Sept. 22, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 1

‘Rocking the Bloc’: Teaching and Learning in Germany

by Kate Transchel, History, and graduate student Matt Robertson

So when I was invited by the University Study Abroad Consortium (USAC) to teach a summer course, “Rocking the Bloc: Rock & Roll and the End of Communism in Eastern Europe,” in Lüneburg, Germany, I jumped at the chance. Knowing that graduate student Matt Robertson studied music and was interested in alternative youth cultures in the former Soviet Union, I suggested he join me. He, too, jumped at the chance, and I enlisted his help in teaching the class.

Our journey began in Berlin, where we had the great fortune to see so many of the important historical places we had only read about: the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdam, remnants of the Wall, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, the holocaust memorial, etc. We even got to meet with a Green Party parliamentarian in the Bundestag (Parliament) and discuss current economic and social issues with him. Strolling through former East Berlin neighborhoods, we caught rare glimpses of the degradation and despair that permeated these streets under communism—a fitting start to the course.

Arriving in Lüneburg, we found ourselves about 30 kilometers from the former East German border in a charming medieval town that once served as a capital of the Hanseatic League (an economic and defensive confederation of free towns in northern Germany and neighboring areas from 1241–1669). Classes were held at Leuphana University—a former British army base during the Cold War. The students came from various American universities (three from Chico), and together we explored the rise and fall of the Wall (which we had all seen in Berlin), the impact of Western rock music on Eastern European youth cultures, and the nature of daily life under Eastern European communist regimes.

photo of Kate Transchel and studentsWhat a marvelous opportunity for me, as well as the students, to get up close and personal with the subjects under study. For example, one week I lectured on the establishment and role of the STASI (East German Secret Police) in arresting “rock & roll deviants.” The following day we travelled to Schwerin, a town in the former East Germany, and received a tour of a STASI prison from a woman who spent her youth listening to illegal rock music. Not only were we able to go into cells that had held people arrested for smuggling rock music, but because of our guide’s candor, we got a real sense of how important that music was to her development as an oppositionist to communism.

—Kate Transchel, History


Part II

Studying abroad means more than just studying, and few public institutions of higher education facilitate the experience better than Chico State. You can’t fit the whole experience on a pamphlet filled with course listings and requirements. One experience that I will always remember is seeing Russian soldiers’ autographs on the interior walls of the Reichstag in Berlin after they had taken the building in 1945, effectively ending World War II in Europe. Sharing that moment with Professor Transchel, who has such an understanding of what that historical occasion might have meant, made it especially meaningful.

photo captions

I owe Professor Transchel a debt of gratitude for both her life-changing Russian history class and the invitation to Germany. I had the opportunity to lecture numerous times on the social and political impact of music forms and groups. The students were constantly amazed at the level to which Western music penetrated the Iron Curtain and manifested itself in new and unforeseen ways in the closed societies of Eastern Europe. I served as a teaching assistant for Professor Transchel, gained vital classroom teaching experience, and lived in the economic engine of Europe. These are the parts of the study-abroad experience that don’t fit in a brochure!

photo of Matt Robertson

Studying in Lüneburg etched the realities of the Cold War and the exceptional character of its end clearly upon my mind. But what does one do when not in the classroom during this amazing educational experience? Why, meet an old friend in Paris for a weekend, go to London with new friends, then meet a travel buddy from my previous study abroad in Moscow and hit Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Bratislava, and Prague for a two-week grand finale.

The Chico Experience is not limited to life in Chico. The joyous reaction on my professor’s face upon my arrival in Berlin said it all—our adventure was beginning. If you open yourself to the experiences available to you at Chico State, there is no telling where they will take you.

—Matt Robertson, graduate student