The Larry Wells Memorial Lecture
Das Unbehagen in der Disziplin: German Studies in the 21st Century"

Imke Meyer, Bryn Mawr College

In the field of German Studies, the notions of progress and risk occupy prominent places. Conceptions of progress, evolution, or teleological development are linked to the philosophy of history, theories of education, the history of science, or discourses on human rights, to name but a few. While ideas of progress gained particular currency during the Enlightenment, they also were critiqued almost as soon as they were born: Schiller, for instance, argued that progress and decay could only be understood in tandem. The Enlightenment concept of progress underwent its most radical critique, of course, in Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment. As the Enlightenment’s dreams of emancipated subjects and universal human rights gave birth also to instrumental reason, to exclusion, and to the horrors of the Holocaust, it is the discipline of German Studies in particular that must look upon notions of progress as inherently suspect. In fact, a critical attitude towards progress is often viewed as nothing less than a moral obligation by practitioners of German Studies.

Similarly, a special understanding of the notion of risk has held sway in German Studies since the mid-1980s. Ulrich Beck’s concept of the Risikogesellschaft takes account of the fact that many of the risks that threaten modern societies have taken on a global character: environmental devastation, economic shifts, health crises, or mass migrations affect not simply one nation, but rather are transnational and even global in nature. While the interpretation of specific risk factors may be culturally specific, the risks themselves transcend national particularities. Thus, foundational elements of modernity—the nation state, class structures, the nuclear family—are being sublated by the globalization of risk factors, and modernity must undergo a reflexive auto-critique.

To think about progress and risk in the discipline of German Studies, then, is something that is of necessity colored by the intellectual history these two notions have had and continue to have in German literature, philosophy, sociology, and culture in general. Given the course of German history, and given the dialectic of the Enlightenment, German Studies cannot ever wholeheartedly embrace a concept of progress: this would be viewed as too great a risk to the ethics of the discipline. And in turn, the understanding of risk that has prevailed in the field during the past few decades always already points the discipline beyond its traditional national and linguistic boundaries. This lecture will explore some of the theoretical opportunities and practical consequences brought about by the vexed and complex relationship the discipline of German Studies has to progress and risk.

The Larry Wells Memorial Lecture

Named in honor of Larry Wells, esteemed colleague and Professor of German at Binghamton University, State University of New York, from 1970 to 1998, this lecture series is made possible by the generous support of the Wells Family. The annual Larry Wells Memorial Lecture brings nationally and internationally recognized scholars in German Studies to the Binghamton University campus. The Wells Lecture highlights the work of the Binghamton German Studies program and, inspired by Professor Wells’ outstanding achievements in student-centered teaching, research, outreach and service in German Studies, builds upon the legacy of his work and his distinguished record in the profession.


The 2013 BUGSC Workshop

Using some of the considerations laid out in the keynote as a springboard, the workshop will present participants with an opportunity to reflect about some of the ethical questions we confront as teachers of German Studies. In the early 21st century, how should the discipline approach the obligation to reflect on the darkest periods of German history? How do workshop participants, in their teaching and research, respond to the ethical obligation to reflect upon Germany’s and Austria’s Nazi past? Given this obligation, will German Studies, in its practice, always have to follow a Sonderweg compared to other humanities disciplines? If there is a desire for “normalization” within the discipline—the longing to be “more like other fields”--, how does this desire manifest itself on the part of teachers and students? More than 65 years after the Holocaust and World War II, should the discipline consider giving in to such a desire?

Other ethical concerns attach to our “production” of German majors, M.A.s, and Ph.D.s. In a world in which most everything is easily commodified and instrumentalized, humanities degrees stand out in a positive way because they are less easily commodified than, say, a degree in computer science. In fact, given the “universeller Verblendungszusammenhang” (Adorno) that makes up the Western world in the 21st century, the “useless” knowledge transmitted in humanities disciplines might be what is most needed as an antidote to ever more commercialization and exploitation. On the other hand, the fact that the knowledge associated with the humanities is not as easily instrumentalized is precisely what is responsible for making many students think twice about pursuing the study of German: if the knowledge and skills acquired over the course of completing a degree in this field are not easily sold on the job market after graduation, then why invest in this education? From the perspective of students who may have to pay off loans once they enter the working world, these concerns are more than understandable. How, then, should we as teachers of German respond to this dilemma? To what extent should German Studies programs try to teach marketable skills, rather than knowledge that has few direct practical applications? Will it help or hurt our programs if we try to respond to market forces? What ethical considerations are involved when we counsel high school or undergraduate students who are weighing whether to pursue a degree in German Studies? In the face of a shrinking pool of academic positions in our discipline, how do we advise students who express a desire to take their M.A. or Ph.D. in German Studies? Can or should progress in German Studies involve the shrinking of German Studies graduate programs? What risks are associated with a further contraction of programs that in many instances have already been downsized by the institutions that house them?

Closely linked to considerations of the ethics of teaching German Studies is the question of whether German Studies programs in North America have missions. As teachers of German language, literature, and culture, what goals do we have? How are these goals linked to the contents of our discipline? And do we express these goals in mission statements on our programs’ websites, on framed posters hung in our hallways, in conversations with students, administrators, or community members? Workshop participants will be asked to share their thoughts about the goals of their teaching, and to speak about the missions their programs might have. What do these missions state, and how do they find explicit or implicit expression? How do our theories about the discipline link up with our everyday practices? How are our missions positioned vis-à-vis the larger missions of the institutions in which our programs are housed? Do we take our missions’ cues from the broader institutional context, or do we try to make our programs’ missions stand out? Are our missions similar to those of other humanities disciplines, or is the mission of German Studies significantly different from that of other fields?

Workshop participants will also be asked to talk about the ways in which their programs are positioned within the administrative and academic frameworks of their institutions. How visible are our programs? How do we attempt to sharpen their profiles? Within our institutions, how do our programs compete for resources such as monies, staffing, and space? Should competition among programs even be a mechanism that is used for resource allocation decisions?

Workshop participants will be asked to discuss these and other issues in smaller groups, exchanging Erfahrungsberichte and contextualizing them within the parameters of the central questions with which the workshop tries to grapple. The groups will then be encouraged to share some of their deliberations in a forum with all workshop participants.


Imke Meyer grew up in northern Germany and studied Germanic Languages and Literatures, History, and Philosophy at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster. Imke MeyerShe received her Ph.D. in German Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. Prior to joining the faculty of Bryn Mawr College, she taught for five years at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At Bryn Mawr, she holds the Helen Herrmann Professorship and chairs the Department of German. She contributes courses to German and Austrian Studies, Film Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. In spring 2007, she held a visiting appointment in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. She has served as the President of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association, and at present, she is the Vice President of the Austrian Studies Association. She serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Austrian Studies, and she is the editor of Bloomsbury’s New Directions in German Studies book series. She has published widely on authors and filmmakers such as Ludwig Tieck, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leopold Andrian, Franz Kafka, Ingeborg Bachmann, Elfriede Jelinek, Barbara Albert, Michael Haneke, and Quentin Tarantino. Her most recent monograph, Männlichkeit und Melodram: Arthur Schnitzlers erzählende Schriften, appeared with Königshausen & Neumann in 2010.


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