This post is inspired by a number of recent conversations in which my interlocutors spoke disparagingly about the first-semester language classroom. Their comments were not mean-spirited. In fact, most of my interlocutors were close friends and colleagues who care deeply and seriously about language learning and culture studies. But their assessment seemed to me to be a symptom of how language learning is perceived broadly, how such perception shapes the way we discuss language learning, and points to broader implications about the state of language learning in North America.
In fact, my interlocutors did not perceive to be talking disparagingly about the first semester when they suggested that on its own it is a rather “useless” course which only matters as a stepping stone toward proficiency and bears no merit of its own. The context for this unfortunate framing of the first-semester language classroom is the following: a discussion about language and culture studies enrollments at the upper division. My interlocutors maintained that students who seek to fulfill an elective requirement by enrolling in one semester of language or students in similar situations, who are for various reasons prevented from a multi-semester commitment to language learning, simply “get nothing out of one semester of German.” The conversations in all instances were expanded to include the language requirement on the whole, which they see as nearly useless on its own without a student’s full commitment to a multi-year program of study leading to advanced proficiency (and a major in German).
In what follows, I want to elaborate on points I made (and those I hoped to make but did not) in personal conversations with my interlocutors about the importance of the first-semester language course (and by extension the first or the first two years of language learning). Some of the reflections below are not novel insights: scholars in language pedagogy, SLA, and curriculum design, as well as advocates for language and culture studies, have long made the point that language learning is more than learning vocabulary and linguistic structures to organize it. What I think is usually overlooked by even the most ardent advocates for language learning in North America and beyond are the parts outlining the value of the first semester language class in its own right, without recourse or expectations for what function it serves in preparing students for subsequent courses in the language and culture studies program.
I. The Joy and Pain in Language Learning
I want to begin with my own experience with language learning. I was 8 years old when my family fled the Balkan Wars. We moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, and lived there in a refugee settlement. My mother took me to the dentist, because I had an excruciating tooth ache. Neither of us spoke German beyond a few words we picked up by hearing them spoken by others. Nonetheless, the receptionist somehow understood what the issue was (i.e., the child is in pain) and I was soon thereafter in the dentist’s chair.
I recall the dentist asking me one question after the other. Each time a word came out of his mouth I felt the anxiety crushing on my chest. At one point he started miming what he wanted me to do. He opened the mouth and intimated he wanted me to open mine. Initially, the process was gentle. But he quickly became aggravated by it. The last I recall is that he must have asked me to tilt my head. When I failed to do as requested, he violently moved it for me. I could see my mother’s eyes water from the corner of my own eye.
To this day, I’m terrified of dentist offices. For a long time after this incident I also feared speaking, communicating, and trying to connect with others. Especially in German. It was only with others like me or, to put it more precisely, those in similar linguistics situations, that I slowly developed a sense of relative comfort with language. These other kids were likewise from the Balkans or were migrants from other countries. German was not our only common language: we very slowly learned to share Bosnian, Albanian, and Afghani/Pashto with some German sprinkled here and there. In this playful setting, we would all fall into silence when what we perceived to be a German speaker stumbled upon our conversations in the park or the yard of the community in which we lived. He, too, might aggressively touch and move our bodies if we did not do what he wanted. If a prompt did not yield what it intended. Language was joyous and painful in these settings; affirmative and violating.
When I taught my first German 101 course as a grad student in my first semester in the MA program, I never expected these affirmative/traumatic relations to language to resurface in the constellation they did. The first week of instruction followed a familiar model for those of us who teach language courses: we use a common set of practices—including slow speech, extensive repetition, use of images, body movements—by which to conduct class entirely in the “target language” (a term I hate) in order to elicit language use and comprehension from students. Following the first few class sessions students allegedly “get used” to the process. But what of the moment of terror that registers in their expression when prompted to enter a conversation in a language they don’t yet know? What of the pain and violence this might exasperate for people who, like me, have a contested relationship with language? With being prompted to do something and not fully trusting that what one is doing corresponds to what is expected?
The first few days after teaching my first class I did not sleep. Part of the reason was the nervousness of being a first-time college instructor. The other part was struggling with the pain I possibly inflicted on my students. To be sure, I don’t want to equivocate refugee trauma with college language learning. Asking a student to spell their name is not violating the body of an 8-year-old child. But what I do want to do is foreground and recognize the deeply unsettling experience that language learning is for students in our classes. That the initial devastation brought on by the mistrust of one’s limits of linguistic capacity is not insignificant in shaping the epistemic and affective experience of the first-semester language classroom. All that follows this trauma for students—i.e., the linguistic accomplishments in whatever form they may take—are nothing short of miracles for me. They are, I believe, also the reason why so many of us adore the first-semester language classroom. Because students in it come to negotiate so much in the spirit of trying to connect to one another and us.
The creative, intellectual, and emotional energy dispensed and at work in this class is astonishing. Co-creating patterns by which to relate to others is no small feat in the face of unfamiliar epistemologies. In the first semester class, we see students question so much about their world in meeting and staying with a handful of words they recently discovered. They move from excruciating trauma to creative capacity quickly. This does not mean they overcome one in order to get to the other. Rather, students acknowledge the negative affect structuring part of their experience through interaction, listening, studying the embodiment of language as it registers in their interlocutors, etc. In creatively stringing a few words together—through painstaking negotiation with an interlocutor—they begin shaping new worlds they never anticipated shaping before. In bringing vocabulary from one linguistic context in close proximity to another through a marvelous process of translanguaging, they cross more boundaries than imagined. In fact, they cross more boundaries than some of the prompts we generate or facilitate intended.
In their relation to the class, students face the pleasure and perils of entering community. For many, the very notion of exchange is traumatizing. They—like so many of us—prefer to be left alone, to sit, listen and thereby learn. From the first day in our beginner’s language class, they begin the process of negotiation: of recognizing the challenges in being asked to dispense an exuberant amount of the limited social energy they reserve in the service of the classroom and the complex array of relations that structure a cohort as small as 15 students. Over the course of the first five weeks, this negotiation progresses quite quickly and is a bumpy ride. For some, it yields close friendships (how many of us know students who met in our courses and stayed friends for years thereafter?!). For others, this process is overwhelming.
This is why it is so incredibly violent and disappointing to introduce a shitty lesson about a simplified understanding of “German traditions” amidst these complex operations and processes that are excruciatingly demanding on our students. That is, on our students who are engaging in higher order thinking and processing, emotional negotiating, etc. That students are able to and in fact improve upon negotiating so many demanding operations should prompt us not to offend them with reductionist understandings of culture.
II. OMG, So Over Proficiency
Studying the presentism governing each session in a first-semester language class gives us insights into the rich experiences it provides for students and us. It can be—and indeed is— transformative for so many. Here, I mean transformative not always in the affirmative, positivistic, optimistic, productive sense; I mean transformative in the sense that the class helps us and our students recognized (if not ever fully understand) the affective-epistemic limits and potentials of ourselves in the sometimes-devastating moment of asking someone to pass you the book.
By characterizing the first semester language class as a mere step in the ladder of proficiency, we risk devaluing the experiences it affords for our students. In the neoliberal model of language education, we were prompted by broader social processes and the attendant decisions by our scholarly associations to articulate our value of in ways that instrumentalizes language learning. The proficiency model is a good friend of instrumentalized language education. It hurts our programs, it hurts our students, and it hurts us. Devaluing our experiences or, worst, denying them free range, is enormously painful. Incidentally, the proficiency model has not yielded what it promised: i.e., strengthening of language education. It’s long time we abandon it and start recognizing the value of what we do, what our students experience, and why it matters to the missions of our institutions. Praising the first semester-language class might be the best way to do so in this moment.
This fall I’m teaching a course titled “Bad Feelings: The Literary Lives of Anger, Boredom, and Envy.” In my home department at UBC we offer an exciting series of comparative literature courses focusing on the literary traditions of Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe. “Bad Feelings” will be a course in this series. Students who enroll in the course either are students in one of our department’s degree programs or, which is generally the case, take the course to satisfy the humanities requirement at UBC. Because of the mix of students, it’s an exceptionally exciting course to teach: I get to introduce a couple of literary traditions and get to pick a topic through which we could explore select texts from those traditions.
I. Background: The Politics of Feeling
The terrain between private and public feeling is vast. It’s politics, as Sara Ahmed has shown, “work to align some subjects with some others and against other others.” Such an alignment process itself depends on the valuation of feelings: there are good and bad feelings. In one intellectual tradition (there are more!), feelings perceived to be productive in the shaping of community—i.e., aligning peoples and politics—emerge as good. Feelings perceived as destructive to community—i.e., derailing peoples and politics—emerge as bad. Good and bad feelings can be mobilized, instrumentalized. They can be used to just or unjust ends.
In the course, I hope to explore this political dimension of both private and public feelings. Consideration of the implications of what it means to feel what in which context and to what end will drive our interpretive journey. The course will focus on bad feelings: those emotional ranges deemed unproductive, destructive, unruly, antisocial. We will especially focus on how such valuation of select feelings emerges in which cultural context. How can boredom, for instance, serve both as a singularly productive affective state of mind and be attributed as the source for ill deeds? How is anger valuated differently for different people depending on gender, race, sexuality? What personal and social function does envy serve for what type of people?
To attend to these questions, we will read a variety of philosophical and theoretical texts. A special emphasis will be placed on scholarship in critical race and sexuality studies—two domains that have produced the most important scholarship on the politics of emotions—alongside scholarship on cultural studies. From Søren Kierkegaard, F.W. Nietzsche, and Audre Lorde, to Sue J. Kim, Sara Ahmed, Rebecca Solnit, and Peter Toohey, the goal is to present students the opportunity to survey a wide range of texts and genres for information about how feelings live different lives in different contexts and to different ends.
II. Literary Lives of Bad Feeling
In the first unit for the course, we will explore the cultural history of boredom. I’ve nurtured a special excitement for this topic, because it was initially my dissertation topic (before I changed it!). Following an introduction to the politics and history of emotion, as well as an introduction to the field of emotion studies, we will begin by reading excerpts of Peter Toohey’s exciting book on the history of boredom. From here, we will read and discuss Kierkegaard’s writing on ethics and boredom, and will consider the cultural history of idleness in the German context. Two short texts by Regine Ullmann and Martin Walser will serve as the literary introductions to boredom and modernity, before we end the unit discussing at length Theodor Fontane’s most famous treatment of boredom in his adultery novel Effi Briest.
The second unit of the course will focus on anger. We will begin the unit by reading about the politics of anger in the work of Lorde and Solnit. Kim’s excellent work will serve as a primer for cognitive cultural studies and the history of anger. The first literary text in this unit will be “Rumpelstiltskin” in the Brothers Grimm version. We will also consider the labor and racist politics of anger in Heinrich Heine’s poetry as well as Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Betrothal in St. Domingo,” which will prime our discussion of the ambiguities of motive in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s “The Jew’s Beech Tree.” The final text in the unit, which we will discuss at length, will focus on Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal’s fictionalized autobiography about extreme emotionality, The Tragic Menagerie.
The final unit of the course will focus on envy. We will begin this unit by reading Peter Toohey’s work on the subject (next to a book on boredom, he wrote one on envy, which worked out well for me and my course!). We will read about the ethical economy of envy by considering Sara Ahmed’s work on bad feelings alongside Nietzsche’s discussion of envy in On the Genealogy of Morality. The two cultural texts here: Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. We will consider the aesthetic demands of stage works and the qualities of emotion affiliated with performance, audience, and reading culture.
III. Syllabus, Assessment
I’d be glad to share my syllabus and/or discuss the learning objectives for the course/units, as well as the assessment methods. One assignment I’m still refining and likely one I will not be able to implement in final/refined form into this course (but one I will nevertheless include) is to ask students to consider instances in their daily lives in which they encounter these politics of emotion we are studying in class and record them. Because I’m a tad old-school with regard to certain things, I wanted students to keep a journal. But another idea came to me from the great folx in the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) Facebook group: to set up a social media space (a hashtag on Instagram or twitter) for the purpose. Another fab idea from the DDGC group was to not set the means by which I want students to record their findings but rather make the selection of the best means to record for such an assignment part of class discussion: students can generate their own ideas about how best to engage with this material outside of class. Still thinking this through and would love to hear what others are doing.
By way of introduction, I want to begin by considering three ideas that will, in some way or another, come up throughout this post.
1. The politics of space. In her work, Sara Ahmed reminds us that spaces are political in that they either tend to open themselves up to us or not. When a space opens itself up to us—when it extends itself out toward us—we feel as though we enter it seamlessly. We occupy such spaces with ease, rarely taking into account that we are at ease within them. Our bodies are at ease within them. But not all spaces are made equal. Not all of us are made equal. A realization about the nefarious politics of space emerges when we consider who occupies a given space, how that space makes itself available to everyone in it, and what forces are at work that sustain a space, which extends itself to some and not others. Some bodies are welcome. Others, at all times, feel the pulsating pressures in apprehending that they occupy a space which does not extend itself to them—entirely or in part. Those bodies are not at ease.
2. What lies beyond the well-intentioned gesture. It is a cozy spot: the resolute conviction that one did something because one meant well. The comfort of that position is nevertheless destructive to criticality and toxic for personal relations. Admitting to have engaged in destructive and toxic behavior is not easy. No one likes to do that.
3. Personal Agency vs. Systemic Injustice. It is tempting to hone in on individuals, identify culprits. Having a name to a bad deed feels like the quickest way to resolution and justice. However, not all issues are made equal. Not all injustice ends by catching the culprits behind it. When systems operate, individual action is organized as one component of a larger pattern. Attending to one component in a field of connected issues does little to nothing by way of resolving matters and seeking justice. Attending to one component in a field of connected issues becomes a good intention that inevitably falls short of reaching a goal.
Whiteness and the Pesky Persistence of the Issue of Diversity
Walking down some of the many paths in the intimidating great halls and hallways of the New Orleans Convention Center during the 2018 ACTFL Annual Convention, one immediately takes note of the visible diversity of participants. That is, unless one walks down the hallways reserved for the meetings of the AATG. The diversity problem—a persistent one in German and German Studies—is a visible problem during sessions, conversations, the “German Avenue” at the Expo. It is especially clear when one attends the annual reception of the association, which honors some of the best—and, truly, infectiously inspirational—people, programs, and institutions across the country. A sea of white bodies.
I am not going to rehash the extensive statistics, repeated pleas, persuasive materials that have illustrated time and again the need for representation in terms of diversity in educational contexts. Such pleas do not seem to resonate with people. I will simply state that nurturing a sea of whiteness is the racist structure that feeds the most violent presumed and actual ideologies of our profession. It interferes with articulating the relevance of what we do. It shuts down access to our intellectual labor for historically underrepresented and nonprivileged folx, who increasingly come to occupy space at our institutions and campuses.
A sea of white bodies at AATG. And complex communities comprise this sea. These communities inform the spaces of the AATG in various ways. German and German Studies is lonely work for many who more often than not comprise the entirety of the German program at their respective institutions. I know what that feels like. Coming together at AATG is a necessary moment of repose. A space in which they relish in community otherwise unavailable or difficult to recreate in a specific format elsewhere. Community is—in this regard—central. And the space opens itself up to this community. It extends itself to predominantly white bodies. They are at ease in it.
Community is sacred. We protect it at all cost. For this reason, calling out the community by naming its flaws for many feels like an attack on their person. In the sea of whiteness, there is plenty of evidence for pleasantry and ease. This sea is filled with documentation that it serves many. Many can cite the good the community has done for them. "It's been the most important association for me," is a frequent mantra uttered by members. One complaint, a critical inquiry, a request for clarification is all it takes to register as a problem in this context. When you call out the problem, you, as Sara Ahmed reminds us, become the problem. The problem does not exist until you conjure it up. It is a thorn in the side for people who like to be at ease in a space you try to articulate as unideal, toxic, violent for some. Diversity irritates.
“I, too, am diverse,” proclaimed an AATG attendee. In a conversation, this attendee protested the notion that their background as “native” German is dismissed and unacknowledged in “all this talk about diversity.” Presumably this attendee felt as though a space—for just that moment—was no longer extending itself to them. They certainly did not take into account that—save this one moment in which diversity caused an irritation—they were occupying a space that did extend itself to them. A white space that they nurtured. From which they benefited. They seemed at ease again in the space at the end of the conversation. It was a momentary irritation after all.
What they failed to do is listen, as so many have failed to do this weekend an on many occasions before. You try to engage people about this critical matter of diversity. You try to articulate why it matters. And all you get are what Sara Ahmed calls walls. You run up against walls that deny people a venue to articulate one of the most urgent and yet at all times dismissed issues of our profession.
Caring, Recruiting, Hoping to Mold the Space
Along with some of the fiercest people in our field, I’ve been looking for ways to articulate how German Studies can be an integral interlocutor in conversations about the most pressing issues we face today. Portions of its cultural and intellectual history have been upheld as examples of the most horrid acts of violence. An integral historical record that serves as an eternal warning to humankind. Other parts of this cultural and intellectual heritage have shaped and continue to inform portions of disciplines (sometimes problematically and consequently violently) that examine the human condition. German Studies thus links in both productive and problematic ways to central conversations in the humanities and beyond. The field is an excellent venue in which to hone criticality about the world.
We care a lot about the field. We contribute in extensive service roles to our profession. We run programs, revise curricula, advocate for German Studies and the humanities broadly. When a number of us initially faced AATG as first-time attendees a couple of years ago, we realized right away some of its issues. But we also saw a great deal of potential (which I think still exists). Because I benefited from the space initially extending itself toward me, I thought that there are ways to connect, to change things, to alter the dynamics and leverage what is into something that it is not: a venue for deep criticality in which the field can begin to ask very difficult questions about its makeup in order to move forward.
Consequently, I started to care about our scholarly associations and began to realize that they serve as stewards of our field. I thought that a reckoning with a diversity issue can begin with a “simple” idea: to work hard to diversify these associations and thus shape their praxis of stewardship. In other words: let’s just try to create as many access points for different voices as a first step. In my case, and in the case of others, this included personally encouraging folx, who would be advocates and critical voices where they are needed most: at the conference. We formed community and planned on helping one another in spaces which did not extend toward all in the same ways. In numbers, we thought, things would change. We could back each other up, support each other. And generate a pattern toward stronger and sustained representational diversity. We would find a chair, as it were, and pull it up to the table where decisions get made.
A few days ago and in anticipation of the annual conference, I posted on social media that I’m concerned about some friends who were not taken seriously at the convention—the very friends I mention above with whom I had a pact in which we would support each other, help one another attend the conference, and make something out of it. These were nonprivileged folx and folx underrepresented in our field. They felt excluded. They felt the space was not extending itself to them. A friend in German Studies immediately responded privately with disbelief and resignation about the matter. The association, so they implied, was irreparable: “why do you even care so much about it? Why don’t you just abandon it and focus on something else?” Initially, I was furious at the response. Of course I cared. It is the most important association dedicated to the advocacy of German Studies in North America. I had invested quite a lot into it. Literally: I used the better part of my first startup fund at my first job to get a lifetime membership. I poured time and effort into other matters. My friend insisted: relevance is a fragile concept. They reminded me that a solid number of people in my immediate friendship circle don’t see relevance in AATG. Upon inquiring casually with a number of senior scholars in the field, they confirmed as much. Perhaps they all tried at one point and realized that the space did not extend itself toward them? This is not an unlikely scenario. Perhaps they see as a Sisyphean task any action that hopes to rehabilitate a venue so ingrained in some ways of being and operating? I’m still processing these questions and their implications. One thing is sure: disappointment registers on multiple fronts. And the answers to these questions will not be pleasant.
The field of German Studies is shrinking. To address this, some of my fierce friends have been brainstorming ideas and hoped to turn to associations for help. One idea entails creating a forum for junior scholars at AATG. This would be a venue in which those who feel the association is irrelevant to their work can be put to work. Be linked up with the association. Find and create relevance. Develop programming and initiatives that would nourish the field. Efforts such as these would render the organization well positioned to be an essential organ to, as a colleague said in a conversation at the conference, help us (junior scholars) lead in our programs, institutions, regional and national contexts. Alas. The space does not extend itself toward some of us. The venue is not made equal for all.
Note: inviting suggestions does not extend the space to those it excluded. More work is required.
Good Intentions. Correcting Behavior. "What happened this weekend?"
Following an inquiry, a complaint, and conversations about how to understand exclusionary dynamics at the conference, a well-meaning person wanted names. Names of culprits. I was with a great friend, one of the few underprivileged voices at the conference. If we were able to name culprits who actively pursued exclusion—this was one of the complaints we lodged personally and on social media—we could resolve the issue. In a moment of weakness, I was filled with promise of change. It seemed easy to name a number of culprits and pursue a resolution. We even nearly divulged information. Got someone into trouble. Corrected a wrong. But the matter is much larger. Much messier than individual agency. We realized it was not a matter of seeking out punishment. My friend proceeded to address some aspects of what I describe above. The tone of our interlocutor changed. It betrayed their performative allyship. Their inquiry became an accusation. Demanding names from us without taking time to listen (there were interruptions) was a quick way to rejoice in the temporary excitement of a gotcha moment. We did not produce the evidence they required. Our claim was thus illegitimate. A good intention turned sour. We felt the space extending away from us.
We were seated outside the convention center when this happened. Stunned. Bewildered, really. A person underprivileged in our field is speaking. Explaining the problem. There is no listening. Instead, and I turn again to Sara Ahmed, my friend encountered a wall. A defense. A defense built and sustained by one of the leaders of the association. In that exchange, my friend could not but run up against a wall time and again as they tried to explain the matter at hand. And there were many walls at the convention this weekend.
Some time after this encounter, another person came up to me at the conference site. This was a longtime association member. “Are you ok? Have you calmed down?” This was a response to my social media inquiry. My complaint. An overreaction. Emotional, hysterical, unideal behavior. As Ahmed says, I was perceived to be out of line. The problem was with me. I became the problem. By insinuating this while enjoying the ease with which they occupied the space in which we both were, my interlocutor sought out to regulate what they perceive to be unruly behavior. The message: “such behavior is not welcome here. This is our community. You are not welcome here.” Another wall.
Shortly thereafter, another association leader came up to me. Wanting to make themselves available for a conversation. It appears a venue is emerging to address some of the issues and experiences outlined above. But at that point it was too late. I was tired. Fatigued. Emotionally depleted. I got a good sense that a good intention was on the horizon and declined to talk any more. I was not ready to face yet another wall in a person I greatly admired.
Criticality is a cornerstone of academic exchange. It is to be avoided if one is to traverse the spaces I describe above. Let me rephrase it: if you want to have a successful AATG convention, you could simply resort to and embrace a space of privilege, enter the community that extends itself toward you, and leave without having attended to the glaring issues within it. Making this statement—and writing about the conference as a whole and my experience as well as that of my friends—means making myself vulnerable. It means not avoiding these matters but calling them by name. Yet again. It also means to feel more explicitly how the space no longer extends itself to me unless I occupy it in a certain way. I just don’t think that is possible any more. It may be a possibility for some. It is no longer one for me.
I have advocated for and persuaded nonprivileged and underrepresented scholars to take up space at AATG. I did not take into account the toxic effects of such an effort. Witnessing—first-hand—as a leader of the association denied the venue for a nonprivileged and underrepresented scholar to articulate their experience and lodge a complaint was the final blow: this space is not a critical and safe space for certain bodies. It certainly no longer feels to be a safe space for me.
I should also say that, although some of my dear friends made it to the conference, many were not able to attend because the peer review process deemed their proposals unworthy. It took a lot to overcome hurdles. I still face well-meaning gestures from white cishet Germanists, who want to explain that we just have to improve the proposals and all will be well: speak the language of the white community and you will have access to this space.
And yet, the strange thing with spaces: they are constructs. We can create our spaces and shape them. Find ways to make them work for us. Perhaps you will be able to make some changes to the AATG? I have great friends who will pursue this. I’ll try this in another venue. In fact, the idea of malleability of space and shaping communities was one motivation behind “Diversity, Decolonialization, and the German Curriculum” (DDGC). It is not a perfect space. In fact, it is a quite young space. The second biennial conference is taking place this spring. We are trying our best to improve and we will continue to refine it in the coming years. Through DDGC I have met some of the most inspiring scholars in our field. Together we continue to support one another. And invite you to join us in our efforts. Most importantly, we are going to have critical conversations about the makeup and operational structures of our field!
Next to DDGC, a strong group of incredible German Studies scholars and leaders have been a great source of support, understanding, and community for me. They reached out and assured they support me and my friends. They believed us. They listened. They are drafting solutions—with and on behalf of us. It is incredible to be positioned into such a strong network of fierceness. Incidentally, I met a lot of them through AATG and other similar associations.
Criticality, Killjoys, and Language Warriors
It is a futile venture to pursue intellectual spaces without attending to criticality. Being named and becoming what Ahmed calls killjoys and embracing this role is a central way to disrupt hegemonic systems of power. Another related concept is that of language warriors, devised by our dear colleagues Yulya Komska, Michelle Moyd, and David Gramling in their book Linguistic Disobedience. We have to attend to the language we use when we engage with one another. Insisting on equity and justice in language use is a process in curating venues in which criticality can thrive. My hope is that the killjoys and language warriors of our field are on the rise. I hope they will begin or continue to speak up and call problems by their name.
I'm currently finalizing a new course I'll be teaching this fall. It approaches German cultural history through queer studies with a focus on texts that span the Reformation to fin de siècle. The course is designed as an undergraduate gen-ed course and will be taught in English. At its core, it examines the queer potential of narratives of antidevelopment. The class will consider how hegemonic discourse is formed and will focus on figures who resist or fall outside of it. One focus of the course will be on sexuality discourses and the politics of desire; however, sexuality and everything it indexes will not always take center stage even if it will invariably be present for all discussions and legible in all texts read for the class.
There are two course goals. On the one hand, successful completion of the class means being able to describe select developments in the social, economic, and cultural history informing German literary, visual, epistolary cultures of the early modern and modern eras (1500-1900). On the other, it means being able to discuss, analyze, and interpret (in the spoken and the written) representative texts from these eras with a focus on queer antidevelopment. What we will do in this class is approach periodization praxis in German Studies queerly, too, which means that we will examine texts and artists firmly on the canon line and those who fall outside of it—who stand queerly in relation to it.
In what follows, I'll briefly outline the theoretical grounding for the course. I will then provide three excerpts from the syllabus which briefly outline what will be at stake at key moments in the semester. My last thoughts will be on cultural transfer, translation, and the need to advocate for translation work so that we can continue to teach the best courses possible to broader audiences.
Queer Failure & Antidevelopment
Theoretically, the course will be grounded in the work of Sara Ahmed and Jack Halberstam. In terms of Ahmed's contribution, we will examine central ideas in Queer Phenomenology (Duke UP, 2006) which relate to the establishment of what Ahmed calls the "lines that direct us" (12). The class will consider how institutionalized patterns of behavior come to articulate the status quo, which orients itself around guiding principles—or lines. Lines, in this thinking, are paths we are expected to follow. In this regard, kinship networks are lines of orientation loaded with expectations (e.g., lineage, inheritance). Departing from these lines, either forcibly or by choice, is one quality frequently ascribed to queer subjects.
Halberstam's ideas in The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011) examine how queer subjects, because their relation to lines of expectation is in tension, perform or actually experience failure more readily than others. Queer subjects thus not only fail but, in failing, resist "logics of success that have emerged from the triumphs of global capitalism" (Halberstam 19). In the class, we will think about how success narratives are a foundational ideal of heteronormalcy and how queer subjects, through failure, find themselves positioned in relation to this system of logic (e.g., by leading a life not necessarily oriented around reproduction), as well as on a path leading away from it. Antidevelopment is thus a queer mode.
Unit 1 Excerpt: Luther, Dürer, and Courage
Although the Reformation is frequently read as a time of revolution, and although particularly Luther's writings are regularly attributed emancipatory prowess, it is a period which crystalizes some power dynamics and gives rise to new hegemonic systems. Luther's writings on marriage and the family are especially instructive here. Although he critiqued Catholic celibacy, arguing that sexual urges cannot be repressed, he advocated that this energy derived from sexual urges be directed into marriage. The first unit of the course will consider in which ways Luther's rhetorical gesture in his writings on marriage and the family intensify hegemonic ideals of kinship, desire, and reproduction.
Examining Baldung Grien's, Dürer's, and woodcarvings and images by other artists depicting bathhouses and other locations capturing homosocial and homoerotic tension, the class will consider how figures behaving unideally in the context heterosexual hegemony or figures who cannot "fit" into the social and kinship lineage imagined for them by the world emerge as queer. The tension between the ways of being captured in the woodcuts and the way of being advocated by Luther's writings will form the intellectual context for our discussion of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Courage (1669-70). The class will read Courage primarily (though not exclusively) as queer subject. We will consider the social, economic, and historical contexts that inform the life of Courage and will interrogate the systems of power to which she is subject, which she resists, and out of which she fails.
Unit 2 Excerpt: Lineage, Kleist, Günderrode
The works of Heinrich von Kleist have long been celebrated for their interest in rupture, accidents, confusion, failing subjects, and other modes of antidevelopment. To this end, the class will explore Kleist's "Das Erdbeben in Chile" (1807) and read it as a text which imagines the breakdown of social systems through natural force and which studies the factors informing the re-establishment of kinship, lineage, familial expectation. We will connect the text's themes to Kleist's own life and will think about the life of a poet from a military family, whose own queerness always tempered relations and likely influenced his thinking about, as Ahmed says, "the lines that direct us." To this end, we will read Kleist's correspondence with his family, his letters to Ernst von Pfuel, and his suicide letter as documents in the queer archive: Kleist, for our class, is not "simply" an interesting character frequently ill ascribed to different literary movements around 1800, but a queer author in tension with the periodization clusters projected onto him because of his queerness.
I have paired Kleist with the work of his contemporary, Karoline von Günderrode, whose poetry imagines queer intimacy and establishes that this intimacy can thrive primarily in moments defined by secrecy. Reading select poems by Günderrode, we will examine how the act of reading itself performs an intimacy with the potential for secret encounters with the queer lyrical I. We will chart out the ways that Günderrode's poetry additionally considers—even if not explicitly—the social parameters of unsanctioned longing, positing imagination as the venue in which desires deviating from accepted norms can thrive. The discussions in this unit will interrogate post-Enlightenment discourse by considering how Kleist's and Günderrode's queer aesthetics comment upon, unsettle, and point away from the regimes of reason so very destructive for some while being beneficial to others.
Unit 3 Excerpt: Power, Domination, Musil
In order to explore the systems of power informing dominant discourse—which shape received mores and behaviors—we will read, among other texts, Robert Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (1906). Musil's short novel explores the regimentation regimes of the military and surveys the establishment and abuse of power, the sexual politics of power, and queer fantasies of adolescence. We will consider in which ways the site of the boarding school—a queer site in itself—becomes a venue in which Musil explores the implications of systems of power on the social orders of fin de siècle Imperial Austria.
On Translation and a General Note About the Syllabus
I was interested in queering some predictable and unpredictable figures in the German cultural canon (we also read Keller's "Kleider machen Leute" as a text with queer moments, for instance). What became clear is that there are many texts which lend themselves to such readings. One of the biggest challenges was finding appropriate English translations of the texts I wanted to examine.
For the most part, predictable (i.e., established) figures in literary history will have work in translation. What emerged for me in developing this course is the urgency with which we have to advocate for more translation work from German into English if we are to give our students the chance to explore texts queerly particularly those printed before 1900. Translation work, in this light, emerged for me as essential component of queer studies. I always respected my translator colleagues and will see in which ways I can advocate more robustly on their behalf so that they can continue to do their work, which directly serves and impacts the field of queer studies broadly.
I'll be glad to share a PDF version of the syllabus if you are interested. I'd also be interested to hear from you if you taught a similar or related course and how you structured it. Perhaps you developed a unit that speaks to this topic for another course? I'd be interested to hear about it as well!
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.