Helen Finch is Associate Professor in German and currently German Subject Research Leader at the University of Leeds, and Stephan Petzold is Lecturer in German History and currently Director of German at the University of Leeds. In today’s blog post, they discuss their new approach to first-year teaching which positions students as researchers from the very start of their university careers.

Why is my curriculum white? How can we ensure a fair gender representation in our syllabus? How do we centre the student as an empowered researcher in our teaching, rather than as a passive recipient of knowledge? How do we overturn a hierarchy of value in the kind of sources that we legitimate by including them in our teaching? How do we decolonise and queer the curriculum? Some of these questions have been raised directly by our students, others by our own research at German at Leeds, others by the general turn to decolonising the curriculum of which the ‘Expanding German Studies’ project is a part, and still others by the new research focus of the Leeds Curriculum, which has at its centre a compulsory Final Year Research Project.

It’s a first attempt to put student research at the heart of our curriculum and to continue decolonising, decanonising and decentring German studies at Leeds.

This year, we’re launching our new compulsory first year module ‘Researching German Culture, History and Society’. It’s a first attempt to put student research at the heart of our curriculum and to continue decolonising, decanonising and decentring German studies at Leeds. This isn’t a radically new undertaking as several Leeds colleagues over the past ten years have already offered modules on gender and migration (Ingrid Sharp and Jane Wilkinson), or have sought to integrate transnational, gender, race, queer issues in the modules they teach. What is new, however, is that our reform is taking a more systematic and comprehensive approach to embed this in the curriculum and confront all students with it.

Research as a critical intervention

To galvanise our incoming students with the transformative and radical potential of research, and to live our commitment to making critical interventions within and beyond academia, the module kicked off with the discussion of the play Women of Aktion. The play is based on Ingrid Sharp’s research writing women into the 1918 revolution. Instead of our traditional introductory lectures, talking about the Grimm fairytales or about the unification of Germany – some imagined Year Zero of the normative German nation – in our very first session, students heard a fiery introduction to the importance of feminist historiography and its wider relevance, they were encouraged to attend the play, and then read and critiqued Ingrid’s publications about the role of women in 1918.

Teaching German Studies as an interdisciplinary undertaking

In the module, students encounter a range of approaches, methodologies and texts types, and experience German Studies as Cultural Studies. We want to challenge and break up the hierarchy between supposedly more valuable and lesser valued methodologies and text types. This also serves to introduce German Studies in its breadth and diversity. Therefore, each theme is explored using two or three different primary sources and methodologies. For example, the section on ‘Willkommenskultur’ introduces media analysis, based on Austrian and German news sources, but also includes literary analysis in the form of Abbas Khider’s refugee novel Ohrfeige. A section on ‘Consent, Control and Opposition in society’ looks at reports collected by the SPD on popular opinion in the 1930s, and also at popular music in the final years of the GDR. The aim is to expand and diversify the range of sources, voices and methodologies students will use as they develop into researchers in German Studies.

Challenging and moving beyond the canon

We explore the experience of Gastarbeiter in Özdamar’s Karagöz in Alamania, queer identities in the Berlin Republic through the film Lola und Bilidikid and masculinities in Clemens Meyer’s short stories.

Part and parcel of rejecting a hierarchical take on sources and methodologies is a desire to move beyond the canon. We structured the module around themes that represent key issues and debates in German Studies (and our own research), rather than around canonical texts. We chose not to include any of the literary classics and the closest we come to the canon are the Grimms’ Märchen and Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns. Instead we explore the experience of Gastarbeiter in Özdamar’s Karagöz in Alamania, queer identities in the Berlin Republic through the film Lola und Bilidikid and masculinities in Clemens Meyer’s short stories.

Decentring and decolonising the curriculum

A central motivation was also to integrate gender, race, class, queer and other often marginalised voices into the teaching. The module has separate units on ‘Borders and migration’ and ‘Gender and Queer identities’, where we research post-migrant theatre and Germany’s ‘welcome culture’, the queer archive of German urban culture and women’s experiences in the GDR. However, we’re keen to demonstrate that these issues cannot be separated from more traditional issues such as national identity, memory, control or resistance. Instead we want to show that these are fundamentally shaped by and entangled with gender, race and class. Therefore, we are exploring subjects such as the class and gender bias in the Grimm’s fairy tales, the role of women in imagining a white German national identity through the colonial encounter, the marginalisation of the victims of Nazi persecution in post-war film, or the role of class in conformity and opposition in the Third Reich.

Empowering students: research-based learning

We wanted to make the module research-led by basing content on the specialisms of German at Leeds researchers as well as research-based by encouraging students to carry out their own research. Instead of traditional individual assessments, based on a set question or assignments, students will be assessed via group research projects, which they’ll discuss at their own conference. A quarter of the entire teaching time on the module is dedicated to supporting these projects, allowing students autonomously to develop their own ideas and interests.

Next year, we are rewriting our Level 2 modules to build on this module, and we’ll be drawing our student researchers into the curriculum design.

The module is the start of a process, and even though we’ve only been teaching it for four weeks we already have an idea of how it could be improved. Next year, we are rewriting our Level 2 modules to build on this module, and we’ll be drawing our student researchers into the curriculum design. We also hope to work with the Expanding German Studies resources as well as with other activist-scholars across the University of Leeds and beyond, to critically examine decolonial, queer and feminist pedagogies. Part of our attempts to transform our curriculum has to be a constant process of self-reflection and an openness to constant change and critique.

The list of seminar topics and readings is available here

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