The Chronicle Review

Don't Ditch Deutsch

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle Review

August 21, 2013

The literary disciplines are as dead as Emma Bovary! The literary disciplines are the heart of the university! Studying literature is useless because it doesn't get you a job at Goldman Sachs! Studying literature teaches life skills like thinking!

Amid all this rhetoric, there is one detail both the David Brookses and the Michael Bérubés omit: When we talk about the place of "literary studies" in the United States, we are almost always talking about English. When it comes to foreign literature, it is delusional not to admit that some fields, to quote the scholarly treatise Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are in "terrible peril."

Chief among these fields is my own, German, where this year a mere 27 tributes (participants) emerged victorious in the tenure-track Hungerspiele, surveying a professional landscape littered with the carcasses of hundreds of their friends. Forget the platitudes: My field is up Scheiße creek.

I have written at painful length about my failures on this flaccid job market, and I'm often met with the scornful cries of other humanities professors: How dare I hope for anything in such a decrepit field? Supply and demand! Bootstraps! It never ceases to amaze me how many self-professed bleeding hearts are closet Ayn Randians. Listen, I'm trying to save Goethe, Rilke, and Kafka. And I'm also trying to save people you might never have heard of: Robert Walser, Uwe Johnson, Elfriede Jelinek—whose The Piano Teacher is worth 10,000 Atlas Shruggeds. I hope you will join my mission to keep those treasures alive in the academy.

The key to doing that is to generate interest in German studies in the "real world." But how? Our canon has a reputation for being punishing: Kafka himself insisted that we should read only "books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us with a blow to the skull, then why even read it?"

Many departments at research universities have prolonged their survival with a shift away from literature altogether and toward cultural studies. Indeed, some have instated revolutionary new majors focused on survival in the new economy. Or at least they've pretended to: I once interviewed for a tenure-track position in a department that advertised a "German for the professions" major. But as I gushed about possible courses on Nietzsche and Adidas, the search-committee chair cut me off, explaining that this was a sham concentration designed solely to placate administrators and career-minded parents.

Nowadays, most departments that maintain a literature focus are at elite private colleges, an unfortunate situation that reifies the idea that only the upper classes deserve the "luxury" of a literary education. The disparity is toxic, and it's every scholar's right to resent it.

As I deleted that department's rejection e-mail, I got to thinking: Why not try to bridge the gap sneakily, by emphasizing the practical applicability of German studies—not just from a cultural perspective focused on business, but with literature and philosophy?

It's not that students aren't interested in German things. To quote from the great cultural icon Zoolander, all things Teutonic are "so hot right now": According to a 2013 BBC poll, Germany is the most positively viewed country on earth. Indeed, Germany today is a far cry from the lederhosen-and-bratwurst caricature of yesteryear, and further still from its midcentury legacy of persecution and genocide. Americans see today's Deutschland as a bastion of environmentalism, cutting-edge architecture, efficient public transportation, bike paths that actually work, effortlessly cool haircuts, relaxation about public nudity, and a general standard of living that is higher than most of ours. (I assume that is a direct result of the public nudity.) Oh, and Bier. Lots and lots of Bier.

So many of the young people I meet seem genuinely interested in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. So why not manipulate, I mean expand, that enthusiasm into the great stories of the German language? This is a culture where the words praktisch (practical) and vernünftig (reasonable) are the highest of compliments, so why shouldn't we emphasize the practical lessons of, for example, Heinrich von Kleist's perplexing novella, The Marquise of O?

At first glance, you might think that a story written in 1808 would have little to offer us about contemporary issues, but—and I don't know whether to be delighted that Kleist is still relevant or depressed at society's lack of progress over two centuries—you'd be wrong.

Kleist's tale begins with a newspaper classified ad: The Marquise, "a lady of unblemished reputation," has found herself "in a certain situation"—i.e., knocked up—and wishes "the father of the child she [is] expecting to disclose his identity to her." To save the honor of her family, the Marquise is "resolved to marry him." This "situation" has arisen because, during a siege of the Marquise's castle, a "hero" soldier—the Count F—rescued her from a band of assailants, only to remove her to "safety," where he took cruel advantage of her after she fainted. Once the Marquise discovers the resulting pregnancy, she maintains that it must be an immaculate conception. Meanwhile, her family, and indeed the entire aristocracy, shuns her.

Being a male German in the 19th century, Kleist probably didn't realize what a staunch feminist advocate for American sex education he would become in the 21st. In his story, the delicate upper-class female ignorance of exactly how babies are made—and, more important, the societal impulse to shun a "wanton" woman—highlights vital issues about assault, consent, and fault, issues that are unfortunately quite current.

Many readers will remember the depressing case of a 2012 sex crime in Steubenville, Ohio. As in The Marquise of O, a young woman becomes incapacitated. In her six hours of unconsciousness, the girl is "helped" by a group of "friends"—who strip her and perform sex acts on her unconscious body. In the months following the assault, which was documented on social media and broadcast around the world, it was the victim who received the bulk of the epithets (most often "slut"). During the ensuing media circus, American advocates of comprehensive sex education looked on aghast as student after student (in some cases at Ohio State, where I taught at the time) insisted that if a person drinks herself into unconsciousness, sexual assault "doesn't count."

In both the Marquise's story and the Steubenville case, frank discussion of sexuality, consent, and reproduction would have saved the characters a tremendous amount of pain. My Ohio students did not read Kleist's story before the Steubenville assault happened, but they were an inquisitive bunch, and the parallel would not have been lost on them. Since our schools no longer teach proper sex ed, why shouldn't Kleist?

I understand that advocating "real world" German-lit pedagogy will not win me friends among disciplinary purists. And I see their point: Putting every book on trial for practical value makes the implicit argument that literature doesn't have inherent worth. Of course German literature has worth—but how can I prove that when I can't teach it, because the discipline is being drowned in a forest pond, like Gretchen's poor infant in Faust?

So here is my new mission: I want to inspire everyone to see that although worthwhile as entertainment and edification, German literature also provides praktische Erkenntnis (practical insight) into more-successful living. For example, also in Faust, the title character's deal with Mephistopheles brings into stark relief an important point about boundless ambition at any cost. And we can recognize Gregor Samsa, the cockroach-esque monster from Kafka's Metamorphosis, as a cautionary tale of what happens if you don't move out of your parents' house. We can even take the descriptions of class struggle and the means of production in none other than The Communist Manifesto and recognize their part in the development of some of capitalism's most successful (and worker-friendly) ventures: Costco, Trader Joe's (owned by Germans!), and even that bastion of faux-hippie libertarianism, Whole Foods.

Rest easy, Life of the Minders. I'm not advocating upending the pedagogy of the entire discipline and forsaking the beauty and challenge of literary study—besides, in German that will take care of itself in a few years anyway, when there are no courses left. I'm just talking about some electives, and especially Gen Ed courses, where professors in smaller departments have the opportunity to reach unexpected corners of sometimes-vast student populations—and hook 'em.

Get the poli-sci major interested in the practical benefits of Marx in the original. Lure the future e-banker wanting to learn more about deals with the Devil. Persuade the psych major to use the self-harm in Jelinek's The Piano Teacher in a term paper on adolescents and "cutting." And then, when we have them, the minors and the double majors, we can unleash the mind-blowing potential of German literary studies. It's not that I don't want my favorite books to punch students in the head—I just want some heads in the classroom to begin with.

Rebecca Schuman holds a Ph.D. in German from the University of California at Irvine and is a adjunct instructor of world literature at the Pierre Laclede Honors College of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. She blogs at and tweets at @pankisseskafka.