German Department Letter – Fall 2020

Washington, December 1, 2020

Liebe Leute:

I hope this note finds you and yours well, healthy – and in relatively good spirits. This year has been so disruptive to all of our lives that it is difficult to fathom how great it was when we could all come together for the traditional holiday party with Weihnachtsstollen and cookies as we did about a year ago. We will have a (virtual) party this year with music and entertainment, but it will be nothing like last year’s.

Rather than send out a newsletter, I thought it would be easier on everyone to just write a short letter that tries to capture the last year and how it went in the German Department. It is really somewhat of a three-act play, part tragedy, part drama, and even a tinge of comedy mixed in.

Early this year, we started what seemed like a normal spring semester. We had plans for interesting presentations on Alexander von Humboldt and others. We participated in a College-wide initiative on “Teach the Speech” in commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, highlighting a little-known visit he made to West and East Berlin. Ph.D. student Willi Barthold defended his dissertation with distinction (and subsequently was offered a position at Humboldt Universität in Berlin). Articles were written, talks presented, summer plans made. Undergraduate alumnus Nathan Tschepik and I completed work on a collection of essays that we co-edited.

Soon, however, the news grew ominous and the abrupt move to all-virtual teaching after spring break had all of us scramble for a while to make sure that we could offer the best learning environment we could for all students. In weekly sessions that we continue to this day, we offered each other suggestions on how to use certain teaching techniques that were most effective in the virtual environment. It is also not just a technical but a personal support session that is necessary in these times, even though it is a poor stand-in for the casual conversations one can have in person. Our Kade Foundation writer-in-residence, Nika Pfeifer, continued to teach her seminar/workshop until the very last minute when she caught literally the last flight from Washington, D.C., back to Vienna as the world shut down.

I think we all struggled to make it to the end of the academic year – and then were saddened by the lack of a festive send off for the 2020 graduates. We did have a virtual ceremony and a nice program with music from Brahms and stories from many – but it certainly wasn’t the same. We also had to cancel celebrating the naming of Friederike Eigler as the next George M. Roth Distinguished Professor of German as well as all plans for summer archival research and participation in in-person conferences. Some terribly sad decisions had to be made regarding summer programming. It broke my heart to cancel the Trier summer program for 2020. But we also increased the Summer School offering of (virtual) courses in German (and the enrollments were surprisingly good).

Immediately after classes ended, all members of the German Department started on an extensive effort to upgrade our teaching abilities in a virtual environment. This was what we ended up calling the German Department Summer Institute 1.0 and 2.0, lasting until the end of the second summer session. The purpose of this endeavor was to have a support network for the graduate student teachers and faculty teaching courses in the summer session. It was also an opportunity for all of us to learn from the summer teaching experiences to be ready for the fall. We were blessed by the fact that we have young faculty members who are well-versed in technical and procedural aspects of virtual teaching.  Profs. Kick, Cunningham, and Dupree, as well as our articulate and energetic graduate students, were instrumental in instructing all of us in ways to teach in the virtual environment in the fall semester. It was yet another iteration of the great spirit of collaboration and common purpose that we have developed and nurtured over the years in the German Department. As if this success needed some confirmation, Ph.D. students Joshua Seale and Justin Quam defended their dissertations at the end of August. Both have permanent positions, one at a private boarding school north of Baltimore and the other at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C.

That is how we entered the fall semester and how we have succeeded in this semester. We welcomed three new Ph.D. students, J. B. Porter, Maria Speggorin, and Lorna McCarron who have adjusted well. We also had some other nice events and accomplishments. Douglas McKnight very successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation while zooming in from Graz, Austria where he lives with his wife. Alexander Schimmelbusch (COL ’98), our own undergraduate alumnus and now a very successful novelist in Germany read from his last novel, Hochdeutschland. He zoomed in from the Villa Massimo, the German cultural institution in Rome (Italy) where he is spending a year as fellow. Other virtual events were a presentation by Professor Andrew Demshuk (American University) on how urban planners, architects, and activists in Leipzig aimed to “save” Leipzig from the bureaucratic obstructionism from central authorities in (East)Berlin. Black Bismarck, an experimental theater production exploring Germany’s colonial past took center stage in a discussion between our own Professor Katrin Sieg and Professor Olivia Landry (Lehigh University).

The emotional and experiential brunt of consequences of the situation has been felt by our undergraduate students, I am sure. They have missed out on exuberant campus life the most. Graduate students also have felt sidelined in their academic endeavors and research opportunities. And faculty have seen a significant impact on their research capacities. All university employees saw a significant involuntary reduction of their compensation. These impacts have been very disruptive and challenging and, understandably, are lamented by all affected.

Yet, they were necessary for the protection and good of our community. I am thankful and proud that the university has prioritized these values and balanced them over narrower concerns in these difficult times. I believe this is an example of how to live the values of Georgetown University.

When I think about my personal experiences this semester, I also have to be grateful for many things and encounters. I am thankful for being part of and contributing to sustaining the diverse Georgetown community. I am thankful for the incredible determination by all members of the German Department to maintain the best learning environment for both our undergraduate and our graduate students. And most of all, I am thankful for the continuing academic and intellectual stimulation – and personal exchanges – that all of our colleagues and students continue to provide.

I hope you can find a way to close this very weird, dark, and difficult year with a spirit of hope. The vaccines against the coronavirus sure are a good sign. Three additional Ph.D. students will complete their degrees this coming spring (and all have good job prospects in spite of the pandemic). Contrary to some other programs, we will have a regular recruitment cycle for our graduate programs. While we had to make the decision to postpone the summer program in Trier until 2022, we hope that we will be able to give extra support to students to participate and then celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program with a bit of a splash. We will maintain our expanded summer course offerings. We have identified a candidate for our next Kade Foundation visiting scholar for 2022. With a bit of luck and good practices, we will get through this and get back to face-to-face instruction, possibly in fall 2021. It will be a richer environment because of some of the creative and innovative aspects of teaching that were developed in these times.

It is in a forward-looking spirit that I wish you all the best for the rest of the year and the beginning of 2021. It surely will be a better year. Frohe Weihnachten, einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr – und bleiben Sie gesund und munter!


Peter C. Pfeiffer, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair