This week, The Catalyst sat down with Chet Lisiecki, assistant professor in the German Department, to hear about his research on fascism in Europe and the Holocaust, why interdisciplinary study and foreign language learning are fundamental to a liberal arts education, and how CC has changed since he graduated in 2007.
The Catalyst: Why do you think learning a language is important?
Chet Lisiecki: The way we process information, the way we think about the world, the way we see the world is mediated through language. It’s one of the ways we understand the world that we inhabit. And the fact that there are different ways of conceptualizing the world and conceptualizing our own identities that are different across different languages is something that I think is really valuable to fostering a sense of, not only sort of awareness of differences, but a sort of celebration of differences and an affirmation of differences and a recognition of the limitations of our own ways of seeing the world — ways in which we’ve been acculturated and so on.
TC: How does your research intersect with your work in the German department?
CL: It mostly intersects in the classes I teach — primarily, but not only. For example, I’m becoming more involved with the Prison Project on campus and sort of prison advocacy and prison reform and some of the work that those students and other faculty are doing. And I hope eventually over the next four years to go down to Pueblo and teach in the Youthful Offenders program there. And last year, I taught a class called “Prisons and Prisoners” which was a comparative literature class — part of it was but there was also a heavy German focus for German students — but the idea behind that class was to think about ways in which prisons and prisoners have been represented and how prisoners have represented themselves through literature and literary texts. So, in terms of my more sort of immediate research projects — and there are a couple — I tend to draw on some of the research I’ve done for those classes.
TC: What do you enjoy most about your interdisciplinary work?
CL: My Ph.D. is in comparative literature, my B.A. is in comparative literature from Colorado College, class of 2007. And so I have kind of always been interdisciplinary as long as I can remember my career as an academic, going back to my first block, which was Comp. Lit 100 with Professor Corinne Scheiner and Professor Re Evitt. And so interdisciplinarity is really central to every question that I ask. And what motivates my research and motivates me as a scholar are interdisciplinary questions. And so in the classes I teach as well, we’re often reading political science and philosophy and literature and art history and texts from all of these different disciplines as a way to get at a big question like, “What is fascism or what does that mean?” You know? Because that word is so loaded and, on the one hand means nothing and on one hand it can mean so many different things.
TC: Your academic interests aside, what you like to do in your free time?
CL: I do not ski and I am a proud outlier. I really enjoy playing board games; that’s a hobby of mine that I really like and I am always looking for someone to play board games with. I enjoy crossword puzzles, I like to be active; I try to be active and be outside as much as possible. Doing nothing in particular, you know, hiking or whatever. I enjoy music, live music, going to concerts at some of the cool venues around Colorado, of course being with friends and family. And traveling is another hobby; I really enjoy traveling.
TC: What interests you most about your work in German studies?
CL: So, a couple of years ago we redesigned our German studies major and minor. We kind of redesigned and reimagined the curriculum, in a way, to bring it in line with what other German Studies programs were already doing. We weren’t, you know, being totally original when we did this, but the reason we did that was because we looked at the course offerings and the way German had been conceptualized at CC — and I’m talking about me and my two colleagues in the German department, professors Steckenbiller and Davis — and we noticed that the classes were focused on literature. And of course many of us have backgrounds in literary studies, but German Studies is so much more than that. And so we wanted to conceptualize or design a major that spoke to the multifaceted nature of Germany as a country, of German history, and the diversity of Germans and the German diaspora, and so on and so forth. And so what interests me about my work in German studies is the way in which German Studies is itself, while having German in the name, very interdisciplinary and can speak to very many other modes of inquiry for example and many other disciplines.
TC: Is there anything you find particularly exciting with regard to your work in psychology and/or philosophy?
CL: I kind of identify as a generalist, so I’m very much interested in psychology and psychoanalysis. I just learned about the psychoanalysis minor, that’s very exciting that that exists. And I think, you know, I’m always drawing on philosophy and gave a paper recently at a conference on contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. And, yeah, I teach some aspect of philosophy in every class and it really informs the way I think about literature. I think the question kind of gets back to how do we read? Like what does it mean to read, what is a literary analysis? And for me, any literary text is rife with possible meanings and, you know, one of the most influential classes I took as an undergraduate was “Literary Theory.”
TC: How do you think your experience as a student at Colorado College is different from the experience of current students?
CL: That is really hard to say; I’m always asking students, I always want to hear what life is like as a student now. You know, it wasn’t that long ago that I was a student here. But some things have certainly changed. I mean, just the prevalence of social media for example. And a lot of people have a smartphone and a laptop — you know, that’s pretty standard practice. I did not have those things when I was a student. […] One thing that I think CC has done a pretty good job of — and clearly is committed to — is attending to what diversity means and what a small liberal arts college can be. And I think President Jill has shown tremendous leadership on that front. There’s still a long ways to go of course, but I’m excited that CC is committing itself to that. And on the one hand I get the sense that, yes, certain groups of students are not talking or listening to other groups of students, whatever that might be. So, I’m gay, and when I was a student here, there were very few students who were out in any way. I know there’s issues within the queer community at CC — and I’ve heard about some of those — but it just seems in general as though there is a more diverse student body here than when I was a student. And I think that is something that we’re not done working toward yet, but that brings a tremendous wealth of experience and knowledge and personalities to this campus. Which is really one of the greatest things about a small, residential liberal arts school is these conversations you have with people who are different from you and how you can learn from those.
TC: Given your work with German fascism, how do you feel about the current state of American government?
CL: That’s a loaded question. Yeah, I’m not going to go too much into that, but I’m teaching “Fascist Modernism” next year. On the one hand, I’m not trained in political science the way a political scientist is, and I’m not trained in history the way a historian is. I have done work in those fields and I have learned from people who are really trained as political scientists and historians, but, of course, there’s no agreement on what fascism is necessarily. And it’s a term that is certainly overdetermined by Holocaust. You know, the Holocaust tends to overdetermine what fascism was in Germany, for example — which was just one place where fascism took root, obviously. But I remember after the election, Judith Butler — who is a sort of leading scholar in a number of different fields, including philosophy and feminism, who’s a professor at Berkeley — she wrote an article about the way that the campaign that Trump ran “liberated hatred,” made it okay to hate. And I mean hatred, or violence, in many forms, not just physical violence, but institutional violence — the violence that comes from systemic and institutional racism and other forms of discrimination and bigotry, white supremacy, linguistic violence, emotional violence and so on. It allowed people to be open about that in a way and made it seem permissible in a way that it hadn’t necessarily been before. And that is certainly something that’s at the heart of fascism, is a celebration and even an aestheticizing of violence and hate. And I’m very troubled by the rise in hate crimes and by just the general sense in which it seems okay now, or more okay, to express certain, you know, hateful sentiments, and to be openly sort of violent, discriminatory, bigoted, and so on, toward other people. That, to me, is really troubling and something that we need to come together as a community here on this campus — in our communities on campus, and in the greater communities in which we live — to address and to speak about. The other thing I was going to say is that I think it’s all the more important now to educate ourselves about fascism — why fascism took root, where it came from, how it developed, what it meant at different historical times in different places; because it meant different things given the local politics, regional politics, national politics, and setting […] And so, that’s something that I think is worth just being aware of; that’s an idea, that’s an identity that will continue to be with us and that we need to be vigilant against if we want to live in a world based on love. Yeah, you know, I have that that quote from Dr. King on the wall over there, “I have decided to stick to love; hate is too great a burden to bear”
TC: What is your favorite class you’ve ever taught?
CL: That’s a hard one. So it’s strange to say that I like teaching about the Holocaust, but teaching the Holocaust, to me, is something that I think is incredibly important in terms of addressing what fascism is and how it led to genocide — keeping in mind that that’s not the only route to genocide — and for thinking about how something like that could happen, and what it meant, and what it means to represent it, and what it means to live in a place where it happened. One of the assignments that students work on in representing the Holocaust is a digital assignment, where they kind of imagine ways in which we, as a community, can or cannot represent something like trauma or genocide, how we should or should not do that, what it means to do that, and so on, in our context or in their context. And, you know, that’s ongoing work. Germany has made certain decisions about how to do that that are really productive for sort of reflecting on how we want to do that within our own communities. But it’s something that just doesn’t ever seem to, you know, you never seem to really hear about these things in the news. The genocide of native peoples is never a topic. So many people are afraid to name it. Slavery too, people, white people, don’t talk about these things enough and are afraid to name them and afraid to think about what it means to come to terms with them. And so, yeah, I think that that class is one that I enjoy teaching because I find the content of the class to be so valuable, to be so present, to be so integral to doing some of the work that we are doing at CC and that we need to be doing as a community.