Tussing, James

Name: James Tussing
E-mail: jtussing@nd.edu
Location of Study: Berlin, Germany
Program of Study: Goethe Institute
Sponsor(s): Mark Shields

A brief personal bio:

I am a political theorist who studied previously at the University of Chicago and the Ãcole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris). My work focuses on early modern political philosophy and 19th and 20th century theories of secularization. I come from New York City.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

I need to learn German for academic reasons: much of the best primary and secondary literature in my area of study is written in German. I plan to devote part of my dissertation to Nietzsche, and so I need to be able to read his work in the original language. Beyond these specific goals, I think that it is very difficult to be a serious student of the history of political theory without knowing how to read German well, and I think that the best way to learn how to read German is to learn to speak it. Personally speaking, I have a long-standing interest in German culture: music, history and literature. Yet I have never set foot in a German speaking country. So it will be a treat to experience Germany first hand.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

As I have said, my professional goal is to learn to read German with ease. However, I think that the best way to learn to read German is to learn to speak and write it, and that in general the best way to learn a language is to live it- to pass an extended period of time in a country where it is spoken, and to communicate exclusively in that language. I have done this in both France and Italy, and the experience has given me a good command of both languages.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1.  As I have explained, my principle goal is to learn to read academic and literary German with ease.
  2.  I hope to advance to level “B2” in my general German skills (not just reading, but writing and speaking). I am now between levels A2 and B1
  3.  I hope to learn something about German culture by the experience of immersion

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I like to think that, from each language I have studied, I have not simply learned a new language, but also something about HOW to learn a language. This is doubly true for the experience of studying languages by immersion: having done it twice before, I feel that I have gotten better at it, and that this will make my experience in Germany particularly productive. I plan to spend the time between the end of this semester and the beginning of my studies in Germany intensively studying, both with grammar books and with the online courses provided by Deutsche Welle. I have a few German friends who live in Berlin who vow to speak only German to me during my trip, and this should give me the opportunity to experience German-language social life, and not to spend all of my time in Berlin speaking German to other foreigners.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

Arrival in Berlin. There is so much construction in Berlin that it looks like Shanghai: cranes are everywhere, and the whole central part of town (around Potsdamer Platz and Unter den Linden, the famous tree-lined main avenue of Berlin) is full of brand new buildings or buildings in the course of construction. Both during the cold war and after the wall came down Berlin was famously hip and counter-cultural, full of students and young people who think that they are artists. A big reason for this was clearly the low rent: before reunification Berlin was not the capital of West Germany, and after the wall came down an enormous amount of real-estate became available in the eastern part of town. Now people are worried that all of this will be developed away. Still, my apartment – in Schöenberg, in the southern part of the city – is fabulously cheap, even compared to South Bend (!). And the neighborhood, far from being gentrified, remains rather seedy.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

One week in: When I told friends from France and the United States that I was going to spend the summer in Berlin, I heard a lot of jokes about German food. Alas, rumor does not exaggerate: a lot of the food one eats here is simply awful. A Berlinerin friend of mine who is originally from Cologne tells me that this is an ostdeutsch phenomenon, and I believe her. In Berlin as in much of post-communist Eastern Europe, the idea behind a supermarket is simple: get as many calories into your belly as you can for as few Euros as possible. The portions at restaurants are positively midwestern. Still beer & (more surprisingly) the wine although cheap is of excellent quality compared to what you get in back home. And every time I ring up at the cash register, I am amazed at how small the total price is: an experience I have certainly never had in America!

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

Visited the Bundestag, the German parliament, which sits in the same building as the Imperial German Reichstag built under Kaiser Wilhelm in the 1890s. It continued to house the German Parliament under the Weimar Republic until in 1933 when Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. It was then mostly destroyed in a mysterious fire, which the Nazis used as a pretext for claiming emergency powers. The Nazis blamed the fire on Bolsheviks, but it is now widely suspected that they started it themselves; however the exact circumstances remain unclear. Because the Nazi sham parliament never sat in the building, it was deemed an appropriate location for the parliament of reunited federal Germany and re-built, with an impressive modernistic glass dome as a copula (sort of like the pyramid at the new Louvre). The historical exhibits in the visitor’s section are quite impressive (I liked a photo of Albert Einstein listening to a debate in the Weimar parliament). And because the glass dome serves as a sort of skylight to the main hall of the the Bundestag, you can see the parliamentary debates from above: a symbol of transparency, I suppose. It’s neat: I saw Angela Merkel!

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

I arrived in Berlin during the Euro-cup football tournament, a championship tournament between the teams of different European nations. I have never seen so much enthusiasm for a sporting event in my life, and I was in Italy when the Italians one the world cup in 2006. Just about every third person you saw on the street was wearing a German flag, or had it painted on their face. When I bought a German SIM card for my cell-phone the Nokia store was decked out in black-red-gold. Since the war, patriotic displays have become unacceptable in Germany under most circumstances: sporting events are the major exception. This has provoked quite a bit of anxious chattering political talk-shows, and Green-party supporting friend of mine wore a political button that said “Patriotismus? Nein, danke!” (a take off on the famous anti-nuclear slogan – Atomkraft? Nein, danke! – that gave birth the the Green party). It all seemed pretty harmless to me. If the Germans were especially enthusiastic this year, I think that it was because they were heavy favorites to win. But the poor things didn’t even make it to the finals, and now there is hardly a German flag to be seen.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

I visited Dresden today with some friends from school. The first thing that I have to observe is that Deutsche Bahn trains are not nearly as efficient or comfortable as you would expect them to be. People in France never stop complaining about the SNCF, but compared to German regional lines it is a model of timeliness and efficiency (when conductors are not on strike…). Of course it is better than Amtrak, which isn’t hard, but to take the cheap train to Dresden you have to take a slow inter-city train to a small town in rural Saxony, then get into a crowded and unclimatized commuter train that can become very hot. My friend Pascalinne nearly fainted. Transport aside, Dresden is magnificent. You see all of Germany there, from an immense and hideous Communist-style central boulevard to the lovely baroque and Gothic buildings in the city center. There is something uncanny about central Dresden. It was of course completely flattened by British and American bombers during the war. Unlike in many cities in East Germany, it was decided to rebuild the historic town center as exactly as possible.

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

Having previously complained about the quality of German food, I have to name two exceptions. Firstly, the Turkish food is excellent. While in France the Kebabs are greasy and disgusting, in Germany the are wonderful: the meat, though fatty, is not greasy; the vegetables are plentiful and fresh; the pita is thin and crunchy. Secondly, there are many excellent “green” (organic) supermarkets. Unlike in the US, this sort of place is reasonably priced here, and the food is often excellent. No (non-pickled) fish, though…

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

As a cultural experience, my trip to Germany was everything that I could have hoped for. I have the good fortune to have some a few Berliner friends, and they introduced me to their friends, which helped me to lead a German-centered social life. I feel that I would have profited more form the experience if I had known better German when I arrived: although my friends were very patient, it was often frustrating to have to speak kinderdeutsch, not to be able to express complex ideas. But I certainly met the language-learning goals I set out in my earlier blog-post.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

All this said, I was very disappointed in my language school, the DID-Deutsch Institute. I had intended to go to the Goethe-Institute Berlin, but the SLA check arrived so late that, by the time that I had my grant money, the Berlin program was full. The time that SLA takes to disburse money to the winners of its grants is a serious problem with the system that ought to be fixed.

I knew that the Goethe Institute was the best language-learning course on offer, but DID was also recommended by SLA, and because I had German friends in Berlin I thought that it was better to go to DID in Berlin than to the Goethe Institute in another German city. I don’t regret going to Berlin, but DID was a poor choice: it is chaotically organized, there are often more than 16 students in the classes (although they advertise 16 students at the maximum), and the quality of the teaches is variable. Because they had more students than class space, they would organize a kind of study hall on Wednesday, where students of different levels were invited to work on their homework together. This was a complete waste of time and few students showed up to it, but it was billed as “class time.”
SLA students: go to the Goethe Institute. It is expensive, but you get what you pay for!

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I plan to keep up my German this academic year by following German radio and TV, by doing grammar exercises every morning, and above all through reading German scholarly works and litterature. During my stay in Berlin I managed to finagle an invitation to an academic conference on Hegel in July 2013, so next year I should be able to go back to Berlin. Ideally I would like to stay there for a month and live in a wohngemeinschaft (communal living situation) with some German students, and perhaps take more language courses. I hope and expect that my SLA grant experience was just the first of many encounters with Germany and with the Germans.