German academia faces reckoning over lack of diversity

As in the UK and the US, universities face questions about whether their curricula feature enough non-white voices

August 7, 2019
Goethe monument with flowers
Source: iStock

Over the past few years, few academics in the US and the UK have been able to avoid the question: is my curriculum diverse enough?

In 2017, Yale University’s English department voted to diversify its curriculum in response to demands from students for more female and non-white authors, for example. The University of Cambridge has faced similar calls.

Now, in Germany, humanities scholars are also being challenged over their choices of authors. Some see signs of change – but progress is gradual.

“Slowly, slowly” the situation is changing, according to Dorothee Kimmich, a literature professor at the University of Tübingen. “We are aware of the changes occurring in the rest of the world,” she said, and now there are efforts to create a similar “movement” in Germany.

Earlier this year, a group of scholars published a book spotlighting the lack of ethnic representation in the German humanities, particularly American studies. “From my experience, I haven’t seen many classes in Germany that allow for…authors of colour,” said Priscilla Layne, an associate professor of German at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied and taught in Germany, and has contributed a chapter to Who Can Speak and Who Is Heard/Hurt?

One reason for this is that unlike in the US, where departments of African American studies were set up in the wake of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, discussions around race in Germany have been largely taboo since the end of the Nazi period, she argues. As a subject, German studies “tends to see itself as being free of racial problems”, Professor Layne writes, apart from recognising the importance of German Jewish writers.

Germany is different in other ways, scholars pushing for change acknowledge: the country is less ethnically diverse than the US, and it did not have such a large and long-standing empire as the UK – whose former colonies have produced a rich corpus of English literature.

But with nearly one in four people in Germany having a “migration background” – defined as at least one non-German parent – the country has recently undergone a much more public discussion about race and racism.

German authors with a Turkish family background, such as Feridun Zaimoğlu and Emine Sevgi Özdamar, have to some extent broken through into the canon, said Professor Kimmich. By their second year, “nearly everyone” taking German studies has the option to study their works, and by their third or fourth year, students are likely to be more familiar with them than with authors from former communist East Germany, she said.

But even when the authors are German-born and have written solely in German, their work is still framed as “migration literature”, Professor Kimmich said – there is “still the idea of us and you”.

Black German authors face a similar attitude, said Natasha Kelly, a colonialism and feminism researcher who grew up in Germany. Such writers “are not read as German”, she said. “We’re read as something African.”

As a guest lecturer at German universities, Dr Kelly explained that she has to “squeeze” her subjects into other curricula because there are few dedicated black or post-colonial studies courses. “If it wasn’t for me, or other lecturers of colour, there wouldn’t be any variety at all,” she said. “In general, I feel tokenised for sure,” she added.

Professor Layne incorporates Turkish German and black German authors into broader introductions to German literature, alongside writers such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, so that students see them as part of the canon and not “extra” or “some kind of diversity component”.

Sceptics might argue that understanding the likes of Goethe is more useful to unlocking German politics and culture than more modern authors with a migration background. Professor Layne disagreed. “You can’t explain [German] post-war history without migration. It’s impossible,” she countered.

“If a politician is going to use a quote, it’s probably going to be a Goethe quote or a Schiller quote. But that’s because that’s what they read in school. So if you keep teaching the same things, people are going to keep quoting the same things,” Professor Layne said.

“I’m not saying throw out the Goethe or the Schiller. It’s important. But there is room for other authors,” she added.

Even if Germany’s curriculum does diversify, it does not mean that those teaching it will as well. “There are very few black German professors. I feel like you can count them on two hands,” said Professor Layne. In Germany, there is more hand-picking of PhD candidates by professors than there is in the US, so the German academy is more likely to reproduce itself in its own image, she argued.

And German squeamishness about collecting ethnic data – as opposed to just information on parental nationality – also hampers efforts to get a grip on diversity issues. Tübingen has statistics only on student nationality, explained Professor Kimmich, making effective assessments of diversity impossible. Still, “people are very sensitive” about collecting such information, she said.


Print headline: Diversity demands come to Germany

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Reader's comments (1)

Who classifies literature by the ethnicity of the author rather than the content of the work? Or is this standard practice in the study of literature? I'm a computer scientist, and all we care about is what a book or paper has to say, not the gender or ethnicity of its author. Good to hear that German universities do not collect information on ethnicity - such is a divisive concept. I won't ever fill out any form asking about gender, ethnicity or sexual preference as they are irrelevant to the capacity to do the job. We all should. If we believe that everyone is equal then we ought not to be recording such things and highlighting differences. We are all members of the human race, and should stand or fall by the merit of our work alone.