Störfall at 25: “Relevance” and the Teaching of Environmental Literature

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By mid-semester, Christa Wolf’s Störfall: Nachrichten eines Tages (1987) seemed like a risky choice as the final assigned text in an upper division undergraduate 20th-century course designed for German majors. The previous year when I had decided to design a syllabus around the topic “German Literature about the Environment,” the book selection was logical. Now it was evident that despite the fact that all the enrolled students had spent time abroad and possessed relatively strong language skills that would place them at the intermediate high-advanced low threshold according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, Störfall would be a difficult read. Then on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake hit Japan, triggering a tsunami and the nuclear accident at Fukushima and relevance trumped linguistic ability.

What follows is a reflective account of a pilot course in “green” German studies and recommendations for the development of similar courses. Given the fact that a significant number of undergraduate German majors and minors pursue double majors, especially in fields related to the sciences, global studies, and journalism, a compelling case can be made for creating courses and paths of study that combine German with a focus on environmental and sustainability studies. The long history of environmental awareness in German-speaking countries argues for expanded study of the wealth of materials that reflect this consciousness as well. With intentional curricular planning, a broad range of literary and journalistic texts, documentary information, and film can be made accessible to undergraduate students. Moreover, the growing body of ecocriticism (cf. Heise), expansion of study abroad opportunities related to environmental studies, and funding opportunities like the DAAD RISE programs suggest that at a time when vital new directions are being sought in German studies, “green” courses offer a way to revitalize the curriculum and foster interdisciplinary intellectual initiatives among faculty in the process.

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