Teaching from the Margins*

During my studies, gender was very much at the heart of what fascinated me about history. My most important academic socialization happened when I and some fellow students started organizing a couple of public lecture series on gender studies during the 1990s in Münster in Germany. From all over Germany and beyond we invited the very people that we urgently wanted to talk to, astonishingly received money from the university and even the ministry to do so, and thereby organized the scholarly conversations that we felt were grossly underrepresented in our curriculums. When I was lucky enough to get a Ph.D. position to study the cultural history of the French Restoration, I ended up arguing that you could not understand the popular representations of this monarchic regime without taking into account the French Revolutions’ symbolic politics and its gendered dimensions, especially the different ways in which citizenship and the nation had been coded as male. Gender was not always at the center of what I did, but it was always an important part of it, it was what had made me realize that history was a discipline for me, it had formed me into a becoming a historian.

No wonder then that, when I was invited for a trial lecture in my very first attempt at landing a job at this university, I opted for the broad topic “Culture and Gender in 19th Century Europe”. I did not get the job then. Neither did any other of several well qualified women who had applied. A very nice and intelligent man who is also a dedicated teacher (and whom I later befriended as a colleague) got the job. He did not, however, have the most important required formal qualification necessary for the assistant professorship: he did not have a Ph.D. but only received it two years later. After I had already worked for quite a while at the same place on a lecturer position for which I was formerly overqualified with my Ph.D., and had thus worked alongside my colleague and former competitor who was formerly underqualified for his – higher – position, one of my few female colleagues, on her way out of the department, told me that, apparently, back then, my trial lecture on gender history had upset the male professor very much and that he had openly articulated this. The very professor who refused to hire me or in fact any other of the qualified women of that application process, the professor who apparently preferred to make the committee, the department and the faculty break very clear formal rules in order to not hire a woman, let alone one that gave a trial lecture on gender history.

Why am I telling you this? One reason is certainly that I am convinced we have to pull these kinds of stories into the sphere of public discussion if we want to avoid reproducing the past. The more important reason is, that it was only quite recently that I began to understand the consequences of this experience for my first years of teaching.

It took me quite a while to understand that this and other experiences had something to do with the in hindsight very curious fact that it was only after six years of teaching in the history department that I started to emphasize the category of gender in a way that reflected the importance it had for me as a scholar, which can, of course, not be separated from me as a citizen. Gender was not completely absent from my teaching, of course, but all too often I did not integrate it in a way that, if honest with myself, I would and should have deemed appropriate. A case in point is a first-year seminar on nationalism that I taught between 2008 and 2017. Although my own research was very much based on the insight, and the rich body of scholarship accompanying it, that you cannot properly understand nineteenth century European nationalism without the category of gender, I only started integrating this into my course in 2012. After a lot of soul searching and efforts to understand the academic structures that I had encountered and had to survive in, I now comprehend better why it did too often not feel safe for me to emphasize the aspect of gender in my teaching, even though I would not have been able to put it like that at the time.

Things have changed. But that should not make us believe that these sorts of challenges have disappeared. Be it gender, sexuality or race (the latter has recently become more important in my work) whenever we engage with these kinds of topics, more often than not we touch upon something that is experienced in different ways as uncomfortable for some of the people in the room, and sometimes maybe for all. But if I did not feel safe enough for a long time to offer to my students the very thing that had motivated me to become a historian, I am now painfully aware that many of my students today often don’t feel safe enough to offer their real thoughts on topics that touch their own lives, just as gender always felt to me like “touching” my own life in a significant way.

So, what is necessary, what is needed to make the classroom a space enabling the “practice of freedom” to adopt bell hooks’ vocabulary? To make it a space in which different perspectives, different “intuitions” of what is right or obvious, different passions about what kind of questions are most important can not only be articulated but can even communicate with each other, be it in a tense or in a harmonious way. I don’t have the answer, but I know that constantly asking the question is certainly a major part of the journey.

There is no way of discussing these questions without addressing cultural hegemony, addressing the fact that certain perspectives are easier to articulate than others, that even the most well-meaning group of students and teachers can unconsciously assume a position in which a group of people is “othered”, a group that “we” might feel entitled to generalize and judge about. This is part of the culture we grew up in whether we like it or not. And even if we have experienced how it feels to belong to a group that is “othered” this does unfortunately not make us immune to reproduce the same practice in other contexts. The second important aspect, then, is to recognize that being confronted with the articulation of perspectives which we have, from a comfortably hegemonic position, ourselves either ignored or assumed as being marginal or unimportant, can trigger shame in us. We should understand and maybe remind ourselves every day that true diversity of perspectives is, and must often be, uncomfortable. If things don’t get uncomfortable, silent hegemonies don’t get challenged. So, the question remains, how can we engage in enhancing the chance that a diversity of perspectives is articulated in our classrooms?

For me, it all starts with reminding myself that in every classroom there are many hidden stories, many hidden experiences that inform how the human beings who are our students see the world. It starts by an intense desire to, first, assist them with finding the courage to trust their own unconscious intuitions. To see that these intuitions are the result of their experiences and that as such they might turn out to be their most important mental and intellectual tools which have the potential to help not only them but us all understanding the world a bit better. Such insights, though, will only ever grow if nobody in the classroom has to deny, let alone devalue, who they are and what they have experienced in order to participate in the debate. Secondly, this desire cannot be separated from a different, seemingly contrasting one, namely the desire that students, when they are confronted with realities that contradict their own intuitive assumptions, will experience this in a way that could lead them to a real rethinking of the world as they see it, a real opening of perspectives. I do believe that the only way to encourage the second is by honoring the first, but also by admitting to myself that I, too, constantly struggle with both of them.

* This is a slightly reworked version of a statement given at the workshop “Sexuality, Politics and Activism”, organized by the Duitsland Instituut Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, December 13, 2019.

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