School of Arts and Letters
Assistant Professor of German
Michael Hutchins is an assistant professor of German at IU Southeast. He is widely published on topics ranging from trends in German popular culture to technology in teaching and the works of the novelist, W.G. Sebald. Among numerous other distinctions, Hutchins is an E-Learning Technology Fellow, and is currently collaborating with colleagues across the IU system using the Eagle Eye Director platform. Since joining the faculty in 2011, he has been deeply involved in a wide range of campus initiatives at all levels. He currently sits on the Faculty Senate and advises the German Club.
Hutchins spoke about his work with academic information officer Steven Krolak.
What awakened your love of German?
I selected German on a whim. My father told me in passing that he had taken German in school, so I signed up for the course on his recommendation. Once I got into my first semester, I found that I had a knack for imitating the sounds — I was a theater major, after all— and I liked puzzling out etymologies, as well as spotting grammatical similarities between English and German … I am enthusiastic about learning to see things through the eyes of others. I am energized by empathy, and I see language as a vehicle for cultivating that empathy. I am passionate about giving students another tool to explore the world from a new angle, one to which they would have no access without a certain linguistic and cultural acumen.
Why does German continue to be relevant today?
German is the native language of close to 100 million people, and it is the language of Europe’s biggest economy. These facts give it relevance for people interested in doing international business. In fact, after English, German is the most-studied second language in Europe, and a great many of the people currently migrating to Europe are heading to Germany, which means that it has become a useful tool for making connections across cultures. Increasingly, when people from different backgrounds in Europe do not speak English, they are speaking German. The German language has also historically been a language of science and technology, and is very useful for people on the cutting edge of renewable energy, biotechnology, medicine and other sciences. Of course, the study of German also opens up a long tradition of art, theater, architecture and literature.
What are the unique challenges of learning German, and what are the special rewards?
German is infamous for delaying the thing you really want to say until the end of your sentence — I sometimes call it “Yoda-speak” in class. Instead of saying, “I have gone to the store,” Germans say the equivalent of, “I have to the store gone,” which can be confusing at first. But in this challenge there is the glimmer of understanding we can gain about the German way of being in the world. Why does German sound so aggressive to outsiders? At least in part this is because German speakers have to maintain breath support to the very end of their sentences where the verb lives! German-speakers have to care about their whole thought. They have to plan ahead. Also, like most European languages, German applies gender to all of its nouns, and these do not always make sense. I mean, which gender should a desk or cup of coffee have? But German is more flexible syntactically than English. You can begin a sentence with a direct object without confusing the listener. In coming to understand these kinds of structural differences between German and English — in having to ask themselves, “What is a direct object anyway?”— students of German come to appreciate and understand their own native language better.
You have pioneered the use of the Eagle Eye system on campus. How does it work, and what does it contribute to the classroom experience?
The Eagle Eye Director technology connects classrooms at different IU campuses by streaming high-definition video from multiple cameras and microphones. The installation includes motion-detecting cameras that zoom in on individuals speaking in the classroom. This technology allows instructors to engage students at a distance while minimizing the sense of disconnectedness that often accompanies distance education. The classroom has allowed us to offer students a wider variety of courses. My colleague at IU South Bend, for example, is able to offer expertise in German film that I do not have, allowing me to focus on literature. So the students can customize their program more than they would have been able to, had they been constrained to on-campus offerings.
The late novelist W.G. Sebald looms large in your research. What is the focus of your interest?
Sebald was enormously popular among a certain set of readers interested in ethical approaches to dealing with the past. It made him one of the most widely distributed and best-selling German authors of the last 20th and early 21st centuries. As I read him, Sebald sets the Holocaust inside a framework of a much larger “natural history of destruction,” in which genocide is not anomalous but emblematic of human ways of being in the world. For Sebald, history’s central tragedy is the instrumentalization of reason. When humans apply their rationality to shaping the world for their benefit, they break with nature and consequently with themselves. The result, in Sebald’s view, is a repeating pattern of exploitation that culminates in genocide, as the destruction circles back to victimize its perpetrators.