Rey Conquer (St. Hilda’s, Oxford) and Ellen Pilsworth (Reading) organised a roundtable on ‘Teaching Alterity in 2019’ at the recent meeting of the Association of German Studies UK and Ireland at the University of Bristol. Rey has shared their introduction to the panel (below) to give a sense of what it was about for those who couldn’t make it. A full write-up of the roundtable can be found here.
This time last year at AGS in Bangor Nicola Thomas, Rich McClelland, Tom Smith and I organised a round table to launch the ‘Expanding the German Studies Curriculum’ project and bibliography, a collaborative online bibliography of texts, sources, projects that allow for an expansive, as we have termed it, syllabus, as a response to calls to decolonise and diversify literary curriculums. At the round table a number of speakers, some of whom are in fact now here, talked about their experiences teaching, for instance, German-Jewish literature, or German literature outside of Germany; however, what came out of the discussion was less a focus on ‘what’ we teach—as the bibliography, by necessity, is—rather ‘how’, and indeed ‘why’. The round table today is intended as a continuation of that particular ‘arm’ of the project.
One of the speakers was Sarah Bowden (KCL), who used the phrase ‘productive strangeness’ to describe the affordances of Medieval literature for teaching diversity, or diversely; that is, that the texts themselves are so strange, so alien in form, genre, outlook to a student in 2019 that they allow for a getting to grips with difference, indeed force it. This panel, then, is about productive strangeness, about how to teach strange texts productively without blunting their edge—taming or ‘defanging’ them.
That is, I think, easier said than done; so this round table is an opportunity to discuss in practical terms how one might do this, the pitfalls, what has worked, what hasn’t, what you’d love to teach but it seems too difficult, to make too many demands, and so on.
Texts may be strange in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons: while most of what we teach will come from that notoriously foreign country, ‘the past’, some pasts are more foreign, more unrecognisable, more difficult to get to grips with than others. A text may be strange because it takes for granted a Christian readership (and it may or may not be helpful to note that one of the catalysts for this project was discussing the attitude taken by certain contemporary books of criticism in which it is made pretty plain that the writer holds that believing in God makes you essentially incapable of rational thought, at best a dupe; one of the ways I think we can blunt the edge of what we teach is to presume at any point of difference, or allow students to presume, that the author is thus incapable of rational thought, or a victim of deceit). A text may be strange because the political framework within which it was written, or against which it was written, was based on entirely different principles, where the political stakes are not those of the UK in 2019, whether that’s 1848 or 1968 (or 1988); a text may be strange because it seems to presume an entirely different understanding of the role of literature or art, authorship or reading—and I was talking about this yesterday with some of the people here who pointed out that texts are often strange or difficult because of their form or genre—a verse drama, for instance, or indeed a poem—though this is less the focus today.
I was slightly worried that the title, ‘Das Leben der Anderen’, would not be understood to be ironic. So let me state now that it is: unlike the film Das Leben der Anderen, which blocks any challenge to contemporary assumptions by reflecting back to its audiences in the early 21st century, that is, us, exactly what they wanted to see, remaking the past in its own image, we’re interested here in hearing about how we can, through teaching, expand our students’ moral imaginations, how we can teach texts which demand a ‘feat of imaginative sympathy’* with ways of viewing the world at times utterly incompatible with theirs, how, as it has it on the blurb on your programme, make the demands these texts make on us ‘alive’ to our students.
Not, then, to domesticate by making ‘relevant’, but to show that ‘the lives’, the commitments, ‘of others’ are properly ‘other’, are alien, and almost unimaginable, in the hope that this makes our students—us—aware of the contingency of their own commitments; that they are not outside history; that there is an alternative.
* This phrase is taken from a review by Ritchie Robertson of a biography of Hugo Ball.