Professor Hansjakob Werlen on German Studies, Food, and Liberal Arts

Nathanael Brown: Could you please introduce yourself to us? 

Hanjakob Werlen: My name is Hansjakob Werlen. I’ve been teaching at Swarthmore since 1987, for quite a few years, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching here. I teach German literature and language in the department of modern languages and literatures. 

NB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you’re from?

HW: I grew up in Switzerland and first went to the University of Bern before I transferred to the United States and ended up in California where I got my Ph.D at Stanford. From there, I came to Swarthmore in 1987.

NB: Swarthmore was your first job out of Stanford?

HW: Swarthmore was my first regular job coming out of Stanford Graduate School, and I’ve been here ever since. 

NB: Was there anything that drew you to Swarthmore? Or was it just sort of circumstances?

HW: To tell you the truth, when I was out in California, and being from Switzerland, I was not very informed on undergraduate institutions, and that included Swarthmore. I remember when there was an opportunity to come here my dissertation advisor was all excited and quickly filled me in on the academic role and reputation. I was very excited, and I was hoping everything would go well. Obviously, it did, so it was a stroke of luck.

NB: So as a German professor, is there any area of German studies that interests you?

HW: I was in two areas when I did graduate work at Stanford, but I love being a generalist. So, I would take classes with various professors in various years of German literature as far back as Baroque and earlier, but also in modernism. I initially came here as a modernist, that is to say, literature of the early 20th century and so on. But it was clear that my colleagues here already had expertise in that field. So I was relegated, in a good way, to the late 18th and early 19th century. It was a good thing because I had taken a lot of graduate classes on Goethe and romanticism. So those are the classes I mostly taught. I have taught a good seminar on Romanticism. I published on [German author] Kleist, and figures from that time. 

NB: So, you’ve been here for a long time, you’ve probably seen a lot of things in the German program in Swarthmore change broadly, do you have any that stand out to you? 

HW: Well, these developments always happen. Unfortunately, I would say a general trend of decrease in the humanities, which has accelerated over the last ten-fifteen years, has also had an impact on German studies. We had the misfortune that we were a thorough German studies program, and that we had someone in philosophy, history, and music who was very German or German-centric, and those professors left and were not replaced with the same kind of area of expertise. Our truly interdisciplinary program became a little bit more German studies, literature, and film-focused, and also the students were very different in the ’90s and early 2000s. We regularly had fairly large classes: 25 persons in German I and eight people in the seminars, and those numbers have shrunk precipitously. It is a problem that we are facing specifically in German, and it’s shared by other languages. Just in general, there’s a decrease in humanities and humanities enrollments. Now, having said that, I still believe that Swarthmore is dedicated to a liberal arts education. It has kept some programs in our department and other places that based on enrollment figures would be looked at very critically in many other places. But now, we have become a little bit more corporatized as a college, and there are reams and reams of statistics that have to be submitted. Enrollments do play a bigger role, because there’s, of course, a big competition on the number of faculty. If you have a small program with low enrollment, and you have bigger programs with overflowing enrollment, the college and also the faculty who are governing our educational policies, will have to take a look at that. I understand that fully. On the one hand, I’m very glad that so far we’ve been able to do our program, even with a very reduced number of students. On the other hand, I have no real recipe for how to stem development, because, over the last couple of years, we had very interesting visiting assistant professors, Madalina Meirosu and Karolina Hicke, who are viewing and teaching the most popular research that German Studies has presently. I’m a very traditional Germanist, so I love teaching what is, not always positively, called the canon and canonical literature. But I’m always pleased with how students read it, and also how we get to connect texts that are quite old, early 19th century, and so on to issues that are relevant today. And I see students doing that, so I have no reason to change that.

NB: So then outside of just German literature, I know you have an interest in food studies,

HW: Yes, I taught and co-taught a whole series on foods which is an academic field that is very interdisciplinary. Those classes have always been, enrollment-wise, a huge success. So it’s the only time in my career here where we had to actually limit the number of students for different reasons. I taught together with colleagues, and it’s interesting because behind Food Studies is of course a great variety of disciplines: sociology, philosophy, religion, and, the issue of taste, and so on and so on. One class was called Writing Taste. We tried to do a philosophical history of how taste came to be considered, an aesthetic and also, of course, a corporeal issue. We combined that with some practical aspects like taking students to restaurants in Philly, and having them write reviews that were not graded by me, but by Craig LaBan, the restaurant reviewer. I wish I could do that again, but I didn’t do it. Because our program is very small, we only have a visiting assistant professor. I’m the only full-time permanent faculty member, my colleague is half in Film and Media Studies. So we have one and a half permanent faculty here that might even go down further. We try to offer a minimum number of classes. Because I’m a full-time faculty member in German studies, I have only taught German studies classes now for several years. I just didn’t have the opportunity to offer either classes in translation, which I also have done, or co-teaching with colleagues, which I also have done, or pursue food studies classes. I was delighted that in our seminar, suddenly, there were two freshmen who were interested in speaking German, very well-read, and contributed to the discussion. And I think that’s a great thing. I still feel German is an important language for students who would like to translate that into some kind of professional opportunity. If you’re in STEM, if you do engineering or chemistry, and so on, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have a lot of options, not just for continued education, but to actually get jobs if you like to live there. So in Germany, like in many other European countries, English has become a second language. You can do a master’s degree now, not just in the Netherlands and Denmark, but also in Germany, entirely in English. That is not a good way to go, I feel, because of the benefits of learning a language. Learning a language is hard, it’s really a lot of work. It takes a lot of dedication, it’s not something that just comes to you —  you have to learn the grammar, the vocabulary, the whole thing. But I think immersing yourself in a different culture has a lot of interesting payoffs, right? You suddenly feel you have different perspectives. It happened to me a couple of times when I studied English and Spanish. I was delighted to have these new kinds of perspectives on things based on knowledge and linguistic capabilities in another culture. So I just want to stress that the humanities in general, but learning a new language has a great educational benefit, that might not always be translated into a practical part. That’s another thing I like, many students here are not completely in the mindset to do practical things, to professionalize immediately. Some students come in here with a clear pathway they have to do, but yesterday, when one of my freshmen said, “I have no idea what I’m going to study,” I will sample all these great offers, and then I can maybe do neuroscience and German. That is the great thing about many of the students here. I have to say that, in all the years I’ve been here, we always had very interesting students: students that were really a great pleasure to teach, but also to see how they develop academically, and personally, and all the things they did. And we don’t expect people who major or minor in German to become German professors, right? And they go on to pretty much do anything across the spectrum, from medical doctors to lawyers, to even people working in tech careers.

NB: Just to get to know you a little bit better outside the classroom, could you tell us some of your nonacademic interests? What do you like to do in your spare time? 

HJ: Well, my biggest interest is actually reading. Outside of the texts that I read professionally, one of the things is when you even do a small article or a little review, you have to read very specifically to that. But I just like reading other literature from other cultures in translation, like Japanese. I really love cooking and entertaining. I’ve worked with slow food for many, many years, advocating for sustainable food systems and so on, which is another thing that went into the food classes. The food classes were about: What systems do we have? Are they sustainable? What is the role of the farmers today? The history of the peasantry, these are all interesting aspects. I cook a lot, I like going to the theater and music events, and I like taking students along. We’re going to see a Bertoldt Brecht play in a couple of weeks. Philadelphia is a great place to do German studies things. It used to be a very strong German city. As a matter of fact, Ben Franklin hated Germans, so he worked to prevent German from becoming the second language in the city government back in the 18th century. There’s the society, the German Society, with that beautiful library that does events, and the big cultural institutions: the European orchestra has a fairly German-heavy program. You can see German plays in translation all the time in Philadelphia.

NB: So, just sort of wrap up, if there was a student out there who’d always been sort of interested in the German studies department, but had never really engaged, what would you say they could do to get started in German? 

HW: Well, we have not too many offerings that are not in German. I think I would try that language and see if that works. If there are coordinated classes or our program teaches a class in translation, you could come in and read German literature, films, or all kinds of different academic areas through that. I don’t think that’s a substitute for coming in and doing the work of learning the language. We have money to send students to Germany in the summer, to study German to turbocharge the development of linguistic capability. Since we are teaching all of our classes in German, there is no substitute for learning the language and being on a level where you can understand, discuss, analyze, and write about the field. So I encourage people to come and take a look at the department, especially if you’re studying engineering or chemistry, I mean, a whole host of different fields. See German and German culture, which is, of course, a very broad field. We all think of Germany, right? But we are actually three countries. And some others like Liechtenstein, but it’s Switzerland, it’s Austria, it’s Germany, all these countries have a long and varied history. If you’re coming from various angles, you can benefit a lot from doing some German studies. And our reminder is relatively quickly to be obtained. Right? You don’t have to take five classes of which several can be in cognate fields like history or philosophy. So I would give it a try. If German is a culture and a language that interests you, we have to teach all kinds of languages. All of them are very, very interesting. There’s Chinese, there’s Arabic, right? There’s Spanish, of course. So it’s interesting that students who are in the program tend to stay on and do a lot of work and succeed in not only the language but in becoming very fluent in cultural aspects. 

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