We got together at the 82nd annual conference of the Association of German Studies UK and Ireland at the University of Bristol between 4th and 6th September 2019, where Rey Conquer (St. Hilda’s College, Oxford) and Ellen Pilsworth (Reading) organised a roundtable on ‘Teaching Alterity in 2019’. Rey’s introduction to the panel can be read here. We sent Richard McClelland (Bristol) to report back.

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AGS Delegates and Speakers at the ‘Teaching Alterity’ Roundtable

As Germanists working in the UK, Ireland and North America, we’re increasingly questioning the discipline’s presuppositions and trying to decolonise and diversify what we teach. But Rey and Ellen’s roundtable aimed to look at the practical implications that these efforts have in our teaching: not focusing on the diversity of texts that we teach, but rather on how texts can be, themselves, “other”. How do we engage with texts that have, in Sarah Bowden’s (KCL) terms, a “productive strangeness”, resulting from their being alien in form, genre and outlook, without blunting their edges? How do we teach texts in a way that makes students aware of their own assumptions about an author’s historical moment or ideological perspective? And what about today’s ideological frameworks that filter our responses? In short, how can tutors expand students’ and our own moral imaginations, engage with difference thoughtfully and productively and work with the fact that some texts are, in fact, incompatible with our own assumptions?

[The full text of Rey’s introduction can be found here]

Teaching Disability

Eleoma Bodammer has developed the course ‘Researching Disability in Literature and Society’ at the University of Edinburgh, with a focus on German Romanticism. Disability Studies is still marginalised within German Studies, so Eleoma structures her teaching and assessment to overcome the ableism that is embedded within our courses and teaching styles. Eleoma has structured her course around key ideas in disability theory. This means that seminars don’t focus on specific impairments but use a different theory each week to unlock insights into responses to disability in Romantic-era literature. The course also confronts students with their own positionality and their relationship to learning materials, encouraging them to ask what the syllabus says about them. This questioning undergirds the course’s assessment: Eleoma has dispensed with traditional assessments and instead uses a student conference (students can also submit work in alternative formats) and a reflective report. Students organise a research conference and not only produce papers, but also run the conference in an inclusive way that works against power hierarchies.

Teaching the East

Ute Wölfel teaches on the German Democratic Republic at the University of Reading. This comes with a specific challenge: how can we explain and facilitate productive engagement with a society that was fundamentally different to our own in key social and ideological ways? After a grounding in the cultural and political history of the GDR, the course requires students to undertake hands-on work with archival sources from the East German Studies Archive. Using archival items in the classroom means that students engage with sources that are intrinsically strange, including school text books and guidebooks. Because they lack secondary sources that determine their lines of enquiry, students are forced to apply the methods they’ve learnt to the materials themselves. At the same time, the visual nature of the materials means that students with diverse levels of German can engage with materials productively. The method of assessment is varied, and students can respond to the texts via a traditional essay, through a poster or by annotating the texts. By organising a course around ‘strange’ materials in this way, Ute has students reassess their ways of thinking about the GDR in a way that reveals questions about their own lifestyle, moral judgements and ideology today.

Teaching Islam

Inspired by teaching Goethe’s West-Östlicher Divan (1819), James Hodkinson (University of Warwick) looks at Islam in German culture in his research, teaching and public engagement work. He wondered how to break away from our preconceptions in the classroom: either relying on contemporary critiques of the text’s Orientalism; reading it as a naïve site of intercultural encounter; or using it to celebrate Germany’s apparently non-colonial past. How can we engage instead with the text’s plurality? It contains a variety of voices and encounters that are appropriated, usurped and plundered in various ways — though also, according to some readings, an idealised framework for non-hierarchical communication processes. James found this ideal reflected in the Hafez-Goethe Monument, which comprises two giant granite chairs, and converted this into an approach for the classroom: two empty chairs opposite each other, inviting people to sit and engage. James recreates this set-up in the classroom: students face each other to engage with Goethe’s text and secondary materials by arguing a viewpoint that may be at odds with their own critical and personal position. This model has helped students engage with more diverse methods of critique. What’s more, James has transposed this into the secondary RE classroom and works with teachers to help students think in non-binary ways about the traditions they’re studying.

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AGS Delegates and Speakers at the ‘Teaching Alterity’ Roundtable

After the presentations, there was a discussion in which some of the following issues were raised:

How do you use real material objects in the classroom? How do students respond?

Participants in the discussion described ways that they used archival sources to encourage students to think about how texts were read and used in the past both as cultural objects and as part of broader ideological processes. Working with GDR children’s books, for instance, can challenge presuppositions about the material quality of life in the East.

Colleagues also gave examples of using contemporary objects: using postcolonial ideas, for example, to look at recent consumer products and fashion collections. Working with material objects also increases accessibility to topics students perceive to be difficult or distant to them.

How can we use assessment to inspire learning, rather than as a cloud hanging over the classroom?

One suggestion was that the focus can be on framing and foregrounding the critical skills that students can develop, rather than box-ticking. While this was seen to require a cognitive leap into the unknown, if we can support students through this, it was suggested that this could be a way to allow their confidence to grow.

What kinds of skills can students gain from alternative styles of teaching or assessment?

It was generally agreed that study skills need to be developed early on, and that we need to use a portfolio of formats.

One participant noted that a key skill that is often marginalised is critical reflection: outside of the university students will need to do this in an informed and sensitive way. Though this is an ‘I’-centred model of reflection, it emphasises transformation and development and seeing ourselves as agents of change.

What about this ‘I’-centred model? We encourage students to work in groups and produce collective responses, but rarely assess them in this way. How can we overcome this?

Eleoma’s conference model is one obvious way: they work as a group to organise the event, but then also produce a reflective report on their role.

Several participants pointed out that it is important to be upfront about our own positions in German Studies, as teachers and as students. In other fields, it is already fundamental for teachers and learners to understand and interrogate their subject positions. This is something we might need to assert in our writing and assessment methods: why not allow the ‘I’ to enter in and explore our positionality?

How do we deal with the difficulty of difference? How do we make teaching alterity more dynamic without letting go of what we want them to learn?

One suggestion was to open with ‘opinion time’ in which individual responses were allowed in an ‘anything-goes’ classroom clearly demarcated from the rest of the session. Thus, students’ initial attitudes and presumptions are given space, but are shown to be testable against what is then learned, and shown to be distinguishable from the kind of critical thought required.

What about us as tutors and our own positionality in the classroom? Do we perhaps present an opinion that students perceive to be final?

Colleagues disagreed on the importance of making clear to what degree tutors’ own positions are products of context. Some thought it important to stress to students the fact that all life is defined by our positionality, in which it is not about having the right or wrong opinion, but rather about seeing how our opinions fit with others’ ideas and attitudes and how these relate to the materials at hand. It was thus suggested that as tutors, we need to be more obvious about our own positions and assumptions, so students know where we’re talking from. That is, we all have our positions, but to teach and learn from alterity, we need to be prepared to challenge and question ourselves.

It was pointed out, however, that this can encourage the kind of ‘anything goes’ attitude that is a stumbling block to learning and critical thought. How do we take seriously our role as teachers while discouraging complacency, either in ourselves or in our students?

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