Thinking Across Cultures


Pioneering Cultural Studies

A dynamic site for intellectual pursuit, the department has contributed importantly in the last two decades to redrawing the boundaries of the discipline, making it more open to modern media studies, related fields, and new methodologies. The Berkeley DAAD Interdisciplinary Summer Seminar, held annually between 1978 and 1995, was the first of its kind. It exerted a major impact on the field by training a large number of junior professors and doctoral students from across the nation and from different fields in approaches to culture studies in German. The inclusion of film and popular media, literary theory, and issues pertaining to cultural identity and ethnic diversity was a hallmark of the seminar. This practice has now become generally accepted in interdisciplinary and intercultural German studies.

During this exciting period of experimentation, several colleagues insisted on keeping alive the dialogue between the new and the old, and the program profited from this. Recognizing the mutually enriching influences of literature and cultural studies, we have insisted on maintaining the essential role of German literature in German Studies. We have chosen not to divorce the study of literature from the larger study of culture, because in our view aesthetics and history illuminate each other. In general, we seek to mediate between the analysis of literature as cultural evidence and the appreciation of literary language in its own terms, between close textual analysis and theory-driven inquiries, between high culture and popular media, and between scholarship and social concerns.

The strength of the faculty is diversity, both in their areas of research and in their methodologies. We do not advocate any single approach, nor do we have a homogeneous vision of the department's mission beyond the shared concern that our students gain a heightened sensitivity to language and representation, theory and methodology, translation and cultural transfer, and the power as well as the critical potential of discourse.

Disciplinary Openness

To date, students of widely varying backgrounds and interests have found themselves at home in this intellectually open and inviting environment. Graduate students in our literature program have written dissertations on subjects ranging from visuality in medieval literature to the representation of women in New German Cinema, from urbanism in the Enlightenment to the politics of the Frankfurt School, and from the construction of the witch in early modern Germany to a book-length analysis of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge." Our Germanic linguistics students have addressed such topics as causation in sound change, the cognitive and sociolinguistic emergence of German 'Sie,' the semiotics of Germanic culture, and the syntactic/semantic typology of German, English, and Korean. Many of these studies have been published.

We encourage our students to complement their coursework in German by taking classes in other departments. Interdisciplinary training is facilitated by the requirement that students include faculty from other disciplines as members of their doctoral examination and dissertation committees. In addition, several members of the German faculty have affiliations with other departments and programs: for example, Comparative Literature, Scandinavian, Theater Arts, Medieval Studies, Education, Jewish Studies, and Film Studies.

In the past, our graduate students have worked variously with Judith Butler on Kafka and gender issues and with Kaja Silverman on Freud and Lacan (both in Rhetoric). Our graduate students have worked on European intellectual history with Martin Jay and on German social and institutional history with Thomas Brady, Gerald Feldman, and John Connelly (History). Some have studied metaphor as a structure of the mind with George Lakoff and Eve Sweetser (Linguistics), and bilingualism with Susan Ervin-Tripp and Dan Slobin (Psychology). Others have taken courses in Women's Studies from Caren Kaplan and Trinh Minh-Ha. They have attended seminars in Philosophy with Hubert Dreyfus on Heidegger, Hans Sluga on Wittgenstein, and John Searle on the philosophy of language. They have also worked with Linda Williams and Mary Ann Doane in Film Studies, Alan Dundes in Anthropology, and Kathleen James in Architecture.

Of course students from other departments also take our seminars. This cross-disciplinary exchange, which enriches everyone involved, contributes to the distinctive quality of the intellectual life in the department and on campus.

Thinking Across Cultures

We are mindful of our position as a foreign language and culture department within the increasingly diverse American context. In that awareness, we attempt in our teaching, research, and advising to tap the creative energy that arises from cultural differences--not only between the US and the German-speaking nations of Europe, but also among the multi-ethnic cultural communities that our students represent. Hence we understand the nature of our enterprise to be emphatically intercultural. All of our instruction, from the most elementary language courses to the most advanced seminars and dissertation advising, reflects this.

Questions centering around a new multiethnic Germany have recently become a major research focus in our department. Please see our website on Multicultural Germany.

Our overriding concern is to stimulate students to think critically. We want them to reflect on their own cultures as they encounter new ones in our courses and through study abroad. An important part of this unique learning experience is attempting to confront and understand the role of culture in the histories of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland--with their abysmal failures and moments of greatness, as well as their fair share of normality. In view of the Holocaust, we devote much energy to understanding critically the rhetoric of exclusion and the way in which cultural marginalization is dealt with today. Since all the German-speaking countries have now become multicultural societies, we focus on ethnic and cultural diversity and on the different ways in which the US and Europe deal with such issues as immigration, minority rights, citizenship, and cultural identity.

TRANSIT, the department's online journal of travel, migration, and multiculturalism in the German-speaking world, deals with many relevant issues to these topics.

Our collective strength as a department lies in work across multiple media and genres, based on shared attention to form and constellation, genre and audience, cultural contact and practices of translation.