The American Historian

Lehren und Lernen: Teaching U.S. History in Germany

Joseph Crespino

When I considered applying to programs to lecture in Germany, I didn’t think that teaching American history abroad would be very different from what I did back home. I would be lecturing in English, after all, and my German students had excellent language skills. The classes would be the same ones I have taught at Emory University: a survey course on the American South since Reconstruction and a seminar on conservative and reactionary politics since the New Deal. The real reason I wanted to go abroad was for the experience it would provide for my family: My two kids, ages 6 and 9, would spend a half year in a German public school. My wife is self-employed and has a flexible schedule. So why wouldn’t we move to the charming, medieval university town of Tübingen? Castles, canals, and cathedrals—as well as spas, funiculars, and luge tracks—awaited us in all directions (and that’s leaving aside completely Germany’s World Cup victory!).

What I didn’t realize is that it would be such a formative experience professionally. It wasn’t just the international contacts that I made, although those were great. As a teacher of U.S. history, I was presented with a number of challenges and opportunities that have made me think about my craft in new ways.

One challenge was teaching in a format and style to which I was unaccustomed. For me this meant a large lecture class. I realize, of course, that plenty of colleagues in the United States are regularly required to teach large lecture classes. At my institution, however, all classes are capped at forty. It’s a luxury, I know, and yet, like any luxurious thing, it can lead to complacency. Among many private universities there has been an arms race of sorts to lower student-teacher ratios, which has often meant doing away with lecture classes. But it is not as though the lecture is broken as a pedagogical form. Some of my most memorable classes as an undergraduate were large classes in which a master lecturer held forth on a subject of expertise.

In Germany I taught a class of 160 students. It met once a week, just fourteen times over the course of the semester, for an hour and a half. Each lecture had to be focused on a broad, general theme that drew together various points of interpretation and analysis. The challenge of having to cover more material in a smaller number of lectures was clarifying. It forced me to cut away the underbrush that had built up in my lectures over the years.

I also realized that I was teaching a subject that was almost wholly new for the vast majority of the class. My German students knew plenty about the United States, and their knowledge of and interest in the country is what led them to the course. But they didn’t know much about American history, and almost none of them had had a formal course on the subject. When I teach at home, I frequently encounter students who have a sense that they already American history. They studied it in high school. They scored a 5 on the AP U.S. History Exam. I sometimes envy my colleagues in African, Latin American, or Asian history who teach students who know almost nothing about their area of expertise. These colleagues can start at the beginning, introducing fundamental issues in their field—fundamental not in the sense of being easy, but foundational concepts on which all other learning is based.

In Germany, I was the expert in exotic and little-understood subjects. African American history and American struggles over race and democracy were of particular interest to my German students. How was it that white rule was re-established so quickly after the Civil War in the states that had only recently rebelled? Was it really true that the nadir of American race relations occurred roughly a half century after slavery’s end? In what sense, exactly? Too often when my American students are confronted with questions like these, they treat them as if they were review questions for an exam they’ve already taken. The answers lay on bullet-pointed study sheets filed away in a three-ring binder back home. But my German students approached such questions with a freshness that was invigorating. It reminded me how important these kinds of questions are, and how exciting it is to try to answer them.

Teaching abroad also freed me from the tyranny of specialization. At my home institution, it is an unwritten rule that you teach in areas in which you publish. I am no specialist in the history of the American West or the history of Jacksonianism, so why would I teach a course on those topics? Yet the further one gets away from home, the less these distinctions matter. It became much easier to recognize myself for what I was trained to be: an expert in the history of the United States—all of it.

It was not merely that I felt freer to expand my teaching chronologically. Disciplinary boundaries also became more fluid when I was abroad. Of course we all talk about the importance of interdisciplinarity in the United States, but it is much easier to actually practice it the further one gets from home. One reason for this has to do simply with the number of people involved. At Emory, there are dozens of scholars across various departments who study the United States. At Tübingen, there were far fewer Americanists. Thus, as I was drawing up my syllabus, it seemed obvious to me that my course on the American South should include writing by southern writers such as William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee, whereas at Emory, I’m less likely to include southern fiction in my course. I assumed unthinkingly that my students at Emory who were interested in literature would seek out professors in the English Department. After my experience in Germany, I will not make this mistake again.

Going abroad enlarged my sense of my own expertise also because of the quality of the intellectual community in Tübingen. The tyranny of specialization affects not only the way I teach back home, but also how widely I draw my circle of intellectual exchange. I tend to stay in closest contact with fellow American historians, and, more particularly, historians of twentieth-century U.S. politics, race, and religion. But in Germany, with far fewer scholars around who were interested in the United States, I was more likely to be in conversation with literary scholars, sociologists, and political scientists.

Lastly, the experience of teaching abroad shamed me in an old and familiar way: I found myself embarrassed and limited by my monolingualism. I was not expected to teach in German, but I have no doubt that my teaching would have been greatly enriched if I had had a better grasp of the language. The debate over whether graduate students in American history should study a foreign language is an old one, and I used to be on the side of those who argued that since most of our sources are in English, there’s little reason to waste time with a foreign language. But my experience teaching abroad changed me. Too often the issue is considered only in terms of research needs. The possibilities of teaching American history in a foreign language do not often factor into the debate, but it should. Again I’m reminded of the experience of my colleagues here at Emory who teach about different parts of the world. They are both historians and translators. It is exciting and vital intellectual work to think about how differences in language structure our understanding of culture and history, yet this is a conversation in which far too few American historians are able to participate. It is a pity.

Teaching American history abroad offers so many rewards for faculty members and institutions alike that it is surprising that there are not more opportunities to do it. I know it is not easy for administrators who are mindful of enrollments, curriculum needs, and salary structures to allow faculty members the time to do this work, nor is it a simple matter for professors to rearrange their lives and the lives of their families to move abroad. Yet, in my own case, it is hard to imagine a professional experience that would be any more enriching.

JOSEPH CRESPINO is the Jimmy Carter Chair of American History at Emory University. He is the author of Strom Thurmond’s America (2012) and In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007). He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.