Check out some of our posts and opinion pieces by teachers, academics and students about expanding the German Studies curriculum.
We’d love for you to get in touch if you have an idea of your own for a blogpost! Just get in touch with one of us (contact details on the homepage).
- Welcome to the new EGS website!
By the EGS team
We’ve made a lot of changes, and we hope you enjoy looking through the newly designed pages. This summer has been a time of thoughtful reflection and exchange within the EGS collective, as we sought to overhaul the website and build a new version that is broader, more inclusive and more accessible. Since the beginning, our goal has been to provide a resource to help teachers of German Studies deliver a more diverse curriculum, to amplify a broad range of perspectives that have historically gone unheard in the classroom, and through this, to promote greater diversity within the field and new directions in German Studies research.
Plans for the redesign have been in the pipeline for a while: we were becoming uncomfortable with the lack of nuance within the categories we were using, some of which were becoming unwieldy. The survey we distributed helped us identify further areas for improvement, and we would like to thank all those who took the time to fill it out: your input on how you use the website, which features are most useful and what you would like to see more of were invaluable. We have addressed some of the gaps in coverage pointed out by survey respondents (such as Black German Studies and citizenship), and have implemented a new, more powerful search tool designed to help users more accurately find content.
As well as a fabulous visual redesign, the entries in the bibliography have been reorganised into new categories. We recognise the inherently problematic nature of categorisation, and that no system can ever be perfect or representative. The reason we are using categories at all is a pragmatic one: we wanted to help busy lecturers working and curious students find interesting classroom material as quickly and easily as possible. Although WordPress encourages a visual presentation that implies the mutual exclusivity of categories (into separate ‘boxes’), we have tried to highlight the porous and overlapping nature of them via the thread imagery, by cross-referencing and listing the same item in multiple places, where applicable, and providing an overall menu that allows all categories to be seen at a glance. We also attempted to de-hierarchise by arranging the fields of scholarship alphabetically, to make allowances for entries which do not fit neatly into any one box, and to leave open the possibility of adding new categories.
The bibliography has been reorganised firstly by broad historical periods (inspired in part by the model used by blackcentraleurope.com), and then—in an effort to encourage engagement with theoretical and pedagogical innovation rather than mere substitution of listed primary materials into existing syllabi—by fields of scholarship (e.g. Asian German Studies), rather than the oftentimes ascribed identity of the cultural producer. Where possible, we begin each sub-category by linking to a reflective blog post or article on the state of the field by colleagues in the UK and the DDGC in North America. In many cases, these fields of scholarship transcend historical categories and we have tried to cross-reference other periods, where applicable. In response to user feedback, we also listed primary texts by medium and highlighted the various languages in which material is available (acknowledging the growing interest in teaching German-language literature in translation in cross-listed and Comparative Literature modules). Both of these changes have helped highlight areas for development. Not least, we have dramatically expanded the number of entries, focusing initially on the pre-1500, 1750-1850 and post-2000 periods. The categories we chose were reached by consensus and via rigorous critical debate, a debate which we feel is essential to the ongoing work of reflecting on the gaps in our understandings and perspectives and working collectively in our attempt to present a breadth of perspectives in German culture and in German Studies teaching and scholarship. In this vein, we absolutely welcome feedback, comments and suggestions (positive and negative) about the way in which we have chosen to structure the bibliography. Our website is an ongoing, collaborative project in which we aim to include as much of the German Studies community (and beyond) as we can: a plurality of voices can only strengthen our efforts!
Our conversations over the summer also resulted in the decision to change our name to EGS – towards an Equitable German Studies. We have grown uncomfortable with the colonialist connotations of “expanding”, and preferred the sense in equitable of the injustice done to silenced minority voices, which should always have been taught as prominently as any others. We reject an additive approach, striving instead for equitability within the discipline. And much like the design of Daniel Quasar’s progress flag, with the term towards we recognise that ours is an ongoing, forward-looking project which will always by necessity be incomplete, and that we must consistently undertake the labour required to address current inequalities. We contend that this labour should be undertaken by all members of the German Studies community, and not left to already marginalised figures or groups. On this note, we also acknowledge that the EGS team members’ varying degrees of institutional affiliation have provided us with the material resources to be able to do some of this work on a voluntary basis.
Ronald M Schernikau. Source: jungewelt.de. Read more about queer and trans German studies here.
In this spirit, there is always much work to be done on the website, and much more content to come! Some of the time periods and categories are not yet online; some of the bibliography entries are not as comprehensively filled out as others. We are also actively exploring how to make our resource fully accessible to those using assistive technologies. Our work continues, and we aim to publish more and more of the website over the coming months. Once again, if you would like to help with effort, feel free to submit entries to the bibliography or to get in touch!
Finally, we aim not only to provide a bibliographic resource for German Studies lecturers seeking to deliver equitable curricula, but also a forum for experiences and best practices. Our blog contains lots of great tips and accounts from lecturers, and if you haven’t already done so, we encourage you to look back at previous entries and be inspired! We are always keen to hear from folks who would like to contribute to the blog, so if this is you, please do send us an email.
Thank you from all of us for visiting and using the site!
- “Why not?” Exploring sex & gender history through N.O. Body’s memoirs”
Dr Ina Linge is Lecturer in German at the University of Exeter, where she is also Co-director of the interdisciplinary Sexual Knowledge Unit.
I started out as a new Lecturer in German in June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. It has certainly been a challenging and exhausting time to develop new modules and teach them for the very first time. But I have also found it immensely enjoyable to create modules on topics that I love and to draw on my own research in my teaching practice. In this blog post, I want to reflect on one particular text that I love to teach and research: N.O. Body’s Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren (1907) [Memoirs of A Man’s Maiden Years, transl. Deborah Simon, 2006].
Narrated by the pseudonymous author, Norbert Body, the autobiography recounts his experiences of having been assigned female at birth and later transitioning to live as a man. This remarkable historical source offers insight into understandings of sexual and gender diversity in Wilhelmine Germany, decades before the heyday of Weimar queer culture. Many students are surprised to discover that Body was able to eloquently express his gender identity over a hundred years ago. But what makes Body’s account so special is the insight it offers into how gender and sexuality intersect with a range of topics that are central to the German Studies classroom: the relationship between sexual sciences emerging in the German context and the production of popular literature; gender and Jewishness; fact vs. fiction in autobiographical writing; and the importance of education on sexual matters (Body makes a plea for better sex education).
I teach Body’s Memoirs as part of my final-year German module ‘Sex, Sciences and the Arts’, where it introduces students to key conceptual terms developed by Foucault in his History of Sexuality. It allows students to explore the tension between emancipation and discipline in the context of Sexualwissenschaft (sexology or sexual sciences), where sex is put into discourse and thereby forging modern concepts of sex, gender and sexuality. Body’s memoirs are endorsed by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in a foreword and epilogue that literally frame the narrative as a sexological case study. On the surface level, Body ostensibly categorises himself within a sexological system by repeating catchphrases from the discipline. I have encountered students who have found this apparent complicity with medico-scientific discourses deeply troubling. I understand their frustration: we so badly want the history of sexuality and gender to be a history of radical progress towards equality, diversity and inclusivity. I urge these students to understand the barriers Body would have encountered (and that LGBTQI+ people still encounter today) that complicate resistance. I also encourage them to look beyond this apparent complicity: a closer reading reveals that the text employs narrative strategies and metaphors which communicate a resistance to medico-scientific categorisation. Contrasting these instances of ‘complicity’ and ‘resistance’ illustrates the ‘wiggle room’ available to sexual and gendered subjects as they accept categories but also push back against their normative constraints.
Outside of the university classroom, I had the great pleasure of co-hosting an educational workshop on Body’s memoirs with a group of transgender and non-binary young people as part of the Wellcome Trust-funded Transformations project (http://transformations.exeter.ac.uk/). The participants explored the history of gender and science and asked questions about medicine, identity, and authority through creative workshops, oral history research, creative writing, and performance. We asked the participants what they thought about the fact that Karl Baer (the person behind the pseudonym N.O. Body) apparently retained his former name ‘Martha’ as a middle name. The resounding response was: ‘Why not?’ Our questions about Body’s decisions and the way Body presents his life in writing are so often guided by our own expectations of what the author should or shouldn’t be able to say. ‘Why not?’ is by far the most theoretically enriching and conceptually open approach to the text, which we considered alongside sexual-scientific thinkers of the day (reincarnated in our team members below).
These workshops culminated in a podcast in which a young non-binary person and a talking Suitcase travel through time in search of trans history (http://adventuresintimeandgender.org/). The podcast and its linked material (accessible via the ‘wormhole’ tab) feature trans and non-binary thinkers, writers and artists from across time and cultures and highlight the importance of trans history; they can be incorporated into the classroom to contextualise Body’s writing across time and space. I begin my seminar by explaining that the podcast makers went in search of the first trans person and then asking whether they found them, and why (or why not). This enables us to explore the importance as well as the difficulties around labels and categories of gender and sexuality, the role of science, the conceptual difference (or lack thereof) between gender and sexuality around 1900, and a critique of Foucault (who speaks of sexuality, but not gender identity).
For some students, especially those who do not identify as cisgender or heterosexual, Body’s autobiography confirms that LBGTQI+ people have existed across time and space. For others, this is the first time they have been asked to reflect on gender and sexual identity. When I teach this text as part of a second-year module, I split students into small groups and ask them to write chapter headings and summaries for a section of the book. Students inevitably use a variety of pronouns to describe Body. In class, we discuss our reasons behind choosing a particular pronoun and discuss whether we can find this information in the text, which is written in the first person. This leads to a discussion of how we can ever understand how a historical person identified, especially when contemporary identity categories did not exist in the past. Our classroom discussion helps students to understand that the meaning of concepts and words we recognise today (‘sex’, ‘bisexuality’, ‘Geschlecht’) changes over time. It shows them the importance of understanding literature and autobiography in an historical, cultural and scientific context. So viewed, Body resists a clear categorisation according to contemporary understandings of ‘transgender’ or ‘intersex’. This offers an opportunity to understand how various histories of sexuality (e.g. the history of homosexuality, transgender history) are rooted in shared historical documents. And it shows that German LBGTQI+ history is central to our understanding of sex, gender and sexuality today.
N.O. Body, Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren (Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1993 )
N.O. Body, Memoirs of A Man’s Maiden Years, translated by Deborah Simon, preface by Sander L. Gilman, afterword by Hermann Simon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge, transl. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998).
 On the value of looking at ‘backward’ queer history, see Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). For a critique of the queer progress narrative see Tamara de Szegheo Lang, “The demand to progress: critical nostalgia in LGBTQ cultural memory,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 19:2 (2015): 230-48.
 I borrow the term ‘wiggle room’ from Tracie Matysik, “Beyond Freedom: A Return to Subjectivity in the History of Sexuality,” in After the History of Sexuality: German Genealogies with and Beyond Foucault, ed. Scott Spector, Helmut Puff, Dagmar Herzog (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012), 185-201.
- Teaching Pop Music
Tom Smith is a Lecturer in German Studies at the University of St Andrews. Here, he reflects on his experiences teaching popular music in the undergraduate German classroom. Be sure to listen along to his course playlist (just below) as you read!
As I look back on 2020, one of its highlights was the chance to run my Honours module on German popular music and identity. So with thanks to my students for their inspiration, and in the spirit of the already not-so-new year, I wanted to share some reflections.
Throughout the course, I’ve taken inspiration from initiatives to decolonise the classroom and worked to change my teaching methods first of all, allowing content and material to adapt to suit collaborative learning and independent research. On the level of methods, the module is structured around undergraduate research projects. Both assessment and the structure of individual classes encourage students to take the lead and identify what subjects and ideas are of greatest interest to them, while developing skills as researchers. As a second step, these methods influence the material we use to orientate ourselves. We begin with scholarship and theory on how classical and popular music have been bound up with ideas of Germanness, nationalism and whiteness. This is essential for understanding popular genres in the German context, from folk to techno, and creates a structure for the rest of the course to foreground gender, race and transnational approaches to Germanness.
– Protest Songs of Wolf Biermann
– Rock in the GDR
– Neue deutsche Welle and West German Pop
– Punk and Performance: Nina Hagen
– Hip Hop and Gender
– Techno and Whiteness
– Building a Reading List
– Intro to Working with Music
– Film Analysis
– Using Secondary Literature
– Making a Poster
– Structuring a Larger Project
– Textual Analysis
– Poster, Essay and Annotated Playlist
We start with structured weekly reading, viewing and listening for the first half of the semester: from Wolf Biermann songs to Jackie Thomae’s depiction of 1990s club culture in Brüder (2019). The course playlist ranges from the Puhdys and Nena to Nina Hagen and Ace Tee. This year, with library access limited, we also used extracts, shorter texts and more unconventional sources, like Hengameh Yaghoobifarah’s 2016 magazine feature on cultural appropriation at Fusion Festival. This is to support students who are often new to studying music and cultural studies methods.
Each week students bring their own examples and ideas for discussion, which decentres my own knowledge and perspective as a teacher. The fact that different students always prepare for class in different ways is an enormous creative opportunity, and so we work with the different things they have read, watched or listened to.
We take at least one track in each class, listen to short extracts and break it down into its component parts: how can we describe the beat, what instruments or voices do we hear as part of the texture, how is the track structured, how can we describe the rhythm and melody, and how do lyrics and video feed in?
This often leads in surprising directions. Our Wolf Biermann class one year, for example, focused on how his rural imagery adapts conventional Heimat tropes. This year, we worked especially on understanding (and problematising) Biermann’s response to the Civil Rights struggle in the United States and the antifascist struggle in Franco’s Spain. By steering discussion themselves, students gain skills to seek out connections and articulate what they find important about a source.
Students’ prior knowledge varies, but usually they’ve had little experience of German popular music. Some will know German pop music first-hand; others bring skills from classical training; others bring a love of certain kinds of pop, rock, hip-hop or electronic music. Our collaborative approach means we can also challenge our assumptions about music, including ideas of universality, judgements on quality and arguments over taste. This way, we build general skills while each reflecting on the limitations of our own perspectives.
In the second half of the semester, students put these skills into practice with individual research projects, and the variety of ideas and approaches has been extremely impressive. These have shown how productive it is to validate and build on – as well as challenge – students’ knowledge and perspectives. One student looked at Korean and British DJs reshaping Berlin’s techno scene with their music as a form of antiracist feminist activism. Two students worked on the reception of and response to American music: one analysing how Turkish-German rappers engage with ideas of Blackness in US hip-hop, and one analysing how East German bands were influenced by American rock. Several projects analysed different parts of the music industry from intersectional feminist perspectives, and a number replaced a focus on Germanness with an analysis of musicians’ creative role in global politics and innovation.
This year’s projects included:
– Rock and Punk in GDR Film
– Non-German DJs of Colour and Feminist Activism in the Techno Scene
– Pop Feminism and Musical Performance
– Images of Blackness in Turkish-German Hip-Hop
– Intersectional Feminism in Hip-Hop Solo Tracks
– Science and Technology in 1970s and 1980s Pop
I have learned a lot from students’ ideas and projects. Back in 2018, for example, one student introduced me to SXTN in her work on feminist hip-hop. This year, someone on a joint honours degree with a science subject wrote their essay on technology and space travel in West German pop. Even in assessment students have learned from each other. For example, in the course’s first year, the poster workshop was led by a member of the class who had just made a poster for another University scheme.
There are a few things I plan to do differently next time. It’s clear that transcultural questions deserve more space. While some of the artists we’ve looked at explicitly negotiate ideas of Germanness, many reject this discussion altogether and position themselves in a global industry. Students’ keen interest in theory this year suggests we should discuss more theory and scholarship, including decolonial theories of music that so far have been optional rather than set reading. This would mean reducing the other cultural texts we discuss. And most importantly writing this post makes me want to start the semester with a discussion of teaching methods! I think making these decisions explicit and part of a dialogue in the classroom will be an important next step, both for the course and for my own development as a teacher.
- Remaking the German Studies Curriculum: A Diversifying Approach
We are excited to publish a post from Domenic DeSocio, who is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. He is currently completing a dissertation on the intersection of temporality and queer and female sexualities in German-language modernist literature. He has recently received funding to set up a teaching database of primary materials and lesson plans – and watch this space for a similar initiative from Expanding German Studies soon!
Like universities on both sides of the Atlantic, the faculty, lecturers, staff, and graduate students of the German program at the University of Michigan have worked over the last few years to decolonize and diversify our curricula and culture. Drawing from the guiding principles of the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum initiative, we have aimed to combat forms of white, patriarchal, and heterosexist supremacies. We achieve this aim by liberating the courses we offer and the materials we teach, the projects we undertake and the methodologies we employ. We endeavor to foreground difference itself as indispensable to our ethos and to position diversifying work as integral to curriculum design, not an add-on or second thought.
As an inaugural member of the department’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, I spoke with many members of my community about how they could be best served by the committee. What kinds of support would be most useful? What resources could we offer to facilitate these changes? Repeatedly, I was confronted by the logistical fact of the time-consuming nature of finding and incorporating new sources into pre-existing syllabi, set research agendas, or as the basis for new courses. Researchers and teachers lacked a centralized database of primary materials and pedagogical resources like lesson plans and activities.
In response, with fellow graduate student Özlem Karuc and Professor Kristin Dickinson I founded the DEI Research and Teaching Database. Funded by university grants, we collaborated with digital humanists to design an interactive, open-source online platform to bring together primary materials with original lesson plans, syllabi, and conceptual modules by and about groups historically marginalized due to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, and geography. In particular, we emphasize Black and Turkish Germans, women, and LGBTQ+ folks. Our database is currently hosted on the Canvas learning management system, with specific sections dedicated to materials across time, genre, and medium, spanning two centuries from 19th-century male homosexual novels to 20th-century poems by Black German women and recent video interviews with Middle Eastern refugees in Germany.
To dive deeper into the database, I’ll first introduce its structure and then provide an example of the work we’ve been doing. Right now, the database is organized around five overarching themes: (1) Women Authors and Filmmakers; (2) Queer Literature, Music, and Visual Art; (3) Migration; (4) Race and Ethnicity; and (5) Black Germany. At the heart of each of these clusters, we offer alphabetized lists of creators, thinkers, and activists who belong to each group. Each name is provided with a short biography to introduce them to users. Most importantly, contributors from across the department are adding citations from each individual’s oeuvre, together with links to the artwork, songs, and texts (when possible) as well as detailed lesson plans, discussion questions, and project and activity ideas. Furthermore, we’re also organizing thematic modules around major nodes of German Studies, such as “the metropolis” or “media and technology.” These can serve as units for a course, for instance, or as the seeds for an entire course. Each module poses a series of questions to investigate these areas anew from the perspectives and voices of underrepresented groups and individuals. The goal is for each module to contain a syllabus as well as sample lesson plans, discussion questions, activities, and assignments.
Let me provide an example to illustrate our mission in action. For the module “The Metropolis,” we are reimagining the study of the metropolis in German Studies through the lens of sexual and gender identities and specifically through the experiences of LGBTQ+ folks. Accompanying a description and statement of goals of this project, we center a multiweek capstone project: mapping queer Weimar-era Berlin, a project I designed and implemented in my German language course “Queer German Cultures.” Students are given individualized worksheets with lists of queer Berlin establishments from the early 20th century and internet links to conduct research about them. Their task is to recover the histories of queer public infrastructure and then plot the location of these institutions with brief descriptions on a customizable Google Map.
They then combine their individual maps to create one comprehensive map. Through class presentations and discussions about the finished product, students come away with a novel understanding of modern German history through the experience of the queer city and the ways that queer people inhabited and shaped its public and private spaces. So that other instructors can adapt and use this project, the module provides lesson plans, project instructions and materials such as the lists of institutions, discussion questions, and grading rubrics.
As a final aspect of the database, we provide links to the work of like-minded colleagues in German Studies. In recognition that alongside diversified materials instructors also need to decolonize their perspectives and methods, we guide users to University of Michigan graduate student Emily Gauld’s fantastic annotated guide to anti-racist pedagogy in German Studies. We also encourage users to check out the newly established German Studies Collaboratory as well as the home of this article, the Expanding German Studies project.
We hope for this database to serve as a springboard to decolonize German curricula and programs across the globe and radically rebuild them to center underrepresented identities and students. For researchers, it will serve as a seed farm of understudied materials, fostering new lines of inquiry. Together, it aims to bring the marginalized into German Studies not as diversity tokens but as active partners in recasting our field.
- Is this the first poem written by a Black German writer?
Dr Nicola Thomas is Lecturer in German at the University of Bristol. Here, she talks about stumbling across a lesser-known landmark in Black German history.
I’ve just started a new job at the University of Bristol, and I was asked to update the first-year poetry reader over the summer. Over the years, colleagues at Bristol (past and present) have worked hard to introduce marginalised voices to the curriculum, via their research interests in nineteenth-century women’s revolutionary writing, working class poetry and women writers of the Baroque period. I knew that my new colleagues would share my firm view that the first-year curriculum should cultivate an awareness of how power and politics shape language, literature and culture across the ages.
While researching my revised reader, I stumbled across a reference in an article by William Abraham to a poem by the pioneering Black German philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo. Abraham mentions “a poem in German, in pure iambic meter, written by Amo and attached to a dissertation by Moses Abraham Wolff presented in 1737 [at the University of Halle]”. A quick round of further Googling revealed that although the library, archive and website of Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg makes no mention whatsoever of its connection with Amo, a copy of Wolff’s dissertation – a medical treatise – is accessible online via the Wellcome Collection in the UK.
There, at the end of this dusty PDF, I found a facsimile of what is probably the first poem ever written in German by a Black person, composed by Amo in 1737 to congratulate his student on the successful defence of his dissertation:
Dein aufgeweckter Geist im klugen meditiren,
Und unermüdter Fleiß im gründlichen Studiren,
Hoch Edler, macht daß Du in der Gelehrten Orden
Ein Stern, ein Heller Stern, der ersten Größe worden,
Der immer heller wird in neuer Ehren-Schein.
So einen großen Lohn giebt Weißheit ihren Söhnen.
Genung. Vom Himmel muß die Lust die ungemeyn
Dich und die Deinigen in Lauter Segen kröhnen!
I was delighted to find a poem by a German writer of colour from before the twentieth century: from centuries before May Ayim, Audre Lorde and Philipp Khabo Koepsell; before Zehra Çirak, Zafer Şenocak and Yoko Tawada. Amo was a man of African origin who had been assimilated into the mainstream of German Enlightenment culture, and this is the only surviving text in German by him that we know of. It is a poem of congratulation and patronage to mark his student’s achievement and passage into intellectual maturity. The poem praises Wolf’s brilliance and hard work, comparing his ascent to new intellectual heights with the arrival of a new star in the firmament, with honour and esteem presented as the fruits of wisdom – before ceding the stage to the addressee via the word ‘Genung’ (‘Genug’ in modern German) and offering an unequivocal blessing.
Through the poem, Amo performs not only his patronage of (Jewish) student, but also his mastery of German poetic form via the use of alexandrines (iambic hexameter). The use of alexandrines links Amo’s poem with a long tradition of versification in Europe, and with the conventions, established some hundred years earlier by Martin Opitz, for the use of this prestigious French form in the German language. The poem also adheres to contemporary conventions of rhetoric, combining formal apostrophe with a slightly contrived extended metaphor. Specialists in the Frühaufklärung debate about the secularisation of the universities, in which Amo was an active player, would undoubtedly be able to prise further subtexts from the religious circumlocutions of the final couplet, not to mention the link between Geist, the stars and celestial wisdom.
Upon reading this poem, two things struck me: first, that it was remarkable that this text, undoubtedly a landmark in German literary history, was so difficult to find and so little known. To my knowledge, it has never been anthologised or taught in a university in the UK or Germany.
Secondly, and not unrelatedly, it is not a ground-breaking or exceptional poem. Let’s be clear: it’s by no means the worst piece of occasional verse written in the eighteenth century – but how well would it stand up to scrutiny in a first-year reader alongside the ‘greatest hits’ of German verse? How would I teach it to a class of sceptical first years?
This question goes to the heart of many of the issues we worry about when it comes to teaching texts which are not, to use David Damrosch’s term, part of the ‘hypercanon’. If a text belongs to the hypercanon, its aesthetic merits are taken for granted. Texts from beyond the hypercanon are required to earn their place on the curriculum by being ‘good enough’ to be read alongside Goethe and Schiller. Not only does this presuppose (quite falsely!) that the hypercanon is formed exclusively of works whose objective artistic brilliance is beyond reproach, but it also leaves no room for experiments, literary oddities, or works of broader cultural importance – in other words, for those texts which are interesting without being beautiful.
As a poetry specialist, I care deeply about the beauty of poetry and am not shy about discussing it: I want to communicate the pleasure I get from poetic language to my students so that they can share it. But judging Amo’s text against a vague standard of poetic value – the idea that poetry is only interesting if it produces giddy transports of aesthetic pleasure in a certain kind of reader – seems totally unproductive. After all, I also care deeply about how poetic language can destabilise mainstream ideas of value, expanding the horizons of what it is possible to do with and through words.
If I were teaching this poem to a class of first years, I’d want to use the text to practice their skills in metrical analysis. We’d perform a formal scansion task together, and then discuss what it means for someone with Amo’s outsider/insider status to write in alexandrines, comparing Amo’s use of the form to other near-contemporaneous examples of German poetry. What makes for good, or bad, use of the form? Is it about sticking to the rules, or having permission to break them? Who has that permission, and why? What, for example, would students make of Amo’s rather contrived syntax across lines 6-7: a deliberate, virtuoso manipulation of sentence length for rhythmic effect, or an attempt to force the metre which falls somewhat flat? All of these, of course, are ways of talking about the poem’s force and significance: its wider ‘meaning’ as a text which – merely by existing – reveals that poetic form is shaped by, and is a way of shaping, history and culture. Amo’s poem, it seems to me, is a singular and fascinating example of how language can expand the horizons of the possible; and, as such, it clearly belongs on a first-year poetry course.
- Race and Revolution in German Literature around 1800
Joanna Raisbeck is a Stipendiary Lecturer in German at Wadham College and The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, with research interests in German Romanticism and the so-called ‘Sattelzeit’.
The question of race in German literature before the late twentieth century is in general overlooked on undergraduate syllabuses. There are excellent resources that help readers explore Black history in the German-speaking countries, such as Black Central Europe, and there are other ongoing projects that investigate the legacies of colonialism in German Studies, such as the newly-launched Decolonial Discourses & German Studies, based at Oxford, but it has never been clearer that these are questions that need to be integrated into German Studies teaching.
I have research interests in the period around 1800, and during this period there is one event that acts as a focal point for discussions about race in German literature: the Haitian Revolution. It began in August 1791, when enslaved people of the French West Indian colony of Saint-Domingue rose up against French colonial rule. The conflict lasted over a decade, involved various other colonial powers such as the English and Spanish, and culminated in the expulsion of the remaining French population in 1804. Saint-Domingue declared independence from France in 1804 and was renamed the Republic of Haiti after an indigenous Taíno name.
As Susanne Zantop has argued, the Haitian Revolution served as a symbolic point of identification for German readers in the period – they identified with the oppressed, rather than the oppressors. It recalled the idea of liberation from aristocratic rule of the French Revolution, which had been met with enthusiasm among German intellectuals before the Terror. Equally, it evoked revolutionary movements in German-speaking lands, such as the failed attempt to create a state founded on the ideals of the French Revolution in Mainz in 1793.
Literature of the period therefore uses the Haitian Revolution to act out an uneasy negotiation of the role of violence in pursuit of emancipatory ideals, and – unlike in the case of the French Revolution – this necessarily involves negotiating the question of race as part of the project of human emancipation. Approaching texts of the period can throw up interpretative challenges, because the terminology that is used so commonly at the turn of the nineteenth century is now deeply offensive and cannot be extricated from the power abuses and violence perpetrated by systems of white supremacy and colonialism.
I would like to briefly highlight how one lesser-known text negotiates the question of race: William der N**** (1818) by Caroline Auguste Fischer. In the past, I have taught Fischer’s text as a way of thinking about ideas of revolution and autonomy. But it also shows how these ideas become complicated by constructions of race, and it is from this angle that I am incorporating it into my teaching this year.
For Fischer, the success of the Haitian Revolution heralds the inevitable emancipation of black slaves across the entirety of America. But this project of emancipation never becomes reality for Fischer’s characters. The ideals of equality that they espouse do not match up with the social hierarchies that the characters both chafe against and uphold without question. What Fischer’s text does, then, is to show how emancipatory ideals stand in tension with power structures that complicate and undermine them. For example, the paternalistic English nobleman Sir Robert is a dedicated abolitionist, yet still buys William, an African sold into slavery, and intends to educate him so that he can become a freedom fighter. The text dryly, even critically, describes how Sir Robert socialises William to feel responsibility for all enslaved Black people in the Americas. Emancipation is also not staged in the text itself – William departs at the end, promising only to return when his work as a liberator is done.
Sir Robert’s actions throw up the problem of white paternalism, one which is not expressly questioned in the text. The implication is that enslaved peoples would require the appropriate education to secure their own freedom. Revolution, it is implied, cannot be successful without the civilising values associated with European colonial powers.
Racism is more explicitly addressed, but it is presented as very much William’s burden: racism is individualised and presented primarily through its psychological effects, in this case William’s self-hatred. On the day when William and Molly are to be engaged, William catches sight of himself in a mirror alongside Molly and Sir Robert: ‘Ach, seine Gestalt erschien ihm wie die eines aufgerichteten Thieres, neben der des herrlichen weißen Mannes und der des himmlischen Mädchens’. William sees and judges himself through white eyes, and the text itself presents him focalised primarily through white characters. Through his suffering William is made an object of pity for a presumed white readership.
So, with these caveats in mind, how does Fischer envisage emancipation? By the end, William himself is a successful revolutionary leader on the other side of the Atlantic, one who rejects assimilation into European culture until the point when emancipation can be achieved for all non-white people. And yet: William entrusts Sir Robert with educating his Black child and thus endorses Sir Robert’s paternalism. At the end, the text is caught between the intractable hierarchies of the present and the future possibility of autonomy for William and all enslaved people. Fischer still upholds the hope that motivates the idea of emancipation. This becomes clear in William’s final appearance, one which ends the text: he is elevated to a Christ-like figure and is even referred to as a saviour. In William, therefore, the appeal of human emancipation remains undimmed while the racial structure of European society is unaffected – and this tension has just as much potency today.
Todd Kontje, ‘Passing for German: Politics and Patriarchy in Kleist, Körner and Fischer’, German Studies Review 22 (1999), 67-84
Susanne Kord, ‘The Pre-Colonial Imagination: Race and Revolution in the Literature of the Napoleonic Period’, in Un-Civilizing Processes? Excess and Transgression in German Society and Culture: Perspectives Debating with Norbert Elias, ed. by Mary Fulbrook (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 85-115
Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997)
- Modern Theories, Medieval Worlds: Teaching Gender and Identity in Medieval Literary Studies
In this month’s blogpost, Aysha Strachan, a PhD candidate at KCL/HU Berlin, suggests that teaching modern theory alongside medieval literature gives us better access to the challenges that these texts issue to modern norms and assumptions.
As a new Graduate Teaching Assistant teaching second-year seminars on Gender and Identity in German Arthurian literature, I was excited to help shape the reading list and module structure. The module takes modern theories on identity and difference (from Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation to Butler’s Gender Trouble) together with medieval scholarship on gender (such as Ruth Mazo Karras’ From Boys to Men and Clare Lees’ Medieval Masculinity). We apply these weekly readings to two canonical examples of twelfth-century Middle High German Arthurian romance: Hartmann von Aue’s Erec and Iwein.
It felt important to stress to students that medieval studies is in the process of a well-needed – even fundamental – refurbishment in its scholarship. Where in the past the application of theory developed outside of a strictly medieval context was viewed as anachronistic, we now see a more diverse range of modern theoretical approaches, from psychoanalytical to gender, queer, and postcolonial theories, as fruitful to medieval studies. As Simon Gaunt argues, we need to re-shape a new generation of medievalists to think of history and theory together:
[…] there is no need to oppose history and theory; on the contrary, theory – including postcolonial theory – can be used productively in historically informed reflections on medieval culture. (“Can the Middle Ages Be Postcolonial?”, p. 162)
As a researcher applying postcolonial feminist theory to medieval literature, my own aims mapped out well onto this module’s aims: first, to explore medieval literature in its own right through its language, poetics, figures, plot development; second, to exhibit the viability of using contemporary theory to read medieval texts; and third, to open students’ minds to the continuities between past and present by showing them that gender and identity politics resonate in both medieval and modern discourses.
Hartmann’s texts seem the perfect examples to illustrate a complicated, fluid image of gender. In Erec (c.1185), the eponymous protagonist is introduced “naked and unarmed like a woman”: hardly what you might expect from a heroic Arthurian knight. He is accused of spending too much time in bed with his wife, Enite, who is subsequently blamed for his lack of sexual moderation. Although it is arguably he who decides to prioritise the marital bond over the feudal one, he blames Enite for his downfall and rides out in pursuit of adventure to prove his masculine identity. Only when he meets and defeats Mabonagrin, the embodiment of masculine excess, does Erec realise his own error: it is good to be integrated with the court.
On the surface, Hartmann might appear to conform to traditional gender stereotypes given how women are frequently subject to male dominance; however, the gender roles in this text are complicated and undermined throughout. Enite is far from passive. Although sexualised through the voyeuristic eye of the narrator, she transgresses her husband’s orders to stay silent, risking her life to save Erec from ambush, thereby challenging the assumption that women are always submissive. She too plays a significant part in her and Erec’s joint journey of self-progression.
Hartmann’s texts ask their audiences – whether medieval or modern – to challenge their perception of what (if anything) genders people. How do we think about who we are outside of binary labels? After a brief introduction to the 12thcentury courtly setting of our texts, we venture into both ‘pure’ gender theory, such as Butler’s Gender Trouble, and scholarship with a more cross-period comparative approach, like James Schultz’s Courtly Love. Each week, we discuss the set theory before turning to our primary texts. By taking apart the language, searching for inconsistencies, and challenging narratorial perspective, students become increasingly comfortable with applying theory to the texts. The values of close reading also become more apparent week by week as we ask how far the language and content of these texts help to simultaneously shape and dismantle identity categories and norms.
It is time for medieval literary studies to fully embrace the ambiguity of medieval texts as the perfect starting point from which to challenge assumptions of gender and identity which are so topical today. By unpacking the way in which the language of medieval texts creates room for thought on society’s construction of identity, we can see how both modern and medieval audiences are asked to question and recalibrate their sense of self through literature.
Aysha Strachan is a Joint-PhD candidate in German at King’s College London / Humboldt University, Berlin under the supervision of Sarah Bowden and Andreas Krass. The working title of her thesis is: “Women as Agents of Sexual Desire in Middle High German Literature”.
References and further reading
Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval. Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).
Sharon A. Farmer, and Carol Braun Pasternack ed., Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
Simon Gaunt, “Can the Middle Ages Be Postcolonial?” Comparative Literature, vol. 61, no. 2, 2009, pp. 160–176.
Ruth Mazo Karras, From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
Clare A. Lees, Thelma S. Fenster, and Jo Ann McNamara, Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, James A. Schultz, Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
James A. Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
- Germany and Eastern Europe
In our first blog post of 2020, Karolina Wątroba discusses the “spectral presence” of Poland in German literature and suggests that attention to this presence, central to much of our undergraduate teaching yet often unremarked, can help us consider intercultural entanglements more generally.
Studying and then teaching German at Oxford as a Polish immigrant, I have always been struck by the fact that the undergraduate curriculum does not feature much discussion of Poland and Eastern Europe beyond the facts of the two world wars. And yet in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period most undergraduates choose to study, many speakers of German lived in territories which extended far into what is now Poland, a country partitioned — in 1772 partially and from 1795 to 1918 fully — by Prussia, Habsburg Austria, and Russia, and occupied by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia during WWII. Germanic and Slavic populations coexisted in this part of Europe earlier too; medieval territorial expansion of the Teutonic order was later instrumentalised to fuel both Prussian claims to colonial expansion overseas and Nazi politics of the ‘Lebensraum’.
Some historians even speak of a German colonial presence in Poland. According to Sebastian Conrad, a historian at the Freie Universität Berlin and author of the most widely read and most up-to-date introduction to German colonial history, it isn’t always possible – or indeed helpful – to distinguish between imperialism and colonialism, especially in the case of Germany’s role in Eastern Europe. This is partly because, Conrad argues, the political and cultural discourse surrounding Eastern Europe and overseas colonies was strikingly similar in Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and partly because the realities of German colonialism overseas were radically heterogenous anyway, playing out differently in places as diverse as four separate parts of Africa, a range of islands on the Pacific, and the Chinese port city of Jiaozhou.
The first time I encountered the spectral presence of Poland in German culture at university was in a novel deeply entangled with the German imperial/colonial presence in Poland. One of the landmarks of German realism, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895), is largely set in the fictional coastal town of Kessin, partly modelled on Swinemünde – or Świnoujście, as I know it, since it is now a Polish city located exactly on the border with Germany. Like real-life Swinemünde/Świnoujście, Fontane’s Kessin is a borderline space, controlled by Prussia, but far removed from the urban centre of Berlin and marked by the unsettling presence of Slavs. Kristin Kopp’s remarkable book, Germany’s Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space, reads Effi Briest as a novel of ‘inner colonialism’, which juxtaposes the Oriental fantasies of German overseas expansion – encapsulated in the memorable figure of the Chinese ghost – with the very tangible reality of Prussian control over huge swathes of Eastern Europe. When Major von Crampas – a half-Pole – seduces Effi, he threatens the stability of the Prussian social and cultural system in ways that Kopp persuasively links to the German fear of a ‘Slavic flood’ and ‘reverse diffusion’ of Prussian colonisation.
As I moved through my degree, I encountered more and more authors and books with links to Poland. The bestselling German novel of the nineteenth century, Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben (1855), is set almost entirely in present-day Poland. The same is true, of course, of Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel, published nearly a century later in 1959. Freytag and Grass were both born in what is now Poland, and it seemed that every literary epoch I studied included authors who were either born or lived for a time in present-day Poland: Baroque poets Andreas Gryphius and Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau; Johann Gottfried Herder and Anna Louisa Karsch in the eighteenth century; Romantics E.T.A. Hoffmann and Joseph von Eichendorff; Expressionists Alfred Döblin and Ernst Toller; post-war writers Christa Wolf and Uwe Johnson. Seen in this light, German culture can only be properly understood once we pay attention to the fact that Central and Eastern Europe used to be a multilingual, multicultural, and multireligious region for centuries – with Germans, Slavs, and other peoples living together or at least alongside each other, sometimes more or less peacefully, and sometimes as enemies. Much of the cultural history of Germany played out in big Central European cities – Breslau/Wrocław and Danzig/Gdańsk as much as Hamburg and Nürnberg – and borderline regions, such as Schlesien/Śląsk and Masuren/Mazury. It is also a painful history of wars, occupations, partitions, expulsions, and economic migrations, one that to this day determines the reciprocal cultural perceptions of Germany and Poland.
So how can all this inform our teaching more broadly? Paying attention to the porous border between Germany and Poland over a millennium of European history allows us to put the current political division of this part of Europe into context. As Navid Kermani’s brilliant book of travel essays Entlang den Gräbern. Eine Reise durch das östliche Europa bis nach Isfahan (2018) makes clear, German cultural identity has been shaped by its relationship to its Eastern neighbours, and has heavily influenced that region in turn. Even more broadly, Todd Kontje’s excellent monograph Imperial Fictions: German Literature Before and Beyond the Nation-State (2018) is a timely reminder of the entanglements of local, national, imperial, and global allegiances that have always made up German culture – his sweeping account moves from the Middle Ages to the present day. Germany’s imperial/colonial presence in Eastern Europe has parallels in other parts of Europe too, especially – as Sebastian Conrad points out – in Habsburg Austria and British rule in Ireland.
These issues could find their way into the undergraduate syllabus in various contexts: for example, students could be introduced to Kopp’s incisive close readings of key passages on Poland and Slavs in Effi Briest; Kermani’s book could be taught alongside Goethe’s Italienische Reise, Alexander von Humboldt’s writings on Latin America, Frieda von Bülow’s writings on Africa, and W. G. Sebald’s travelogues; and the history of the German-Polish relations could be highlighted in survey courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in the context of German imperial history and colonial activities overseas, as they are discussed in Conrad’s and Kontje’s studies, among others. A finer focus on the fraught history of the German-Polish cultural relations can become a gateway to a reflection on multicultural entanglements, inequalities, and interdependencies more broadly, which – needless to say – we badly need in our own cultural moment.
Karolina Wątroba is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford
Sebastian Conrad, Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2019 [4thedition]); also available in Sorcha O’Hagan’s translation as German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).
Navid Kermani, Entlang den Gräbern. Eine Reise durch das östliche Europa bis nach Isfahan (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2018).
Todd Kontje, Imperial Fictions: German Literature Before and Beyond the Nation-State (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).
Kristin Kopp, Germany’s Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).
- Should we teach Handke? Canon, curriculum and the Nobel Prize.
The awarding of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Austrian Peter Handke has been highly controversial. Here, Helen Finch (University of Leeds) considers the implications this has for Germanists and our responsibility to respond.
‘Should I read Handke, then?’ a student of German at Leeds asked me yesterday. I stuttered, stopped, hedged. Normally, I am thrilled when students show an interest in reading German literature in their free time. And I’m often touched when a student shows an interest in an author who has accompanied me throughout my career, as Peter Handke has, from undergraduate to researcher and teacher. But could I recommend that my eager student read Handke? I wasn’t sure.
In the international sphere, torrents of scorn have been poured out following Handke’s Nobel Prize award on 11 October 2019. In particular, Aleksandar Hemon’s article witheringly attacked Handke in the New York Times as the ‘Bob Dylan of Genocide Denial’. In Handke’s native Austria, reaction has been to some extent positive, including congratulations from the Green president Alexander van der Bellen, but by no means universally affirmative. How should we as teachers of German Studies react?
‘Wir sind Nobelpreisträger’ is a phrase that we have learned to be wary of, especially since Günter Grass’s prize (1999), which was swiftly followed by revelations of his time in the Waffen SS. But when literary studies seem to be increasingly unfashionable in undergraduate curricula and UK German departmental closures continue, a Nobel Prize win for a German-language author can feel like a boost of sorts. Look, the world’s best-known prize jury thinks that Austrian literature matters!
Handke’s texts on display at Dussmann, Berlin, this weekend.
So are we Germanists complicit in the celebration or even creation of a Nobel Prize win for a genocide denier? One constant in the discussion of Handke’s win was his elitist aesthetics, which have been seen as fulfilling ‘traditional’ Nobel Prize criteria. These same criteria – aesthetics that pay homage to a patriarchal tradition of Goethe and even Kafka, self-conscious analysis of European male subjectivity, echoes of Romanticism and high modernism, a concern with European history and memory, nomination for previous literary prizes, and race-blind or racist Eurocentrism – are also traditionally constitutive elements of the German Studies curriculum.
The criteria that won Handke the Nobel Prize are the criteria that made sure that he was on my undergraduate curriculum at Trinity College Dublin in 1993. In a sense, Handke’s writing career is the canonical post-war German literature curriculum: the attack on the Gruppe 47, Sprachskepsis, collaboration with the New German Cinema, a turn to neo-Romanticism and ‘new subjectivity’, a concern with the legacy of the Nazi past and flirtations with political positioning, followed by a blossoming eco-poetics that develops out from Die Lehre der Saint-Victoire. This representative quality is part of the reason I wrote a chapter of my PhD on Handke. And more: I and other feminist friends have taught Handke as part of gender studies, too. I’ve brought Wunschloses Unglück to students as a sensitive, devastating exploration of the psychological pressures that patriarchy imposes on women in rural Austria, a counterpart to Jelinek. Handke’s writing has a luminous quality, whether he is exploring the savage discipline imposed by language in Kaspar, or delving into Austro-Slovene history and geology in Die Wiederholung. Can’t we bring this luminous poetry to our students?
Yet this sketches out exactly the same whitewashed career trajectory that the Nobel Prize committee posted on their website for Handke. It leaves out the 1990s and the 2000s, the whining apologism for Serbian war crimes, the whatabouttery, the genocide denial – ‘there were camps on both sides!’ was Handke’s Trumpian claim – the speech at Milošević’s funeral. ‘When you say Handke’s words are beautiful, you say genocide is beautiful’, I was reminded on Twitter. Handke’s writing strives to transcend the historical, the temporal, while at the same time Handke aligns himself with war criminals. The dual move of transcendence and complicity is inherent to Handke’s aesthetics. Might it also be inherent to any aesthetics of transcendence that believes that art can be innocent of history and power? So how do we decolonise our curriculum not just of Handke, but of the inheritance of a right-wing literary canon that masquerades as idealist Romanticism or avant-garde art?
There are several ways that we could teach Handke. We can contextualise him within the context of the Bosnian genocide and the history of German and Austrian engagement in the Balkans; we could teach him alongside Bosnian-German authors such as Saša Stanišić, who three days after the Nobel announcement won the Deutscher Buchpreis. We can approach him as a case study of Austrian literary celebrity, of the toxicity of literary prize culture and of the problematic nature of the canon that we Germanists have inherited. But we should also be mindful of the words of Sara Ahmed in her new book What’s the Use?, serendipitously published the same day as Handke’s Nobel award:
‘Good habits in citation are about extending a line: you have to show how much you know of a field by citing those deemed to have shaped that field. To extend a line is to reproduce an inheritance’ (168)
To teach Handke is to reproduce the problematic inheritance of German Studies. To teach Handke means to exclude artists of colour, queer artists, female artists, artists writing outside the traditional German-speaking. There’s only so much room on a syllabus after all. To teach Handke is to validate the self-importance of a Nobel Prize committee over the curiosity of a student co-creating the curriculum. To teach Handke is to take comfort in German literature’s brief moment in the Nobel Prize spotlight. To teach Handke might therefore be to deny ourselves the invaluable lesson of feeling uncomfortable. Handke is a teachable moment for all of us in German Studies. ‘Should we teach Handke?’ is probably a facile question. But how, why, when and for how long we should talk about Handke is a question that German Studies can learn from.
Helen Finch, University of Leeds, 15.10.2019
- Introducing ‘Teaching Alterity in 2019’
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.