Jake Fraser (Reed College)

Re-Theorizing German Studies: Notes from Reed College


My contribution today is intended as a response to Paul and Patrizia’s suggestive and ambitious title for our gathering: “Re-Imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the Humanities and the University.” The remarks that I have gathered under the title “Re-Theorizing German Studies: Notes from Reed College” are, unfortunately, not particularly imaginative; they are to a large extent descriptive, a recounting of the situation at Reed (where I am beginning my second year). But perhaps my experiences and very tentative conclusions will resonate with others. 

I would like to begin by offering an anecdote from a seminar I taught last year, an “Introduction to Media Studies.” The reading for the week had been the introduction to Friedrich Kittler’s Film, Gramophone, Typewriter, a foundational work in media studies but one notorious for its difficulty and breadth of theoretical allusions. I was trying to gloss for my students the basics of Kittler’s intellectual inheritance from Foucault and Lacan, when one student, a comparative literature major, raised her hand and said “You know, all of our professors talk to us about the psychoanalytic approach to this or that, but hardly anyone ever just assigns us readings from Freud.” The remark was not intended, as I initially thought, as a sign of frustration or even exasperation with a difficult text; many of the students later remarked on their evaluations that they wished we had read more Kittler. Instead, it expressed something like an interlinked set of desires and anxieties concerning intellectual history, theoretical foundations, and undergraduate education that may be of broader relevance for a discussion of German studies’ role within the contemporary humanities at American universities.

In what follows, I will make two points concerning this which resonate, I believe, with many of the observations made by John Hamilton and Elisabeth Strowick in their presentations yesterday. 

The first point concerns the contemporary position of German departments vis-à-vis other humanities disciplines. It is my belief that intellectual trends and interests have shifted in such a way that the kind of tools and approaches students are hungering for are those that German Departments are particularly well-suited to offer. Indeed, it is likely no coincidence that the anecdote stems from a course on media studies, a field which draws heavily from past and present German authors and artists and which attracts passionate students from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Reed, like Cornell, is currently in the process of launching a program in media studies in response to overwhelming student demand, and German faculty members have found they have much to contribute.

If this assessment is correct, German departments find themselves in a position to become the kind of theory hub that French departments were in the 80s and 90s. In saying this, I have in mind not just “German” media studies but also things like science and technology studies, histories or theories of the interactions between scientific and literary discourses, and histories of gender, the body, and the senses.[1] Although German studies does not, evidently, have a monopoly on these fields, they are subjects in which German-language authors and texts, from Goethe and Nietzsche to Hito Steyerl and Byung-Chul Han, have much to say. 

A second, related, point concerns the mixture of anxiety and interest concerning intellectual history in the remark from the student cited above. Many of our students at Reed report an interest in foundational authors who are often invoked or alluded to in contemporary scholarship, but not always read or discussed at length in undergraduate courses. Although there are good methodological and theoretical reasons for resisting overly neat periodizations or influence models in our own scholarly work, it is perhaps worth reconsidering the pedagogical and practical merits of such paradigms in undergraduate and even graduate teaching. Colleagues at Reed and elsewhere have observed to me that we see among undergraduate and graduate students alike a real interest in – and demand for – courses on German intellectual history, in topics ranging from psychoanalysis to German film and film theory to critical theory to German-Jewish studies to Arendt. Elisabeth Strowick mentioned yesterday the ever-popular “Marx, Nietzsche, Freud” class; a senior colleague of mine at Reed remarked to me that we could offer alternating Marx and Critical Theory classes every semester and fill them – in perpetuity. Indeed, after the student’s remark regarding Freud cited above, I decided to teach a class the following semester on “Psychoanalysis and Fiction,” which filled quickly based on the title and description alone. Nearly all of the students informed me, on the first day of class, that one of the primary reasons they had signed up for the course was because they had heard talk of Freud and psychoanalysis and wanted to know more. Students also flock to courses on “Arendt and Heidegger,” “Introduction to Critical Theory,” and “Hegel and Marx” for the same reason. 

This sounds, perhaps, implausible, and many may remark that I am describing at best the situation at Reed, whose unofficial motto has long been “Communism, Atheism, Free Love.” But I would nonetheless like to enter the somewhat heretical plea that “Heidegger and Arendt,” “Introduction to Critical Theory,” and “Psychoanalysis and Fiction” are sexy course titles for lots of undergraduates. Although many students want to be catered to by faculty, and feel like consumers of luxury goods (which, at current American tuition prices, they are), many also want to feel like students, which means feeling like they are engaging with deep, difficult, and perhaps vaguely hallowed authors and themes.[2]And although I, like perhaps many of you, have tried to attract students through promises of readings involving vampires, violent revolutionaries, or social media, I have learned that many students (many of the best students!) have a nose for pandering and are instinctively suspicious of it. Sometimes, I think, students want to be treated like students – and not consumers. 

Now, one might object – justifiably – that the mode of teaching intellectual history that I am describing is itself a kind of experience, and that it can also be provided and consumed as such. This is certainly true, and those who teach such courses must take care not to simply provide students with something like an urbane veneer of canonical allusions. (Nor am I suggesting that we teach students to turn their nose up at talk of vampires, about whom there are many interesting and important things to say!) Similarly, “re-theorizing the German Department” in this way obviously requires one to be on guard against lapsing back into methodologically, factually, and ethically untenable forms of a “Great Men” or even a “Great Men and Women” historiography. Here, I find that thematically oriented courses may serve better than those centered around “big names” to provide students with an overview of a lengthy tradition while still advancing the critical and emancipatory projects that many of us are committed to, insofar as they allow authors from historically excluded or oppressed groups to become legible as both critics and inheritors of intellectual traditions. By teaching, for example, Hélène Cixous’ play Portrait of Dora as one of many fictional works that uses psychoanalytic tools to investigate and call into question aspects of Freud’s own thought or practice (in this case, patriarchal and heteronormative gender dynamics in the analytic setting), I hope to convey to students something like the sense of a living critical tradition, rather than a dogmatic canon of unimpeachable truths, while avoiding reductive or tokenizing accounts of Cixous’ – deeply and deliberately psychoanalytic – play as  “a feminist critique of psychoanalysis.”     

Let me conclude, on a somewhat more somber note, by observing that these two roles I have suggested for the German Department – as a source of contemporary theory for other humanities and social sciences, as a source of intellectual history for students – do not necessarily require students to speak German. This is in part an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity; as enrollment in foreign language courses and majors continues to decline, a growing number of German Departments are offering courses and sometimes even minors in some form of German studies which do not require German language skills. Evidently, such efforts can only succeed long-term when the intellectual vitality and strength of a German Department is measured not strictly by the number of majors in the program, but instead by alternative metrics that may more accurately reflect the ways we can and do contribute to contemporary humanistic thought and education. One of these might be enrollment in German “theory” courses.

Like many of you, I lament the decrease in support for the study of foreign languages as an integral part of the humanities. I think it reflects a disappointing trend towards something like monolingual multiculturalism, and I would like to echo John Hamilton’s call yesterday to investigate how we might encourage more and better German teaching at the secondary-school level. It is, however, how things currently stand in American higher education. At Reed, where a strong humanities core and liberal arts curriculum allow faculty to place more emphasis on interdisciplinary classes than on absolute numbers of departmental majors, German Department faculty have been successful in offering courses that draw on our theoretical, historical, and intellectual expertise in English as well as German. Perhaps one way of re-imagining the German Department is theorizing what kind of expertise we have, what we can offer our students, and what role German departments might play vis-à-vis other departments in the contemporary university. 


[1] On German Media Theory, see Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “The Kittler Effect,” New German Critique, vol. 44, no. 3, 2017, pp. 205-224; on German studies and the contemporary humanities, see also Zur Lage der Literaturwissenschaft: Aktuelle Bestandsaufnahmen und Perspektiven, a special issue of the Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, vol. 89, no. 4, 2015.

[2] There is also something to be said for the role of Reed’s humanities core, which exposes first- and second-year students to names and ideas that, depending upon their pre-college backgrounds, they may not have heard of before. It may be worth considering further the work that such cores can do in introducing students from less-affluent backgrounds to the wealth of authors, artists, and ideas present in the German-language tradition.