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Exploring Ambiguity: Professor Ruth-Ellen Joeres’s odyssey through German studies, feminism and biography

By Kermit Pattison

Joeres.jpgAs a teen, Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres was selected as one of the most promising young scientists in America. Her path toward a career in medicine seemed clear. And that was the problem.

“I’m not happy in a lab or in a world of statistics," she says. “It’s far too black and white for me. I like things that are more ambiguous."

Joeres became a Germanist. Then she became a feminist. And the combination of those two fields has given her enough ambiguities to last a lifetime. “To this day," she says with a chuckle, “If I am somewhere and people ask what I teach and I say ‘German and women’s studies,’ they get this odd look on their faces."

A pioneer in the field of German women’s studies, Joeres has written or edited 13 books and established herself as both a visionary and an iconoclast. Joeres is a literary critic, a social and cultural historian, and a teacher. Much of her career has been spent arguing against various forms of rigidity, whether they are found in the Germanic canon, in theory, in feminism, or in academic prose.

“She has a vision about how to open up the canon of German literature and a determination to rewrite that history to include women," says Associate Professor Leslie Morris. “This was the mission of early feminist scholarship, and it’s an incredibly important one. She was really the person who was responsible for doing that with great rigor in the field of German studies. She’s been a leader nationally and internationally in the study of German women’s literature. And she’s a leader on campus and in the Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch."

In 2004 Joeres won the University of Minnesota’s Distinguished Women Scholars Award in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, which recognized her innovative scholarship, impact on her field, scholarly reputation, and teaching. In March of 2006, she gave a University lecture titled “The Universal Appeal of the Particular" that laid out much of her current thinking about the relationship between the personal and the abstract in scholarly work. In November 2006, an interdisciplinary conference titled “Gender, Genre, and Political Transformation" was held in her honor.

“She’s a model for colleagues in this country and abroad," says GSD chair Charlotte Melin. “She has shown us not simply how to produce exemplary scholarship, but also how to engage in professional practices that contribute in significant, lasting ways to the lives of our students."

Joeres grew up in Baltimore and was exposed to foreign languages before she can remember. Her father was an immigrant who had been born in Germany to Danish parents. Just before her sixth birthday, her father died after surgery. Joeres’s mother worked as a teacher to support the family.

In high school, Joeres excelled in science and won the “Future Scientists of America Contest" for her multistate region. Her prize-winning entry was a statistical study of cancer. It was no coincidence that her mother recently had undergone surgery for the disease because, from the start, Joeres’s academic work has reflected contemplation of her own life, a mix of the professional and the personal.

She went to Goucher College intending to become a premed major. In her second year, she took a class with Ernst Feise, a noted Germanist of his era who became her mentor. He told her, “Ruth-Ellen, anybody can be a doctor, but most people can’t write the way you do."

Joeres switched her major to German. She first began to think of herself as a true academic during graduate school at Johns Hopkins University when she took a class with Harold Jantz, an influential Germanist. Jantz was a canonical scholar who read texts in literal fashion and filled his work with Greek, Latin, and medieval references. “And it was after a session of his seminar that I went home, thinking probably for the first time that this was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be," Joeres recalled in an autobiographical essay.

Her introduction to feminism occurred when she was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She planned to write a book on the so-called Young German novel until she learned that another scholar had just completed a book on the topic. Instead, she chose to investigate 19th-century women writers in Germany. Although her graduate studies had focused on 19th-century German literature, her professors had dismissed women writers as essentially “a waste of time," she says.

She found a rich trove of books in the Wisconsin library. But what was happening outside the library proved to be just as influential: the feminist movement was under way. “I read everything the library had on German women in the 19th century," she says. “And I began to take part in a consciousness-raising group. That was when I began to think that I wanted somehow to work in both German studies and feminist inquiry."

In 1976, Joeres joined the faculty of the Department of German at the University of Minnesota, where she found a flourishing women’s studies community. She describes those years as a sort of academic double life. On one hand, she was a Germanist who followed the canon with both obeisance and enthusiasm and taught Faust following the model of her former professor Harold Jantz. On the other, she became a rebel who increasingly questioned the hegemony of that very same canon.

“My feminism," she recalls, “began to overtake my Germanism."

From 1984 to 1987 she served as director of the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies at the University. She then co-edited Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society from 1990 to 1995. Joeres and co-editor Barbara Laslett, a sociologist, sought to bridge the divide between disciplines—a gap symbolized by the Mississippi River, which separates the humanities on the east bank from the social sciences on the west bank. Joeres considers her five-year tenure at Signs one of the most fruitful periods of her academic career.

Germanist colleagues did not always welcome such scholarship. In 1991 Joeres gave an invited talk at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association titled “‘Language Is Also a Place of Struggle’: The Language of Feminism and the Language of American Germanistik." In a deliberate provocation, she asserted that the relationship between feminism and German studies was nonexistent, not even a mix of apples and oranges but rather more like “elephants and parsley." She ascribed this estrangement to a generation of German male scholars who had fled the Nazi regime and sought refuge in literature as a pure pursuit unsullied by politics. “I remember people in the audience shaking their fingers at me and getting very angry," she says.

Joeres also has challenged other forms of orthodoxy—even closer to home. In 1992 she wrote an editorial for Signs titled “On Writing Feminist Academic Prose" that warned that feminism was falling prey to the vices of the academic establishment: elitism, alienation from the outside world, and an emphasis on jargon and theory that tended to discourage interdisciplinary work. This article was provocative enough to catch the attention of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

She has continued to voice such concerns. In a 2000 article in Signs titled “Feminism and the Word Wars," she warned that feminism increasingly ran the danger of becoming yet another academic silo. “If we do not enter the new century with a sense of alarm about these developments," she wrote, “then my gloomy prediction is that we academic feminists will soon be indistinguishable from the rest of the academy, just a newer tool of an entrenched and unchanging power structure."

Joeres doesn’t shirk from questioning convention in her teaching, either. When she attended graduate school in the 1960s, the curriculum emphasized absorption of facts and imitation of canonical scholars. Mastery of theory was then, as it is now, a mark of erudition that divided the scholars from the worker-bee teachers.

Joeres responds that we should not be comfortable with the distance and abstraction of theory. “To me theory is fairly passive," she says. “It’s received from on high. You’re pretty much parroting what that theory is." Joeres prefers the process of theorizing. If theory is like a symphony that students learn to play by rote, then theorizing is like jazz musicians improvising on a theme. “Theorizing is a gerund—it’s an active thing," she continues. “To me, it is much more creative."

Eventually, she returned to teaching Faust. This time the class spent weeks reading nothing but the text. Next, she had the students re-read it through the lens of a theory of their choice: Bakhtin, Freud, gender theory, or queer theory, for example. “It acknowledges the subjectivity of the reader, who lives in an entirely different time and place than Goethe," Joeres says. “This acknowledgment must be accepted because it’s the only way we can honestly describe what we do. I don’t believe in objectivity. Every individual reads differently, right? I am trying to get away from the idea that there is only one way to read and one interpretation that is correct."

Her teaching style has evolved too. She talks less in class than she did earlier in her career and listens more. She assigns less reading. “If students read a small text and know how to think about that text," she says, “that’s more important in the long run than their just being filled up with facts."

Joeres is heartened by the increasing volume of work on German women authors and the diversification of critical approaches. Yet she has broader concerns about American indifference to German, foreign languages, and the humanities.

“In order to make us viable, we have realized we have to think differently about how we go about literary studies," she says. “They have to be broader, more culturally contextualized—something to give them greater interest to an American audience."

As director of graduate studies, she has taken steps to respond to this trend. She places more emphasis on the realities of the job market and has organized workshops on topics such as writing vitae and résumés, publishing, and grant writing. And she makes a point of meeting with graduate students more often to help shepherd them through a field in transition.

Meanwhile, her own research has undergone a transformation. Her most recent book is Respectability and Deviance: Nineteenth-Century German Women Writers and the Ambiguity of Representation (University of Chicago Press, 1998). A broad examination of 19th-century German women writers, the book deals with the thorny problem of interpretation, acknowledging the gap between historical figures and the author who is interpreting their work from a different vantage point.

Joeres’s latest project takes the notion of subjectivity a step further. She has temporarily abandoned academic prose to write a memoir—a series of personal essays tentatively titled “Commuting: Ambivalent Identification and the Shaping of an Academic Life."

One chapter wrestles with her memories of her father, whom she remembers largely as an abstraction because he died so early in her life. Another delves into her emotional relationship with the work of Louise Otto, a 19th-century German writer who figured prominently in her academic research. The common element: “the urgency and the longing that I felt to know both of them."

What comes after the memoir, laughs Joeres, is less clear. But such ambiguity suits her just fine.