Emily Goodling graduated from Hillsdale College in 2014 as a double-major in German and Classics. She is now getting her master’s degree in Comparative Literature in Mainz, Germany, as a DAAD scholarship holder. When she isn’t studying like a responsible graduate student, she is usually photographing some political protest or another, geeking out about German theater, or drinking Riesling on the banks of the Rhine river. She blogs about living and studying in Germany, and other things, at emilysarahabroad.wordpress.com.
Had you taken any languages before coming to Hillsdale? What made you decide to study abroad?
I came to Hillsdale as a Classics major, so, like a typical nerdy homeschooler, I had had Latin and Greek in highschool. I actually started German with the goal of being able to read Classical scholarship, but I fell too much in love with the language itself and decided to continue with it. At this point, I am planning on getting my Ph.D. and teaching German literature and language at the college level–that’s the dream.
I am studying abroad to improve my language skills, of course, but most importantly to ground my love of German thought in reality. When you are learning about a literature or culture from abroad, it can all very quickly take on a mythological quality–beautiful and exciting, but essentially unreal, seperated from the substance of people and place. My goal during my time in Germany is to close that gap between Mythos and Reality. Here, I can see the art and theater productions, listen to the lectures and the speeches, talk to the people who are doing the thinking and creating. Germany has become very concrete over the past year, which is infinitely thrilling to me.
I am in Germany because Germans for the past two centuries have been asking the sort of questions I want to ask, in the way I want to ask them. Germany, artistically and politically, is not a country that favors avoidance or superficiality–people want to talk about things, engage with difficult issues head-on, and ask hard questions: Land, race, language, memory. What do those things mean today, and how do they shape who we are? Because of their history and current position in the world, Germany today serves as a catalyst for these sorts of queries, for investigations that can be turned around to reflect on issues in America and elsewhere.
Further, Germans and German-speakers have created some of the most inescapably profound, troubling, and beautiful art in Western civilization, and this art asks questions that are equally as hard and necessary as those posed in the political/societal realm. Being able to explore the artistic world hands-on has been incredible. I mean, I was in Weimar a couple weeks ago and saw the desk on which Goethe wrote his Faust; I’ll be at Richard Wagner’s opera festival in Bayreuth in August. It’s the realization of a Mythos, as I wrote above, and it is an honor and privilege for me to have the chance to experience it all in person.
How does studying at a German University compare to studying at Hillsdale?
Beginning my master’s program in German academia was the closest thing I experienced to culture shock, actually, and not in a good way. There is so much more distance between professors and students in the German upper educational system, and most of the professors seem to view teaching as a necessary evil that takes away from their more important research pursuits. As a result, there is little feeling of being a part of a community of learners, or a community of anything, really.
Of course, there are exceptions. I have been able to study with several amazing teachers over the past semester, and there are so many things about education in Germany that I love: it’s affordable and incredibly flexible, students are treated like adults, and a lot of the crippling pressures that seem to define the American college experience are absent. In the end, though, my Hillsdale professors modeled what it means to love art, knowledge, and learning, and so many of the teachers here just don’t do that.
Before I left Hillsdale, I had several conversations on this topic with my professors. “Don’t let an impersonal or even hostile academic environment destroy the passion and love you have for what you are doing,” they said. “So many students in grad school burn out–be careful, Emily.” I was a little worried about it all when I first arrived, but over the past semester I have found that the academic environment here has had the exact opposite effect on me: I am even more passionate about what I am learning, more excited about the career I want to pursue. The whole experience has been a sort of call-to-arms for me–I want to spend the rest of my life fighting against apathy and cynicism in the classroom, against a tired post-modernism that sees the entire world as a deconstruction of a deconstruction of a deconstruction. And I want to do that at an institution like Hillsdale College, where I am allowed to develop real relationships with my students, where teaching is more important than producing research for other experts, and where the love of one’s subject is just as valued as the technical knowledge surrounding it.
How is living and studying abroad a life-changing experience?
I think that perspective, above all, is what has been most life-changing for me during my time in Germany. Over the past year, I have come across a thousand new ways of thinking and viewing the world, of experiencing language and politics and art. The exchange is sometimes playful, sometimes difficult, and sometimes heartbreaking, but always vital and exciting. To me, it is all so new–my childhood in small-town New England and undergraduate degree in the small-town Midwest, wonderful as they were, didn’t really lend themselves to this sort of international dialogue.
I will never forget, for instance, an evening I spent last July with Hillsdale’s Würzburg summer program in Berlin, at the city’s French-German Festival. We found ourselves at a table with Maria from Ireland, Jean from France, and a whole bunch of friends they had just met from Spain. We had a shared bottle of rosé from the stand across the square and were all screaming to be heard over the horrible German rap concert, in a mixture of English and German and very bad French. And we talked: American politics, the euro crisis, French immigrant culture. We solved the world’s problems, right there, at a wooden table under the Brandenburg Gate. I think that experience–the internationality, the dynamism, the real communication–pretty much epitomizes the best of my time abroad thus far.
Ultimately, I think the sort of international exchange I have been able to experience is especially important for Hillsdale graduates. The College gives students such a fantastic background in American history, thought, and politics, but in the end, I think it is also vitally important to have the chance to see America from an outside perspective. The opportunity to step outside offers a certain perspective that is missing from the American classroom, even at an institution as excellent as Hillsdale. For my part, I can say that I am learning more about my own country through the eyes of Germans than I ever could have at home. It is a humbling and exciting place to be.