Category Archives: Pedagogy

Berlin Field Studies: Reflections on Teaching a Course On-Site

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

This summer I had the opportunity to teach one of the University of Maryland’s field studies courses, entitled “Berlin: Its History and its Art.” Teaching in Europe I have taken students on plenty of cultural excursions, but this was the first time in my career that I had had the opportunity to organize an entire course on location. The experience was a very positive one, not in the least because I was fortunate to work with students who brought an incredible amount of energy and intellectual curiosity to the class. At the same time, a course of this kind poses a number of challenges, both of a logistical and of a pedagogical kind. I lived in Berlin for two years, and so it is a place that I am very familiar with, the town’s well-deserved reputation for constant transformation notwithstanding. Teaching a course in and on the city, however, meant approaching the place from a fresh perspective, and I will reflect on all of that here.

Designing the Course

Course description and learning objectives were set, as “Berlin: Its History and its Art” were part of the program’s stable of field study courses, but the concept and the syllabus were up to me. The course had to be more than a glorified guided tour, and certainly not a pretext for soaking up the aura of the city, rather, it had to be as intellectually challenging as any classroom-based seminar. And because of the course title, we had a dual mandate: the class was both a course in history and art history. At the same time, I wanted to critically interrogate course title, that there was such a thing as “Berlin’s art,” given that some of the most spectacular art in Berlin is not from Berlin at all. The bust of Nefertiti, which we saw, is perhaps the most celebrated instance of a work of art that reflects a problematic history, but we are confronted with similar questions in regards to the Pergamonmuseum, the Ethnological Museum (now in the middle of relocating to the Humboldt-Forum), and much else in the State Museums.

To bring both sides together, I built the class around the theoretical question of how a city’s history and identity is expressed or, as is more often the case, constructed through its art, architecture, and public spaces, which I then broke down into daily themes: “The Architecture of Absolutism” for our Potsdam excursion, or “Colonial Legacies and the Berlin State Museums” for our visit to the Ethnological Museum and the Museum Island.

I prepared some readings on Berlin history for the students to cover ahead of time. The week before the meeting in Berlin was designated for reading. In order to give them the time to dive into a specific period in more depth, I asked each student to take responsibility for a certain period and report on the key developments and their significance for the history of the city.

In order to further ensure that I was not the only person with the content knowledge, I asked each student to prepare an on-site presentation for key structures and places. Public speaking is not everybody’s favorite thing, but the stakes were low and the students had a good esprit de corps, and I was quite hearted to see how supportive they were of each other.

Berlin as a Classroom

In addition to the historical readings, I found a few useful online resources that provided for the students a basic crash course in art history and criticism. A shoutout here especially to the incredibly useful smarthistory.org. We began our first class practicing art criticism with a few artistic depictions of Berlin from Eduard Gaertner’s more realist painting of Unter den Linden to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes. Including the Kirchner was also an opportunity to rehearse the development of the historical avant garde. Doing so was a chance for me to clear the air: the Hamburger Bahnhof was on the agenda, and I know that expressionist, abstract, or non-representative art can divide a room, and I wanted the students to approach the works with at least an understanding of their art historical contexts.

The biggest challenge were the variables involved in being in any city, especially one like Berlin. Some of my information was out of date; I realized too late, for instance, that you couldn’t just show up and be let in to the top of the Reichstag like you could in the past. Unfortunately for a course called “Berlin: Its History and its Art,” the museums are also undergoing a major phase of moving and renovation (as they have since the 1990s). The Neue Nationalgalerie is closed until 2019, and all I knew of what was on display was that a few things were in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Regrettably, I had no opportunity to preview the collections beforehand, so when we got to the Hamburger Bahnhof, I had the students look around a couple of galleries so that I could run through and see what was on display, then reconvene. The specific works I had wanted them to see were not out, instead they had an exhibition on the Degenerate Art exhibition. So I made up a lesson on the Degenerate Art exhibition on the spot.

The Upshot

I left Berlin satisfied with how things had gone down. Reading the papers two weeks later, I was pleased to see that the students were actively incorporating the methods for analyzing art and architecture that we had practiced in our morning seminars and on-site over the course of the week, and generating numerous original insights. I was delighted to read extraordinarily creative essays that expanded on the course’s original concept to think about various pieces of street art that the students had spotted, thorny issues of memory and memorials (an issue near and dear to the hearts of my military-affiliated students), as well as squatter culture, a topic students were surely moved to consider given that our hotel was located up the street from one of Berlin’s remaining squatter settlements.

The reactions of the students to various places and works that we encountered meant led to plenty of surprises and teaching moments for me. This is, of course, always the case when one teaches material for the first time, but being on-site introduced a wider range of variables into the mix. Many of them only grew to love the city over the course of the week, as some were genuinely surprised by the German capital’s grittiness. Having already been thoroughly sold on Berlin before I ever arrived there, if anything I went through a reverse process of learning to see the city and its culture with a more critical eye than I did at the beginning of my first exchange year. I was especially charmed by the way the students reacted to the art museums. Their excitement over seeing an original Picasso took me back to when I was eighteen years old and stood rapturously before the canonical works of art in the National Gallery in London or the Louvre.

A few final points on what worked, and what I intend to incorporate next time.

  • Use of maps. In spite of my students’ joke that they were my ducklings, it was important to me to be sure that I spent ample time orienting them on where they had been and what they had done. I frequently stopped before city maps in the mass transit system to point to where we had been and where we were going. The first seminar also included a detailed study of the city map and a discussion of how to use the mass transit system.
  • Cultural scaffolding. There were a few moments of cross-cultural misunderstanding that I will be sure to prep the students on next time. How to tip in Germany was something students were unsure about, for instance. Some students are also unaware of the taboo (and more generally the laws regarding) photographing interesting people on the street. One student had a mildly embarrassing encounter over photography, which they resolved peacefully and with grace, much to their credit.
  • Social media. My students took the initiative to correspond over Facebook. While my social media presence is curated with students in mind, I still believe in maintaining digital boundaries, especially online. In this case students organized themselves. Some expressed the wish that I had taken this on in order to facilitate travel arrangements, a thought that admittedly had not occurred to me. Whether I would want to bend my practice and facilitate organization over Facebook is a matter I will have to consider. Brent Foster’s essay on Chronicle Vitae this week gets at the possibilities and pitfalls of venturing into that territory with my field study groups.

Photos used with permission.

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Leading my students down the Straße des 17. Juni.

Teaching Storm’s “The Rider on the White Horse”

41siL+8ITpL In my German culture survey course I recently had the opportunity to teach a unit on Theodor Storm’s novella The Rider on the White Horse. My motivation for including this unit was to give the students the opportunity to explore the relation between the text as an artistic artifact and its historical context. This is important work for students in general, but especially for the students who are drawn into this particular survey course. The students at my current institution are all affiliated in one way or another with the American military community here in Germany. They are motivated by a desire to become better acquainted with their host country, and many arrive with intellectual commitments leaning more towards the political history component of the course. Since the course is more cultural history, what is at stake in looking at cultural documents (literature, films, works of art, all of which we cover) is to work through with the students the historical and political stakes of aesthetic objects.

Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter in German) is a very handy text for discussing the relation between the seemingly abstract (say, realism as epistemology) and the text’s “concrete” material historical context. The story is a frame narrative about the construction of a dike in Friesland, the main character, Hauke Haien, is an autodidact in geometry who overcomes the barriers imposed by a quasi-feudalistic order to realize the Promethean project of wresting arable land out of the sea. The novella is also a ghost story, as the project claims Haien’s life and he haunts the dike as a kind of revenant.

I paired the novella with excerpts from David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature, an environmental history of hydrological engineering in Germany. Blackbourn’s thesis is that projects like dam building, river straightening, etc. were a crucial condition for the process of state formation in Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. Putting the novel within the context of environmental history not only speaks to student interest, but opens up possibilities for making the theoretical issues that undergird the story clear to students encountering those concepts for the first time. The relegation of the fantastic to nature and the sea, which Hauke seeks to overcome through his engineering prowess, for instance, opens up the possibility for a Frankfurt school reading of the domination of nature. The building of the dike is also connected to social transformations: whereas before Hauke the position of Dikemaster seemed to be concerned primarily with the preservation of the available land, Hauke Haien’s dike turns out to be a good investment, producing surplus value to those members of the community who invest capital in his undertaking. The week prior to reading Storm, we had didacticized The Communist Manifesto in class. While the unit on Marx was connected to the political constellations of the pre-March period, it provided a useful framework for understanding how environmental transformation was connected to the shifting class dynamics of the novella.

The politics of the project within the novella are also useful fodder for discussion. In the story, opposition to the dike comes from community members who are reluctant to have to pay additional taxes in order to support the dike. Obviously the question of taxation in order to pay for infrastructure is a familiar problem to students; I like to refer it back to Blackbourn’s basic thesis of the connection between environmental transformation and the state.

The Rider on the White Horse is also valuable from a medial standpoint. The conceit of the frame narrative is that the story is contained within the pages of a nineteenth century family journal. The medial context is also a key element to the novella’s claim to reality, as the family journal culture of the late nineteenth century had its own strategies for creating a kind of reality effect, strategies based on the innovations of print technology that made a mass media possible in the first place. Of course these were also the journals in which texts like Storm’s first appeared. The Rider on the White Horse was printed in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1888. The fact that such journals have been digitized means that students can easily get a better picture of the context in which the novella’s first readers would have originally encountered the story. I could have brought in Deutsche Rundschau, but instead I showed the students an edition of the journal Über Land und Meer, which is more visually interesting and makes for a better case study in medial realism.

A final word on translation: the text has been translated variously as The Rider on the White Horse and The Dikemaster. I use James Wright’s translation, which has been reprinted in the New York Review of Books classics series. Unfortunately there’s no way to render the low German dialect that Storm transcribes in the novella into English. The language politics comes through in other ways, but less so, and for the purposes of my course that’s too bad, as that would be another avenue of exploration in connecting the work of art to the more generalized interests that bring the students into the class. But this version beautifully captures both the interesting pacing of the novella and Storm’s marvelous descriptions of the sea, which has a presence in the story familiar to any fan of Moby-Dick.

Teaching Metropolis in the Country

A lingering question I have is about effectively integrating places into the teaching of literary criticism. I refer not only to real existing places that are represented in literature either directly or in more or less veiled forms, but also to the places where we encounter literature. It’s a big question in ecocriticism, and one that I intend to take up in my own work later on down the road. For now, rather than delving into the theoretical issues of this question, I want to share some thoughts on a writing course I taught at Cornell in 2011 and 2012 called “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture.” Because this course was meant to fulfill a first year writing requirement, all content was selected first and foremost in the service of the objective of guiding students from high school to college level writing. I designed the course to include a range of texts ranging historically from Tieck’s Life’s Luxuries and Stifter’s Tourmaline to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The idea was to give the students ample opportunity to explore different problems in their writing by setting a wide variety of texts in dialogue with one another.

One thing that was important to me in creating the syllabus was that  “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” not become reified terms, that is, that we don’t talk about them as if they were things “over there” that we needed to drive five hours to New York City to experience. And here’s where place comes in. We were a group of American and international students who grew up in all types of human settlements doing this class at a campus in a small town surrounded by farmland. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for visitors to our neck of the woods to have difficulty seeing only farmland. For instance Jon Stewart, whose comedy sometimes suffers from a certain metropolitan provincialism, came to Cornell and quipped that “Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere . . . On the way up I didn’t pass anything I couldn’t milk.” But if he had looked past the cows, he would have seen a part of the world that is living with the very real and difficult legacies of its commercial and industrial past, as opposed to  New York City’s overgrown ahistorical backyard.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Without making the course about Ithaca itself, I selected readings that complicated the city/country dichotomy. With Tourmaline we looked at Vienna and the liminal space of its suburbs. We looked at maps to explore the city/country dichotomy as a social condition that shaped some of the aesthetic problems we were writing about. The first chapter of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz was an easy way to introduce the critique of mass culture, but he also begins the book by talking about a socialist settlement in the desert as representing a kind of alternative future for the city itself. And W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn together with Wilhelm Raabe’s Stopfkuchen (Stuffcake or Tubby Schaumann in English translation) allowed for conversations and assignments on the surprising connections between supposedly remote places and global networks of power and injustice that we might otherwise think of as a relation of metropolitan core to colonized margin.

Chapter six of Rings of Saturn was especially useful for getting around the danger of reifying “Metropolis,” “Modernity,” and “Mass Culture.” The chapter begins with a small iron bridge over the river Blyth, a river that used to be a major shipping lane but has been silted up. The narrator sees only rotting barges, and “nothing but grey water, mudflats, and emptiness” (138). It turns out that the bridge was for a narrow gauge railway (the railway being, of course, the symbol of industrial modernity par excellence). The bridge leads the narrator to a history of China from the Opium Wars to the death of the Dowager Empress, a calamitous history in which Europe was deeply implicated. The bridge doesn’t just “bridge” England’s eastern coast with China, but as an object from this history infects the surrounding landscape. The narrator moves on to Dunwich, once an important port city claimed by the ocean where “you can sense the immense power of emptiness” (159, “den gewaltigen Sog der Leere” in the German), and goes then to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The novel weaves together seemingly infinite constellations of history and culture, at times I suspect even making fun of itself for doing so. This poses a challenge for teaching, because with such a text it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. But it’s a rewarding text to include in a course that thinks about both historical and aesthetic problems that spring from the urban experience, because it hangs on to more global contexts while also pushing assumptions that readers bring to a text. In class we spend time talking about the extensive work the novel does in teaching us how to read it (the first chapter is a kind of field guide to the rest of the novel), and then mid-way through I ask the students to turn to the back cover of the English edition, look at the label “fiction,” and tell me what they think.

 

Official Versions: Reflections on Teaching “Blade Runner”

Students in my first year writing seminars are often surprised to discover that the supposed intention of the author is not the ultimate measure of literary criticism. The confusion is understandable for a readership with the luxury of being unconcerned with intentional fallacies and the death of the author. Because the writing seminars are about making the transition to college-level writing and argumentation, rather than casting discussions of authorial intent as a literary studies no-no, I bring in texts where “intent” is a serious critical problem that in turn helps the students practice looking at an object of study and asking first, “what kind of argument can I build with the materials at hand?” In the “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” seminar I taught in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, I did this with Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.

Blade Runner is part of a unit I have on Los Angeles, in which I pair the film against the first chapter of Mike Davis’ 1990 book City of Quartz. This chapter covers various “myths” of Los Angeles, and Davis reads this film and the noir genre in general as a “great anti-myth” (37) to Southern Calfiornia boosterism (Davis’ section on the German exiles is also a handy way for getting the Frankfurt School on the students’ radar when we don’t have room to read the culture industry essay). Where Los Angeles and Southern California in general is famous as a happy land of sunshine, it constantly rains in Blade Runner, and moreover a pall of sadness and decay hangs over the world of the film, one that for Los Angeles’ detractors has more truth to it than the booster image.

Seven different versions of Blade Runner appeared between 1982 and 2007. The 2007 remastered version was released also included some “tweaks and enhancements,” as Scott put it in his introduction to the 2007 version, and he has given this last version an official sanction. I show students the 1992 version, but in order to investigate the question of intentionality, I like to compare one still from the 1992 version and a still from the same scene in the 2007 version. This scene is from the movie’s climax, the replicant Roy gives a very moving speech about the marvelous things he has seen, then dies. He realizes that it is death the gives those experiences meaning, and then we see a dove he has been holding fly off, rather obvious symbolism for the soul’s departure. The camera places us, the viewer, within the world of the film, and we look up as the soul leaves (as opposed to the possibility, one used very commonly, where the camera retreats into the sky and we look down on the scene of death from the perspective of the soul). Here are the stills I show my students, both showing the dove’s flight. The first is from the 1992 version, the second from the 2007 version.

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Dove’s flight, “Blade Runner,” 1992.

Dove2

Dove’s Flight, “Blade Runner,” 2007.

Clearly we have here one of Scott’s tweaks/enhancements. When I show these I ask the students to break into partners and do two things. 1.) Describe exactly what you see on both images, and how one differs from the other then 2.) what is the effect of each version of the shot for the scene and the film as a whole (now you can bring in a little interpretation)? The objective is to help the students practice thinking of the text on its own terms, as opposed to Ridley Scott’s terms, and to take seriously this scene as a moment that does its own work in constituting the meaning of the film as a whole. Change the scene, change the meaning.

How would I answer the question of the effect of the shot for the scene? First a bit of context: Roy dies in a rainy landscape bathed in the blinding light of advertisements (the “D” in the background is from a TDK product placement).TearsinRain

After he sinks into death, we cut away to the dove. But in the versions up until 2007, his soul flies off into a seemingly sunny sky. The 2007 version creates more consistency between shots, as the weather is the same and the architecture is more consistent.

Prior to 2007 the realism of the world breaks down at the moment of Roy’s death, and we see the soul retreat into a blue sky. But the smog and cold buildings remain in the shot; the world that we have seen throughout is not suddenly gone or forgotten. Were that world to be completely wiped away, we would have something more like the happy ending of 1982, where the city is gone completely and our main characters fade into a mountainous “natural” landscape.

From the final scene of "Blade Runner," 1982 theatrical release.

From the final scene of “Blade Runner,” 1982 theatrical release.

I always read the scene of Roy’s death pre-2007 as an image of hope and even redemption that does not collapse into some kind of simplistic escape. But in the 2007 version, the dove’s flight is more uncertain. The course out of the sad, rainy, overbuilt LA of November 2019 is less direct, the clouds form a kind of iron grey ceiling. Maybe the cloudbreak that seems to be forming gives us back some hope, but that seems to invest a lot in that one small spot on the screen. In making the environment of the scene more consistent from shot to shot, the 2007 version also makes the world of this LA much more tightly sealed.

Closeup 2007 Dove's flight

Closeup 2007 Dove’s flight

According to the commentary on the 2007 DVD, the sun was coming up as they were shooting the scene, and without 21st century digital technology it more or less had to look that way until it could be “corrected.” So in one sense the hope and redemption reading derives from an accident. But my aim in the class discussion is to guide the students to a point where they can view the pre-2007 version as a document that has its own legitimacy as a historical cultural artifact that is still out in the world. The fact that we living after 2007 have access to a more “realistic,” or more accurately a more consistent version does not invalidate readings of the prior version. It just makes the 2007 version different. Whether that difference amounts to more artistic merit is a matter that individual viewers can decide for themselves. The point is that a text will always be more than the vision of a single creator, and not just because of technical limitations, external pressures from editors, publishers, and audiences, or the creator’s own status as historically contingent subjects. Instead my objective is to bring the students to a place where they reflect on the text as a living thing out in the world, and in cases where we have multiple versions. Examples from literature include Goethe’s Werther, Shelley’s Frankenstein, most of Stifter’s stories, Raabe’s Ein Frühling, and Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich. In most of these instances preference for one version or another has shifted over the years for different reasons, even though we know there is one version the author endorsed over others. What texts with competing versions reveal is that even in instances where we can safely speak about the author’s intention, that does not mean that we the critics have to yoke ourselves to the figure of the author. This may be self-explanatory for people who already have degrees in literary studies, because it legitimates our own practice, but when we teach it is important to remember that for the students this is an unconventional way of thinking about an object of study.

For the record, my preference is for the 1992 version, and that is the version I show. It splits the difference between Scott’s vision and the technical contingencies that determined the making of the film in the early 1980s. I am not in principle opposed to “tweaks and enhancements,” even though these seem to me not substantively different from the practice of colorizing classic black and white films. But I do care about watching a film as a product of a particular historical moment, flaws and all.

 

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2006.