Catriona MacLeod (University of Chicago)

Two-Way Streets: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Scholarship in German Studies


Before I turn to the question of interdisciplinarity in the field of German studies, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the organizers of this conference, Patrizia McBride and Paul Fleming, for convening it, from their crucial dual perspectives as seasoned leaders of, respectively, both a German department and a humanities center.  I should also say at the outset that I have only recently begun a new position at the University of Chicago, and that much of the perspective I was invited to offer here is based on my twenty years at the University of Pennsylvania, in a department that lays claim to being the oldest German department in the US and that I chaired twice.  (At the University of Chicago, I am also an affiliated faculty member in Art History.)  I am delighted, moreover, that the thoughtful and productive conversations we had over two days at Cornell is being shared in this digital format, and will generate further dialog with colleagues in the field at a range of different institutions.  Not only did the Cornell conference bring together colleagues from quite different career stages and academic institutions, it allowed us as well to engage directly with the advocacy work of the MLA, by inviting Lydia Tang to speak about the question of “smallness.”


The organizers invited me to share my reflections on the work I have been doing in the two scholarly organizations I’ve been most deeply engaged with over a period of many years, and to describe the associations’ and their related journals’ impact on interdisciplinary scholarship in German studies.  On the face of it at least, the Goethe Society of North America, of which I am currently serving as president, and the International Association of Word & Image and the journal Word & Image, which I have been co-editing since 2011, represent the two ends of Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Avenue – though of course Goethe is one of the most interdisciplinary thinkers imaginable.[1]

The focus of this session was on publishing and scholarship in the field of German studies as it currently stands, after it pivoted away from a more conservative, canon-focused Germanistik in the 1980s, based in the consolidation and partitioning of disciplines in the late nineteenth-century US research university (Crow and Dabars), to the far more interdisciplinary “multiple field” we inhabit today.  These changes are reflected, too, in the history of the German studies Association, which led the charge in connecting German, initially, with History and now is the venue for panels expanding into visual arts, cinema, political science, and many other areas.  I took the session title as an occasion to think about the rewards but also common institutional ambivalences related to our by now habitually interdisciplinary work, and to suggest some practical steps that we can and indeed need to take to translate this interdisciplinarity to the benefit of our colleagues and students, and also to reach the ears of administrators.


We heard much about interdisciplinarity in a session on German studies as an inherently multiple discipline.  In preparing for this talk by reading around in recent books about interdisciplinarity I noticed a common thread: a certain predominant language referring to “weak” versus “strong” interdisciplinarity (other writers prefer “cold” and “hot”). As sociologist Michael Burawoy puts it in an essay warning his own “strong” field about the allure but also pitfalls of embracing interdisciplinarity, as well as the rift between theory and practice: “it is the very obvious appeal of interdisciplinarity that makes it dangerous to weaker, critical disciplines since it can become the Trojan horse for the dissolution of particular disciplines by bringing them into a hierarchical relation with more powerful disciplines.  It can become the basis for a narrowing rather than widening of perspectives, especially when the university is in crisis and restructuring is on the agenda” (Burawoy 7).  

In the sense of power relations and institutional hierarchies, to start with the pressingly pragmatic issue at our neoliberal colleges and universities, interdisciplinarity, according to one dominant reading, is already and indelibly a weapon of the weak, in the hands of disciplinarily organized departments that are clamoring for institutional funding, or even survival, particularly in the humanities.  The economic politics of cross-listing courses is instructive if not bleak in this regard: in my experience, an English department may for example not think twice about asking a German department to cross-list a course it offers on Thomas Mann (in translation), while regularly turning down requests from the other direction involving broadly based seminars on theoretical topics.  On the administrators’ side, interdisciplinarity can be used as a pretext to cut budgets/faculty lines of smaller disciplinary units and then divert monies into larger agglomerated ones such as modern language departments, frequently in the name of resourcing new “boutique” interdisciplinary programs whose interdisciplinarity is often problem-or policy-based rather than academic or intellectually self-reflexive in nature.  As Jerry A. Jacobs points out, such interdisciplinary units also themselves tend to “shift power toward the center of the university” (Jacobs 37-38).  German studies faculty may arguably have more connections with work going on in other departments – for example, Art History or Philosophy – than with literary studies in, for example, Spanish or Italian – and a modern languages department is, rather, an example of pluridisciplinarity, that is, relations among supposedly connected fields.  These kinds of arrangements may have the unintended consequence of indeed narrowing down rather than expanding interdisciplinarity.  I wish to stress, however, that I am by no means discounting the need to articulate the importance of language studies at so-called “global “universities that are at risk of being universities of global English, and thus I repeat the important corrigendum to developments in German studies that was recently offered by Frank Trommler in his essay “Back the Future of German studies” (an essay which incidentally contrasted the disciplinary openness of German studies with many French departments’ continued focus on the literary canon).  


But frankly, it can actually appear difficult for administrators to read the work of PhDs from German programs as interdisciplinary at all.  Deans tend to understand departments whose faculty hold degrees with the same differentiating specialty as entrenched in their singular discipline – notwithstanding the fact that a discipline such as German studies is constantly evolving, dynamic, and open to other fields.  Hence, the legibility of our interdisciplinary scholarship within the larger framework of the university is at stake for all of us if the two-way street is not to be a dead end, and this involves translation of what we do.  Academic success – aka tenure – is still measured in disciplinary terms.  Administrations, of course, still ask chairs in tenure and promotion cases to present a list of the most prestigious “in field” journals.  It is important to highlight and contextualize a candidate’s successes, too, in journals that not only are prestigious in the general field of literary studies – no one can argue about PMLA – but also in publications outside the discipline which may be less familiar to internal and external committees.


Put more broadly, how can we foster interdisciplinarity that is strong, rather than weak, not only with respect to institutional pressures, but in intellectual terms?  And, to turn to the questions posed by the conference organizers, what role do scholarly associations and publications have to play in promoting interdisciplinary strength, especially for the graduate students who are entering the profession and will shape its future?  And, how do we ensure that our departments are flexible spaces for innovation and cross-pollination?  For one thing, we can encourage and facilitate encounters and genuinely collaborative, integrative projects rather than restricting ourselves to more solitary forays into other disciplinary territory – which is admittedly the ad hoc way my own research developed during the Ph.D. stage of my career, when it was considered slightly adventurous to enroll in a Comparative Literature seminar.  My British undergraduate degree was already a highly specialized one bearing little resemblance to the US liberal arts model.  If my career can be said to resemble a letter at all, it is the “T” that researchers have posited as one model of interdisciplinary growth, building on a specialized training and then branching out into other areas.  As Catherine Lyall has explained: “A T-shaped individual demonstrates a strong disciplinary training (the vertical part of the ‘T’) and reaches out to form connections with other disciplines in order to develop joint solutions (the horizontal bar of the ‘T’) in contrast to I-shaped individuals who exhibit only deep but narrow disciplinary expertise” (Lyall 67).


While I agree that disciplinary anchoring provides the foundation for interdisciplinary development, there are many more opportunities open to graduate students and faculty in our field today for building a toolkit of interdisciplinary methods and approaches. These include, prominently, the New Directions initiative of the Mellon Foundation enabling faculty to undertake a systematic disciplinary training in another field.  All kinds of productive collaborations in the borderlands are now happening to the benefit of our graduate students. To mention just one example: “Romantic Prints on the Move,” an event that I co-organized with art historian colleague Cordula Grewe of Indiana University Bloomington in February 2019, and that straddled the Kislak Rare Books Library at Penn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  In addition to an interdisciplinary line-up of talks and discussions involving art historians, Germanists, curators, and collectors, we also designed two study sessions with object-based presentations by students from German studies and art history as well as print-making programs in the region.  This was a chance for graduate students in German to gain a hands-on training opportunity in analyzing and speaking about prints in relation to the history of the material text, and in conversation with students from studio arts and art history.


Turning, finally, to the kinds of interdisciplinary journals and associations that promote this kind of scholarship, let me begin by talking about the International Association of Word & Image Studies, which was founded in 1987 in the Netherlands, initially spurred by the rise of semiotic analysis.  It has from the start been a bilingual English-French association, which from its inception brought together literary scholars and art historians as well as researchers from other areas such as history, anthropology, garden design and history, and cinema studies, to name only a few.  The Association holds triennial conferences that take place alternately in North America and Europe – my entrée into the Association was in fact organizing a Philadelphia conference in 2005.  (The next conference, in July 2020, in land-locked Luxembourg, is on the topic of Water and Sea in Word and Image.)  This is a looser, in some ways more diffuse scholarly network than that of the strongly tied Goethe Society of North America network, as the brief description I have given will have made clear, but it has the advantage of enabling scholarly networks that not only are interdisciplinary but also transnational and bilingual or even multilingual.  The organization also focuses on events for early career researchers.


Since taking over the editorship of the interdisciplinary journal Word & Image, which is affiliated with IAWIS but is not an IAWIS publication, my co-editor Michèle Hannoosh and I have had several goals and initiatives in mind. One is is to diversify still further the subject matter, historical period, and geographical range of our publications, and of their authors: we have published more scholarship on and, importantly, from China, India, and South America, for example, as well as more on cinema, cartography, digital publishing, the graphic novel, queer theory, museum studies, to name a few.  There has been an uptick in submissions on German studies subjects, which had in the first decades of the journal’s existence certainly taken a back seat to Anglo-American and French scholarship.  If you take a look at the last few years of the journal’s output, you will see articles, to be sure, on Dürer, Klee, and Anton Würth, but also on such diverse “German studies” subjects as, for example, Kittler and ekphrasis, literary exhibition at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff, and the book covers of GDR author Wolfgang Hilbig.  This is one way to make German studies scholarship visible to researchers in art history and adjacent fields.  It is heartening that a number of these successful submissions have come in from graduate students and early career scholars, and it is perhaps also a positive sign of programmatic developments in our graduate curricula.  Another way in which we can translate our own fields is by doing a better job of literally translating them for the broader audiences that read a journal like Word & Image.  An initiative we are pursuing at Word & Image is to publish translations of key works of criticism or theory that have so far remained inaccessible to readers of English and French, whether from the historical canon or from current scholarship in intermediality and Medienwissenschaft.  Historically, there is plenty to choose from in German, including essays by, for example, August Wilhelm Schlegel that we would like to assign to students in English-language seminars.  And, one of the reasons that there is still a divide between Anglo-American scholarship in the field of art history and, for example, the German-centric field of Bildwissenschaft, is largely the sheer paucity, still, of translations of key texts into English.  Please consider this an invitation to pitch ideas, also for themed special issues, which we publish around once a year.


It is not only explicitly interdisciplinary humanities journals possessing titles with ampersands that create new opportunities for our field.  Likewise, our more traditional, discipline-specific scholarly associations and their journals have a role to play in fostering dynamic interdisciplinary work in what I have characterized ideally as a two-way street.  Turning now to the Goethe Society of North America, this too has been a place of increasing interdisciplinary innovation: in the many sessions it sponsors at venues such as GSA, MLA, and ASECS, at the Atkins triennial conference, and of course also in the Society’s highly ranked disciplinary journal, the Goethe Yearbook.  Areas such as ecocriticism have received as much attention as the concept of Weltliteratur.  I want to highlight two examples.  First, thanks to a generous donor, we were able to establish a new prize for scholarship in the field of science in the Goethezeit, the Richard Sussman Essay Prize, which is intended to recognize work among Goethe scholars but also from historians of science working in this fertile area of research.  Second, under the leadership of colleagues Clark Muenzer and John H. Smith, a collaborative new open-access lexicon project is well under way – with contributors and meetings in North America, the UK, and Germany/Switzerland – dedicated to Goethe’s “heterodox” philosophical concepts, and to how, in the editors’ words, Goethe “reformulate[s] central questions of traditional metaphysics within the practices of literature, science, aesthetics, and cultural history.”  I hope you don’t mind if in the context of thinking aloud about interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity in our field, and to suggest another peril – loss of historical perspective, knowledge, and curiosity in a presentist moment – I simply give Goethe the last word.  


[This is a slightly edited version of my presentation at "Re-Imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the University, and the Humanities."]



Works Cited

Burawoy, Michael.  “Sociology and Interdisciplinarity: The Promise and the Pitfalls.”  Philippine Sociological Review,vol. 61, 2013, pp. 7-20.

Crow, Michael M., and William B. Dabars.  “Interdisciplinarity and the Institutional Context of Knowledge of the American Research                              University.” The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, 2nd ed., edited by Robert Frodeman, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 471-484.

Jacobs, Jerry A.  “The Need for Disciplines in the Modern Research University.”  The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, 2nd ed., edited                by Robert Frodeman, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 36-39.

Lyall, Catherine.  Being an Interdisciplinary Academic: How Institutions Shape University Careers.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Trommler, Frank.  “Back to the Future of German Studies: Which Future? Which Past?”  Back to the Future: Tradition and Innovation in                      German Studies, edited by Marc Silberman, Lang, 2018, pp. 251-261.