Ulrich Plass (Wesleyan University)

“Re-Imagining the Discipline”: Reflections on Crisis and Accountability


It is a recurring experience of being employed in a German department that people are surprised when they find out where I work: Really, your university still has a German department? At Wesleyan, which is one of the larger liberal arts colleges and where I have worked for fifteen years, we have been downsized from a “bloated” 6.5 FTE to a “lean” 3 FTE and are now, alongside the Italian program, the smallest academic unit on campus. Under these circumstances, simply remaining visible can be a challenge. It is widely assumed that small humanities departments are only one major recession away from elimination, even while the costs of staffing and furnishing a language department are negligible compared to a chemistry or biology department. As elsewhere, Wesleyan’s highest salaries go to the upper echelons of the administration, followed by faculty in computer science and economics. Yet no one would dare talk about a crisis in economics – even when most leading economists failed to anticipate the economic crisis of 2008.    


Despite being a low-budget affair, the humanities are vulnerable to a crisis that originated outside of yet in relation to the university: As Melinda Cooper has shown, the conservative backlash against the rise of university-based social justice movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s weaponized a rhetoric of personal responsibility that succeeded in vastly reducing state support for universities. It set into motion a steady inflation of tuition costs, while shifting the burden of educational expenses onto students and parents. As tuition costs increasingly outpace the incomes of poor and middle-class families, students and parents find themselves facing the prospect of paying off loans for decades to come. Bearing the burden of debt that is literally unforgivable, students are less likely to major in a field that promises no immediate practical and career-boosting utility. Choosing a career path that enables students to pay off their loans more quickly is the rational thing to do. In my conversations with students, it is increasingly the norm rather than the exception that someone majors in the humanities against the will of their parents. It is not unusual for us to lose students because a parent tells them that three semesters of taking German has been sufficiently self-indulgent and it is now time to face the real challenges of life. 


Unable or unwilling to acknowledge the drastic rise of economic inequality, of which diminished enrollments in the humanities are only a symptom, administrators frequently fault faculty for students’ seeming lack of interest in their disciplines, suggesting that faculty need to be more “creative” and “innovative” in order to make their disciplines “attractive” for students able to choose from a fount of academic options. As we all know from experience, this perverse ultimatum to innovate or be eliminated generates a permanent state of anxious and exhausted excitation, as overworked and underappreciated faculty rush to introduce new initiatives, new clusters, new concentrations, new certificates. In such a state, our behavior can become reactive, panicky, and uncollegial. We are quick to point fingers at each other or at hellishly complex “structural issues” and/or “neoliberalism” (Chu), under the pretense that they excuse faculty and administrators alike from responsibility.


In small humanities departments, these challenges weigh especially heavily on young colleagues transitioning out of PhD programs into post-doctoral appointments or tenure-track positions (of which German studies had only twenty this year). As I see it, one of the major tasks for senior colleagues, the GSA and AATG leaderships, and the profession at large must be to welcome and support our younger colleagues, especially at a time when being an assistant professor of German requires more teaching, administrative, advising, and research responsibilities than it did twenty or thirty years ago. Early and steady support is crucial when young colleagues are actively striving to making the field more equitable and more diverse, particularly when, now more than ever, departments hire with the expectation that new colleagues will bring a much-needed bump to flagging enrollment. In her talk at Cornell, which has been published in Profession, Lydia Tang emphasized that making German studies more diverse means not only enlarging our curriculum so that students of color, queer and trans students, disabled and working-class students can see themselves represented in what we teach; it also means combatting the exploitation of graduate students and adjunct labor: “We need to ensure that the labor of building communities is fairly distributed among all faculty members and does not rest primarily on graduate students and non-tenure-track instructors” (Tang).


Tang’s warning that German studies must “ensure that our small language communities are at least as diverse as our institutions” should, at this historical juncture, be non-controversial, and yet the typical German language and literature curriculum tends to reinforce prevailing stereotypes about German culture and identity. This point has been underscored in the recent “Ten-Point Program of the Diversity, Decolonization and the German studies Curriculum Collective” (DDGC),[i] addressed to the leadership of the AATG. The authors of the DDGC argue that yesterday’s toothless version of diversity, which underpinned the fetishistic celebration of multiculturalism and paternalistic praise for the “contributions” to German culture by non-white people, insufficiently acknowledges, let alone rectifies, more deeply rooted mechanisms of exclusion in German studies. The DDGC thus calls for shifting our conceptual framework from thinking of diversity as inclusion of difference (a liberal concern) towards embracing it as a transformative practice for creating a more just and equal society (a radical progressive concern). 


Proposals about how to reimagine the discipline within a conceptual framework of anti-racism also inform some of the responses to Jakob Norberg’s 2018 article “German Literary Studies and the Nation.” Norberg argues that “Germanistik is the origin of the nation” (11) and that, reciprocally, our discipline depends conceptually on the nation and materially on resources provided by the state. Norberg reminds his readers that it was the work of scholars such as Herder and the Grimms that established the very idea of a spiritually and culturally distinct German people, represented by a cohesive body of literature. The foundational intertwining of scholarship and nationalism, Norberg asserts, remains our vital source of legitimacy to this day. Importantly, the survival of the discipline is conditioned on a mechanism of binary opposition: “The discipline maintains itself by its continual application of – and critical reflection on – the distinction of German versus non-German” (12). As Carrie Smith points out in her response to Norberg’s article (just published in in the German Quarterly forum titled “Does German Cultural Studies need the Nation-State Model?”), by defining the conditio sine qua non of German studies as the opposition of “German versus non-German,” Norberg validates the exclusion of everything and everyone marked as non-German: “the study of German culture has long shut out non-white populations in its curricula, structures, and objects of research; this exclusion stems from the nationalism at the heart of the discipline” (479). In her forum contribution, Patrizia McBride offers a similar corrective, noting that although Norberg’s account has the benefit of reminding us of the discipline’s “original sin,” it nonetheless reinscribes the story of a discipline whose protagonists “skew white, male, heterosexual, and middle and upper class. In this drama individuals and groups that claim different affiliations and attachments…have traditionally been cast in an auxiliary role as interlopers or newcomers” (468).  


Read against the backdrop of the IGCS’s call for re-imagining our discipline, Norberg’s article reassures us that rather than reimagining German studies, we can confine ourselves to pondering its problematic history. Norberg cautions that “radical critique of the nation” would amount to our discipline’s self-abolition (13). Warnings of this sort, I fear, echo the hysteria of white nationalists about ethnic replacement. There is no scholarly or pedagogically compelling reason why German studies should remain tethered to its nationalist origins, and there is no evidence that the difficulties we face are due to colleagues’ engaging in “radical critique” of the German nation-state. On the contrary, a continued commitment to the national paradigm, no matter how self-critical, is bound to isolate and discredit German studies intellectually and institutionally. Instead, we might study, as Elisabeth Strowick and David Wellbery suggested at the Cornell conference, the transatlantic dimension of German literary history. Such a curriculum might include, to draw on Wellbery’s example, the translation and critique of German literature in New England Transcendentalist circles during the mid-nineteenth century. Moving away from the national paradigm, nineteenth-century transatlantic studies would make less use of the conventional categories of influence and reception and would instead explore, for example, how American radicals and “heretics” such as Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker appropriated and celebrated German literature as coming “nearer than any other to the Christian ideal of literary art” (Parker 329). Crucially, “Christian” implied the work of radical abolitionist social reform. A hundred years later, Thomas Mann would align himself with this radical legacy of “applied Christianity” (Detering 178). 


As Priscilla Layne and B. Venkat Mani suggested during discussion, a transatlantic approach independent of (and in opposition to) the propaganda of German-American friendship and the politics of empire codified in the North Atlantic Alliance would require historicizing and contesting reified notions of race, nation, and culture in the fashion of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. I would add to this discussion that a critical study of transatlantic histories of cultural production, exchange, and transfer might call for associating German studies with diaspora and migration studies rather than with the traditional national philologies. From such a vantage point, German studies no longer needs the legitimizing foundation allegedly provided by the dangerous fiction of a cohesive national culture. If, as Vance Byrd proposes in his contribution to the German Quarterly forum on Norberg’s article, we follow the example of feminist, queer, and critical-race scholarship in reorienting our interests away from the norms “established by the German cultural elite” and placing ourselves in opposition to “methodological nationalism,” we can enable our scholarship to “highlight how unequal networks of power, volatile flows of people, materials, and capitals, as well as unexpected entanglements reflect historical processes on the local and global level” (446-447). 


German studies scholarship that takes not the nation-state but rather the (Black) Atlantic as its point of reference might study Frederick Douglass’s “trans-coding” of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and, relatedly, Ottilia Assing’s translating Douglass’ autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom into German (Gilroy 58-71). Similarly, transatlantic German studies would explore the contemporary German appropriation of African American music in “Deutschrap” (the most successful genre in the German music singles charts) as a critical aesthetic code for making race and class visible in a popular medium. Regrettably, the real diversity of cultural production in Germany is not reflected in who studies and teaches at German universities, which are even less diverse than American ones. This seems to be especially true in Germanistik, where the bourgeois habitus of neutral, non-partisan Wissenschaftlichkeit still reigns supreme. There is often little awareness of how exclusionary this habitus is in practice. As much as German studies in the US draws on the wealth of resources provided by Germanistik, we can only make our field more diverse and inclusive if we welcome and support the more politically outspoken, activist bent of the type of scholarship done by many of our colleagues in American studies, Black studies, or gender and feminist studies. 


In calling for a more diverse German studies, it is important to bear in mind that the concept of diversity is a double-edged sword: Reduced to feel-good slogans, diversity and inclusion are easily appropriated by politicians, trustees, CEOs, and administrators. As Roderick Ferguson has pointed out with reference to Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy, “rather than a result of student demands, we might more accurately think of diversity offices as the administrative and bureaucratic response to those demands” (26). By “folding diversity into the bureaucratic machine,” university administrators effectively disarm more radical attempts at social transformation (Ferguson 27). In contradistinction to the conservative image of universities as hotbeds of radicalism, one can argue that no organization in American life has been more effective in containing radical social movements by absorbing and bureaucratizing them than the university. This is also the reason why the current institutional means of addressing discrimination and harassment are insufficient: They are not actually designed to transform the university, but rather to neutralize radical critique and activism. 


Nevertheless, rightful criticism of our institutions and in particular the available means of redress through such offices as Title IX must never be used as cover for abuses of power, as was the case last year, when over 50 tenured humanities professors signed a letter in defense of Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at NYU, who was under investigation for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking. Ronell’s serially abusive behavior was long known at NYU and beyond (see Chu). The letter’s signatories must have been aware that their signature both condoned Ronell’s behavior and constituted an act of retaliation against a graduate student. They feared that Ronell’s career might suffer, but they did not care how their support for her would affect those lower on the rungs of the academic ladder. The message, then, was unequivocal: If you speak up against abuses of power, you will be cast from the profession. Retaliation works: While the abuse victim is unlikely to find a job in academia, the perpetrator, having been found guilty of sexual harassment and suspended for a year without pay, has returned to teach a seminar on retaliation titled “Unsettled Scores.”[ii]


What continues to matter about the Ronell case is not the person at its center but the sobering lesson it teaches us about the inability of respected, well-paid, and professionally secure colleagues to understand their complicity in delegitimizing German studies as a discipline. The fact that, to date, no signers of the letter have withdrawn their support[iii] only substantiates graduate students’ fears that they cannot rely on their professors to defend them against abuse and exploitation (see Robin). It is hardly accidental that while NYU was conducting its Title IX investigation, theDaily Princetonian reported that three female students at Ronell’s alma mater left the German PhD program on account of institutional sexism.[iv] Given how small the prospects are for obtaining a position in German studies, the cost-benefit analysis of either quitting the program or putting up with a “pervasive academic culture that favors men to succeed, but puts obstacles in front of women” (Brown) strongly favors the former. Precisely because of the rule of omertà in our departments, it is undeniable that the Princeton students did the right thing in protesting against the toxic culture of male entitlement in their department and, likewise, that the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW Local 2110 is right in calling for the termination of Ronell’s employment and the implementation of effective protections against abuse at NYU.[v]


In light of these distressing examples, which I take to be indicative of a crisis of accountability and care in graduate education, one lesson to be learned is that we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the entrepreneurs of our careers and start promoting the good of the profession by practicing solidarity with our students and our untenured and adjunct colleagues. The first step in transforming a discipline that is teetering on the edge of irrelevance is to provide meaningful support to those who need it most. This means sharing administrative tasks and distributing both lower-level language and upper-level “content” teaching equitably. If we continue to discount the labor of graduate students and untenured and adjunct colleagues, we will not be able to make the changes necessary to both lower-level language and upper-level “content” courses. If we fail to make our curriculum inclusive, fewer students will want to learn German. And if we fail to attract students, there will be no German studies. The true precariousness of our field lies in the fact that it severely undervalues the intellectual, pedagogical, and administrative labor power that keeps it alive. As a rule, German departments should be the first to fully support adjunct and graduate student unionization drives at their institutions. One can only hope that Lydia Tang’s optimistic observation, “the crisis has also made us less snobbish,” will apply not only to the few exemplary German programs she discussed in her conference lecture, but also to those better-heeled departments who rely on brand recognition as their primary means of risk insurance against the progressive decline of the discipline.


Works Cited

Brown, Marcia. “Elite degrees, but at what cost? A history of alleged gender discrimination afflicts one of Princeton’s own departments.” The             Daily Princetonian, 22 Nov. 2017. http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2017/11/elite-degrees-but-at-what-cost.

Byrd, Vance. “Orientations in German Studies.” The German Quarterly 92.4 (2019): 445-448

Chu, Andrea Long. “I Worked with Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser.” The Chronicle Review, 21 Sept. 2018.                                                           https://www.chronicle.com/article/I-Worked-With-Avital-Ronell-I/244415

Cooper, Melinda. Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the new Social Conservatism. New York: Zone Books, 2017, pp. 215-257.

Detering, Heinrich. Thomas Manns amerikanische Religion. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2012.

Ferguson, Roderick A. We Demand: The University and Student Protests. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

McBride, Patrizia. “Disciplinary History as Genealogy and Inheritance.” The German Quarterly 92.4 (2019): 467-470.


[i] https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog/open-letter-to-the-aatg-a-ten-point-program-of-the-diversity-decolonization-and-the-german-curriculum-ddgc-collective

[ii] https://nyunews.com/news/2019/09/09/avital-ronell-returning-to-nyu-reaction/

[iii] http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/avital-nimrod-sexual-harassment-campy-communications-nyu/

[iv] http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2017/10/u-launches-title-ix-investigation-into-german-professor-amid-student-complaints

[v] https://tinyurl.com/TerminateRonellPetition