Change is a two-way street, and among its busy comings and goings, it has its sorrows as well as its rewards. This year we lost two beloved members of our department to cancer. Kari Gade passed away this past March, with her sister Anne Lill Gade and cousin Lisa Gade Asquini by her side. Esther Ham passed away at the end of September, with her husband Peter Hofker by her side.
Letter from the Chair
Kari was the anchor of our philology program, an internationally recognized scholar, who was a founding editor of the Skaldic Project, celebrated by dons of the middle-ages around the world. She was a legendary mentor, and a force of good sense and irreverent humor in the Germanic Studies Department, which she twice chaired and for which she served as director of graduate studies for sixteen years, and to whose devices—elevators, printers, paper shredders—she attached many a fond, totemic name. For me as chair, she was an indispensable source of advice, reminding me to recognize some effort I’d overlooked, to push harder on a constituency's behalf, or to ignore a silly rule. To the end, she’d send me emails concerned to ensure the department took all its members into consideration. She could puncture your pretensions, but she would stand up for you when it mattered. The deepest lesson I learned as chair from her: pronouncements from this or that office are less important than doing right by your colleagues and students; you never need permission to be fair.
Esther, who was promoted to full teaching professor last year in the first cohort of that rank, won the admiration of her students, colleagues, and friends for her quiet charisma, her dedication, her joy in teaching, and her utter lack of pedantry and pretension. To recall Esther's gentleness, captures something of her manner, but only if one appreciates it together with the unaffected joy she felt in teaching Dutch language and culture. Valuing what was important in life, her humor could wryly mock the fuss and bustle of academic ritual. Esther was so calm that it was easy to overlook just how energetically she was always teaching courses (the dean's office would routinely inquire into the prodigious number of Dutch courses we were mysteriously able to put on our schedule), always advising students and colleagues, always conversing and hosting, whether the Dutch consul or a first-year student at Koffietijd. Her humor and reassurance, the buzz of her activity, her attentiveness to matters great and small, and her gracious humility—we will miss Esther greatly.
Cherishing the memories of those who’ve shared so much spirit and care to build our programs and communities, we continue to make Germanic Studies a vital part of the humanities at IU Bloomington and, through our research and students, also in the wider world. This past year was characterized by an incredible, historic effort on the part of Bloomington graduate instructors to organize to improve their stipends and working conditions through unionization. Faculty overwhelmingly supported the leadership and initiative of those who teach many of our language courses; assist us in our lectures; organize colloquia; and adopt, adapt, and challenge our research to ensure our scholarship remains part of living tradition. Although the Indiana Graduate Workers Union (IGWC-UE) is still seeking recognition from the trustees, the victories they have won in long overdue raises and improved conditions demonstrate that they are already an acknowledged presence to be reckoned with at the highest level of the institution.
As important as bread and butter are, the union struggle is not just about the shop floor (or classroom whiteboard). A university such as ours is a complex institution, one with a gamut of contending aims and a general scholarly mission composed of welter of different departments, constituencies, and callings. In the liberal chaos of ideas and creativity, research and learning, teaching and retaining, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the humane values that keep us going—whether we’re representing an art or a science. Under the pressure of processes and metrics, we tend to fall prey to the idea that what matters is revenue receipts, or the state, or some established set of interests and powers. Our graduate workers remind us of the importance of values, and the conversations and initiatives—the collective activities—that truly foster them.
As the feedback process initiated by the new IU leadership directs our eyes to the campus strategic vision, it is urgent that we, friends of Germanic Studies and the humanities, recall and express what makes our scholarly and pedagogic vocation distinct. In the face of the pressure universities are bearing to find ever new sources of revenue, I want to highlight what I see as the humanities’ distinct mission to express and interpret the human experience. Or, in an era that some call post-humanist, to reflect on how we humans are entangled with ecologies and collectivities, with the things we’ve made and contexts that have made us into something other than what we’d been. Since long before Aristotle, we’ve tussled over what the “essence” of the human is and some—and these are perhaps our inspiration today—have held that our essence is just to be without an essence, but on the way always to becoming who we are. Some have decried this diagnosis of our inessential character as leaving us unmoored, others have exploited it to inveigle us to pseudo-grandeur. But I want to suggest that under today’s posthuman conditions, it’s more important than ever to become aware of who we aren’t ever quite. To find a way to grasp and reflect on experiences of sociability and individuality, history and anticipation, care and neglect, failure and satisfaction, anger and joy—to name just a few things metrics and revenues fail to capture. To be sure, metrics and revenues are pretty post-humanist, too. But they are metonyms for an impoverished posthumanism that puts our shared experiences and ecological understandings in jeopardy. What I see at the center of our mission here in Bloomington is to express and interpret our experiences in tragedy and humor, sarcasm and elegy, proposition and paradox. Do those expressions and interpretations align our activity with revenue growth or the state? Do they rather clarify how and why we are never going to be so aligned? Of course, it may be that you or I or our fellow Hoosiers occasionally express our passions blissfully free of the humanities and its concerns—giving reign to impulses of avarice and vainglory as well as pride, jealousy, or love. But then isn’t it still up to us in the humanities—and otherwise, who else?—to lift a mirror, to shape and understand such impulses in forms better suited to flourishing than are Instagram flame wars and Twitter memes? Doesn’t it do something indispensable even just to draw out the sadness of a situation, to lend our predicaments a trace of dignity?
While I may be saddened and confused the revenue chasing and indifference to public investment that I hear reverberating in the official feedback machine, I’m more than restored by the energy and creativity of our faculty and students! First, a shout out to our new students this year, Henrique Carvalho Pereira, Claire Richters, and Cynthia Vaona, whom we’ve drawn from across continents and disciplines. It is exciting for all of us to be working with them. Uwe Wirth (Liebig-Universität Giessen), our Distinguished Max Kade Visiting Professor for the first-8 weeks of the fall semester, was a warm, generous, and truly generative thinker and teacher. His course, “Hybridity as a Concept of Composition and Translation,” made a real impact on the thinking of our department, as did his Kade Lecture, “After Hybridity: Grafting as a Model for Cultural Translation.” Phillip Weber (Ruhr Universität Bochum), Feodor Lynen Fellow with Prof. Fritz Breithaupt’s Experimental Humanities Lab, gave our Peter Boerner Memorial Lecture on “The Devil’s Contradiction: On the Vox Diaboli in Goethe’s Faust” to a large and appreciative audience. Burkhard Wolf (Universität Wien) shared a thought-provoking analysis of the representation of people seeking refuge across the Mediterranean in his lecture, “When Seascapes Collide: Maritime Film and Fiction After the Age of Adventure.” We had stimulating summer research fellowship presentations from our graduate students Cynthia Shin ("Depiction of the Foreign in German Cinema: A Comparative Study of Doris Dörrie and Werner Herzog”) and Elijah Peters ("Semantics, Grammaticalization, and Suffixes in Old High German”). Chris Sapp and Rex Sprouse’s project of building a parsed corpus of historical German is moving ahead quickly with the help of Elliot Evens, Elaine Dalida, Mary Gilbert, and Tyler Kniess. Upcoming soon, Prof. Teresa Kovacs has organized a spectacular conference, Diffractive World-Making: Theatre & Science Beyond the Capitalocene, with a roster of intellectual and creative firepower that promises to inspire well beyond departmental and disciplinary boundaries: Karen Barad, Kevin Rittberger, McKenzie Wark, Rebecca Schneider, Tavia Nyong’o, Karin Harrasser, Ulf Otto, Bini Adamczak, Alison Calhoun, Penda Diouf, Luiza Prado, and Tzveta Kassabova. Upcoming this winter, Prof. Irit Dekel has co-organized a likewise spectacular and urgent conference, When Justice Migrates: How Mobility across Borders Reconfigures Rights, Equity, and Belonging. The following week, the pandemic-delayed Patten lectures and weeklong visit of the celebrated moral philosopher, Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, will finally take place. There is much more going on, but for that you will have to read the rest of the newsletter or visit our website to find out the latest.
— Ben Robinson, Chair