Vance Byrd (Grinnell College)

The Whole Student, The Whole Campus


We must be excellent teachers and advisors if we want German studies to flourish and our work to have an impact. My students at Grinnell College come from many places and decide to speak German for many reasons. Many of them take German because the faculty in smaller departments give them the attention they need for their intellectual and personal growth as well as practical advice they may not find elsewhere. This means that it is vitally important that all faculty members share the responsibility of teaching the first courses students take at an institution and in a department, such as introductory language courses. It is in these first courses that we help students navigate the challenges they face in higher education. And to be good advisors, we must know something about the curricular offerings and requirements in other departments besides German. We should have a sense of what our colleagues in Biology, Theater and Dance, and Economics love to teach and research. Outside of the classroom, German studies faculty members must work to enhance the student experience. Students notice when a professor engages with all students on campus, not just the ones they have in their classes. We meet with students of color in office hour, attend student drag shows, and serve on committees to develop administrative policy that supports initiatives that affect the entire campus community. Are we the ones asking questions about the retention rates of first-generation students and of students from historically underrepresented groups? Do we press the institution to recruit and retain diverse staff on campus? How can we partner more effectively with student affairs to help when a student struggles? As German studies faculty members, at least at liberal arts institutions, we do not coddle students in these moments; we want them to succeed.


In addition to these broader issues, it is undeniable that many of our students enjoy reading, discussing, and writing about canonical literature and philosophy in German. Yet others enter our classrooms and discover the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Yoko Tawada, Feridun Zaimoğlu, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Barbara Yelin, Jean-Ulrick Désert, or Tony Miyambo. Others see the Jewish Museum back home in Shanghai with new eyes and decide to learn more about the history of German-Jewish refugees. There is the student who decides to do off-campus study both at a historically black college and in Berlin. Her choice is not odd, she learns. On the contrary, she is joining a tradition of intellectual and cultural exchange experienced by Germans and African Americans in the past. A student from Chile and Ecuador who holds a German passport but never spoke a word of the language before he came to Iowa decides to translate English- and Spanish-language poetry into German. While many discourage him from this undertaking (only native speakers can translate into German, so the story goes), he persists and learns to question the usefulness of the native-speaker and national paradigms. We work in German studies so that students can find within this vast field of knowledge what excites them. I believe it is precisely at these moments when we try to listen and be good campus citizens that students notice that we care, that we listen to them and appreciate what they are going through at college. If we orient ourselves toward the whole student and campus rather than focus on the transmission of a particular national intellectual tradition, we might make considerable strides in improving higher education.