Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance
.تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.
By Andrea Geier (Modern German Literature/Gender Studies, University of Trier, Germany)
As a literary scholar specializing in gender studies, intercultural studies, and postcolonial studies at a German university, I experience positive challenges in my everyday research and teaching. Based in German studies, I participate in developments in the interdisciplinary fields mentioned, reflect on them within the framework of my own methodological-theoretical and thematic interests, and even help to shape them, to some extent. This is a constant inspiration, but – unfortunately – just one reason why I became intensively involved in science communication for some time. The second motivation is to face other less pleasant but important challenges: Public debates about the meaning of the humanities and especially gender studies.
Public Debates: Initial Conditions for Science Communication
German studies and gender studies each have their own long-term debates and communication problems regarding image in the public eye and their public presentation, and these are being fought out with different pitches and thrusts. German studies in Germany is often said to lack relevance, both in terms of research and teaching: Critics claim that philological core competencies, reading techniques and methods of interpretation have been neglected, indeed largely abandoned, due to the cultural studies turn in literary studies in the course of the 1990s. In addition, German studies, as a field in which future teachers are trained, is said to have missed important developments of modernization, for example, by not consistently opening to media studies issues and competence acquisition. The fact that these two exemplarily selected requirements are not free of contradictions – a consistent opening to media studies would have caused the same prejudices regarding the concentration on philological core competencies – is a striking and simultaneously unavoidable constant within this discussion. Different ideas of desirable subject developments exist not only publicly but also within the field of German studies, and some conflicts do indeed result from different needs regarding research, on the one hand, and didactics, on the other hand.
Controversies about the humanities feel like a critical conversation. Gender studies, on the other hand, is argued about in the mode of pro and contra: With the institutional establishment centers of gender studies and study programs and, therefore, stronger visibility, this dispute has intensified in a worrying way, especially in the last decade. Similar to every gender researcher, I am involved in the argument about the existence of the interdisciplinary subject as a whole, about its scientificalness, performance and eligibility for public funding in academia. In attacks, gender studies is narrowed down to certain social thematic complexes and research questions and the heterogeneity of research methods and topics is often ignored. A particular dynamic has emerged in recent years as a result of actions by politicians in several European countries – the abolition of gender studies courses in Hungary, to name just one case – which consistently equate gender studies with issues such as gender equality policy, feminism, diversity management or sex education. Unlike criticisms common to all fields, scholars in gender studies are confronted with stereotypical and highly misguided, strategically used accusations of allegedly immediate and, therefore, threatening sociopolitical relevance. The central demonizing accusation, especially by persons from the conservative and right-wing to far-right spectrum (not limited to), is that gender studies is a kind of ideology and seeks to reeducate people. These accusations are not only absurd because they distort the self-understanding of gender studies as a critical science into a political practice. They are also all the more outrageous because many of these same actors tend to have a strongly normative view of gender and, above all, threaten the existence of people with campaigns against LGBTIQ. The attacks on gender studies, irritating as they are in themselves, must be seen in this context to understand their implications: They are part of a strategy that endangers lives because it denies legal recognition to people who do not fit into the plain binary (heterosexual) gender scheme.
This is a complicated starting point for science communication: How do I make myself visible as a scientist in the fields of German studies and/or gender studies? How do I deal with different expectations and attributions of relevance?
If we as scientists want to actively help to shape this public debate about relevance, a broad understanding of science communication might be a helpful starting point, because there is more to it than communicating concrete research results to an interested audience outside of science. As humanities scholars, we have cultural and historical knowledge as well as expertise in theories, methods and forms of communication that enable us to engage productively in public debates on important sociopolitical issues. When I started tweeting, I began with topics generally directly related to my research: Expertise on the relationship between esthetics and ethics, anti-Semitism and racism, memory culture, gender justice, identity politics, and freedom of expression and art. The audience I want to address and interact with is an interested public, but also other scholars and educational policy makers. In the long run, I hope such communication will help to make visible the contribution that the humanities can make to the future transformation of society.
Therefore, scientists need not aspire to become public intellectuals, and no one should be obliged to communicate science. However, I am convinced that it would be useful and desirable if more scholars, each with their own research focus, would speak out more publicly. It would be especially important to work together on the goal of ‘changing the conversation’ because we need better and more diverse communication about gender research.
To be able to invest time and energy in communicating and exchanging with an interested public is, of course, also a question of resources, institutional recognition and support, which includes professional reactions of university press offices in case of attacks on individual scholars, like (digital) hate speech. It would, therefore, be desirable for the institutional conditions of science communication to improve overall. Hopefully, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research project #FactoryWisskomm (think tank science communication), which runs until April 2021, will provide the impetus for this. But let us get back to what an individual strategy for these requirements in science communication might look like. Here are two short examples from my work.
Relevant Literary Studies and #GenderStudiesBuddies
I have been regularly providing insights into my research and teaching for about two years now, into individual topics, scholarly methods, didactic considerations and, since the COVID-19 pandemic, especially on digital teaching. I tweet (@geierandrea2017), post videos from my respective current lectures and talks online – see, for example, my playlists with videos about gender studies or science communication. Vice versa, I also use essays, articles, interviews for newspapers and magazines, and contributions for radio programs in teaching in order to create students’ awareness regarding the importance of our work within the framework of current sociopolitical debate culture. Current examples on various topics are always easy to find on the homepage. All of this is undoubtedly still work in progress, but I can already see that there is potential for this, especially on social media, in my case, on Twitter, in connection with other channels and projects.
I would like to mention the course Relevant Literary Studies as a concrete example. The idea was born on twitter, and it took place for the first time in 2019 as a collaborative project of scholars from six universities. All teachers had their own courses and tweeted about their topics – hashtag #RelevanteLiteraturwissenschaft – and there were also mutual guest lectures. At the moment, I am in the process of developing this format conceptually and organizationally into a regular course offer consisting of a lecture and seminar at my university, open to future collaborations, and the hashtag this time (from April to July 2021) is #RelevanteLW21. The central starting point is to move the discussion about the humanities from a narrowed perspective of utility for the general public/society to a more nuanced reflection on the concept of relevance: What is relevant to whom from which point of view? In this context, the title “Relevant Literary Studies” is an invitation to teachers and students to provide different answers to the fundamental question of the relevance of the humanities and to relate this to the public discussion about the importance of these disciplines.
This is to be done within the framework of very specific discussions of theory, methodology and topics in order to be able to respond to the tension between expectations, justifications and attributions or impositions of relevance. The discussion of methods focuses on the significance of cultural studies in literary studies and on the question of the methodological pluralism of literary studies. Other topics include the relationship between ethics and esthetics and the significance of related discussions for the evaluation of art; the dispute about the binding nature of a canon or canon plurality from a gender-sensitive and postcolonial perspective; memory culture or ecology as topics that are particularly confronted with pedagogical expectations of relevance; literary scandals and their media logics that arouse short-period public attention; the relationship between literary criticism and literary studies, also narration and reading techniques; and, last but not least, the broad field of digitization. Gender-related questions will, of course, be addressed in the context of all these topics.
At the same time, that both the heterogeneity of the field becomes visible and the broad and self-evident anchoring of gender studies in the individual disciplines is one of the strategies that I consider to be particularly significant in scholarly communication in gender studies. One can continue to ensure the perception of gender studies as a subject in nuanced discussions of relevancy and with a view to transdisciplinary shared theories but, at the same time, create awareness of disciplinary diversity. If, for example, one succeeds in showing that notions of gender and gender relations in literature are esthetically negotiated, designed and developed in very different ways and, thereby, have to be seen in relation to literature’s own tradition of motifs and genres, a differentiated picture of the connection between ethics, esthetics and sociopolitical issues can be drawn. The fact that primarily time-diagnostic analyses are in demand publicly should, therefore, not be dismissed but, on the contrary, should be actively pursued, trying to differentiate the concept of relevance in the process. Conversely, all disciplines should make the interdisciplinary structure and diversity of gender studies more visible in order to change the conversation about gender studies. And in that spirit, I would like to end my essay with an appeal: It would be wonderful if more #GenderStudiesBuddies  made themselves visible, saying: “I am not a gender researcher myself, but this is a self-evident and indispensable component within my discipline.” The more gender studies issues become strongly and diversely visible in the individual disciplines, the more difficult it is to defame its scholars. But, of course, especially those who, like me, have several disciplinary classifications, can contribute to change the conversation about gender studies and about the relevance of the humanities at the same time.
Back to planning and tweets, I want to conclude: In the future, if you too are more actively engaged in a relevance debate, let me know how it goes.
 I will focus on these two fields, although, to some extent, similar observations apply to postcolonial studies.
 In this article, M. Gottschling and I show why science communication on Twitter is an opportunity for the humanities: Andrea Geier and Markus Gottschling, “Wissenschaftskommunikation auf Twitter? Eine Chance für die Geisteswissenschaften,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Germanistenverbandes 66/3, 2019, 282-292.
 I introduced the hashtags #GenderStudiesBuddies and #4GenderStudiesBuddies in 2020 on the occasion of Gender Studies Science Day: Since 2017, scholars in Gender Studies provide insights into their work annually on Science Day on Dec.18 using the hashtag #4GenderStudies.
Andrea Geier has been Professor of Modern German Literature and Gender Studies at the University of Trier since 2009. She is a board member of the Gender Studies Association (Fachgesellschaft Geschlechterstudien) and the Trier Center for Postcolonial and Gender Studies. She studied modern German literature, rhetoric and empirical cultural studies at the University of Tübingen, where she also finished her PhD on Violence and Gender in German-Language Texts of the 1980s and 1990s (Gewalt und Geschlecht. Diskurse in deutschsprachiger Prosa der 1980er und 1990er Jahre, 2005). From 2004 to 2009, she was a research assistant at the University of Marburg. Her main research and teaching interests are contemporary German literature, gender and interculturality studies, memory culture and science communication.
This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.
Citation: Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Studies, 22.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28226