The Colgate Scene
March 2001
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Visiting Colgate, linking to the world

Martin Grzimek meets with students in the Max Kade German Center.
Technology makes inter-institutional international collaboration possible, allowing students at different schools to have joint courses and talk to experts wherever they are -- in Berlin, Santiago de Chile or Seattle.

     This global connection also allows for such world premieres as Kythera -- a first performance by Neva Pilgrim of a composition by Violeta Dinescu based on a poem by Gisela Hemau. The composer was present in the chapel, while the poet was at home in Cologne connected to Colgate via videoconference. In a first-year seminar, students interviewed Ingeborg Hecht about her experiences as a half-Jew subject to the Nuremberg Laws in Fascist Germany. The Badische Zeitung, a German newspaper, reported enthusiastically on this new approach to transatlantic learning. German conversation courses have made extensive use of such possibilities to confront Colgate students with the different areas of German culture and get firsthand information from German artists, journalists and businessmen. The course Reinventing Story-Telling: Contemporary German Literature has at its core videoconferences with contemporary writers such as Thomas Brussig, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Martin Grzimek, Ruth Klüger, Benjamin Lebert, Milena Moser, Sten Nadolny, Bernhard Schlink, Ingo Schulze, Uwe Timm and Karel Trinkewitz.

     In a few cases, other institutions (for instance, Middlebury, Skidmore and Indiana University) participated in multi-point broadcasts. Many unsolicited remarks by students attest to the deep impression these conversations have made. They see it as "a good way for Colgate students to experience some of the rewards of the age of technology." But these virtual encounters cannot, of course, be a substitute for personal visits by an author, as was demonstrated by Martin Grzimek's visit.

     Our writer-in-residence for two weeks has been characterized by critics as one of the most intriguing contemporary writers and is the recipient of many literary prizes -- among them, the prize for the best German mystery story in 1992. His works include novels, short stories, documentaries, a literary diary and articles on German literature. Grzimek's first contact with Colgate was via videoconference from Chile in the spring of 1999.

     This fall he not only became acquainted with the actual Colgate environment, but also experienced videoconferences from our perspective, participating in a conference with his translator, Breon Mitchell, who sat in the studio at Indiana University. -- Professor Dierk Hoffmann

Martin Grzimek
A visitor's view
by Martin Grzimek
translated by Breon Mitchell

In the early 1980s I taught German literature here in Heidelberg for a few semesters at Schiller International University, a private school attended primarily by American students studying business.

     Largely by rote, some standard work on economy would be drilled into them by professors imported from their homeland. They could have done the same thing in the USA, but in those days people still had the strange idea that a future businessman should be able to do more than simply interpret statistics and numbers. It was customary to combine a few phrases of German or French, and a little knowledge of European philosophy and literature, with some non-American life. So I would converse with ten or 20 students who, in addition to their required courses, had enrolled in a class on Romantic literature.

     We would read texts by Novalis and Hölderlin, and when our interest or words flagged, we would stroll through the old city of Heidelberg and practice the Romantic life, which prefers pleasure, emotions and dreams over analyses and profit statements or appraisals and calculations. And Heidelberg is a beautiful city that has retained its Romantic flair in spite of the commercialism, the hordes of tourists and the concrete parking garages. In those student discussions, and on our excursions, I got to know extremely likeable and inquisitive young men and women, and since I was still young myself, we usually hit it off from the start.

     I wrote my first novels and stories back then, along with other

     purely commercial assignments. Teaching was an enjoyable but a strictly scheduled way to make money. Writing wasn't directly connected with either money or a schedule; it was an independent activity, with a more flexible, almost unconscious relationship to time, and money was the last thing I thought about when writing. It was a very intense experience, but far removed from academics -- and my relationship with the American students back then felt like that, too.

     More than 15 years after this period of teaching, and with that very pleasant memory in mind, I arrived in Hamilton at the invitation of Professor Dierk Hoffmann. Schiller International University in Heidelberg is housed in a villa built in the 1920s. Colgate is a complex of buildings and houses standing like statues in a park. They emit a certain aura of respect, appearing solid and carefully arranged, embedded in the gentle lines of the landscape, yet artificial. Professor Hoffmann had sent me a university brochure. The pictures it contained were perfectly matched by what stood before my eyes. And this congruence of expectation with reality awakened a sense of intimacy that surprised me: I felt I had nothing to fear. I met students and teachers I was curious about, and I had the impression they felt the same way. Thus I encountered an ideal condition for productive learning; that is, in my own case as a writer, to be surprised and startled without feeling frightened by something that's different or new or unusual or awkward.

     The moment I met the students it was obvious that they were very well prepared. Having read my stories in advance, in a sense they already knew me, and although the questions they had worked out focused initially on the text, they inevitably turned toward me, the author. And because literature deals with stories and emotions, with images and the unconscious, with allusions and playfulness, they could ask me about my feelings and thoughts, my experiences and opinions, and compare my answers with passages in the text. We talked about how I had grown up in a former prisoner-of-war camp in West Germany, where the barracks still stand today, and in one of which a Museum of Peace is currently being established; of what it meant to have parents who had lost everything in the war, of the sort of feelings that awaken when thinking about the past, which weighs so heavily upon us Germans. We also dealt in detail with Sophie and Berndt Kalkreuth, characters from a longer story, figures of my imagination. Both wished to escape the stress of their jobs in the big city and spend their vacation on an isolated island in Finland, in the midst of untouched nature, and it is precisely there that Sophie hides from her husband the most natural thing in the world -- that she is expecting a child.

     Why? What sort of tensions arise from this constellation, and how are they depicted? How do readers with entirely different backgrounds react to it, as 20-year-olds? What did they make of a film version of the story, one just completed this year, which treated the story quite freely?

     What did it feel like to read a story in the original, then in a version by the American translator, who joined us for a videoconference? Breon Mitchell sat in a studio in Bloomington, Indiana, while students from the German department, a few professors, and I sat 750 miles away: we saw each other, we could speak to one another, we carried on a discussion -- what an amazing arrangement.

     A few days later I was in Indiana myself, this time reading with Mitchell passages from my stories for his graduate students, followed by conversations just as interesting as those at Colgate. I for one certainly found these talks with students enriching, and I have only admiration for the way in which Professor Hoffmann facilitated them, putting in just the right word here and there.

     The entire visit centered not so much on me as on literature itself, and on the medium in which I love to express myself, the German language, which is sometimes fiendishly difficult and can sound so harsh. In the smaller circle of the literary workshop run by Saskia Rimmler, we put this to the test, examining the opening passages of each of the three stories in Heartstop, this time in the German original of course, and noting carefully what happened in each. I was surprised myself how many parallels existed among the initial paragraphs, how fascinating it can be to study the individual sentences, their structure, their sound, their purpose -- and all in German.

     After gatherings like this there were also opportunities, on the side, so to speak, for extremely interesting meetings with faculty from other departments. Their curiosity was always refreshing, as was the chance to talk with writers like Fred Busch and Peter Balakian, whom I came to know and appreciate. And it is significant that my contact with these colleagues and with the students has continued, since questions still remained, and a lively interest, and answers to be argued over.

     I only wished now and then I could have done with the students in Hamilton what I did with those American students in Heidelberg: go off campus, stroll through the lanes, have a drink somewhere, and discuss the ultimate source from which all literature and art arises: everyday experience, the desire to learn, weakness and strength and -- above all -- listening closely and looking carefully at everything around us. I also enjoyed those quiet moments when I walked across the grassy commons of the campus, or waited for someone in the halls: I always stared at the large clocks over the exits, watching the second hand make its rounds, moving not with the jerky motion of the heart, but gliding smoothly and silently through the segments of time as if there were no pause or end, as if they would never stand still, offering the perfect image of the Heraclitan "all things constantly change."

     Two weeks can be a long time; for me they were profoundly intense. Memories of each and every day throng my mind. I am grateful to those I was privileged to meet, to the German department, to Colgate University, and above all to Dierk Hoffmann.

Senior Nora Lynne Brady
Student perspective
by Nora Lynne Brady '01

As usual, the students and professor are a little bit nervous in the moments before we begin. All eyes are glued to the large screen in the front of the room. Will the connection be made? Will the students be brave enough to ask the questions they have? At last the other end picks up, the screen brightens with the image of a young man. Benjamin Lebert, one of Germany's hottest young authors, appears, ready to discuss his novel with Colgate students.

     Dierk Hoffmann's German 222, Reinventing Story-Telling, offers students a classroom experience that goes a step further than usual. Students read the works of contemporary German authors in translation and discuss not only the literature itself, but also the process by which an author becomes marketable in both his own country, and internationally. Our discussions have been joined by the authors of the works themselves, as well as translators. Through this course we have also experienced the world premieres of several works, including the film version of Martin Grzimek's "Finlandia," a short story from his collection Heartstop, and a musical piece inspired by the poetry of Gisela Hemau. The class met some authors in person, and others, such as Lebert, through videoconferencing.

     A videoconference enables the participants to see and hear each other -- conversing freely even though they may be thousands of miles apart. This allows people all over the world to communicate as if they were in the same room. When two locations both have the necessary technology, one simply dials the other up at a chosen time. That party picks up, and both audio and visual aspects are provided. With a large group such as a class participating, there are small sensors provided throughout the room, so that when someone wishes to speak, all he or she has to do is touch the sensor and the camera will zoom in on that person. Overall, the experience of a videoconference is simple, yet exciting.

Professor Dierk Hoffmann presides over a videoconference with author Benjamin Lebert.
     The class was particularly enthusiastic about having a videoconference with Lebert, whose novel Crazy we had read in class. Lebert proved to be as fun and engaging as the class had hoped. The 18-year-old writer was also visibly nervous at the beginning, constantly sipping at his water and smiling sheepishly. It was his youth, however, that made Lebert so easy to talk to and question. Students inquired about everything from Lebert's writing process to his opinion of the party scene throughout different cities. Not only did we learn a lot about the author's feelings and opinions regarding both his writing and the industry in general, but we were also able to connect with Lebert on a personal level, laughing and joking with him and even inviting him to visit us here at Colgate to experience American college life. It was very exciting to meet someone who had already revealed a piece of himself to us through his work, and then to find out about how this work came to be. Lebert also shared with us how he was adjusting to the changes fame had brought him. His obligations to attend boring cocktail parties and spend time away from his family were among the more negative aspects, although he does enjoy the increase in attention he gets from girls.

     Lebert also discussed with us the pressure of being labeled as the voice of a generation. Since the publication of his coming-of-age story, Lebert has been referred to as the "German Salinger," a term he is not comfortable with. His recognition has also brought him happiness, in that he has been able to travel the world for his book tours, and has the last word with his high school German teachers who told him he would never amount to anything. By the end of the discussion there was a feeling of fulfillment, for having finally met this person we had admired throughout the semester, and for the cross-cultural learning that had occurred for everyone involved.

     Having a videoconference is, of course, different in many ways from having the person right there with you. Our class was fortunate enough to experience both circumstances this semester. Several German authors came to speak with us here at Colgate. Martin Gzrimek spent several days with us to discuss his work, as well as to join us for the premiere of the film version of a story we had read. Gzrimek discussed with us the themes of his work, the writing process, how he is inspired with ideas, and other aspects of his career. Because he was here for a few days, we were able to get to know Gzrimek fairly well, although we were missing the degree of comradery we established with Lebert. This was largely due to Lebert's youth. However, there is a certain comfort provided by communicating through a videoconference. It is intimate enough, yet without the physical presence of the person one often feels even more comfortable posing personal questions.

     The use of videoconferences for language courses is becoming more valuable as the technology improves and is more widely available. Educators are always seeking to expand the possibilities that can give students an advantage. This technology provides new ways for students to communicate with people they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to meet. Technology also creates new ways for students to work on language skills -- such as through online chats with native German speakers -- and by establishing connections with German universities. I hope that opportunities like these will continue to flourish at Colgate. They have allowed me incredible experiences that I am sure to remember always.

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