Q&A with Kevin Amidon

CATEGORIES: December 2013

Many of our alumni probably remember taking a class or two with Professor Kevin Amidon. (Remember those blackboards filled with writing, charts, and diagrams?). Dr. Amidon is an Associate Professor of German and an affiliate member of the faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. He has taught a wide variety of classes in WLC: from First, Second, and Third-Year German to many fascinating courses in English, such as “Bombs, Bugs, and Baghdad: Science and Technology in German Culture, Past and Present” or “The Weimar Republic and the Nazi State: Culture, Continuity, and Change.” A genuinely erudite scholar, Dr. Amidon studied German, economics, history, musicology, and art history in Ann Arbor, Freiburg, Princeton, Frankfurt am Main, and Berlin, and received his Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University in 2001.  He has published widely on critical theory, gender history and theory, eugenics, race theory, evolutionary thought, the Frankfurt School, German and American history, opera, and theater.  Below, are a few questions we have posed to Dr. Amidon about his career and travels abroad.

1) How did you decide to become a University professor?

I was fortunate enough to come from an extended family that included a number of professors.  That helped take away some of the mysterious aspects of graduate school and how to start an academic career.  It especially helped me to understand the challenging but rewarding tradeoffs that being a professor entails: relatively low earnings but lots of freedom to pursue ideas and interests; work that is never done (better classes, better writing, better research), but flexible hours; constant pressure to perform, but being surrounded by energetic, interesting, engaged people.  I was also lucky to have many very inspiring teachers and professors throughout my life who provided excellent models for exciting and effective teaching.  I chose the field of German Studies because it allowed me to integrate the study of many things I found fascinating: history, literature, science, technology, music, language, and much more.

Dr. Amidon at the German Federal Institute for Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices in 2011

2) What do you consider to be your most notable professional achievement?

I am proudest of the way that I have been able to develop wide-ranging expertise in teaching and research that speaks to students and colleagues from across the spectrum of academic fields.  This has allows me to explore ideas in new ways with very diverse groups of people.  I am currently teaching a course (WLC 370X: Making the World Green: Environment, Sustainability, and Culture, past and present) in which I have students majoring in 13 different programs in 4 different colleges at ISU.  In the course we specifically ask how different fields of study can contribute productively together to the exploration of ideas, rather than creating their own narrow and exclusive regions of expertise.  I have also published research articles in journals from an array of fields, because the questions I ask in my research on scientific knowledge and culture are relevant in all of them.  They include history, sociology, biology, philosophy, literature, music, gender studies, and pharmacology.

3) What has been your most memorable international experience?

I had the opportunity to travel for several weeks with a group of young musicians from the United States and Japan to the People’s Republic of China in 1983, when I was eleven years old.  This was just shortly after China had begun to open its borders, but still before the country began to welcome tourists broadly.  I therefore saw a country and a culture at the end of one period of astonishing transition, and the beginning of another.  This experience opened my eyes to the fascination of the study of history, culture, and language, and I’m still at it!  Alongside my academic career I also maintain a part-time professional career as a violinist (largely classical, but also bluegrass and alternative).

4) What is the last foreign country you visited? Is there a place in that country that you recommend anyone to visit?

Over Thanksgiving break I spent five days in Istanbul, Turkey with a friend.  In the early 1990s I had had the opportunity to live there for short stretches, but had not returned since 1995.  I was intrigued to see how Turkey had grown and developed in 18 years.  Turkey has also long been an important strategic and cultural partner of Germany, and it is important for my research and teaching to know and understand that relationship.  I also believe that there are few cities on the planet that are as fascinating as Istanbul, because over almost 2500 years, many different groups and nations have ruled and shaped the city – the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and now the Republic of Turkey.  Those groups and nations have often – if not always – valued the incredible ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity present there.  These layers of diversity are everywhere visible in the city’s monuments, its cuisine, its art, and its ways of life, and that is intriguing and thrilling.  The city has genuinely been the crossroads of Europe and Asia for millennia.  The three things not to miss: the Haghia Sophia; the view from the ferry ride between the side of the city in Europe (Eminonü) and the side in Asia (Üskudar); and the lively late evening promenade through and around Istiklal Street in the Beyoğlu neighborhood.

Teaching diagrams on Enlightenment subjectivity.

5) What has been the most interesting or unusual course you taught at ISU?

Every course is exciting, because new students always bring new energy to their classes.  The most interesting, but in many ways the most challenging, course I’ve taught is our course on the Brothers Grimm (German 375: Grimms’ Tales).  The foundation of the course – which I teach in in English, with some supplementary materials for German majors – is the study of the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales that has been so influential across modern Western cultures.  Nonetheless the Grimms did much more, because they were seeking to explain how national identity comes into existence, and how it can be defined and understood.  They therefore studied not only fairy tales, but also law, language, and social customs.  The course therefore weaves together many different fields, and to develop and teach it I had to spend months studying, reading, and researching myself!