A Dispatch from Bochum

The author on the steps of the Münster.

The author on the steps of the Münster.

As the academic year in the US draws to a close, uncertainty, stress, and fatigue are each a familiar presence. However, here in Germany – where the semester has just begun, and where the workload is arguably less intense – I too am faced with certain perils. What exactly is this food that I have ordered? Why am I being reprimanded by this old woman in the street? (Apparently, it is not socially acceptable to cross the street before the light turns green – lesson learned.) How much bread is too much bread? (German bread – and German beer, for that matter – is truly marvelous. Another lesson learned.)

I am currently on exchange at the Ruhr-Universität (RUB) in Bochum. This is my second time studying abroad, and the third country that I have been fortunate enough to study in. From January until mid-March I took part in an intensive language class, wherein I developed basic language skills and worked closely with other incoming students who faced the same challenges I did. The class was often difficult though enjoyable, and friendships were forged over our mutual struggle to comprehend the mysteries of German grammar. Much of my first months here were also spent making use of my Semesterticket, a train pass that allows students to travel throughout the region for a very affordable one-off fee. My state – Nordrhein-Westfalen – is the largest in Germany, and with my Semesterticket I have been fortunate to explore the cities of Köln, Dortmund, Bonn, Düsseldorf, and more. This ticket has offered plenty of extra-curricular opportunities to develop my language skills and gain some understanding of everyday life in Germany. The benefits of this pass are many; in fact, one can probably learn as much from traveling around the state than from work in the classroom.

That being said, all of the homework in the world could not have prepared me for Karneval, a time during which the citizens of Düsseldorf, Köln, and more take to the streets and are gripped by a sort of collective insanity, souped up on copious amounts of alcohol and high-quality German sausages. I’m told that the festivities have a connection to the Catholic celebration of Lent, though it is unclear exactly where Jägermeister fits within the liturgical calendar. Garish costumes are worn as the revelers celebrate their civic pride; the cities resemble a Game of Thrones battlefield, soundtracked by Kölsch lager and pounding techno music from the 1990s. It is an incredible amount of fun. Of course, this being Germany, all festive debris is cleaned away in an orderly fashion, and everyone returns to work on Monday morning as if nothing happened.

Thankfully, Karneval comes but once a year, and, after all, there is serious work to be done. My academic experiences so far have admittedly been very challenging. Class discussion is held in German, and though there is not much expected of me in terms of contribution, even trying to keep up is very difficult. Class formats are also different than in the US, and great importance is placed on your ability to independently conduct and present original research. The campus at RUB is labyrinthine, and with its brutalist architecture from the 1960s and dour winter weather, even finding your way around can initially be intimidating. However, rising to these challenges is a privilege, not to mention a great opportunity. Living and working abroad forces you out of comfort zones and demands that you adapt to new experiences; moreover, the opportunity to cultivate connections and network with like-minded academics is also a bonus. The faculty here have been welcoming and are extremely helpful in providing guidance and advice.

I have been fortunate enough to study abroad before and believe that being able to study in an atmosphere which demands hard work truly offers an opportunity to thrive. And if it all becomes too much, there is always the option to chill out and eat a pretzel. Lesson learned.

Teaching in Bochum, Germany

By Dr. Carrie Euler

On June 2, 2018, I kissed my husband and two children (ages 9 and 13) goodbye in Lansing and flew to Germany for a month to teach a seminar at Ruhr University Bochum in northwest Germany.  I was excited for the adventure, but I was also nervous.  Though I have traveled in Europe extensively, and I can even speak some German, I had never taught a course at a university outside of the U.S. before.  Even though I was going to be teaching in English, I was nervous about being a guest in a department (would I have access to a copy machine?), the students (would they find my teaching methods unusual or have trouble understanding me?), and generally about being an American in Europe at this time of political upheaval and tension (would I get non-stop questions about Donald Trump?).  

Why was I headed to Ruhr University Bochum?  The short answer is that the history departments at RUB (the abbreviation for the university) and CMU had been awarded an Erasmus Grant for an exchange of faculty and graduate students over a two-year period.  Erasmus grants are funded by the European Commission in order to support student and faculty exchanges across countries.  Until recently, these grants were only for exchanges within Europe, but a few years ago, the Commission started offering a few grants between Europe and non-European countries like the U.S.  I was the first faculty member to take part officially in our exchange.  When I arrived, three M.A. students from our department were already in Bochum and had been there since February.  

Apartment Building.jpg

Bochum is in the Ruhr river valley.  It is one of a cluster of medium-to-large cities in that valley that make up a large metropolitan area; among the others are Essen, Dortmund, and Duisburg.  It is an area of Germany that was very industrial in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; consequently, it was bombed very heavily during World War II, and it has a reputation for being, well, heavily industrial.  The reality is, however, that the cities are quite cosmopolitan—with lots of amazing cultural opportunities like museums and concerts and great food—and the countryside around the cities and alongside the river itself is beautiful.  The university campus itself is not beautiful, at least not in a traditional American college campus way.  As you can see in the first photo, which features the building in which the history department is located, it boasts a lot of concrete and a definite 1960s look (the university was indeed founded in the 1960s).  The second photo, however, is taken from the same spot, just after making a slight turn to look out over the river valley and a lovely little town dating from the Middle Ages called Stiepel. 

River Valley.jpg

In the end, my experience at Bochum was very positive. None of the things I had been nervous about ahead of my departure came to fruition.  Happily, no one I met was particularly interested in discussing President Trump.  I was given a lovely, newly-renovated apartment with a view of the university and the river valley; it was within walking distance to the university, shops, restaurants, and the commuter train into the center of Bochum (the university campus is located just outside of the main city).  I was granted office space and a graduate assistant to do copying for me. I did not have a printer, however, so I was happy that I had loaded up my suitcase with paper copies of the various readings I wanted to assign my students. 

The course I was teaching was a graduate-level seminar. Bochum’s spring semester runs from April to July, so compressing the course into four weeks in June was not easy, and I only ended up with five students.  It was a nice group, however; they seemed very interested in what I had to teach and gave very well-prepared presentations.  My topic was “Printing and Print Culture in Early Modern England,” which I had just taught as a seminar in the spring semester 2018 at CMU. The history department at RUB was happy to have an English history topic, because they do not have anyone who teaches British history.  I would say that the biggest difference between our system and that at RUB was that, in the end, only one student registered to take the course for full credit, meaning she had to write a long research paper.  The others took it for half credit, where all they had to do was a presentation in class.  This is something that is not an option for students at CMU, and it took some getting used to.

Nevertheless, I was happy to be a guinea pig and get this exchange going, and I believe the three MA students who went to Bochum on behalf of CMU felt the same.  In addition to the teaching experience, I had a lot of time to work on my own research and writing—I even took a quick trip to England to do some archival research on my latest project.  Furthermore, the exchange is thriving—this fall CMU has hosted Dr. Andrzej Michalczyk from RUB, and next fall Dr. Budrass will be visiting.  Hopefully another CMU professor will go in the summer of 2019 or 2020.  I will certainly recommend the experience, and I even hope to go back one day myself. These types of exchanges are vital for our graduate program and they certainly benefit both students and faculty enormously.