December 15, 2003

'Sex and Death' teaches freshmen Viennese life

By Eric Rangus

Being a member of the Viennese aristocracy in the late 19th century was a good thing.

One of the main hangouts for aristocrats in the title-obsessed Austro-Hungarian Empire an exclusive bakery in Vienna named Demel's. There, high echelons of society would share pastry and discuss the important–and not-so-important–issues of the day.

During her group's presentation on social and cultural lives of the different classes of Viennese society, freshman Erin Meyers re-created this upper-class atmosphere. She passed out Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

It clearly is a good thing to be a member of ILA Assistant Professor Elizabeth Goodstein's freshman seminar, "Sex and Death in Vienna."

"My father was born in Vienna, so I thought this class might be a good way to learn a bit about it," said Matthias Whitson-Singer, one of the 12 members of the seminar. "And the title sounded interesting."

Meaning sex and death?

"Yes, but I'm still waiting for that," he said.

Sly title aside, the seminar is actually more about living in the old capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire than it is about dying there.

"What the class is really about is this moment where modern culture and modern ways of thinking took shape, as well as the ways in which that modernity is alike and different from our modernity," said Goodstein, who is teaching the seminar for the second time. "Death," while referencing a Viennese cultural and artistic obsession with the subject, also symbolizes the passing of old-world society.

The time period covered by the seminar is relatively small--the 1870s through the years leading up to World War I--but incredibly important. The first wave of the women's movement in Europe was beginning, which changed the way society viewed relations between the sexes. Industrialization and urbanization were under way, and Vienna's arts community was flowering.

Goodstein exposes her students to a variety of advanced material including Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams ("Sex," after all, is a title subject for the seminar), Carl Schorske's Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, literary texts like Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Torless and Arthur Schnitzler's The Road Into the Open, and selections from perhaps the finest chronicle of the time period, a 446-page first-person narrative by Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday.

Technology also plays a major role in the class as well. Several primary materials are on the Woodruff Library's reserves direct website, and new tools in the seminar's Candler Library classroom make both teaching and learning easier. For instance, prints of paintings from the period or images of the city itself can be displayed using document cameras rather than having to be transferred to slides as was done previously.

Goodstein understands that she asks a lot of students in their first semester in college, but she has not been disappointed with the results.

"The freshman seminar is a wonderful thing, but there is a lot to accomplish," she said. "I want the students to understand how to write a college paper, and I want them to learn how to participate effectively in a discussion. I think it's very important that the students learn to take responsibility for their own education."

Nowhere is that sense of responsibility more on display than at the end of the semester when the class presented their group projects, Dec. 2 and 4. Separated into three four-person groups, students built their presentations over the last couple weeks of November. They were free to discuss anything they wanted. While Goodstein gave some guidance, the students worked together to develop topics and research and presentation strategies. The groups presented on the search for identity in religion and politics, internal and external politics in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and social roles and culture in Vienna.

The Dec. 2 presentation was on social roles and included not only desserts but meatier fare as well. Katie Parafinczuk supplemented her discussion on the Viennese lower and working classes with photographs of life in the crowded tenements on the outskirts of town.

"It's like the whole hall in your dorm sharing one toilet, probably even more," she said. One photo displayed a large family where the quarters were so tight that the mother literally did not have a seat at the table (a not-so-subtle comment on sex roles). Another was of a sex-segregated classroom where all the boys and girls had short hair--shorter hair was easier to maintain, therefore it was the standard among the workers.

Mike Silverman talked of a middle class that led a "self-absorbed lifestyle" and enjoyed hanging out in taverns. Their entertainment choices were becoming more vulgar and an increasingly sensationalist press wasn't helping matters.

"I think that's another case of the way Vienna is anticipatory or paradigmatic for future problems," Goodstein said. "There was an emergence of mass entertainment. People have always been complaining that other people have bad taste."

Vanessa Van Petten discussed the upper class, which was all about social pride and ostentation. But that pride came with a price. Women's ribs were broken by the corsets they wore and their shoulders bruised from the weight of their dresses.

Meyers wrapped up with insights into the aristocracy and nobility, which was distant even from the upper class and more self-indulgent than the doughnuts she passed out.

"There is a combination of familiarity and difference," Goodstein said of the seminar's subject matter, which, as shown in the group presentation, focuses on modern problems which stretch back to past times.

"Familiarity provides a point of entry, but the difference, the strangeness, allows them to see that they can't just assimilate cultures of other places and times to their own experience," she continued. "On one hand I think it's important for students to have an immediate access and enjoyment of the material that they're studying. On the other hand it is very important that they learn to make critical distinctions. It makes a difference if things were made 100 years ago. The historical and cultural context in which works of art and literature were produced make a difference for how we can understand them."

Goodstein said she has certain things she wants the class to learn about turn-of-the-century Vienna, but added that her deeper goal is to introduce the freshmen to the possibilities of liberal arts education.

"The material connects in a lot of ways with other topics they are interested in," Goodstein said. "A lot of them were interested in Vienna for various reasons," she continued before lowering her voice to a whisper.

"But mainly I think they were interested in sex and death."