Victoria Harms is currently the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Visiting Professor in the Department of History and has recently been offered a five-year appointment as a senior lecturer at the University. In an interview with The News-Letter, Harms discussed her specialization in Cold War history with a focus on Europe, why she decided to include the Baltimore community within her courses and her students' impact on her.
The News-Letter: How did you become interested in studying cultural, intellectual and political European and Cold War history?
Victoria Harms: I've always been interested in history. Some of my very first memories are actually about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Growing up in West Germany, my father claimed to be a 68’er, the generation for whom coming to terms with Germany's past was crucial when they were young. That has really shaped me. My parents provided me with a very different understanding of nationalism because of Germany’s past.
I went to college in Frankfurt, a town that was located on the German Polish border that had only experienced loss and decline since German unification. I didn’t really understand any of that. I had no clue but found it fascinating to try to understand this city and other environments through their past.
N-L: What drew you to Hopkins?
VH: After I finished my PhD [from the University of Pittsburgh] in 2015, I went to Germany for three years. I did a postdoc there, and I started teaching, but very quickly I realized that I don't fit in, and I don't like the way universities operate and the way professors teach.
I knew about this specific program by the DAAD, and when I saw the call for applications for Hopkins, I just knew I had to apply. This would be a new challenge, and I do like new challenges.
N-L: What has your experience at Hopkins been like, but also in comparison, what's different from Germany?
VH: In Germany I found myself in an area of focus that is dominated by white men. There were moments in those three years where I was the only female instructor and all tenured positions were white men, all who perceived themselves to be very liberal, very progressive. But in the hiring practices and their everyday behavior, their self-declared liberalism didn’t transpire. I didn't fully appreciate the patriarchy. At one point I bumped into one professor who was known to prevent women from pursuing an academic career. I didn’t understand why the burden was on me to accommodate him. When the call from Hopkins came, I realized it could be my exit ticket.
I was fascinated by Hopkins’s reputation as an elite research university. It was a bit ironic, realizing it is built on the German model when I was just trying to escape the higher education system in Germany. [Hopkins] also felt like a very white institution. I am white but I remember when I arrived here I was like, ‘Wow, what is this?’
What I really enjoy here is teaching. The student body has diversified in the last four to five years; I've seen the changes. It’s so nice to have so many different experiences in the classroom, to be able to talk to students that have different backgrounds. Students are so critical, and they're so engaged, so teaching has been the most rewarding aspect of my time here.
N-L: Why did you decide to include community engagement in your courses, and why do you think it's important?
VH: When I arrived here, I had decided I wanted to teach a class about the 1960s. I designed my class to go through different national case studies, and we started with the U.S. I realized as I’m teaching that I have no idea about Baltimore, but Baltimore was actually hugely important in the 1960s.
I met Dr. Shawntay Stocks, the former associate director for engaged scholarship at the Center for Social Concern (CSC), and she gave this talk about community-based learning. I was hooked. The CSC provided a framework for me to learn how to include partners in the community in a respectful and humble way in my classes. The institutional framework is important, because otherwise in this very complex and fraught context and [the University's] historically difficult relationship with some communities in the city, you end up making a lot of mistakes and making the situation worse than it already is.
I was fortunate enough to find partners in the city. I partnered with a middle school and with the [Reginald F. Lewis] Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. I found eyewitnesses, speakers who had lived here and were activists in the 1960s. There were multiple components through which we could include Baltimore in a meaningful way in our classes.
I am not an expert, I'm not from Baltimore, I'm white. I'm at Hopkins. Qua my specific position in this socio-economic and political environment, my expertise is limited. But the students bring their own experiences, their own interests, their own skills, their own research to the table, so we can have a shared learning experience, and that's been incredibly rewarding.
N-L: What do you plan to do next?
VH: Hopkins has such a fascinating history. For an institution that prides itself on educating the next generation of democratic, engaged, active citizens, it's irritating how little we know about our institution's history. I find this very perplexing and have been thinking about how to put my own research in the University archives and our in-class conversations into writing.
I teach a class on sports history, and I love that class because you get to engage students in really complex conversations about nationalism, gender, racism, our positions in society and so on. I've developed a research project on the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984. It's within the Cold War context. I am convinced that the LA Games reveal much about [the U.S.] at this stage in the Cold War, and the games paved the way for America's perceived triumph over the Soviet Union a few years later.
I am thinking about how to continue the classes that I have been teaching because to me they are a work in progress. Students have a stake, so they should have a say in their own education. That's my way to make this a more democratic approach to teaching.
N-L: Do you have anything else to add?
VH: Our students have tremendous potential. For me research and teaching has always gone hand in hand. What I have learned from students in my class and conversations with students has been tremendous. Nothing makes me feel more connected to this institution as my students. Being at Hopkins and engaging with undergraduate students here has challenged me in absolutely new and unexpected ways which have made me a more critical thinker and reflective historian.