December 3rd, 2013

Advent Calendars

It seems that the German tradition of counting down the 24 days of December to Christmas Eve has take hold not only in the supermarkets here in the U.S., but also on the web. While 10 years ago, I had family send over those often chocolate-filled, visually appealing calendars, they are now everywhere. Internet versions are often used as marketing tool for costumer retention. The German website has a long list of online calendars where you can win prizes. There is even a site where all German Facebook Calendars are listed. Here are a number of other interesting examples:

First the German ones:

  • Die Zeit, Germany’s leading intellectual weekly, is having a Knowledge [Wissen] calendar that reveals every day little known facts about nature.
  • Speaking of Knowledge, the Max-Planck Institute has a calendar that presents every day “fascinating scientific images.”
  • The Pal publishing house, specialized in literature for psychotherapy, offers a calendar with helpful advise.
  • Back to the roots, the University of Marburg has visitors guessing fairy tales in its Brothers Grimm calendar.
  • Museums seems to be especially fond of presenting their artifacts in calendar form. The State Museums of Berlin present daily a painting with corresponding sound collages on their Youtube Channel.
  • The Theodrarium a high school in Paderborn, hides stories and recipes behind its online calendar doors, but don’t dare opening a door early. Then you get the message “bad children don’t get anything for Christmas.”
  • The German Embassy in Washington has one, of course. It has culturally relevant images and videos that acquaint the U.S. audience with German Christmas culture.
  • Promoting German language and culture, the Goethe-Institut calendar shows us German cartoons when opening one of their doors.
  • The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW), whose mission is also the promotion of learning German, has an appropriate calendar that uses audio clips where DW colleagues explain Christmas-related terms but are prohibited from using the most obvious terms (like the game Taboo).

Moving on to English-language calendar, there seems to be a similar line-up:

  • The Atlantic publishes pictures from the Hubble Telescope on its calendar.
  • The Economist surprises its readers with “a collection of the 24 most popular maps, charts, data visualisations and interactive features…” I am sure there are fans out there.
  • The Jesuit Loyola Press tries to remind its audience of the religious dimension of advent through stories pictures, and videos. It also has a children’s calendar.
  • The BBC has a calendar that introduces visitors to the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It also includes a quiz. – oops, it’s from 2005, but that’s the beauty of advent calendars, you can use them independently from the year. And it’s still wonderful.
  • And there are museum calendars as well. See Pinterest for the one from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

October 13th, 2013

So, how did the online course go?

That’s what some of my colleagues asked me after the summer was over and the fall semester had started again. I gave most of them the “elevator version” answer: better than I thought, surprisingly well, a few tweaks are necessary…

And indeed, with all the anxiety and self-doubt beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised about the process and the results of the course. In my course proposal I had indicated the following learning objectives:

“This seminar will investigate the particular strengths and limits of a wide range of resources from across the Humanities. The class explores how history, critical theory, philosophy, film and other academic fields have approached the understanding of the Holocaust, each of them adding a facet to the “truth” about the Holocaust. We will also consider the meaning of the Holocaust in contemporary German and American culture. In addition, students learn to critically analyse the different approaches to the Holocaust that go beyond the traditional historical approach. Finally, they have to apply their newly acquired analytical skills to a specific aspect of the Holocaust.”

Judging from the final projects, most students seem to have reached those goals. We discussed a number of current academic approaches to the Holocaust and evaluated in weekly synchronous discussions the strengths of each approach. Challenging were the readings by Michel Bernard-Donals (Critical Theory) and Claudia Card(Philosophy). Bernard-Donals’ distinction between witnessing and testifying was for some students difficult to grasp as was Card’s Atrocity Paradigm. However, I believe it was important to expose students to other approaches than just counting victims and reading memoirs. What students learned, for sure, was that all our/their knowledge about the Holocaust is mediated, already interpreted. Even the testimonies of the survivors found on the various websites (USHMM; Yad Vashem; Shoah Foundation, …) are only giving us a glimpse of the horrors. We can only read and hear their testimony. We can neither smell the stench of the camps nor feel the cold or the flea bites in cramped quarters. That does not make these texts less valuable; but we have to be aware that “the truth” about the Holocaust lies in many sources.

Teaching at a liberal arts college, my colleagues form UMW’s  Online Learning Initiative (OLI) and I indicated liberal arts values as core elements of our courses. For my “Holocaust and the Humanities in the 21st Century,” I identified the following: Interactivity, Reflection, Exposure to New Ideas, and Critical Thinking.


The course provides the opportunity of a high degree of interaction between student and instructor, as well as between the student and other students. The assignments submitted by the students got individualized feedback. The assignment in week 3 was based on group work that needed everyone’s input. Here, the students contributed sometimes unevenly. Thanks to the different colors used in the editing process on Big Blue Button (BBB – similar to Google docs), I could identify the amount of contribution per student and grade accordingly. During the discussions, which we did synchronously through BBB video conferencing and Chat functions, students had the opportunity to talk to each other. Prepared PowerPoint presentations with questions got the discussion rolling. Problems arose from students not having headsets and trying to keep up by chat window with the oral discussion. One solution to this problem will be to require all students to have headsets as a course requirement.


The questions WHY and HOW the Holocaust could happen  as well as how the different humanities disciplines approach the subject of the Holocaust, was the focus of weekly reflection and discussion assignments. After an initial individual reflection, students engaged in discussions with each other and the professor. The reading of the book “Neigbors” by the Polish sociologist Jan Gross and its critique by Polish historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz started students thinking of the reliability of printed sources and the importance of  research methodology.

The multiple blog assignments showed that the students did not only reflect critically on the on the readings and films, they also referenced their peers’ reflections. The final project showed, for the most part, that students applied their newly gained abilities to their final projects.

Exposure to New Ideas

The course itself had as its main goal the exposure to new ideas, new approaches to the Holocaust. Topics like the Philosophy of Evil or studies on the differences between witnessing and testifying are usually not taught within our undergraduate curriculum. The students had a hard time reading selections of the two texts and creating questions for their fellow students. Some students did not participate at all in this (group) activity and received 0 points for it. However, most students cold show that they could apply new ideas in their final projects.

Critical Thinking

Students were encouraged to question the new ideas and approaches they were exposed to. The best example was the the reading of “Neighbors” and following critique. I could observe that from this point on, students were more careful in accepting sources at face value. In addition, provocative materials such as the video of a Holocaust survivor dancing in Auschwitz were challenging the notion of appropriateness and demanded critical investigation. In their final projects, students had to define their own approach to analysis.


Overall, the course went surprisingly well. I was expecting the whole time that some major crisis would occur, but everything went rather smoothly. I believe that the year-long training in OLI cohort and the review of the syllabus by multiple parties was a great help in preparing this course. Thanks to all of you.

I think that I achieved the goals and liberal arts values that we had set in the OLI meetings. The online delivery was well-suited for this topic as we were discussing 21st-century approaches to the Holocaust. Tools such as BBB and Popplet kept students and instructor connected despite the physical distance.

For the next time, I would make the following changes:

  • Require the use of headsets by all students
  • Set a time for synchronous discussions before the course starts. (Possibly investigate entry in the course catalog.)
  • Find ways to have students participate in all assignments.
  • Have students present their projects during synchronous discussions at the end of the course.

September 29th, 2013

Der Holocaust im Deutschunterricht

Liebe Kollegen, ich wäre daran interessiert zu erfahren, inwieweit der Nationalsozialismus und der Holocaust eine Rolle in Ihrem Landeskundeunterricht (Geschichtslektion?) spielen. Ich unterrichte an einer Uni in den USA sowohl Deutsch (A1-C1) als auch Germanistik (Literatur- und Kulturgeschichte). Unser Germanistik-Programm schließt auch die Vermittlung von Literatur zum Holocaust (z.B. Paul Celan) als theoretische Ansätze zur Memorialkultur ein. Darüber hinaus unterrichte ich auch einen interdisziplinären Kurs zur Memorialkultur auf Englisch für Erstsemester-Studenten.

Die Entscheidung, den Nationalsozialismus (NS) verstärkt zu unterrichten ist noch nicht sehr alt und ist den  Erfahrungen gezollt, die ich mit Studenten gemacht habe, die eine für mich befremdende Faszination mit dem NS haben. Viele, in der Mehrzahl männliche, Studenten können die Namen von Generälen, Militäreinheiten, Waffengattungen und Schlachten mit Bewunderung im Detail aufzählen, haben aber keine Ahnung vom Holocaust. Wenn ich in einer A2-Klasse die Studenten einen Aufsatz zu einer berühmten deutschsprachigen Person schreiben lasse, habe ich immer einige, die die Liste von Personen im Arbeitsblatt um Nazi-Persönlichkeiten erweitern möchten.

Ich denke, dass die Schüler hier wenig über den NS im Geschichtskunde-/Sozialkundeunterricht der High-Schools lernen und daher durch umgelenktes Selbststudium, uninteressierte oder halbwissende Eltern und fragwürdige Sendungen im Fernsehen (History Channel) zu ihrem Wissen kommen. Unsere kleine Uni hat nur zwei Klassen, die den Holocaust vermitteln könnten, eine ist im Historischen Institut und wird von einem Militärhistoriker unterrichtet, die andere ist über Genozid im 20. Jahrhundert und deckt alles von Armenien bis Ruanda ab. Ich sah deshalb die Notwendigkeit, das universitäre Curriculum zu erweitern.

Ich bin mir völlig im Klaren, dass ich als Professor den Vorteil habe, die Art der angebotenen Kurse mitzubestimmen. Das geht in den Gymnasien/High-Schools sicherlich nicht. Allerdings habe Lehrer auf der Sekundarstufe natürlich innerhalb ihres Unterrichts gewisse inhaltliche Freiheiten.

Von meinen High-School-Kollegen hier höre ich oft, dass das Thema zu grausam sei, nur das Bild vom hässlichen Deutschen verstärkt und daher die Einschreibezahlen für die Kurse negativ beeinflusst. Ich verstehe das. Ich stelle es mir allerdings auch schwierig vor, aktuelle Themen ohne das Hintergrundwissen über den Holocaust zu diskutieren. Jüngstes Beispiel ist der auch in U.S.-Zeitungen publizierte Verkauf der früheren Synagoge in Koblenz an einen Investor, der dort ein Restaurant und Wohnungen einrichten will.

Meine Fragen an meine weltweiten Kollegen sind die:

  1. Spielt der Holocaust und oder der NS in Ihrem Landeskundeunterricht eine Rolle?  Warum haben Sie sich entschieden, das Thema (nicht) zu unterrichten?
  2. Wenn ja, was machen Sie mit den Schülern oder Studenten?
  3. Wenn nein, würden Sie das Thema gern unterrichten, sehen allerdings Hürden, die dem im Wege stehen? Was sind diese Hürden?
  4. Treten Schüler/Studenten an Sie als Deutschlehrer mit Fragen zum NS heran? Wie reagieren Sie?
  5. Spielt die Geografie eine Rolle, d.h. wird in Ländern, die während des Zweiten Weltkriegs unter den Deutschen gelitten haben, das Thema mehr/ weniger/nicht unterrichtet?

Ich bin für alle sachlichen Kommentare dankbar. Eine richtige Antwort kann es hier nicht geben.  Unsere Lehr-und Lern-Situationen sind oft sehr unterschiedlich. Ich möchte gern verstehen, welche Motivation Lehrer weltweit haben, dieses Thema (nicht) zu unterrichten. Alle Argumente sollten mit Respekt behandelt werden.


September 29th, 2013

The Holocaust in the High School German Classroom

Dear colleagues, I would be interested to learn to what extent National Socialism and the Holocaust play a role in your high school German classroom (Landeskunde)?  I teach at a university in the United States both German (Beginners to Advanced) and German (literarture and cultural history ) . Our German program includes the teaching of literature on the Holocaust (eg. Paul Celan ) as well as theoretical approaches to Memorial Culture . In addition, I also teach an interdisciplinary course on Memorial Culture in English for first-year students.

The decision to include National Socialism (NS) is not very old and is due to experiences I had made with students who have a strange fascination with the Nazi. Many male students can recite the names of generals , military units, weapons and battles with admiration in great detail, but have no idea of ​​the Holocaust. If I let the students write an essay on a famous German person in an intermediate class , I always some who want to expand the list of people in the worksheet with Nazi personalities.

I think that students here learn little about NS in their history/social studies classes in the high schools and therefore arrive at their conclusions through undirected self-study, disinterested or semi -knowing parents and questionable programs on television (History Channel ). Our small university has only two classes that could remotely cover the Holocaust, one is in the History Department and is taught by a military historian; the other is about genocide in the 20th Century and covers everything from Armenia to Rwanda. I therefore saw the need to expand the university’s curriculum.

I am fully aware that as a professor I have the advantage of helping to determine the types of courses offered. That certainly does not happen at high schools. However, teachers on the secondary level have certain freedoms within their classrooms.

From my high school colleagues here, I often hear that the issue of the NS was too cruel, only reinforcing the image of the ugly German, and therefore negatively influencing enrollment numbers for the courses. I understand that. However, I think it is also difficult to discuss current issues without the background knowledge of the Holocaust. The latest example (widely published in U.S. newspapers) is the sale of the former synagogue in Koblenz to an investor who wishes to set up a restaurant, and apartments.

My questions to my colleagues worldwide are:

  1. Does the Holocaust and the NS play a role in your German classroom? Why do you teach it? Why not?
  2. If you teach it, what do you do with your students?
  3. If you don’t teach it, would you like to teach the subject, but see obstacles that stand in the way? What are these obstacles?
  4. Do students approach you as a German teacher with questions about the NS? How do you react?
  5. Does geography play a role? Is the subject taught more / less / not at all in countries that have suffered during the Second World War under the Germans?

I am grateful for all the respectful comments. There will be no correct answer here. Our teaching and learning situations are often very different. I want to understand what motivates teachers worldwide to teach this topic or not.


June 27th, 2013

“A Film Unfinished”

One of the first assignments in our course was to watch the documentary A Film Unfinished, which tries to contextualize raw footage for an intended Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto that was found in East-German archives after World War II.

The reflections by the students were quite insightful and picked up on a number of details from the film. Some draw connections to the value of archival research. Here I might add that archival research on propaganda is somewhat limited as the Ministry of Propaganda was hit by bombs during the last days of World War II and most of the original files were destroyed. There are some copies available that were sent to other departments, embassies, and regional propaganda offices, so we can reconstruct some of the internal communication about propaganda. For those interested (and speaking German) – those files are under the category number R55 at the Federal Archive in Berlin-Lichterfelde.

On the topic of propaganda, some of the students referred to the footage as “a work of propaganda.” That’s interesting as I would argue that the raw footage alone is not the actual propaganda film yet. It is “a film unfinished.” Without the cut, a narrator, music, and (added) sound, the pointed motivation is missing. Sure, we know from the comments of the survivors and the multiple entries that a large number of scenes of the footage were staged. However, compare this film to the well-known Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (Der ewige Jude – 1940) to see how footage of the Warsaw Ghetto was used for propagandistic purposes.

Or what do others think? When does raw footage become propaganda?

Regarding the lack of sound, something that Sarah pointed out, I started to think that this eerie footage stands metonymically for the voiceless Jews it depicts. Samantha pointed out that she felt it was her duty to finish watching this film to pass on this knowledge. I would take this farther by saying we have to be the voices of the voiceless.

Finally, I was surprised that none of the students could really consolidate the two themes of the film footage, the extremely poor and the staged wealthy. Maybe watching The Eternal Jew will help to understand the intended message. It was not to show the different ways of life and how good the Jews in the Ghetto live. It was intended to show how, when the Jews are left alone, their hereditary greed will make a few rich so they can life in nice apartments and have parties and ample entertainment while others have to die of starvation . This is supposed to serve as a metaphor for how the Jews as a whole have been living in Germany sucking out all the money from the poor hard-working Germans. The lineup at the end of the film, then, serves as an accusation: the rich are placed next to the poor, the ones from which they took everything. Keep in mind that the Nazi ideology propagated a Volksgemeinschaft (a people’s community) without classes where everyone (Aryan) has a place and lives well.


June 24th, 2013

First online course

July 24 came faster than I thought. Today, my first online course The Holocaust and the Humanities in the 21st Century starts. While the course uses mainly Canvas, our LMS, as platform, students will use blogs for reflection and responses. You can follow the class blog and see the feeds.


February 13th, 2013

“The Digital Scholar” – “The Open Scholar”

To be honest, Weller’s discussion of digital scholarship (chapter 4) leaves me conflicted. While I would definitely appreciate more open access to scholarship online, I am also worried about the abuse.

  1. Authorship – the now classic New Yorker cartoon (below) applies to academic authorship as well. Of course,the open access would make it also possible to improve on articles or other scholarly “products” (databases, collections, ..), the peer-review process would widen the scope of the input. Also, the “damn third reviewer” could now be multiplied by x. Especially for controversial research this could lead to endless discussions that, in the end, do not lead to an improvement. On the other hand, such an exchange would be beneficial. But when do you draw the line and say this article is the best it can be?


2. Copyright – I am waiting to see if the New Yorker will come after me for posting this cartoon on my blog. Working in the field of visual communication and having gone through the process of securing print permissions for images in research article and paying handsomely for them, I wonder if the current copyright laws would not be a hindrance to open scholarship. Further complicating the matter is the question what copyright laws apply. We have to keep in mind that the Internet is not an U.S.  enterprise. An example: I am trying to include in an article a German poster from the 1920s that I found on a published CD of a prominent German poster collection (German Historical Museum). The said collection had been expropriated by the Nazis in the 1930s from a Jewish collector and has been given back recently to his grandson who lives in Miami, FL. He puts those posters up for auction later this month. Which copyright law applies? Oh, and also, the artist who designed the poster has died less than 90 years ago (=cutoff to be considered in the public domain).

3. Plagiarism – Somewhat connected to the last point: will open scholarship also be open to more plagiarism by our students? In Germany, two government ministers had to step down within the last two years since it was detected that both had plagiarized significantly on their PhD theses. While plagiarism might be easier to be detected on the B.A. / B.S. level graduate students might not be immune to it either. One could argue that plagiarizing minds will always find a way to do it, would open scholarship make it even easier for them?


February 13th, 2013

Some reflections on Weller’s “Digital Scholar” – Digital Natives

In chapter 2, Weller makes the argument that our students have changed and provides data on how much time today’s students read in comparison to play online and watch TV. He quotes Oblinger (2005) and Grunwald (2003) that found that students want from the Internet mostly “new information’ and “learn more or learn better.” I find that that conclusion a bit to superficial; it does not account for the use of the Internet as either Pull Medium (Hulu, Facebook) or Push Medium (creating of content). While anecdotal it is my impression that students attitudes towards the Internet is more of a hedonistic one. That seems to be confirmed by Oblinger’s finding that 74 per cent of teenagers use IM as a major communication tool as well as Brown (2009) and Rowlands (2008) that point to a lack of reading and research skills. Digital Natives as a whole seem to me still in their infant stage. In addition and as Weller points out himself in 2.7., we don’t really know “what or if people are learning.” While there are plenty of educational resources (see 2.10) available, an assessment of their success is difficult. Visitor hits alone are not sufficient evidence.

All those are, of course, no reasons NOT to explore the possibilities of online, connected learning (2.12).


February 6th, 2013

Password trouble

I had password troubles earlier with the domain, but it’s all ironed out now. Then I came across this:



February 6th, 2013

A new project – A Domain of One’s Own

Here is to a new beginning in blogging. After a number of years behind Blackboard and Canvas walls, my university’s Domain of One’s Own project triggers me to write down my thoughts on the process of getting my own web domain ( in a more public way.
The first challenge – choosing a domain name. What would be appropriate for a site that will eventually reflect my professional activities: full name?, nome de guerre? descriptive name? .com?.org? .net? I settled on my full name and the .net suffix as I hope to make this site part of my professional NETwork.
It speaks to the solidity of the project that we work in cohort of 5-6 and approach the creation of the domain with its different sites from a goal-oriented standpoint rooted in reading and group discussion.

The first reading is Martin Weller’s The Digital Scholar.


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