As a white professor, I must question my Eurocentric “upbringing” in German Studies and my approach to teaching the German language and German-speaking cultures while interacting with a diversifying student body at Carleton. In this blog post, I share how I changed my approach to developing classes with this overarching goal in mind, focusing here on my GERM 150 course, German Music and Culture.
This post is intended for students who are interested in the diversity work we are doing in our program. It includes more scholarly references than I would normally include in a blog post, for good reason. By referring to relevant sources, I aim to show that I am relying on a robust scholarly field in which I am not the expert, but draw on sources from the solid work of my colleagues who are.
I have taught my “German Music and Culture” course every other year in English translation since the spring of 2017, but had so far only “sprinkled” my syllabus with some racial diversity to “flavor the overflowing pot of German whiteness” as Adrienne Merritt formulated it so aptly. From my colleagues, especially Amanda Randall from “across the river” at St. Olaf, who also introduced me to the collective of Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC), I received invaluable input about what literature to consult (for example here) to realize my goal of diversifying and decentering my own courses and, in the bigger picture, Carleton’s German program’s curriculum.
In my GERM 150 course for 2021, I changed my approach to teaching, the discussion prompts, and the reading list as well as certain aspects of the syllabus to get closer to my goals.
- Engage continually, during class, with social justice issues: I want to engage in social justice work on an on-going basis, meaning that I want to discuss and practice values such as equal rights, opportunity, social participation, and treatment not only when it comes to society as a whole but also in my classes. In particular, I am interested in racial, gender, and class equality so I can, as Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj formulate, “pursue more equitable and just approaches to teaching and learning” (2). In GERM 150, I provide my students with the basis for such an approach in the first weeks of the term by talking about our and the authors’/artists’ positionality, about the terms “German,” “Germanness,” belonging, and about the practice of reading an existing canon critically. In this context, we discuss intersectionality and how we position ourselves in the discourse about German-speaking music and literature. As Priscilla Layne found in her classes, “introducing topics like racism and discrimination in a German context allowed students to make connections to the United States that made them more willing to be critical and view their culture from the outside” (86). My students experienced this as well, as class discussions about German-speaking artists and their interests brought up connections to, for example, issues the United States, China, or the Ukraine have been facing – countries my students are connected with. Students can explore social justice work about issues and texts they are interested in during student-led discussion sessions, which give them the opportunity to participate in shaping the class’s trajectory. For future iterations of the course, I plan to pursue equitable and just approaches to teaching, seeking more participation of students in the design of the course and the choice of texts.
- Read the canon critically: I aim to present a critical reading of the existing, white, male, and Eurocentric canon with a focus on German music history. When discussing Rammstein’s song “Deutschland,” for example, we examine how the band tries to come to terms with Germany’s past that includes colonization, the Holocaust, ongoing Antisemitism, racism, sexism, and more. One of the band’s strategies to express their ambivalent relationship to Germany is their staging as the victim and oppressor, shown, for example, when Rammstein members dress in the uniforms of both Nazis and concentration camp inmates. Students discuss in class the ramifications of such portrayal, which often results in comparisons with the practice of cultural appropriation, particularly in the U.S.-American context. We also read Immanuel Kant’s ideas about Enlightenment in the context of colonization and the racist ideas that supported it. This informs discussions, for example, of the established history of People of Color living in Germany, and counters the false narrative that People of Color have only lived in Germany since the so-called “migration crisis” in 2015.
- Diversify the syllabus: By representing diversity in my syllabus, I want to reach a more diverse student body. Just as my classes enroll, for example, students who are women, POC, or members of the LGBTQI+ community, I aim to offer texts whose authors and artists represent these groups as well. As Criser and Malakaj claim, white spaces are “alienating and sometimes even dangerous” (7) for marginalized students and scholars, so I need to address and reduce such whiteness, as well as other dominating structures such as masculinity and heterosexuality. For the discussion of Germanness and belonging, for example, I juxtapose artists such as Amewu and Brothers Keepers with Nena and Sportfreunde Stiller, aided by an article by Sonya Donaldson. Addressing the concept of “Heimat,” we watch Sven Halfar’s film Yes, I am, and discuss the artists’ different concepts of such “home.” We examine definitions of the term with the help of scholars such as Fatima El-Tayeb. Other artists and scholars students in my class encounter are, for example, Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, Claire Waldoff, Vina Yun, May Ayim, Karoline von Günderrode, and Marie Nejar.
Merritt has formulated a goal for German teachers which I see as my general quest for GERM 150 and other classes I teach: to “thoughtfully and insightfully teach culture to students and at the same time complicate the concept of culture itself and attend to its diversity” (184). By continuing my own education in matters of diversity, anti-racism, and other related topics, I will continue to complicate my own Eurocentrist view of “German” culture so I can do justice to this culture’s past, present, and future.