Academic journal article German Quarterly

Prospects for German

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Prospects for German

Article excerpt

The task of commenting on the state of Germanics in the United States and our prospects for the future is a daunting one. I cannot help but recall a bet I witnessed early in 1990. Two Germanists made a bet. The one, well informed about the political scene, wagered that, at the earliest, Germany would reunite in ten years, if ever. Needless to say, history proved him wrong just a few months later. This experience has made me wary of attempts to predict the future. Nevertheless, I will venture to assert that I cannot be hopeful about a bright future for Germanics or German Studies, or however we choose to identify ourselves, unless we collectively address some serious trouble spots that involve the very living of our lives as professionals. Let me also state at the outset that any respectable future we envision for ourselves must include the teaching of the German language at the postsecondary level: as a colleague from a leading university said to me recently, "This is a no-brainer."

I am in the process of conducting indepth interviews with approximately thirty prominent colleagues in our discipline in order to gain a sense of the values and systems of rewards that have shaped Germanics in America since 1945. About half of the people I am interviewing have retired, and with few exceptions these thirty colleagues are at least fifty and for the most part at least a decade older than that. Even as I attempt to ferret out gaps between their own expectations for their professional lives and the conditions under which they have actually had to operate, it is slowly becoming clear to me that despite disappointments and difficulties of all kinds, the pieces of their professional lives were and to some extent still are more integrated than they are for younger practitioners at the present moment. Unless it is a case of blissful forgetting on their part, most of these colleagues affirm that in their younger years they experienced little conflict between the requirements of the profession and the values of their institution, on the one hand, and their personal values and training, on the other. (This is not to say, however, that the women I have interviewed have not spoken of sexism in the academy.) For me, comparison of their lives with the lives of younger colleagues in the profession has brought into even sharper focus the fact that the present state of things does not foster the delicate balance among research and publication, service, and teaching that is vital to the survival of our field. I stress that I refer not to the sometimes problematic centrifugal force of what every administrator in America seems now to promote-interdisciplinarity-but to the very arc of education and career.

While much of what I will describe is ubiquitous in the humanities, the disparities are particularly crass in shrinking fields like ours, and in small departments in which colleagues have to be all things to all people. To begin, despite superficial similarities, the local cultures and regulations of our institutions of higher learning sometimes differ surprisingly from one another. For endangered departments to survive, they cannot rely on global solutions, but must recognize the pragmatics of local situations. This is obvious. The problem is that even as we devise strategies that work well for our local contexts, our success is likely to be only a fragile simulacrum: solving local problems successfully can in fact appear ludicrously ironic viewed with a wider national lens. For example, the various graduate programs in German compete annually with one another for the very few qualified and interested students who apply to graduate school. The recruitment strategies of the past few years undoubtedly give prospective graduate students the impression that a grand future awaits each of them (even if it doesn't await anyone else)-why else would we work so hard to recruit them, offering them previously unheard-of promises of financial support, limitless attention, and opportunities while still in graduate school? …

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