Compact Seminar "The American Presidency" in the French Alps

Text by Marie-Theres Schmidt. Photos by Judith Rauscher.

The following illustrates a typical day of the week-long seminar on the American Civil War, an interdisciplinary joint venture of the departments for American Studies and Modern and Contemporary History at Bamberg University. The seminar with participants from both disciplines was taught by Prof. Dr. Christine Gerhardt and Prof. Dr. Sabine Freitag and focused on historical documents, literary texts, and films. It took place in Manigod, France, 13–20 August 2017.

6.30 AM

The sun rises over the picturesque French Alps. The first rays of light reach Chalet Giersch, where 12 people are still sound asleep. Only two students are up, one out of habit and the other in order to finalize the PowerPoint presentation he has to present in class today. A little later, two more occupants of the Chalet will set the long breakfast table with the scrumptious baked goods delivered to our doorstep every morning. After the kitchen team rings the cowbell tied to the staircase, the rest of the group follows the scent of coffee and fresh croissants to the common room.

11.15 AM

The seminar is well underway. For the past two hours, our group has been debating battle lines, leading figures, and naval activities of the Union Army and troops of the Confederate States. With its participants far from weary, the discussion moves to a Whitman poem. We read harrowing accounts of battle, and moving depictions of death and loss, and examine individual lines, individual words even, in light of the sources we have studied. On occasion, a pair of eyes escapes the pages of the book to catch a glimpse of the mountain tops through the large windows, drawing inspiration for further comments from the grandeur of the scene outside.

2.30 PM

After seminar discussions ebb away, laptops and books are exchanged for bikinis and walking boots. While one group heads up to the sunny mountain peaks, the other dives down into the cool depths of the pool. A route for the hikers is quickly found – a walk up Beauregard, a stroll through nearby Alpine forests and meadows, a hike along the Aravis Chain – thanks to Professor Freitag, who generously shares her knowledge of the area with curious ears and eager feet. The pool crew picks up guitar and violin and, for the next hour or so, will sing a wild mix of songs reminiscent of summer camp.

5.30 PM

The hikers have returned, the singers’ throats are parched, and rumor has it that a barbeque is being prepared. Bustling between kitchen, dinner table, and grill, three students are preparing meat and vegetarian options in various shapes and sizes. The hikers share photos of Mont Blanc, clearly visible in the distance before a cloudless, brilliant sky.

7.45 PM

Dinner conversation revolves around the differences between Franconian, Hessian, Austrian, and Berlin dialects. Which one allows for the most nuanced ways of expressing different kinds of tiredness, or gradations of appreciation and disapproval? Even among a jovial group of people like ours, and despite the general contentment setting in due to the delicious barbecue, some conflicts cannot be settled.

9.15 PM

The projection on the movie screen shows scenes at the military academy West Point, from the 80’s classic TV miniseries North and South. The audience is attentive to all the details of America’s pre-Civil War culture, and very lively. Over snacks and punch, questions of historical accuracy are left aside for the much more pressing matter of Patrick Swayze’s (alias Orry Main’s) hair style, and debates over predictably dramatic plotlines full of danger, regional conflict, and forbidden love. As the end credits roll, some students retreat to the sauna while others head out to the balcony with a bottle of beer or a glass of wine.

11.15 PM

The starry sky above the Chalet kisses most seminar participants goodnight. Between Milky Way and Ursa Major, the occasional shooting star grazes overhead. And while most wishes addressed to the falling stars are uttered silently, it would not be far-fetched to assume that some of them include a return to Manigod.