Introduction to Literature in Germany: A Beginner’s Course

A Martian lands on Earth and captures a German, sedating him and opening his skull, only to find his brain so filled with complicated electronics and difficult-to-read gizmos that the Martian feels exhausted just looking at it. The Martian puts the German’s head back on straight and sends him on his way, but not before capturing an Austrian. When the Martian opens up the Austrian’s head, he finds a single string, which he snips, and the Austrian’s ears fall off.

Americans who have, like me, lived in Germany for more than a decade hear numerous variations of this joke. Like the claim that among the multilingual instructions folded into Ikea electronic products, only the German one insists the consumer call the electrician. Ha-ha.

My German colleagues at the university where I teach love the Martian joke. They pride themselves on goal-oriented tasks, which they pursue energetically, adhering to rules, organization, structure. That is why, broadly speaking, Germans make such good engineers. It’s also why Germans aren’t known for essay-writing or original literary criticism. The towering deferral to external authority rather than the authority of one’s own voice gets in the way of the free-floating dreaming, the hunches, the playing around with ideas essential to beginning any piece of writing. Kurt Tucholsky, a German-Jewish writer, observed: “The German nightmare is to stand in front of a counter, the German dream is to sit behind a counter.”

I wonder what the Martian would find in my American brain? A bunch of individualists demanding their rights, yelling, “Why do we have to do things your way? The rules? What rules? Rules were made to be broken!” The cells in my brain would serenade the Martian with “Let’s Break the Rules Tonight!”

I have an Eastern European colleague, too, with another set of goodies for the Martians: soldiers in dress uniform goose-stepping, each snapping his head to the right while his arms flail a weapon to the left. Watching an aerial view of the parade overseen by Putin to celebrate the Russian victories in World War Two—of which Busby Berkeley would have been proud—I thought of that colleague.

When I asked why our “Introduction to Literature” class forces students to memorize obscure literary terms like “focalize” and “homodiegetic narrator,” he said, “Well, we can’t have them feeling like they can just say anything!”

Don’t ask me what “focalize” and “homodiegetic narrator” mean. I have no idea, especially after reading the textbook explanation. That is, I have no idea apart from they’re fancier versions of “narrator” and “first-person narrator.” When the students asked me—the textbook explanation proving even more obscure than the terms themselves—I admitted I had no idea, that I’d have to look them up myself. Not before letting the kids know nobody ever uses these terms. Especially not me.

Why can’t we have students “just say anything?” My colleague offered no reason. Most instructors see students as empty vessels to be filled, not beings who might—who should—have and wish to develop opinions. The notion that opinions might be held without a knowledge of sophisticated terminology to describe them is anathema. Opinions themselves are “not required,” says my colleague. “I just want them to know how to do an analysis!” (But why write one—or how is it possible to do so—without an opinion?) Alas, I soon saw the answer to both questions: (1) to pass the course (2) it’s possible to do so if what you write is soporific.

Time and time again I hear stories like this: “I got a term paper that was really well written, but I had to give it a D because the kid missed the whole point!”

“What was the point?” I asked the instructor—an American, but one long steeped in the German system.

“In a class devoted to social construction of gender roles, the student persisted in writing that men were just like this—born that way—and women just like that!” My colleague threw his hands in the air, disgusted by the idea that all boys loved GI Joes and transformers, all girls Barbies and Disney princess underwear.

I imagine he felt insulted because the student either ignored, declined to agree with, or failed to absorb the ideas put forth in the class, namely that stereotypically male and female behaviors spring not from fate or biology, but from culture.

All of which is beside the point. What if I do think the student’s an idiot? What if students “just say anything,” and sound dumb? The least I can do is allow them to express those dumb opinions. Why not approve those opinions—they’re actually the student’s business—and offer some terminology with which to express them?

“So, you’re an essentialist!” I might say to a student happy to believe boys like cars and girls like dolls, before detailing the differences between the notion that fixed universal qualities define gender roles, and the opposite view being taught in the course. I’d zap the student with questions: “Where’d you get that idea? Really? Can you offer an example?” Students generally enjoy the prospect of noticing where they came by an idea. They’re flattered—astonished—when anyone seems interested. They’re used to being told to perform a task—any writing exercise is “a task,” not an expression of their views as writers.

In practice, students who say the opposite of what the course is all about tend to be intelligent, occasionally rebels.

“Just saying anything” seems the point. First you just say what you think and then you just say why you think that. The latter step, as I tell my students, proves more difficult. But you don’t need fancy words—the fewer the better.

Except, it seems, in the Anglophone Studies department of a German university. That’s British and American literature, cultural studies, linguistics and EFL methodology—anything in English, but “English” and “American” sound national, potentially imperialistic, besides which we’re including Australia and India and Nigeria and lots of other places where English is spoken, so we say “Anglophone.” Actually, the more syllables the word has, the more Germans love it. To be fair, American academics love big words too. But they don’t squeeze them into first-year required Introduction to Literature classes. Each week, my German students get asked to memorize a list of “key terms,” among them the following: “Author, Reader, Model of Literary Communication, Intentional Fallacy, Affective Fallacy, Hermeneutics, Autonomy, Self-Referentiality.”

Again, that’s one week’s worth of terms. I read them and imagine the amount of time lost to sitting around contemplating the actual reading for that week—yes, they do get to read literature too. This collection of terms precedes the literary offering for the week—a selection from Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, a slyly modernized, multi-ethnic update of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales billed as a “reboot” by her publisher. Preoccupied by memorizing terms, students have little energy for enjoying literature. They’re not required to do so, but they are asked to absorb theoretical battles underpinning terms like “Author.”  For instance, do we really consider an author a personality expressing ideas or just, as Foucault said, a “functional principle,” an “ideological figure” stamped not by a personal soul—we don’t believe in that—but by culture?

I had some fun with Intentional Fallacy, the idea that you’re not supposed to judge a literary work by the author’s conception of it. Did you know, I asked them, that Kafka used to laugh till he cried when he read his gruesome, bizarre stories out loud? Or that when he wrote his novel, Amerika, he thought he’d successfully imitated Charles Dickens?

I want more time to enjoy Agbabi’s hilarious quips, but students want me to dissect those literary terms so they can pass the exam in a course they know has a fifty percent fail rate.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, they knew who Chaucer was so they could appreciate Agbabi? I read them his Prologue, in middle English. I read it to them in Modern English. I played them a YouTube video of Agbabi, a Briton of Nigerian origins, joking that she’s got “ink” in her veins “more than Caxton.” I explain she’s using “ink” to describe her skin color as well as the ink used by Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, rendering Chaucer available to many readers rather than the few who got manuscript copies. My students do like all this, but then it’s “let’s get back to the terms—we have to know those terms.”

The textbook is, guess what? An English translation of a German primer.  I asked my German colleague why we were using this book. With a sigh, she said, “It’s actually much better in the original, in German!”

But the kids aren’t reading it in German. I wonder how the following quotation, which I have taken from page 16 of  Vera and Ansgar Nünning’s An Introduction to the Study of English and American Literature sounds in German, because I don’t like the way it sounds in English: “Scholars of literature generally agree that definitions based on particular normative or qualitative criteria (which differentiate, for example, between ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ literature) are problematic, not least because such criteria do not stand up to objective scrutiny . . . ”

They lost me way before “objective scrutiny.” I have about ten bones to pick with just that phrase. But there’s more! In German, when you want to refer to the speaker or the persona of a poem, you use the phrase, “Das lyrische Ich.” Believe it or not, this sounds totally normal in German. But “The lyrical I,” which is how our textbook translates the term, is much funnier. The Ukranian-American poet Olena Kalytiak Davis, in The Lyric I Drives to Pick up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode, makes the point better than any other writer I know:

“i” notices it is almost time to pick up her children from school!

“i” realizes she has gotten nowhere, nowhere near it, much less inside it, wasted another morning, can’t fucking write a poem to save “i’s” life, oh well,

“i” is, at least,“working”.

“i” pulls on her tight jeans, her big boots, her puffy parka.

“i” remote starts her car.

“i’s” car is a 1995 red toyota 4-runner with racing stripe that doesn’t have enough power for “i”.

“i’s” car stereo also doesn’t have enough power for “i”.

“i” drives cross town listening to dylan, who has plenty of power for “i”.

Unfortunately, our students latch on to the “lyrical I” like newborns to a nipple. As in: “The lyrical I compares evening to a patient etherized upon a table.” I’ve learned to say “no!” when students ask me if I want “an analysis” of a poem when I’ve asked for an essay. We usually have the following conversation:

Student (brow furrowed): “But you don’t want an analysis?”

Me: “I want to know what you think of the poem. I want you to choose a theme or a line that interests you.”

Student: “That interests me?”

Me: “Yes.”

Student: “You want my opinion?”

Me: “Yes.”

Student: “You mean my opinion?”

Many reassurances follow. But when students spend a year learning that “an analysis” consists in pointing out quatrains, meter, focalization, the “level of the enounced” they go to work. They want that grade. They learn not to say what they think—and they learn not to think.

What comes first on a syllabus is, for any diligent student, what seems most important to the instructor. Therefore, “Genre, Period, Canon, Discourse, Diegesis, Mimesis, Intertextuality, Intermediality, Context, Paratext, Modernism” all appear more important to students than the reading, always listed second. This week’s reading included Donne’s Holy Sonnets with their wonderful paradoxes: “Death, thou shalt die.” What fun to read the line first, then say, “Guess what that kind of remark is called? A paradox!”  My students can rattle off a dictionary definition of a paradox, but they can neither enjoy one nor easily identify a literary example.

A student asks: “What is an ode?” She wants a definition she can memorize, and Dictionary.com fills the bill: “a lyric poem, typically one in the form of an address to a particular subject, written in varied or irregular metre.” But her eyes glaze over when I switch from that definition to “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense,” and “Whither is fled the visionary dream?” The notion of enjoying these lines is a waste of time, unrelated to passing the test. After class, I ask my Eastern European colleague whether, when he wrote his book, he started with “key terms” or an idea. He doesn’t answer. His eyes shift uncomfortably to the side. His expression is what I’d expect if I inquired into his masturbatory fantasies.

A German friend whom I’d asked for advice about teaching the essay emailed me that there was “a general lack of appreciation for “good writing” in German education.” That was a “very broad statement,” he added, with what I saw as a typical German fear of being imprecise, but his experience was that schools focused on content, i.e. on the students’ ability to memorize facts. “And it’s often enough,” he added, “for students simply to restate the memorized facts.” He fondly remembered being asked, when he was an exchange student at an American university, “Where do you see yourself as a writer?” The question struck him as “really weird,” at the time, but the idea grew on him, especially after he returned to Germany. He remembered thinking of all the homework he did at his German academic high school, especially writing, as “a task” to be read only by the teacher—not as an expression of personal views as “a writer.” He added, “If I had to single out the one thing that works so much better in American classrooms (admittedly based on my very limited experience) it’s that students engage in real discussions, not just with the teacher, but with each other—something that sadly happens way too rarely in German classrooms.”

My own children’s experiences, removed by more than a generation from his, suggest the same set-up. They’re usually asked to summarize a scene or a story or a newspaper article, then to “analyze” it, which means to find metaphors, similes, topic sentences, rhetorical devices. As an afterthought, they’re told, “state your opinion—pro or con.”  They aren’t allowed to say they’d define the problem differently. My daughter has remarked on the tedium of having to write letters in which she is expected to produce set phrases: “I’m having a good time—how are you?” and expound upon the sights. Nothing she’d actually say if she were actually writing a letter to a friend.

I’m reminded of Japanese students to whom I taught the English language years ago: their accents thick, since they had been taught to parrot back their Japanese instructors’ heavily-accented English, these students could barely be understood. But they knew far more English grammar than I did. A typical question from these students began: “Please, in adverbial clause . . .”

Both German and Japanese societies value order and authority, the group over the individual. Opinion, at least in an essay, is defined by individualism. In Japanese schools, one of my students remarked, students always work as a group, and individuals are derided as sticking out like sore thumbs, not praised for originality. This sentiment echoes the old joke about German authority: In Heaven the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian, the mechanics are German, the police are British, and the whole place is run by the Swiss. In Hell the cooks are British, the lovers are Swiss, the mechanics are French, the police are German, and the whole place is run by the Italians.

In European heaven, the Germans are the mechanics because they know how to fix things. Knowing how things work, how to repair them when they don’t, is a good kind of authority, leading to precision in medicine and engineering, efficiency in social services. The nightmare of German policemen, a relic of the Second World War not representative of current German political feeling, nonetheless accurately represents German efficiency: I don’t think Germany will rest until it has saved at least six million refugees as yet another attempt to apologize for the six million they killed efficiently during the Nazi years. With their well-constructed and heated tent and pre-fab cities, Germans are as efficient at saving people as they were at killing them seventy years ago. But authoritarianism and efficiency have little use in generating ideas; the mystical process of trying one thought and crossing it out, getting up and taking a walk, writing a sentence just for fun, jotting down an idea seemingly unconnected to your argument—all this makes Germans feel irresponsible, so isn’t taught.

So far, I have had no luck persuading my German or my Eastern-European colleague to change the approach of the course. The idea of beginning with observation, discovery, thought and opinion does not appeal to them.

I often feel like crying. But whenever I need a laugh, I open that textbook. Don’t tell my colleagues. The Martians can put the top of my head back on now.

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Melissa Knox
Melissa Knox's book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, is forthcoming from Cynren Press (Winter, 2019). Her recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Santa Ana River Review, The Clarion Project, Concho River Review, The Other Journal, The Wax Paper, and elsewhere. Poems have appeared or are appearing in The Mom Egg Review, NonBinary Review, The Offbeat, and elsewhere. She has written extensively on Oscar Wilde. She writes a blog, The Critical Mom.

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