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What is culture?
By Julia Voss
Posted: February 2006

This is the first question Professor Viktoria Harms asked the students in her Contemporary German Culture class at the University of Washington. The class opened with a debate which has been hotly contested in the Humanities for years: Does “culture” only include the products of High Culture—opera, Shakespeare, Baroque painting, etc.—or does it also encompass those of low culture—sitcoms, magazine advertisements, pop music, etc?

Harms emphasized the terms of this debate to students by putting the following question to them: Which of the following would you use as an example of American culture?

a) the house you grew up in
b) Johnny Cash
c) Barbie dolls
d) The DaVinci Code

All four options represent “low,” popular culture, a barometer of people’s actual experience of culture which academics increasingly use to analyze society.

Popular culture and media issues are the primary focus of Harms’ class. She has organized her class around many of the issues of social debate in Germany today—reforming the German education system, dealing with Germany’s troubled history, navigating the complexities of (re)unification, and (re)defining German citizenship, among others. These topics are literally ripped from the headlines of German newspapers and magazines, and serve as a compliment to the smattering of current events the students—most of whom are studying German simultaneously—get in their language classes. Because of the contemporary subject matter and the students’ background, the class naturally becomes comparative. The parallels between the German cultural issues in the syllabus and the conflicts driving current US domestic politics are obvious, particularly regarding the perception of falling academic standards and the debates over multiculturalism.

The class also focuses on some of the more lighthearted aspects of contemporary German culture, like the stereotypical reputation Germans have in the United States for being stern, aloof, humorless people. The class discussed a reading comparing business practices in the US and Germany such as the use of small talk, familiarity with colleagues, professional titles, political correctness, and other culturally-determined aspects of business interaction. The students then paired up and described—either from the perspective of an American businessman in Germany or from a German businessman in the United States—what these different social expectations would mean in practice.

Harms’ class combines aspects of all three tracks within the UW’s Germanics Department. Her course, which is taught in English and uses many historical and sociological secondary sources to focus the study of German films included in the syllabus, fits into the German Cultural Studies Program’s goals of teaching analysis of cultural artifacts and social institutions. Pairing readings like “Unification and Aftermath” with films dealing with the same issues—Goodbye Lenin and Das Versprechen —demonstrate how the definition of pop culture as “culture” allows people to use popular media to explore social issues. Such exercises also help students learn how to read media and understand the messages and agendas which load it.

The course also includes readings from contemporary literary works, incorporating the German Language and Literature Program’s concentration on literary analysis. Like the films she uses to illustrate how contemporary German culture deals with its social issues, Harms also employs short stories to incorporate an introduction to the literary analysis which forms the backbone of the Language and Literature Program.
Finally, the comparisons of customs and social practices in the US and Germany work toward the Germanics Department’s other aim of preparing students for study and work in German-speaking countries. The Department offers two classes—Business German I and II—which prepare students for two Goethe Institute tests of business German proficiency, the Zertifikat Deutsch für den Beruf (Certificate in Business German) and the Prüfung Wirtschaftsdeutsch (Test of Business German).





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