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.
Ervin Malakaj, Ph.D.