U.S. History as a Model: Studying Like in the United States

Jessica C.E. Gienow-Hecht, October 1998

A few months ago students throughout Germany went on the barricades to protest the conditions at their universities.* While some objected to the introduction of tuition, others complained about the quality of teaching. The international press quickly got word of the protest and published essays and editorials on the "decline" of German academia.

The students' criticism, multifaceted but not unanimous, merits cautious attention. The German university is essentially a state-run mass institution, based on the model of a 19th-century elite research organization. This system guarantees that everyone holding a high-school diploma has access to tuition-free higher education. Yet students frequently feel lost and unmotivated; many remain enrolled for more than a decade or drop out before earning a degree. At the same time, the federal minister of research, Jürgen Rüttgers, has repeatedly criticized that the number of foreign students attending German institutions of higher education, compared with foreign enrollment at U.S. universities, is continuously low. State administrators, professors, and students have called for alternatives that might avoid or reduce the anonymous atmosphere of a mass university and guarantee a good standard of teaching, while keeping costs down and attracting international students.

The Institute

The Center for U.S. Studies in Wittenberg, Germany, has recently addressed the debate over the reform of academia by developing a pilot project for both German and international students. This article briefly describes the institute's mission as well as the experimental course program, including preliminary results and future planning.

The Center for U.S. Studies is an institute of the Leucorea Foundation at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg in Sachsen-Anhalt, one of the five new German states. Founded in 1502 by Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, the Leucorea University (Greek for "White Mountain") once attracted major academics, including Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon, to the town of Wittenberg. In 1813, however, the institution was closed. Two years later, the Congress of Vienna allotted Northern Saxony to Prussia, and the new government decided to merge the Leucorea with the University of Halle. From 1817 to 1989 academic life in Wittenberg was extinct. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, along with the Martin-Luther-University in Halle, created the Leucorea Foundation, a nonprofit organization that administers the holdings of the former University of Wittenberg and fosters research, teaching, and academic pursuits. One of the institutes operating under the auspices of the Leucorea is the Center for U.S. Studies, founded on Reformation Day, October 31, 1995, on the initiative of Hans-Jürgen Grabbe. Grabbe, a professor for British and American studies and chairman of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien (German Society for American Studies), is now director of the center, where he supervises a staff of 10. The center's activities focus on research, teaching, and cultural events in American history, American studies, and English teaching methodology. Our target groups include students, high school teachers, teacher trainers, and professionals from eastern Europe and the Western hemisphere.

The Idea

In spring 1997, the Center for U.S. Studies initiated an academic pilot project by offering a series of "Intensive Seminars in American History" for undergraduate students. The seminars combine American teaching methodologies and resources with the German model of a Blockseminar. The underlying idea is to condense a semester-long course into one week, creating an intensive reading and discussion experience. Moreover, rather than leaving the selection of readings up to the students, which is common in German universities, we opted for a more rigid system of required readings and assigned individual presentations in advance.

The seminar themes reflect the general approach of most history and American studies departments in the United States. Among the courses offered until now were the two-part "U.S. Foreign Relations" and "New Perspectives on the Cold War." In a recent seminar on "William James: Psychology and History," we also tested the methodology of team teaching with a psychologist and a historian. The purpose behind the selections is to introduce non-American students to specific themes and topics in American studies and history and to initiate debates among both German and international students.

Target Group

One of our goals is to apply both international and interdisciplinary approaches. Seminars are open to students from a variety of disciplines, including American studies, economics, history, international relations, law, political sciences, and psychology. To reach as many students as possible, seminars are advertised not only in the Martin-Luther-University catalog but also in flyers sent to departments throughout Europe and the United States, as well as on the Internet. The courses target students willing to participate in this intensive experience and to prepare themselves appropriately. Finally, we focus our activities on both graduate and undergraduate students, because most other programs of this kind are for elite students and postgraduates only.

Interested students responding to our ads are asked to supply a curriculum vitae and cover letter, in English, stating clearly and convincingly their interest in the course. After the application deadline, we select a maximum of 12 students for each course. Criteria for selection include the applicant's individual accomplishment as well as his or her cultural background to create a certain degree of diversity in the classroom.

Accommodations and meals are provided at no cost at the Leucorea Foundation but students have to pay for transportation and tuition. Funding for our seminars comes from various foundations and agencies, including the German Körber Foundation, the Stifterverband der deutschen Wissenschaft, the Leucorea Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and the United States Information Service.

Project Requirements

Students accepted for a seminar receive a 500-800-page reader one month before the course, which they are expected to read carefully. A follow-up letter mailed a few days before the students' arrival informs each participant which section of the reading he or she will present to the class. The readings are divided into approximately 15 sections, each featuring a major theme (for example, Manifest Destiny). At the same time, students are required to think about and prepare an idea for a thesis that they can start to research during their stay in Wittenberg. Active participation in class and the completion of a 10-20-page research paper, to be handed in six months later, each count for 50 percent of the final seminar grade.

The Course

An intensive seminar at the Center for U.S. Studies typically begins on a Sunday evening with a brief introduction, during which students acquaint themselves with each other, the institute, and the staff. During this session students are encouraged to voice their expectations for the course. The discussions begin on Monday morning and last until Saturday evening. Every day, students and the instructor convene for two or three sessions. Each meeting focuses on one specific aspect of the overall theme; two or three participants summarize and comment on the often contradictory reading assignments, which thus become the basis for the discussion. Students are expected to prepare questions and comments relating to all reading assignments before the class. They are constantly reminded to address the entire group, not just the instructor, and are encouraged to judge the arguments presented to them. Although this might be a common scenario in a U.S. classroom, it is not the norm in a German seminar, where the presentation of a research project or a lecture session is often the focus.

In the afternoons, each student meets with the instructor to discuss his or her individual research project. To complete a research outline, students may use the center's facilities. Our library holds some 30,000 volumes, including the select "American Studies Collection," donated to 87 institutions worldwide by the U.S. Congress. Compiled through an initiative of the Organization of American Historians, the collection comprises some 1,300 volumes representing state-of-the-art scholarship in American history, sociology, literature, anthropology, and cultural studies. Two computer labs give students access to the World Wide Web. To ease the load and intensity of the course somewhat, various social events are included in the schedule, including a guided city tour through Wittenberg, an excursion to a historical point of interest, such as Torgau/Elbe, Berlin, Potsdam, or Leipzig, and a dinner party.

On Saturday, all participants convene for three or four sessions during which each student presents a one-page research outline. A lead critic is in charge of commenting on and criticizing the proposal. Upon request of previous groups, we are now considering putting all final research papers on our web site. Also, we have established a discussion forum on our web site where students and instructors can exchange ideas and comments after their return home. Again, while this may increasingly represent a routine activity in U.S. classrooms, it is not typical for German seminars, especially those for undergraduates.


When we began planning and organizing the seminar program, a number of history colleagues predicted that our effort was bound to fail. German students, they warned, would be reluctant to complete the amount of reading assigned at U.S. universities. We were also told that most students would resent the pressure and intensity of our courses. Furthermore, no one, least of all students from abroad, would be willing to pay for an expensive trip to Germany only to attend a course that they could take at home. In sum, our expectations were low. But we have received inquiries and applications from all corners of the world, including Argentina, Armenia, Canada, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Peru, Romania, Turkey, and, of course, Germany and the United States. Some students who were accepted to the course but could not obtain a stipend from the center opted to cover all costs themselves or sought outside fellowships.

Bound together by a strong sense of community and commitment, students arriving at the Center for U.S. Studies for an intensive seminar are without exception highly motivated and well prepared, regardless of their cultural background. They have been very enthusiastic about the discussions, the teaching style, and the preparations of their individual projects. Participants from eastern Europe and the developing world, in particular, often gladly shed their academic habits. A student from Armenia rejoiced at the fact that she was not only allowed to move around in the room in order to close a window while the class was in session, but that she could also ask questions. Her colleague from Eisenhüttenstadt, though, remained suspicious and asked, "May we also ask questions which we cannot answer?"

In their evaluations, students repeatedly stress that they like the hefty reading assignments, the intensive discussions, and the pressure to develop a research idea in a week. "I didn't know that learning could be such fun," wrote a student from Munich. A Fulbright exchange student from Louisiana felt that this experience "was one of the highlights of my academic career," while a student from Halle added that she had "never participated in a class with more effectiveness."

Participants unanimously agree that the most attractive feature of the seminar is the international makeup of the course and the resulting fierce discussions. For example, European and American students typically clashed over their respective definition of "liberalism" in the 19th century. Canadian and U.S. students loudly protested each other's interpretation of the War of 1812. Students from the Middle East took their American colleagues to task over the issue of U.S. cultural imperialism. "I have no doubt that this course has been one of the most rewarding overseas experiences in my academic career," stated a student from Pennsylvania, while his German colleague "very often found that there are a thousand perspectives on the different issues I had never considered before. It opened my mind and made me much more critical." One group even wrote a collective letter to the sponsor of the seminar emphasizing that "it is our belief that programs such as these help to foster a better understanding between peoples. Our intention with these few words is simply to make you aware of the difference you make."


The enthusiasm expressed in students' comments should not obscure the fact that we have had to deal with and still are seeking to meet a number of challenges. On the most basic level, reliable means of communication with students before and after the seminar is a problem. In many countries, for example, it is rare for students to have a phone or e-mail account. Students from the Middle East and eastern Europe have repeatedly asked us to UPS all communications and reading materials because their postal system is unreliable.

A second set of challenges is directly related to the beauty of teaching an international class. Because we select students on a long-distance basis, it is hard to judge their oral language proficiency before they arrive. A student may write eloquently in English but have difficulties expressing him or herself in conversation. In addition, the degree of knowledge and analytical skills varies tremendously, and it is often quite a challenge to find a common denominator for a discussion. Participants from eastern European and Middle Eastern countries regard compliance with the community and the leader as greater academic virtues than individual straightforwardness and eloquent participation. While North American students are used to challenging scholarly ideas, their colleagues from the Middle East and Europe are more likely to believe—or pretend to believe—what Herr Professor tells them.

There is more at issue here than mere conformity and submission to authority. "If you believe in progress, you question," a participant once laconically stated. "If you believe in preservation, you don't." While foreign students appreciate the student-centered approach of American teaching methodologies, some do not always see the point. Instead, they feel confused by the multitude of possible interpretations and advocate a stronger emphasis on "facts" and "objective historical truths" at the expense of theoretical discussions.

This is just one reminder of a phenomenon that American-trained scholars going abroad know well: U.S. teaching methodologies are culturally and politically conditioned and they do not always seem applicable in a foreign environment.

And while internationalism is the key to our seminars, it might quickly lead to internal antagonism. On the first day of a seminar on U.S. foreign relations, for example, a Turkish female student and a Kurdish male student, who would have had no contact with each other in Istanbul, began arguing over political and cultural priorities in Turkey. A group of students from eastern Europe, divided into die-hard communists and reformers, fought bitter battles over the future of their respective governments, to the point that at the end of the seminar some would not talk to one another anymore.

Another formidable task concerns the evaluation of students' performance. Credit given by a German institute of higher education is not automatically recognized by universities outside of the Federal Republic, but is decided on an individual basis. To facilitate the process of recognition, we are currently investigating the possibility of the European Community Course Credit Transfer System, which provides a way of measuring and comparing learning achievements, and enables students to transfer credits from a foreign institution directly to their home university.

The last challenge besets the nature of the class itself. While students appreciate the intensive nature of the seminar, they have also called for an extension of two or three days to have more research and leisure time. The instructor, on the other hand, enjoys close contact with the students during the week, but this relationship may change after the end of a seminar. Once students return to their home universities and set out to write their papers, they rely on regular mail, the phone, our web site, and e-mail for communication with their instructor.

Future Plans

All this said, our pilot project, which we hope fills a wide gap in the German academic system, will continue as we make necessary improvements along the way. We are currently in the process of establishing cooperation with various U.S. universities. Moreover, we have established contacts with a number of eastern European universities in order to attract more students from that region.

Future course offerings include seminars on "German-American Relations," "Evangelicalism and the Social Welfare State," and "American Contributions to a New Paradigm." The intensive, interdisciplinary, and international approach of our courses might serve as a model for other universities in Germany that are in search of ways to restructure courses and motivate students. If students continue to approve of our mixture of American teaching methodologies and texts in the framework of a German Blockseminar, the Center for U.S. Studies may be seen as an experimental institution for educational and academic reform in post-1989 Germany. As one student from Cairo wrote in our guestbook, "From what I can see, this center will have a very successful future."

For further information about the Center for U.S. Studies and its intensive seminar program in American studies and history, contact Center for U.S. Studies, Leucorea Foundation, Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Collegienstrasse 62, 06886 Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany. +49-3491-466-109. Fax +49-3491-466-223. E-mail: center@zusas.uni-halle.de. Web site at http://www.zusas.uni-halle.de.

—Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht received her PhD in history from the University of Virginia in 1995. She is deputy director of the Center for U.S. Studies (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg) in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany. A revised version of her dissertation will be published by the Louisiana State University Press under the title Transmission Impossible: American Journalism as Cultural Diplomacy in Postwar Germany, 1945–1955.