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.
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Ervin Malakaj, Ph.D.