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?
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Ervin Malakaj, Ph.D.