These are reflections on being a radical (to be precise: an anarchist) and teaching at a university. They are personal and subjective. I do not claim to having been very successful. My teaching was much less radical than I always dreamt of. This is annoying, because I think radicalism—the willingness to look at the roots of social phenomena—and a critical approach—contrary to an uncritical acceptance of the given—are necessary attitudes for serious social scientists; that differentiates them from ideologues and theologians. But I hope my teaching so far has not been totally pointless, I hope it had at least some subversive consequences, and I hope my reflections are of use for good people.
Who is talking?
My name is Dr. phil. Peter Seyferth. Since 2003, I teach political philosophy and the history of political ideas at Ludwig-Maximilians-University (LMU) Munich, Germany. As of April 2012, my current position at this university’s Geschwister-Scholl-Institut (GSI) for Political Science is called “Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter”—this cannot be translated properly, but is comparable to a research assistant mixed with an associated lecturer. Most of the time, I have been associated to the chair for “Political Theory and Philosophy”; nowadays I am associated to the vacant chair for “Empirical Theory of Politics”, a position I have to leave as soon as the proper professor comes. This new chair is part of the institute’s turn from a more normative focus to empirical, administrative research; I was told that this is due to a “mainstreaming” that is ubiquitous in German political science, so there is no more room for someone like me. And even if there was ideological room, there would be no money, because they would have to hire me with tenure (which they cannot afford). Since 2000, I have always had temporary labor contracts (with one year of unemployment in the middle), which is only legal for twelve years, according to federal law in Germany. The duration of my contracts were mostly six months, seldom twelve months; most of the time I had only a half-time position. This meant I always had to behave well if I wanted to get a new contract. In spite of this, I tried to do as much radical research and teaching as possible, sometimes openly so, sometimes in disguise. At least some people at the institute appreciate what I have been doing. It is not an evil institute but has to yield to external pressures like reduced financial resources for disciplines that cannot summon huge external funds or the streamlining of curricula in the course of both the German Universities Excellence Initiative that tightens the competition between universities and the Bologna Process that at the same time equalizes study programs. As sub-organization of the LMU (which is now considered an “elite university”), the GSI has had the relative autonomy that was usual for academic self-management for decades, but in the last years, the university has adopted a hierarchical management model inspired by stock corporations. Now decisions are made at the top (there is a president with a business consultancy-affine supervisory board) and executed down through several tiers. Some professors in the institute are fond of this style and have adopted it. This hierarchization affects my position: For a few years I shared one full position with a colleague because we did not want to compete against each other; thus having a half-time position was a good thing because it was our own decision, made in solidarity. At the moment there is also one full position allocated to two people; but this time the decision was made by some professors who did not ask us (I heard of the splitting from a student who was shocked to see my announced seminar on Hardt and Negri being deleted from the course catalog). This time the halving of stipulated teaching load does not really empower the colleague and me but shows us how dependent we are on the benevolence of superior people.
The work at the university gradually supplanted my radical activism. After spiritually freeing myself from Catholicism in my late childhood, I realized that I was an anarchist (with the help of CRASS and a few books, mostly Bakunin, Kropotkin, and secondary literature). The first demonstration I did participate in was against the 18th G7 summit in 1992, and many more demonstrations followed. My main focus in the 1990s was antifascist actions, sometimes with more centrist people, sometimes with the Autonomen. Related to these, I got to know police repression (luckily, I have a clean record, all charges have been dropped). But I was just one of many, did not actually organize anything myself. At the end of the 1990s, I mixed applied political science with punk rock anti-work activism and so co-organized a real (but subversive, satirical) political party that ran for German Bundestag. Its name was “Anarchistische Pogo-Partei Deutschlands (APPD)”. Also, since the second half of the 1990s, I learned Modern Arnis, a Philippine martial art, in a self-organized group of punks, antifascists and anarchists. After a while, I became one of the trainers myself and began to teach. I also was the group’s spokesperson at the social center/infoshop where we trained (Kafe Marat in Munich, http://kafemarat.blogsport.de/). All these activities became too much for me in 2004, when my university job became fulltime (for two years with three contracts) and the deadline for my PhD dissertation slowly approached. Somehow, my activism also felt pointless at that time; and I felt some other activists considered me a clown (because of my former involvement in the APPD). So I stopped going to plena or demonstrations and reoriented the focus of my life to the university. Maybe I have to turn back or elsewhere soon, since I was told I have no occupational future at this (kind of) university.
All this is for you to understand where I come from and why I acted as I did. Maybe I should add that I am a very privileged person because society rewards almost everything I am: German, white, male, educated, mannered, eloquent, cisgendered, able-bodied etc. I did not have to fight for my position in society; it was, in fact, harder to get them to hate me when I was a punk rocker than to have them like me again now (as I wear a collared shirt and only a few ear piercings could offend squares). And although I might be unemployed soon, this will not pauperize me. So I am not an angry person, sometimes I even feel like a detached intellectual. Hence political theory (instead of praxis) sounds interesting to me and I tend to expect radical students to like reading, too. All this might have influenced the style and content of my classes.
What did I teach?
The first course I ever taught at the university was a basic course on the history of political thought. This course’s curriculum usually starts with Plato’s Republic and ends somewhere in the 20th century, most likely with Rawls, possibly also with the communitarians, with Habermas, or with Luhmann. Until now, I taught that course 11 times. The canon of this Political Theory 101 was always quite fixed, but I was allowed to choose the focus. Additionally, I have taught 14 seminars on topics I could make up almost freely (I had to present the topic and a short description to the chair for Political Theory—who had to approve it—, but the syllabus always was up to me). I did seminars on the ontological and methodological foundations of political science (rational choice, evolutionary game theory, systems theory, the agent–structure problem), on single themes of political theory (utopias, new contractarians, the noble savage, political anthropology, democracy), and on radical themes (anarchism and anti-capitalism).
Most courses and seminars I taught were, in principle, normal. That means, I taught what everybody else in the academic staff taught, and helped to form good citizens and job market participants. After all, that was what most students expected from me: soft skills for the human resources and formal qualifications that are commodifiable (but with a philosophical edge). This kind of education is what today’s university is all about—as long as teachers and students play this game. Following a (maybe antiquated) idea that the university is also about critical investigation of all ideological foundations and open discussion of multiple scientific perspectives, and knowing some stuff outside the mainstream, I decided that it would not hurt the students to have contact with some radical ideas too, even in the mainstream courses. So, additionally to more traditional and normal texts, in the utopias seminar we read Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; in the noble savage seminar we read John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen; in the seminar on evolutionary game theory we read Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid; in the systems theory seminar we read Wallerstein; and so on. In the last two winter terms, I added conservative, Marxist, and anarchist texts to the basic courses’ syllabus to counter the canon’s overemphasis of liberalism.
When I started teaching, I just copied the didactics I experienced as a student. The first half of a typical session would be reserved for one to three students’ paper presentation(s), the second half for discussion. Sometimes the discussions were lively and inspiring, sometimes all jaws remained shut and the teacher (me) soliloquized. As an extrovert student (with Mohawk and punk gear), I never had problems participating in seminars where only the most outspoken people dare to talk; in fact I thought the quiet persons in a course must be ill-prepared or indifferent. It did not occur to me that the setting might be the reason for some student’s reluctance to talk. Therefore my first courses and seminars tended to be split into a small group of active participants and a bigger group of silent spectators. This pattern was quite ordinary to me since it arose not only at the university, but also in the punk scene, in the political party, and in the training group, always with me eventually being one of the loudest. That this made me feel important is not the only reason for uncritically adopting this teaching style; it also works. I have to grade the students, and this style makes it easy to differentiate between “good”, “bad”, and “inert” students. Especially when there are more than two dozen students in a course, mass processing is so practical and the emergence of a small “real” (i.e. participating and keen) seminar group surrounded by irrelevant mutes feels almost natural.
This pattern also emerged in those seminars that dealt with radical topics. When I first announced to teach a seminar on anarchism in the winter term of 2005–2006, over 50 students wanted to attend, some of them coming from other institutes, some even not being students at all. I do not know why this topic did draw so much attention, maybe it was because of the longstanding lack of anarchism at the institute (there have been earlier seminars on anarchism I attended as a student in 1994/95 and 1997, but for eight years, almost two generations of students, anarchism was invisible at the GSI). To regard those people that did not fit into the seminar room I repeated the seminar the following summer term. Two overfull seminars that read and discussed everything from classical anarchism through the revolutions to post-situationist trends—what a success, wasn’t it? Well, in hindsight, I have mixed feelings. Discussion was always heated because there were so many counterintuitive theses (e.g. “people are potentially dangerous, so we need to get rid of the police”—the exact opposite of Hobbesian as well as liberal political science’s wisdom). Some students even managed to use their newly acquired expertise for activist work, so they told me later. But other activists that visited the seminar every now and then were disappointed about the traditional layout and the inherent hierarchy of the seminar, and they were right; in the end, I was the one to grade the students, not they me. And in the beginning, I decided what was on the syllabus, the students did not have a say. The seminar was not anarchistic, anarchism was just its arbitrary subject. Together with the official hierarchy (me being the head of the seminar), informal hierarchies emerged and some people never got heard. For them, anarchism might be just another boring ideology to be fruitlessly taught at the university. In later seminars, it was similar; in 2009, I taught a seminar on “Capitalism and Anti-Capitalism”, and in 2010 I taught an “Anarchism Reloaded” seminar (the name I borrowed from Uri Gordon). Some students say they radicalized themselves in the seminar, but this must be in spite of, not because of the seminar’s format.
The syllabi of these four courses can be downloaded here: (They are in German, part of the reading lists are in English, too.)
- Programm Anarchismus 2005-06.pdf
- Programm Edle Wilde 2007.pdf
- Programm (Anti)Kapitalismus.pdf
- Programm Anarchismus Reloaded.pdf
Trying to subvert top-down normalities
Luckily, I was able to learn a little bit. I tried to restructure my seminars so shyness does not prevent people from participating, and the content of the books read can somehow be related to the experience in the seminar room. None of my seminars ever became truly anti-capitalist or anarchistic, which I think is impossible in a hierarchical university that is an integral part of capitalism (and increasingly so). The best congruence between radical content and teaching form was reached in a seminar on participatory democracy; I will come to this main example of my experiments shortly. Why and where did I learn other ways of teaching? There were some eye-openers; and then I actually have been taught in advanced trainings how to activate students.
The most important eye-openers have been the students themselves. In 2009, they protested against tuition fees and occupied the Audimax (the biggest lecture hall of the university) for several weeks. I was asked to give a lecture there (on ideology), and before doing that, I visited the Audimax to see what was going on there. I saw that they managed to discuss difficult questions in a room full of hundreds of people with differing opinions. It was not fast or orderly, but it was not as chaotic or prone to unofficial leadership as I had expected. They used the hand signs that seem to spread around since the G8 summit near Rostock in 2007 (you know: joggling the open hands to approve, crossing the arms to block a consensus etc.). I had seen this before only once: at the Anarchist Studies Network Conference 2008 in Loughborough, UK—which was the other eye-opener. There I missed the panel session on “listening”, but I was happy to listen to some participants at the evening in the pub. This made me think about the role I usually play in the seminar rooms. This role was always partly discomforting to me—it was also empowering, because it gave me power, but it was a power over others that often felt kind of ugly to me. I did not know of viable alternatives that can empower all concerned people. After conversing with other scholars of anarchism and after seeing students making use of techniques originating from radical anti-capitalist activism, I felt the urge to change my teaching style.
To be precise, the first experiment was one year after the ASN conference and half a year before the Audimax occupation. Most sessions of the “Capitalism and Anti-Capitalism” seminar were according to the traditional pattern (graded paper presentation, followed by discussion), and I alone chose the themes and literature (Smith, Marx, Keynes, von Hayek, Friedman, Marcuse, Operaismo/Autonomen, Hardt/Negri, Holloway). But for the last session, I decided to let the students decide on at least their themes and the literature. I asked them one month in advance to search for literature on any aspect of the anti-globalization movement they find interesting (be it groups, actions, aims, tactics, strategy, ideology etc.). Each participant should be able to present very quickly (in two minutes!) this aspect to a small group. Since I signaled that participation is mandatory and that I will assign papers to those who failed to do research on their own, most students came up with interesting texts and themes, including activist training, repression, worker self-management, the Zapatistas, WSF, Attac, PGA, and the G8 actions near Rostock. Most texts researched by the students were online activist manifestoes and eyewitness reports or newspaper articles; there were no scientific journal articles—which are hard to find. A few students asked me to give them material, which I did, and one student asked me to take him off duty, which I also did. Actually, I had no regulatory grounding for the purported mandatoriness of this work load (because it is not usual); nonetheless I thought it was important to get as many students as possible to actively participate in this last session, so I blustered a bit. (Note: in spite of being really mandatory, attendance to the seminar was always quite loose, never were all students present; and the planned info-bazaar would fail if too many students were absent.) One week before the session I sent around the rules of the info-bazaar [see Info-Bazaar Rules.pdf], which I modeled after a similar teaching device I got to know at an advanced training weekend the freelance lecturers of the GSI organized some months before (so the info-bazaar is actually not a radical, but just a pedagogically reasonable teaching device). At the session itself, I just played the role of the conductor with the stop-watch, structuring the info-bazaar time-wise and ensuring the fast pace that allowed the students to see a multiplicity of aspects of the anti-globalization movement(s). The session went well; afterwards part of the students took me to the beer garden (remember, we’re in Munich) where they told me how fascinating and exhausting this info-bazaar was at the same time. I decided that I wanted to do more like this.
Unfortunately, this was not possible in the “Anarchism Reloaded” seminar one year later; this seminar again was completely overcrowded; therefore I needed more than the first half of each session just to let the students present papers so I could grade them. Since the year before, the institute had installed the Europe-wide standardized B.A. course of studies that is quite rigorous concerning how the grades are made. Since the Bologna process has been incorporated by the GSI, it is mandatory for all teachers (of specific seminars) to grade 15-minute-papers of all participants—obviously, the ability of PowerPointedly sell ideas to an audience is one of the “soft skills” that our students have to learn for the job market. Furthermore, in this year the whole building was a construction area, so we were lucky when we could hear what anyone was saying. Whenever possible, we went outside in the Englischer Garten. So the seminar was traditional in its form, again. That several non-student anarchists I (unofficially) invited visited the course did not change anything; they, knowing what they were talking about, talked much and informed the others, but they were experts with authority. Luckily, students of the Munich universities and pupils from the schools occupied a public space in front of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University and built a self-managed “Bildungscamp” (campsite for education) for the second time; they now do this every year for a week, having official permits but otherwise resembling the Occupy camps of 2011 onward. They invited me to organize a workshop on anarchism, although the campers did not partake in my anarchism seminar and thus actually did not know what to expect from me. I think they just wanted something radical for their campsite workshops, which is not easy to find in the LMU’s course catalog. At this (almost) autonomous space, no Bologna Process could set strict rules, so I could completely drop my role of being an expert or an authority (but resuming my role as clock generator). I asked the participants of the seminar if they would like to organize an info-bazaar at the Bildungscamp. Five of them came up with ideas for three-minute-presentations: democratic decision making (consensus), kinds of action and the question of violence, insurrectionary anarchism, anarchism in the academy, and postanarchism. I shared with them what I knew about info-bazaars. Things went very well, and after the workshop I facilitated a lively discussion with many dozens of people for more than two hours; I left before this discussion was over. (I did not expect so lively a discussion and so had made another appointment.)
The year after that, my institute was not keen of me teaching yet another “radical” course, so I had to either lie and act as a liberal (in the old, European sense) or lie and teach a radical course that at first looks quite harmless. I chose the second alternative, and this summer term 2011’s seminar “Democracy and Governance” was the best course I ever designed and taught. Let me present some details. As always, there have been institutional constraints on what I was doing: The students had to be graded, the course had to somehow increase the student’s chances at the job market, the directorship had to permit caption and announcement text of the seminar [see Democracy and Governance - Announcement Text.pdf], so form and content of the seminar had to be normal—or they had to appear normal. What does “normal” mean in these circumstances, anyway? Normal political science has for a long time been concerned with states, how they interact and function, how politicians can use these structures to reach their goals, and how all this can be measured and compared. In this field (that has also been called “administrative research”), top-down decisions are so abundant that they seem without any alternative and thus natural. Nowadays, all political scientists have to admit that there are important actors besides the states: international organizations, financial institutions, multinational corporations, terrorist groups, and NGOs. Yet the presumption of the hierarchical nature of politics has not been changed for mainstream political scientists (no wonder, since most of the new actors are highly hierarchical themselves). It finds expression in the term “governance”, which means government not only by the state but by all powerful actors: Somehow, rules are made and enforced by those in power; not only states are in power; so political science has to find out who is in charge and how they rule. Although these are interesting and complex questions, other interesting questions are foreclosed, e.g. how can the powerless be empowered, how can rules be set and enforced by all that are affected by them, what can we learn from actually existing non-hierarchical decision making structures and processes? Today, as always, mainstream political science has the ideological function of legitimizing those in power by creating “scientific” and therefore “neutral” narratives (hence its obsession with the methodology of the natural sciences). This function has to be disguised, or else it would not work.
So maybe, I thought, I can do some mainstream political science, too. Inevitably, I will be the one in power in the seminar. Inevitably, I will propagate one ideology or another. Inevitably, I will use some resources to do so, e.g. certain terms like “democracy” and “governance” or the willingness of the students to learn something new and useful. Inevitably, I will have to lie to someone about my intentions; either I will have to fool the students into believing that it is a neutral viewpoint when one declares democracy to be identical with the representative state or that it is democratic when the governed shut up (this is political science’s way to call dictatorships “output democracy”); or I will have to fool the directorship into believing that I am sophisticatedly obedient, that I will sell their ideology as scientific fact, not mine. Maybe it would have been possible to buy me with tenure, a rise in salary, and other privileges; I am not a saint. But betraying my heart and my intellect just to defend privileges that will be denied to me? I’d rather not. Consequently, I designed a syllabus that, formally and legally, is correct, but has subversive intentions. [see Democracy and Governance - Syllabus.pdf]
The content of the “Democracy and Governance” seminar can be related to mainstream discourse much better than my openly radical seminars, because it roams at the border of state-affine discourses: How can reforms make democracies even more democratic? How can citizens participate in state structures? How can civil society help officials to make better decisions? Because all this sounds so half-hearted, it can easily transport certain assumptions: Today’s democracies are not really democratic (yet), and affected citizens might be better experts on what they want and need than politicians, lawyers, police officers, or political scientists. The seminar started with a history of the term “democracy”; at our institute, this is normally taught using Manfred G. Schmidt’s textbook, in which the liberal representative democracy seems to be the final step in an ascending path to freedom, starting with the dumb old Greek and more or less reaching its goal after the Soviet Union’s crash. I used another textbook on the history of the term: Richard Saage’s. He emphasizes the connection of the struggle for democracy with class struggles and shows how the term “democracy” has been redefined to fit the electoral aristocracies that were threatened by direct democracy (understood as people’s rule), thus silencing calls for power equality (“We already have democracy so shut up!”). Additionally, I let the students read a text on democratic praxis outside of states. This gave them the feeling that there are new things to learn. But I had to retain the course’s professed neutrality. So I planned two sessions that dealt critically with variations of democracy; in my view, the criticism of democratic elitism was much stronger than the criticism of participatory democracy; anyway I told the students they should postpone any valuation until after looking at case studies. Like every normal teacher of political science, I chose those empirical case studies that helped me to make my point. For the six following sessions, the students got to know quite a number of examples where the people themselves ruled, tried to rule, or struggled to have a say in ruling society, including the Zapatistas and horizontalist groups both in Argentina and in alter-globalization movements.
The form of the seminar was important for me, too. Of the eleven sessions I wanted six to be perfectly normal, four should be experiments with alternative teaching methods, and one should be open for whatever the students collectively decided to do. Accordingly, two-thirds of the students (18) would have to present traditional papers, whereas one third (9) would have to proactively participate in the experimental sessions; all this would be graded by me. The methods I wanted to test in the special sessions are not of my origin; I learned them at an official one-week professional development course and modified them to be more playful and fit into the seminar’s atmosphere. In the following, I will comment on the four experimental sessions. For each of these sessions, I made a strict timetable and sent it to all students a few days in advance. Please look at the respective PDF files before reading my experiences; also please compare the plans with the literature section of the syllabus—I will not discuss the subject matter of the seminar here. (Names of students have been anonymized as xxx.)
Empowered Participatory Governance
I was quite nervous: will the plan work? To move the chairs at the beginning was a good thing, because it is an opportunity to make noise and move the body (this makes it easier to concentrate afterwards) and it modified the room (which turned out to be too small) into an unusual setting. Since there was a traditional paper presentation, I was sure at least something meaningful will be said. The next agenda item was a circus of project evaluations that forced the “diplomats” into a strict time management, which was almost too difficult. Also, it was quite loud in the room. The “diplomats” were unhappy not to hear of each other’s projects. All these are problems that occur every time I organize an info-bazaar (what the project evaluation circus in fact is). The next item was a panel discussion that most students just listened too; they evaluated it as illuminating. It was an excellent idea to ask for feedback at the end, because most students found the session exhausting but instructive and made rather positive comments.
Case studies: Asia and Africa
The students were allowed to move freely; nonetheless, I hoped for less noise in the room: after all, we played museum. Whispering did not work in this very small room because the next person was always so near that everyone was tempted to drown out the others, which resulted in a high noise level. The presenters complained again that they learned too little about the other papers. But afterwards, I put all papers (as high-definition photos) in the institute’s Intranet, also the result slips. In the feedback students reported that the analysis was very intensive; the whole session was almost unanimously evaluated positively. I myself was a bit disappointed that there was not enough time to cluster and evaluate the results. Generally, my plans are too stuffed. Today we only managed to get to the end because two exhibitioners were absent.
Case study: Zapatismo (Mexico)
The first half of the session was quite traditional: a paper presentation that was discussed by those who were well prepared. Today, good preparation was combined with the status of an expert—this was assigned before and graded afterwards. If a non-expert asked something, their question was postponed and not dealt with until the end of the first half. That this has not triggered outrage could have disappointed me; but everyone knew that there will be a pseudo-subversive second part. For that I used the TILT concept (“Teaching Is Learning Twice”) and combined it with the Telephone game. Information (mainly How-To-instructions taken from a radical D.I.Y. book) was spread quickly, but I have no idea how precise the transmitted data was. The feedback was positive again.
Case study: Horizontalism (Argentina)
This was the session I was really looking forward to: a radically egalitarian learning environment with no use for leaders or teachers. The structure of the session would make all participants prepare the subject matter (otherwise it would be embarrassing for them) and cooperate in the working groups (because they would socially control each other). Sadly, this did not work. The minimum requirement for my proposed format would have been 16 well-prepared people; strictly speaking, there were 27 participants in the course; but on that day, only 10 actually appeared. This made my plan obsolete. Remember: always have a backup plan! Which I did not. It was even worse, because those attendant were ill-prepared, some did not have read anything. After they told me that I proposed to monologize about horizontalism, but they would rather work in their own groups. They liked the format, even if that meant learning less. Asked why they did not read their texts, many said they did not realize there was a second page of the plan. Maybe my plan was really too complicated. Maybe the students were too exhausted (several of them said so in the official evaluation that took place that day). Maybe the weather was just too fine. Maybe my deposition the week before was taken too seriously. I do not know. The ultimate goal—a session that is organized by structure, not by leadership—has failed. This disappointed me. It is possible that devoting more sessions to horizontalism would have allowed the students to pick up the necessary knowledge and skills without feeling intimidated or overwhelmed, and I should try this out sure enough, but at the moment I just do not know what exactly went wrong.
Similar was my disappointment that the students did not want to choose at least one sessional topic of their own; for this I wanted to dedicate the last session (and parts of the next-to-last session for the decision). They rather wanted me to talk about how to write their seminar papers, a task they understood (rightly, I am afraid) as being inherently hierarchical—they have to follow rules they cannot set themselves, and they have to convince me of their hypotheses, not the other way round, and collaborative seminar papers are forbidden from the first, anyway. I can understand the students’ interest in my specifications for a good seminar paper; ultimately, they need the ECTS points and the grades, but not the knowledge or skills. At least for the job market. In this respect, the student’s reluctance to invent and organize a session of their own might be understood as an autonomous act of self-defense against my authoritarian teaching style that tried to force (pseudo-)anarchist structures on them and so contradicted their economic interests as white-collar-proletariat-to-be. Nowadays, you do not study because you seek wisdom. You study because you want money—like you do everything because of money. Tuition fees are an investment. This is not only what the neoliberal politicians say, it is also what many students deeply believe. Of course this description does not fit to all students alike. But even those that do not want to be mere customers, those that crave for knowledge as such, they sense that today they are the weirdos. One student of this seminar approached me very emotionally because I did upset him so much: When he started studying, he considered himself a left-wing radical; in the three semesters before this seminar he learned to give up hope, swallow the mainstream poison, and become a cynic; and then there was my seminar, full of hope and promise and subversive rhetoric; now he has not only lost his youthful radicalism, but also the numb security of normal-bourgeois ennui, which is a quite uncomfortable situation to be in, so he was mad at me for evoking a hope he before learned was false. I knew that my subversion could be destructive. I hoped it would be constructive, too. Maybe it was, for some of the participants, partially, and privately. I do not know these people well enough. Some of the participants of the more openly radical seminars told me later how the literature I gave them helped them to find new paths of action or encouraged them to cooperate with people they’d otherwise find suspect. I hope the “Democracy and Governance” seminar opens similar paths for some of the participants. I cannot evaluate the course’s long-term effects in a methodologically reliable way because on the one hand I am not allowed to use official data (like the student‘s e-mail addresses) to query unofficial, even subversive goals of a seminar, and on the other hand I am a theoretician that does not know how to measure radicalization empirically. So actually, success is unclear, at least as long as my ex-students do not get in contact with me themselves to report on radical activities.
Conclusion, sort of
What could be done better? I don’t know. At the moment, the university changes itself. It has been very slow to adopt neoliberal politics, so for me it was an intellectual haven in the malicious sea of capitalism, but now, as neoliberalism starts to stumble and lose its ideological luminosity in the political world, the university eagerly jumps the bandwagon that speeds towards the buffer stop. The university wants to become a profit-oriented corporation. You U.S.-Americans may be used to that, but for me a habitat is destroyed. I never experienced the university as immaculate place of freedom and equality, but at first it seemed that it might be possible to push at the borders and bend the rules to make beautiful and radical things happen. Now I see that the obstacles are bigger and more complicated. If my alma mater or any other institution of higher learning lets me teach courses and seminars in the future, I will try to do more experiments like those indicated above. But most methods I used are actually official teaching methods we teachers are expected to learn and use; they are just not usual because they are demanding to all affected, and they question the aristocratic habitus so many university teachers cherish. This is puzzling because the methods I used are in fact top-down approaches (the teacher sets the rules and if the students obey them, the session is a success). I do not know of better or more egalitarian teaching methods and look forward to read the reflections of other teachers.
Since I got super grades in the official evaluation of the “Democracy and Governance” seminar (1.29 compared to an average 1.75 over all other courses I taught; 1.00 would be “excellent”, 2.0 means plain “good”), I recommended these teaching methods to my colleagues, too. Some of them really did organize a professional development course at the institute and learned them in the meantime, in spite of my partly self-critical and partly openly radical acclaim (part of what I write here I have sent them in German to give them a picture of what I was doing and why I consider the experimental sessions a 75 % success). If this changes students’ expectations of how seminars are conducted in the middle term has yet to be seen.
Later this year, protesting students and pupils will again erect a “Bildungscamp” in front of the university’s main building. They invited me again. This time I intend to organize a workshop on founding autonomous learning and reading groups. I even want to have my own group, one that does not expect me to grade, to lead, to decide for others. This group will not be able to draw up diplomas or harden the elbows of job market subjects. This group will exist if and when enough people want to learn and understand and discuss political theory, preferably of the radical sort.