract ideas. The description exercise offers students the chance to develop confidence to tackle more abstract questions. The exercise as a whole is devised to model how to articulate complex ideas and perspectives on the ideas effectively: first by description and then on a stance that draws on the description.
At least on two occasions my students brought up examples from the US context, which are applicable here. Most importantly, they compared the "Hoodies" and their purported interruption of an idyll to the murder of Trayvon Martin, whose hoodie was cited as symbol for crime and danger. I bring this up because I want to stress that complex ideas about some of the most pressing issues of our times have to be integrated into our curricula particularly because they offer us and our students a chance to examine them deeply and critically.
And I believe such discussions of pressing issues can be integrated as early as the first semester. Here I offer an example about the fifth semester, but there are great ideas being developed by our colleagues for earlier courses. For instance, Magda Tarnawska Senel (UCLA) and Kathryn Sederberg (Kalamazoo College) have developed a unit on migration cultures in Europe for the first semester based on Claude Dubois' graphic novel Akim rennt.
I wanted to discuss briefly the writing assignment at the end of the unit. The assignment began in class with the introduction of phrases useful for expressing opinions. For this exercise, I used material from Schreiben Lernen (2011) by Jennifer Redmann & Pennylyn Dykstra-Purium. The book is quite effective across the curriculum and my students were already familiar with it because I use it in previous semesters as well. The exercises in the book introduce phrases and then offer students a chance to practice deploying phrases in discussing common stereotypes about "Germans" and "Americans." Following this exercise, I offer a couple of statements about the Hoodies in our book and as students to complete a 1-minute writing exercise in which the articulate a stance based on the phrases provided. Following a recall, I introduce a problematic statement, which students are asked to evaluate in a longer writing assignment: "Die Hoodies sind ein Problem für die Gesellschaft." The statement is problematic, simplistic, irritating, etc. In short, it is perfect for a longer position paper in which students examine the statement. The instructions are to give examples from the text and deploy some of the phrases to articulate opinions. Currently I'm preparing for a peer editing session of the first drafts of the exercise and was quite impressed with what the students came up with.
Graphic novel and comic studies has recently received widespread interest from scholars in various fields. To this end, new resources appear on the market regularly on how to teach with these media forms. One resource, which I highly recommend, is the database "The German Graphic Novel," edited by Lynn M. Kutch. The database gives an in-depth overview of emerging texts in the German language context and offers pedagogical resources as well.
If you have favorite resources that would speak to this topic, will you please send them to me or comment below?
In Queer Phenomenology (Duke UP, 2006) and, more recently, in Living a Feminist Life (Duke UP, 2017), Sara Ahmed critically examines directions, orientations, and path-determinacies that govern our life. In the heteropatriarchal matrix, as we learn from Ahmed, we are bound to fixed paths in ways particularly threatening to individual self-expression. A life determined by "lines" which direct us by definition produces and accommodates some ways of being while threatening and excluding others. Linked to capitalist modernity, lineage and future-oriented productivity chain us to patterns and render us failures when we don't comply. Jack Halberstam reads this process of failing out of lines in the positive in The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011); failing is quintessential for any project seeking radical detachment from heteropatriarchal capitalist futures.
It seems that concerns about "the path well-trodden" (45) vitally speak to language-culture pedagogy (notice how desperately I cling to both ideas through the hyphen; how frequently--still--one is thought to be devoid of the other). Well-trodden paths serve as metaphor for so much of the work we do in the first two years of our programs. With the well-trodden path I mean multiple things at once: the instructor repeatedly revisiting material and treating it as though one mode speaks to all learners; the reuse of texts long part of the German language-culture studies textual archive for the first and second year without departure from how such material had been used in the past; the "goal" of courses as almost always oriented around linguistic proficiency, which alone cannot sustain interest in language learners increasingly concerned less about attaining proficiency than about how they are engaged in the class. This last one is paramount: why does our profession presume that learner motivation is organized around developing linguistic proficiency alone for the first and second year? Such a presumption is a relic of some time long gone (perhaps it never existed), but the aims from that time are inscribed into our syllabi and appear to the trained eye as nothing more than dangerously well-trodden paths. What possibilities exist for our courses and our curricula (another line!) when we depart from those paths? What are the potentials of queering our approaches and unleashing the scary capacity of empowering uncertainty on ourselves and our students?
Perhaps it can begin with something like this: What if the main goal in a fourth-semester German language and culture course is oriented not around linguistic proficiency (or the compulsion to help students reach a particular proficiency level) but rather around ideas facilitating critical deep thinking? (Perhaps we already think we are doing this.) "By the end of this unit, students will be able to imagine the complexity of experiences in the lives of queer individuals (in German!, don't worry, that is still here!) and will be able to examine how characters' queerness relates to their own lives." Queer here is a marker for failure in the sense Ahmed and Halberstam see it: as failing out of the capitalist success narratives predicated on strutting well-trodden paths. Queer here then means following queer characters and imagining alongside them alternative worlds and outcomes for an already queer path inscribed in a text. Helga Novak's "Fahrkarte bitte" is brilliant in this sense, because it offers access points to students in which they can participate in the queer experiences of the main character and thereby be positioned to critically examine questions often not raised in fourth-semester German courses. My approach to this text below will unveil how fictional queerness can raise the level of critical awareness with which students encounter a text. At the same time, the approach will instantiate a queer pedagogy interested in "goals" only inasmuch as the path to them is made unstable in the sense that it enacts declolonialist ideals.
Queer Potentials of Novak's "Fahrkarte bitte"
A quick plot summary: The female protagonist in Helga Novak's "Fahrkarte bitte" arrives in Kiel in the opening of the text. We are not quite sure why she is in Kiel other than that it is one stop on a journey to somewhere: she's in town the day before her ship departs to an unnamed designation. Maria (whose name we find out at the very end of the story--it is the last word) finds a hotel and checks in: the male attendant asks if she wants to pay upfront, but she states she would rather pay the next day. She wakes up the next morning and notices the attendant had a swollen lip, asks him to use the phone, phones her friend to ask for money to pay for the hotel. The attendant hears this conversation. A discussion between Maria and the attendant ensues in which she asks him if she could go fetch the money to pay for the hotel from her friend. He, in turn does not trust her; he takes her ship ticket (for the ship which is to depart at 1pm on the day of their disagreement) and holds it ransom. The story ends abruptly with Maria writing a letter to her friend, Charlotte, telling her that she's doing well in Kiel, that she's been living there and working as a server in a restaurant (presumably part of the hotel and presumably since the incident). She casually departs a path itself presumably not sanctioned by the social networks around her--we never find out why she is traveling either.
The story flows from one narrative station to the next, triggering and sustaining our interest through what Barthes calls narrative desire: the expository sentences are short and filled with vital information itself not fully serving the function of establishing for readers a fully-explained setting, effectively sustaining interest in all that follows while delaying a reveal (Maria's name is, for this reason, the last word of the story). "Kiel sieht neu aus. Es ist dunkel. Ich gehe zum Hafen. Mein Schiff ist nicht da. Es fährt morgen. Es kommt morgen vormittag an und fährt um dreizehn Uhr wieder ab. Ich sehe ein Hotel. Im Eingang steht ein junger Mann. Er trägt einen weinroten Rollkragenpullover." We are following Maria on her path but notice, with each station, that there is more to her story than she makes available to us. Did political or personal circumstances compel her to leave her previous home abruptly without money in her pocket? The text is, after all, a potential Republikflucht-story, given the author's connections to the former GDR. She may have been rejected by her family or friends and is now searching for a place she can call home. Although she has a ship to catch, circumstances bring her on another path, one she embraces without much resentment. "Sonst geht es mir glänzend," she writes to her friend Charlotte at the end, stating that she had been coopted into the capitalist production narrative (she has to work off her debt and needs money to maintain her stay in Kiel).
Maria's behavior is mysterious because she withholds information about her circumstances, but also because she glides from one situation to the next, from one hardship to another. Reading her story even compels readers to question her choices: she's alone and sasses the male attendant with possibly violent tendencies (his lip is swollen presumably because he was in a fight the night before). She casually lies and thereby swindles her way into the hotel. Moreover, she does whatever she believes necessary to survive at the cost of failing out of systems which rather have her pursue things differently. Precisely her failing out of systems, her "being out of line," is what is interesting here! Although the narrative appears to present a concrete path for readers to follow--opening, encounter with attendant, etc.--Maria's day is filled with numerous paths and thus potentials for her future. New lines emerge every time she fails out of one. The ending is, for this reason, quite startling! Does her taking a job at the end of the story not reposition her back onto an "acceptable" path? Does it not work against her queer orientation? I think the contrary is the case. The logic of the narrative suggests (path, queer failure, path) she won't be able to stay in this position for long and through her taking the job at the end only highlights the fact that she had steered off the path previously. This life in Kiel is queer on its own, even if it abides by a capitalist rhetoric of labor.
What a queer story! And what a queer character Maria is! The form of the story (deceptively simple sentences and "straightforward narration") gives rise to a search for depth: readers have a lot of questions at each station of the story. We think: there is something missing, something is hidden--what's in the closet? We never find out, but in searching for answers we participate in a search for meaning itself reminiscent of a well-trodden path. There is nothing and everything to discover, especially once we find out that we may never know Maria's full story. The story denies us information and thereby denies us a goal, an end point for a well-trodden path of meaning. What a queer story this is!
Thoughts about the Edition
"Fahrkarte bitte" is an excellent choice for a fourth-semester course, because it is linguistically accessible while thematically complex. The text is under 50 lines long. In the present edition, the text is printed on two-two-sided pages. The story itself is on the right page while the glossed vocabulary is on the left.
"Fahrkarte bitte" had been included in earlier editions of Deutsch: na klar! in their "reading corners" (as in, it was a chapter afterthought). However, I stumbled upon the text in an older course reader titled Lebendige Literatur: Deutsches Lesebuch für Anfänger (Houghton Mifflin, 1986, 3rd Ed.). I came to the book itself during a conversation with a colleague, who noted that it was a good archive of shorter pieces glossed and easy to integrate into classes. My approach was pragmatic, initially. This means that I, too, was hoping to march down a well-trodden path by picking texts thematically which would work in a unit on travel. I selected texts entirely because of their thematic connection to the units in my syllabus. The title, "Fahrkarte bitte," seemed literally related to my unit and I was drawn to it. Sometimes we have to work under harsh conditions, and well-trodden paths are all we feel capable of pursuing in a given moment. Queer decolonialist pedagogy is, however, a lot of work. There is nothing simple about it. But for some of us is the only mode of survival. It positions us to be aware of the dangers of pragmatism. It was in these moments of thinking about material, how I approach it and how I deploy it in class, that I came to decolonialist theories of education in the first place.
The question was: how do I make the most of this riveting story, which I was only then discovering? I decided to discover it alongside my students and try to align them with its rhetoric of queerness. Below are some approaches to the text that emerged from my work with it Spring 2017.
Excerpts from a Course Unit on the Story
Initial Work with the Text
Though handy, I enlist the help of the students to amend the glossary as one of the first exercises to a text. That is, before diving into it, before giving them any information about the text, we start with an exercise in which students scan the text for words important to include in a glossary. (This is not a revolutionary idea, but I feel that often we resort to pragmatism and our compulsion to stick to paths and decide to provide the list of words to students instead of helping them discover it.) Identifying the words is the first step and then a dictionary exercise helps students define them in a second step. The goal of the dictionary exercise is solely to build student confidence to encounter the material when we do subsequent work with the text.
Working with titles helps students anticipate the subject matter. Again, this is not a revolutionary idea. "Fahrkarte bitte" offers much and, at the same time, offers little. Students will be able to come up with some ideas about the text based on some of the work they did mining the text. However, the goal here is not to be accurate, but to trigger ideas: what are some possible scenarios for which the title would serve as descriptor? A trip. What kind of trip? Vacation? Work travel? Personal travel? Forced travel? Students generate these (and other) options quickly with some help. The next step is to attach characters to these scenarios. Who could be part of them? Why? Family? Friends? A group of people? A single person? Next is the designation: what is it? Home? Away from home? A specific place? I believe this exercise helps students establish the semantic fields present in the story before they fully engage with it. I also believe that it helps students think about "generic" scenarios--that is, those within the "line"--which the story helps deconstruct. To feel the energies of the story, one must know abasing which energies it is positioned.
In-Class Reading of the Text
I chunk the text into four sections: the exposition, the interaction with the attendant, moments of uncertainty, and the ending. Students come into the reading exercise having completed the glossing of the text and the pre-reading exercise. I pair up students and have them take turns reading the text out loud--each section twice. In between sections, they are to answer questions about who is in the section, where they are, what they are doing there. Once they finish reading the section aloud in chunks, I have students read the text individually once more--in class! I believe such extensive in-class work with texts is important, because it primes students for what they are to do on their own with texts outside of class. Because the text is short, this is feasible.
The notes students took reading the text aloud will serve well for generating character charts. Next to Maria and the attendant, there is Maria's friend and there are guests at the hotel. The character charts entail finding the characters in the story, developing a profile about them: how old could they bey, what is their personal/familial/professional background. What are they doing in the scene and why? Where do they come from and where do they hope to go? Students can base the content of the charts on any aspect of the text, even if it is not entirely certain if the text backs up what students say in their charts. That is, I encourage students to imagine options--this is, after all, something the text positions us to do as well. Students quickly realize that it is not possible to base everything on the information provided in the text. For me, this moment seems quite important. It offers students a chance to feel empowered by having worked extensively with a text in German to be able to say that it is ambivalent--meaning, the text is ambivalent about some parts of it because that is its rhetorical position and it is not because students cannot discern it because of proficiency issues.
Wo ist Kiel?
Considering the location of Kiel is a starting point for an analysis of linear paths. A map exercise is quite helpful (and won't take long). Students are asked to consider (imagine) where Maria comes from, where she is (in Kiel), where she might like to go and chart all that in one line on a map (a printout of one I found online). Questioning the line is more effective once we try to imagine it. The point here is that the line is not quite as easy to pin down, especially when a new one emerges. This exercise leads into a discussion of possibilities in which students have to take a side: Was glaubst du: wohin will Maria reisen? Ich glaube, dass Maria . . . The use of modal verbs here is quite important, because it is not a matter of counterfactuals (although there would be ways to integrate subjunctive use here too). It is a matter of identifying that Maria may not know where she is headed, she does not want to reveal it, and, finally, her designation is not up to her. A structured discussion around these matters reveals the queerness of the story to students and it begins with a simple drawing on a map.
Imagining Alternative Endings
This story lends itself well to a multitude of writing activities, either as homework in preparation for coursework or as a final project. Having students rewrite the story if it were written from different generic vantage points is especially important here. For instance, what if this were a comedy? What would the "line" look like and what effect would/should it have on readers? What about a melodrama? What about a horror story? Each imagining is an iteration of the sort of imaginings into which the story positions us.
To drive home the point about the non-linearity or queerness of the line, students could write a follow-up: what happens after the story? Where is Maria? Does she stay in that position? Does she leave? Does she ever get her ticket?
Decolonialist Pedagogy: Scrutinizing Material Selection & "Neben mir ist noch frei" in the Third Semester
In anticipation of a conference I'm co-organizing with Regine Criser March 2017 titled "Diversity, Decolonialization, and the German Curriculum," I've been thinking a lot about what constitutes an ethically responsible decolonialist pedagogy. Such a pedagogy entails scrutinizing ideologies informing material selection for German language and culture courses, many of which hope to be "inclusive" and foster "diversity," yet invariably sustain hegemonic ideals of Germanness instead of deconstructing them.
Leslie Adelson's and Fatima El-Tayeb's scholarship has been instrumental in theoretically informing this thinking. Adelson describes the process by which migrants are continually seen as "aliens from elsewhere," even long after gaining citizenship. Fatima El-Tayeb, drawing on Adelson's work, discusses European Otherness as vital in sustaining a multifaceted network of white-western ideologies. How, then, can we responsibly include texts and discuss lived and imagined experiences of various ethnic groups in Germany without sustaining a troubling idea about Germanness, which violently excludes various ethnic groups. In other words, how can we conceive of texts as "representative" without ghettoizing the ideals they present in a small corner of an otherwise "non-diverse" curriculum?
Let's consider the effective and problematic Neben mir ist notch Platz by Paul Maar (1996; 2016) by way of elucidating this and other points I hope to make in this post. I believe the text is an effective one for the German classroom, because this children's book works very well linguistically at the intermediate level and because it presents the troubling (yet for the classroom productive) relationship between Steffi and Aisha. Aisha and her Family are refugees in Germany (in the earliest version of the book, they come from Lebanon, but the latest edition lists Syria). Steffi and Aisha become good friends, but disagreements, informed by anti-refugee sentiment/xenophobia, drive the two apart. Once Aisha's brother is beaten and their family home vandalized, the family decides to leave Germany. The text carries a theme, which has resonated with instructors hoping to diversify their materials. And yet, the text's problematics could already be self evident by considering the plot alone. I'll offer some reservations I have about the text below and will outline the ways I've integrated this in my third-semester German course.
The text opens up by establishing a colonialist relationship between Steffi and Aisha. Steffi exerts control over Aisha linguistically by correcting her "inadequate" German. This laden moment is echoed at other times throughout the text, during which Aisha uses "wrong" German and is subsequently corrected by well-intentioned Germans. This dynamic of correctness and aspiring correctness may appeal to some instruction boasting an insistence on "adequate" German. And yet, it is flawed by propagating a violence so readily committed against migrant communities--a linguistic violence used as punishment and thus degradation of migrant experience.
And yet, Neben mir ist notch Platz seeks to foreground Steffi's troubled stance as an oppressive voice and complicates her character as the plot progresses. The text stresses a communication issue again following a falling-out between Aisha and Steffi: Steffi's friend Marie-Luise does not like Aisha for her difference and wants her uninvited from Steffi's birthday party. Marie-Luise recommends--slyly--that the party be reserved for girls only, knowing Aisha would not be able to attend since her brother Jussuf accompanies her wherever she goes. Steffi asks Aisha, who shows up to the party with her brother, to send Jussuf away. Aisha instead leaves along with her brother.
On the one hand, the book insists on the experiences of children as excuses for Steffi's behavior, resting on her young age to deflect an immediate xenophobia emerging from these interactions. After all, who could blame children for racist and xenophobic behavior? Yet on the other it presents the troubling ways in which Aisha's purported friend deals with her. I think this is precisely wherein the potential of this text lies buried: though the texts insists on "excuses" for xenophobic behavior, it also tends to subvert them in their troubled, for readers easily recognizable representation. The deep-rooted racist attitude toward Aisha comes fore in highly nuanced, subtle moments during which Steffi's parents don't "understand" why Aisha and her brother do and don't do things a certain way. For instance, the dad is offended when neither of the two eat his grilled meat although he is reminded that they don't eat pork. They emerge when Steffi is scared to lose a friend as much as she is scared about the vandalism and violence Aisha's family suffer. They emerge when Steffi is the true "hero" of the story, the girl to learn the lesson, which makes her a better friend, rendering Aisha merely a tool in this betterment of the white oppressor--a common trope among colonialist narratives.
I think the book makes its problematic stance quite visible, a tension especially graspable by college students. The relationships among the characters in the book are quite complex and defy simplistic characterization, which offer fruitful moments for reflection in language classrooms and the sort of description required to present the issues the text raises (or those it produces). It is the complex issues and the difficult relationships between the characters that will help me recover this text for a decolonialist pedagogy.
Initially I was very hesitant to include a children's book written and illustrated by ethnically German artists simply for the reason that the inclusion of such a text promulgates the idea that the oppressor maintains the right to tell the story of the oppressed. Even good-intentioned aesthetics of migration bear violence for the migrant. I've shown this above with the difficult relationship between Steffi and Aisha. However, the troubled narrative opens up avenues of access to discussions about the troubled nature of the text itself.
Framing the Text for the Class
It occurred to me that instructors invest a lot of energy into "migrant" units or "migrant" courses in curricula which are ostensibly not about the migrant. In other words, course design and material selection, framing of the way these ideas are integrated into the curriculum, ostracize, ghettoize, marginalize the material and reinscribe a division among people when the intention behind the selection hopes to do the opposite. Why frame a text, unit, or a course as "migrant"? Why separate migrant experiences in Germany by including them thematically in one chapter--as is done in most first and second year textbooks? A possible answer troubles me, since the first thought is that textbooks do a great job of establishing divisions which instructors blindly follow or have no option but to follow (e.g. time restrictions, overworked, etc.). What are the alternatives? How then, can we proceed without upholding systems of oppression?
One way of doing it is by avoiding labeling texts and units to which they belong as "migrant" (or the like). It seems to me that an effective approach to decolonialist curricula--which follows the multiliteracies, integrated model--thrives because emphases on themes can be accommodated easily by a variety of texts. If some of the units and courses at the beginning and intermediate level effectively address topics related to a broad category we often call "personal narratives," why must we explicitly call attention to migration in a course which seeks to introduce linguistic and cultural material of a complex cultural context effectively? That is, why "disrupt" the curricula procession just for migration? I'm not saying that we should not integrate the topics of migration into our courses; in fact, we have a moral imperative to do so given the dire political and social realities for migrant communities in German-speaking contexts (and globally). I'm simply hoping to advocate for an approach that resists a ghettoizing effect of these topics.
I introduce Neben mir ist noch Platz in a unit on friendship. The text is not "marked" as a text about migration or racism, though these themes emerge from the plot. By discussing friendship and the accompanying vocabulary and structures reserved for the unit through the text, the themes of migration, xenophobia, and racism as they specifically relate to the German-speaking context emerge on their own.
For instance, the first two sessions of the unit focus on characteristics of Aisha and Steffi, practicing the interrogative pronoun phrase "Was für (ein/e) . . ." "Was für eine Person ist Aisha?" and "Was für eine Person ist Steffi?" Working with the vocabulary from the book and additional vocabulary, which lends itself well to character description, students are able to create complicated character charts, which already include the colonialist tension the book presents. The structural emphasis on interrogative pronouns anticipates a follow-up activity once we finish reading the entire book, during which the same questions about characters emerge and students can expand their initial assessment of their personas.
A reminder: I did not frame this story as a story about migrant experiences in Germany. Instead I framed it as a story about friendship and students discover the material on their own. The difficult relationship between Aisha and Steffi, the troubled minor characters which remain clueless about Aisha's troubles in Germany, all add up to a scenario in which students piece together a colonialist relationship: "Ist Steffi eine gute Freundin?" for instance, reveals a lot about the way students perceive her ignorance about or dismissal of Aisha's cultural background.
In this unit, students also receive their first introduction to the relative pronoun, which traditionally opens up students to more elaborate, complex structures. "Marie-Luise ist ein Mädchen, das . . . " We referred back to the interrogative pronouns and expanded on the characterization: "Was für eine Person ist Marie-Luise?"
Importantly, I do introduce a little background information about the history of migration in Germany, the constructedness of Germanness, and draw on student experiences in the USA. "Wie fühlt sich Aisha nach Steffis Party?" "Warum ist Jussuf nicht eingeladen?" "Wie fühlt sich Aisha, nachdem ihr Haus vandaliziert ist?" Questions like these are not challenging for students to answer in scaffolded units which offer them all the tools they require to answer them. They also prefigure a mini presentation on migration, themes of which students anticipate in their answers to the questions.
These are just a couple of ways to work with the text. Some of you have important, innovative, complicated ways to work with it as well. I'd love to hear from you! I also have a writing assignment, which rounds off this unit, in which Aisha writes a letter to her friend in Lebanon, telling her about her experiences in Germany. Students have a small presentation during which they model a discussion about the friendship between the two main characters.
Decolonialist Pedagogy & the Imperative for Collaboration
When considering material to include in our courses, it is essential that we embrace the text's racist potential by laying it bare for students to discover. And the discovery model is precisely why this text is powerful for third-semester students. If the text is not critiqued, however, its potential is lost.
In devising the unit and creating its individual components, I've realized the amount of work it takes to make this unit coherent and pedagogically interesting for students who seek to improve their linguistic and cultural skills at the intermediate level. Many of you have graciously shared your insights and experiences integrating this text into your courses, most of all my dear friend and colleague Patrick Brugh. These insights are valuable, because otherwise we all make discoveries on our own without being able to draw and build on the experiences collectively.
Decolonialist pedagogy, it seems to me, has at its core a communal approach to curricula. We can only improve on our work through collaboration, exchange, and communal critiques, which push us to improve our methods in ethically responsible ways. One simple way to start or to continue to cultivate a deolonialist pedagogy is to do what for some reason appears very difficult to do, namely to reach out to those around us for help.
I spent two weeks with a group of vibrant German Studies professionals from all over the US at a Fulbright/DAAD Summer Academy for US German professors in Leipzig. One of the most important exchanges during these two weeks was with Birgit Jensen, who presented her own work building the German program at East Carolina University.
Below is a summary of this discussion. These points can be a great start in establishing a course of action for program building. Moreover, they can be a great start in revising approaches at already established programs. I was glad to see some of my own projects at Sam Houston State University in the list. The blog will serve as a thinking piece for a workshop I am co-organizing at this year's ACTFL/AATG in Boston with my wonderful colleagues Patricia Branstad and Yvonne Franke.
If you have had success implementing programming not listed here--or if you have alternative approaches to some of the items listed here--please use the comments section below to tell me about what you are doing. It is extremely important that we as German Studies professionals share insight. Only through collaborative planning and through sharing can we maintain our disciplines.
In my fourth-semester (intermediate ii) German language & culture course, I am integrating sections of the young adult novel Die Abenteuer der "schwarzen Hand" (1965) into a unit on the perils of communication. The course itself is organized around different themes relating to the broad theme of communication, which is, for different reasons, very important for students at the intermediate level.
My goal was to use this text and offer students first and foremost an opportunity for structured reading practice in the target language. Die Abenteuer is structured by one-page chapters, which end with a question, one that is in turn to be answered by consulting an image on the following page. The book itself contains four stories. I selected the third story for my students: "Der Schmuggler-Tunnel." Since each story can stand alone for the most part, the format allows for relatively easy entry into any single one of the stories without much background about the plot. The compactness of the chapter itself makes for rather varied textual material available on two pages.
I began the lesson with a brief introduction that covered the title of the book and its main cast of characters. Since each of the chapters does a great job summarizing in the first paragraph what had happened previously in the story, students needed only minor background information before starting reading a later section of the book.
I asked students to come up with ideas about what the book could be about given its title before confirming that it is indeed a detective novel for children and about children. More importantly, the idea that there are pieces of information that belong to a broader narrative--the clue-driven suspense plot central to detective fiction--seemed particularly interesting for students at a stage of their language and culture studies at which they are asked to decipher a lot of information based on small linguistic clues.
Armed with the idea that there will be a lot of clues that the gang of characters pursue in the text, students were positioned well to discuss the cognate-heavy title of the book. Was ist ein Schmuggler? Was macht ein Schmuggler in einem Tunnel? The subtitle additionally offered a brief pause in the lesson during which I could swiftly review expressing time (a notion with which some students struggle even in later semesters).
The first longer exercise was to read the text aloud for their partner, switching up after each paragraph. As they are reading, they are to underline words with which they are not familiar. Since my students are developing healthier relationships to their dictionaries, I asked them in a second step to define the words they underlined and to create their own glossary for the reading.
After reassuring students that deconstructive work with the text will help them develop a better understanding of the text, I divided the text into three parts (conveniently the three paragraphs of the chapter). Students were placed into groups and were asked to re-read each of the parts, writing three points of interest about that part (a summary of sorts) on the board.
This exercise served well to offer students time to deconstruct collaboratively a sophisticated German text, offering them plenty of time to ask questions about individual language structures, which other students in their group generally answered.
What Die Abenteuer offered us was a way to pause in a semester and review some of the basic tenants of the simple past (a review they completed before the exercise using UT Austin's wonderful Grimm Grammar). During the deconstruction of the text, I stopped at the three stations in class and asked students to pay attention to the irregular verbs in the simple past. The fourth semester is primarily a review of the basic structures and for this reason warrants brief explicit discussions of structure.
Once finished, students were standing in their groups by the board and were tasked to offer a brief summary of the paragraph they deconstructed. I asked follow-up questions about individual paragraphs to offer them a chance to speak about sections that did not make it into their summary.
Once the exercise was completed, I asked students to read the question at the bottom of the page, which asks readers to consult the graphic on the following page and interact with the prose to come up with an answer. Almost all students immediately found the clue, an explicit answer for which they also receive in the next chapter of the story.
In this blog I have described one 50-minute lesson, which was followed by the next chapter of the story and which focused not only on structured reading, but also discussion points that allowed students to speculate outcomes of the story. An alternative approach would be to have students read longer portions of a given story, asking them to pay attention to the broader plot and not its details. Such an emphasis on structured reading--which I integrate regularly throughout the semester--prepares students well to work with prose in future units and by extension upper division courses.
Short films work very well in target language classrooms. They can be easily integrated into one lesson, but they usually contain enough material that can be spread across a sequence of lessons or even a larger unit. Here I would like to discuss how I've integrated Jochen Alexander Freydank's 2007 short film Spielzeugland into my German 3 (Intermediate I) course.
The plot summary (spoiler alert!): The film is set in Nazi Germany in the year 1942. Marianne Meissner realizes her young son, Heinrich, ran away. We presume that he likely believed his mother's white lie she told him the previous evening, namely, that the neighbors (the Silbersteins) are going on a trip to "toy land." The reality: Marianne refuses to tell her son that the Jewish neighbors are to be deported the following morning. In panic and fearing that Heinrich might be put on a train to a KZ, she rushes to the train station, convinces Nazi officials to search for the Silbersteins on a train scheduled for deportation, and, in a decisive moment, pulls another boy from the train. In this scene, which forms the emotional and narrative focal point of the film, Marianne sees the Silbersteins' son on the cart and calls out "Heinrich," deceiving the Nazi officials and saving the Jewish boy from certain death, while (perhaps) being sure that her own son found his way to safety.
I won't go into the cinematic-narrative complexities here. For an excellent interpretation of the film see Erin McGlothlin's article "Rewriting the Fantasy of the "Wrong" Victim in Jochen Alexander Freydank's Spielzeugland," New German Critique 41.3 (2015): 113-134. Instead I will show how the film can serve as starting point in a third-semester unit aimed at helping students learn ways to communicate complex (auto)biographical narratives. What follows is material that easily fits into a 50 minute lesson.
The central relationship depicted in the film, that between Marianne and Heinrich, is also central for the film poster used for distribution. The lesson began with the poster enlarged on a PPT. I asked students to consider the title on the slide, asking for associations they could make about the individual words and then the compound itself. I then asked students to describe the figures shown in the poster: Welche Figuren sehen Sie im Poster? Was für eine Beziehung haben die Figuren? Wer ist nicht im Bild?
Students were able to answer these brief questions without a problem, pointing out that there will be a central tension between the mother and son. Because the poster served as warm-up exercise, I had no intentions to tell students anything more about the content of the film. Instead I presented students facts about the film (i.e., year, director, awards), which were also included in a handout I had distributed at the beginning of the lesson.
With this information, students already had a good sense of what to expect from the film in terms of key players and the central conflict that somehow relates to them. I then showed the film in class (the entire film runs ca. 13 min.).
After the film, I asked students briefly who the central characters were, what their names were, what their relationships were to one another. This set of questions was also included on the handout. With a better sense of who the main figures were, I transitioned into an activity that introduces and helps students practice a language structure scheduled for that day. Instead of working on the language structure in isolated fashion, I tied the exercise to the story world of the film and the broader theme of our class and this unit specifically: communicating (auto)biographic narratives.
In conjunction with the section "Verbs with Fixed Prepositions" in Chapter 12 of Deutsch: Na klar!, the exercise asked students to summarize the plot of the film using collocations "sich Ärgern über," "sich freuen auf," "verzichten auf." The cluster of phrases offered in the textbook lend itself well to summarize a film about characters whose relationships to one another are tempered by miscommunication and momentary dissatisfaction.
I briefly summarized for students that, in order to use these phrases, one has to consider that some verbs require to be paired with certain prepositions, that these are very useful to communicate affect. The task was: I listed about 8 different phrases and told students to use about 5 of them to summarize the basic plot of the film, filling a void between sentences should scenes be in the film that cannot be easily summarized using these constructions.
My task was to walk around the room, consulting with students (who worked in pairs on this exercise), and pointing out linguistic nuance where necessary--for instance, reminding students that most of the compounds require the object that follows them to be in the accusative case, and that only a handful require dative.
The lesson was wrapped up with a recall: what is going on in the film? This gave students to present their summary. The great thing: not all of them used the collocations to summarize the same scenes, which allowed us to repeat the collocation and get a better sense of the plot of the film.
Notably, the interpretation of the film was kept on the impressionistic level, but the goal of the lesson was not deep interpretation of the film. The goal was to expose students to an authentic German text, one whose story world formed an authentic referent for the remaining linguistic work that we did in the class.
Following a vibrant seminar for faculty at small German programs in the US organized and funded by the American Association of Teachers of German, I immediately devised plans to implement units that foreground work with cultural artifacts or themes in all levels of German instruction. I was inspired by a presentation on the integrated language/culture curriculum, a guiding paradigm for my own curricular work, that I hope to continue on this blog and elsewhere.
The premise of the integrated curriculum, excellently synthesized and presented at the seminar by Jennifer Redmann (Franklin and Marshall College): proactively devising lessons, units, syllabi, and courses in ways that work against a bifurcation of the curriculum proper. By integrating language/culture/analysis across the curriculum, students have a better chance to maintain interest in German Studies beyond requirements. Moreover, students are introduced to "cultural work," the implementation or mobilization of language to achieve specific means, early on in their German courses and develop specific "literacies" throughout the curriculum. That is, by emphasizing on the presentation and inquiring about personal narratives in the beginning levels, summarizing/early analysis of narratives in intermediate levels, and evaluating and devising arguments about complex narratives at the advanced levels, students work with "narratives" throughout the curriculum. I will go into detail in later posts.
My goal is to document the process of implementing the integrated curriculum approach at SHSU in this blog space. By tracing the development of the curriculum at SHSU and its own transition into two tracks: 1. German and 2. German Studies (with courses offered in English by faculty across disciplines), I will record the growth of the program itself, on the one hand. On the other, I will track student progress and response to this approach anecdotally.
The seminar brought a great number of faculty across the US in contact with one another. A number of us thought it productive to start working toward a shared database around individual lessons, units, syllabi, etc. As part of this effort, I hope to track the development and the resource sharing efforts here as well. In my mind, the integrated curriculum presents an ideal scenario to steer away from expensive textbooks and toward more inclusive use and sharing of materials.