November 16, 1998
Volume 51, No. 12
Professors' backgrounds make for interesting course
Sometimes it's all in your point of view. When Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, and Angelika Bammer, director of the Program in Comparative Literature, decided to team teach an interdisciplinary graduate course this fall on Holocaust memoirs, they did so partly because of their mutual interests but mostly because of their mutual differences.
Both professors were born shortly after World War II, Bammer in Germany, Lipstadt in the United States. Bammer's father was in the German army during the war; American-born Lipstadt had one parent who'd left Germany in the 1920s and relatives who were victims of the Holocaust. Their diverse personal histories, woven with their diverse academic disciplines, enable the professors and their students to look even more closely at different sides of difficult-to-discuss issues and ideas, to challenge each other, and perhaps most importantly, to risk disagreeing.
Bammer, whose field is literary studies, and Lipstadt, a historian whose emphasis is religion, have known each other for years and have great mutual respect, which Bammer said "makes it possible for us to talk in ways that show we are not afraid to confront each other."
For her part Lipstadt observes that their collaboration "leads to some very personal, very powerful intellectual discussion and exchange. It's intellectually challenging and very personal all at the same time. In teaching this course, the personal and intellectual are not separated from each other."
Lipstadt recalls that when the two first met to discuss the syllabus, Lipstadt started to say something about Nazi Germany. "I make it a practice to use the term 'the Germans' and not 'the Nazis' when I talk about the Third Reich. I do so because otherwise it sometimes sounds like the Nazis were Martians who landed in the middle of Germany and took over, when in fact they were Germans who represented the 'best and the brightest,' among others, of the German people.
"In any case, as I started to say the word 'German,' I stopped because I realized that I was talking about Angelika--if not about her, since she was born after the war, then about her parents. Suddenly I was a little bit uncomfortable. She immediately responded, 'Don't ever self-censor. You can't if the course is going to succeed.' I haven't, and I think it has."
The professors took the topic of Holocaust memoirs beyond the Jewish experience by including not only memoirs of survivors and their children but other victims such as homosexuals, gypsies and communists. Another issue that concerned both professors was, "What did Germans know, and how did they respond?" For this reason, they decided to include texts written from the perspective of the perpetrators, and the children of perpetrators, so that these two vantage points would meet each other.
The idea for the course came out of several impulses, according to Bammer. One obvious source was the two professors' interest in exploring "the German-Jewish thing." Lipstadt jokingly called it "the 900-pound gorilla on the table" in their small seminar classroom. They also saw the value in combining academic disciplines to look at the topic in new ways. Graduate students from English, Jewish studies, philosophy, German and history come together for the course, which is cross-listed under comparative literature, history, Jewish studies and German.
Ironically, the "German-Jewish thing" hasn't been the only or even the defining aspect of the course. As it turns out, Lipstadt's and Bammer's academic differences have become their most valuable lens for viewing the Holocaust, according to the professors and their students.
"I've seen more tension when their academic discourses don't coincide than [with] the issue of German vs. Jew," said Nehama Benmosche, a graduate student in Jewish studies enrolled in the class. She finds the differences between the two professors have "almost everything to do with the set of terms you come to in a discourse and almost nothing to do with their ethnic identities."
That firsthand exposure to conversations across academic disciplines teaches students a valuable object lesson, observed Aimee Pozorski, who is pursuing a PhD in English. "The conversation between the two of them extends to everyone sitting in the room," she said. "We all feel--it's safe to say--welcomed into that conversation."
Danny Berke, also a graduate student in Jewish studies, points out that the professors' backgrounds "open up a huge spectrum of what we're able to talk about--all the bases are covered."
"The course made me absolutely convinced how incredibly valuable collaboration across the disciplines can be," said Bammer. "There are things we can't even think of if we're stuck in our own fields. There's a refreshing shock that comes if a person next to you asks, 'Why are you talking about that?' You wouldn't necessarily get that in a room full of people from your own discipline. That's exciting."
"What is important to me about the course, something Deborah and I share, is that in thinking about history it is critical to take the next step and reflect not only on the question of what do we know and what do we need to know, but how do we remember and in what forms can we give expression to those memories?" said Bammer.
"The humanities aren't thought of as contributing necessary knowledge," she said. "I would counter that what the humanities contribute is absolutely necessary. Without the ability to be aware of what forms we put knowledge and memory into, that knowledge and those memories can be ineffective and unheeded."