Two life stories in the same place, then and now. Renate Semler studied American studies with a concentration in literature and culture at Freie Universität Berlin from 1966 to 1972, during turbulent times. Julia Püschel earned a doctorate in economics some 40 years later, at the Graduate School of North American Studies, which was established with funding from the German government’s Excellence Initiative.
The country at the heart of this discipline isn’t the only thing to have changed – the research, teaching, and studying activities at the John F. Kennedy Institute are also no longer the same. But one thing has remained the same: the fact that the institute’s interdisciplinary perspective on the United States can be formative, both personally and academically.
When Renate Semler was growing up in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in the 1950s and 1960s, America was both a presence and far away. The Armed Forces Network (AFN) made jazz and blues the soundtrack of those years, and the Allies were still a part of her neighborhood as an occupying force. “So many life circumstances collided with each other,” she recalls today. “The older men who had come out of the war, the women who rebuilt Berlin, and then a generation that took to the streets, chanting slogans like, ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!’” Semler says she saw workers who had rocks in hand, ready to fight back against this incomprehensible crusade against the Americans.
In 1966, when she decided to major in American studies, meaning that she would also be studying American culture, Semler encountered a similar level of incomprehension among older, conservative acquaintances: “American culture? What’s that supposed to be?” they asked. At the time, America’s lack of history and culture was still a widely held prejudice in the educated middle class. That was part of the reason that scholars and students at the John F. Kennedy Institute felt they were almost avant-garde; Semler says it was a true departure from existing practices.
For Julia Püschel, the United States was a pervasive presence from her earliest childhood, and a vacation spent in New York as a teenager cut the distance between her and the country across the Atlantic to just eight hours by plane. Before writing her dissertation, she was never particularly interested in America, says Püschel, who defended her work just a few weeks ago and is now planning a postdoc project.
But because the young economist wanted to study issues of social inequality, America offered an excellent subject, and she decided to enroll in a doctoral program at the interdisciplinary Graduate School of North American Studies, a joint program for doctoral candidates in the humanities and social sciences that was founded at Freie Universität in 2006 as part of the German national Excellence Initiative.
Economics is indeed part of the research and teaching activities at the John F. Kennedy Institute and the graduate school alike, but at first, Püschel still felt like she stuck out a bit when she sat down to eat lunch with her new fellow students from various disciplines: “When people would talk about their dissertations, I didn’t understand either the approach or the subject.”
The fact that she now draws on scholarly texts from other disciplines for her work in economics on the topic of offshoring of services and the impact of this practice on the American labor market is due to the interdisciplinary introductory courses offered at the graduate school. These courses helped her achieve a clear understanding of the political and cultural dimensions of the American attitude toward social inequality.
Then, in the second year of her dissertation, she went to the Department of Economics at Princeton University, where social inequality in the U.S. was something she could see right from the commuter train that took her from her apartment in Queens to the high-end university town. Depending on when she made the trip, her fellow passengers represented different walks of life: In the early morning, it was the janitorial staff who invisibly cleaned the offices of those who took the same train in suits and ties a couple of hours later.
Poverty and social inequality were also the first shocking impressions that greeted Renate Semler in 1969, when she traveled to the United States for the first time, after three years of study. Her destination was Tennessee, where she accompanied a doctor making house calls among “white trash,” what she calls “the forgotten poor.” On the trip, she saw shacks so run down she had never seen the like, not even in the ruins of postwar Germany.
She was shocked to find that some of her fellow students in Germany, also American studies majors, declined to go along on the trip, or on a later study abroad trip to Duke University, asking how she could go to the U.S. now, of all times, with the Vietnam War going on. Semler, who always had one foot in one world and one in the other, found the one-dimensional nature and radicalism of the public outcry irritating.
Sit-ins were a major feature at the institute during that era, bringing teaching activities to a screeching halt. The battle lines were drawn between the faculty, who – like Ursula Brumm, one of the first professors of American studies at the institute – had studied while World War II was still going on, and the student body. It was a generation of students bent on confrontation with the subject of their own studies: the U.S.A.
That may have been part of what motivated Semler to begin acting as a go-between a short time later, in October 1974. It was to become her life’s work. For 30 years, she served as a program officer at America House, on Berlin’s Hardenbergstrasse, near the Zoologischer Garten train station. She not only fostered dialogue between German and American authors; she also managed to reopen the institution to critical young intellectuals, who not long before that had seen it primarily as an outpost of American imperialism on German soil.
Püschel also considers a critical stance toward America to be typical of her generation. But there is a much broader range of opinion among the students and doctoral candidates at the institute today, she says. In her case, writing her dissertation at the graduate school helped above all to foster a certain skepticism toward the premises of her own discipline. “We also questioned the presuppositions of the field on an ongoing basis – and after all, that’s the hallmark of academic rigor.”