An Interview with BCB’s Managing Director, Florian Becker

As I open the door to his office, Florian greets me with a frisson of excitement. His office, brightly lit, clean, cool, copacetic, is large but not too grand. There are three pieces of art on the wall and then a kaleidoscope of books — Bacon, Burke, Bertolt Brecht, Nabokov, Nietsche, Müller, Max, Kant etc. — almost everywhere in his office: on a bookshelf, on another bookshelf, on his desk, next to his desk, everywhere.

Here, in his office, the lines between instructor and administrator are very blurry.

In the first part of the interview, Florian and I talk about his role as managing director, his life lessons, professional and personal; his favorite T.V. show, music, music band.

In 2015, your career as an academic took a turn when you joined the administration of Bard College Berlin. I also got to learn, rather interestingly, that Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s president when you were pursuing your PhD there, was also an academic who became an administrator. She actually has a Honorary Doctor of Science from Bard College (2002). So, from instructor to administrator, what changes, what remains the same? 

Yeah, you are exactly right, this administrative role was somewhat unusual for me at first. But first, a quick point about Sally Tilghman, Sally Tilghman and Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, have had good camaraderie with each other for a long time. And Leon, I think, has great admiration for Shirley, who, as you hinted, was also somewhat atypical as a university president. 

Now to answer your question. I never thought of myself as an administrator. But I took on this challenge because I wanted to build something quite different. My hope was to construct an intellectual and academic environment where students would thrive through critical thought and inquiry. I think what’s important is to see that there are very high-level abstract strategic parts of the job and then there are parts that seem small but still need to be done. And the important thing is to know that both serve the greater goal that you are setting out to achieve together with other people. And you just have to accept that often you have to deal with very mundane things that perhaps are not intrinsically intellectually interesting, but that nevertheless have a real impact on how people live and work. 

How do you meld your role in administration with being a professor? Does this bureaucratic nature of administration sometimes clash with your passion for teaching?

It does, I would like to be teaching more often than I do. 

As I think most professors will tell you, teaching takes a lot of time, preparation and a lot of energy, but it’s also energizing and rewarding because if you have a course, a real conversation develops. 

When teaching, you genuinely learn and get new impulses, ideas and different perspectives. This is something that I miss and is always going to be part of what I want to be doing. It takes a certain temperament. But to me, teaching and managing are now intertwined in the context of this institution, and it’s exciting to play an integral role towards actually shaping the student’s education and life at BCB.

The enmeshing of being a teacher and a director at the same time, while having the rewards of putting you at the forefront of shaping the lived experience of BCB students, is also muddled with bits of nostalgic moments of your past teaching experiences. They seem to be in tension, both want your attention but one has it more than the other. Let’s talk about nostalgia, there must have been past classes that you particularly enjoyed teaching, right? 

I once taught a course titled Marxism and the Frankfurt School. It was an exploration of the ideologies developed from the 19th century into the sixties, in the 20th century. The course explored the extent to which such ideologies are still viable and perhaps necessary tools of critique in the 21st century. For instance, we discussed the history and viability of  State Socialism and why it is no longer generally accepted under the current world order.

And before then, I taught German A1 which was very enjoyable in a different way. There is time to focus on the textural details of the works you are considering and where my training as a linguist and as a philosophy student can combine. So, this class is memorable to me because it helps students who are not native speakers of German to gain access to the very basic tools of deciphering what the language looks like. It’s like the key that opens learners to a range of possibilities including reading German philosophers and poets like Kant and Rilke in their original form. 

By the end of A1 most students have enough German to do that in part. And then as they build up their German, they can read more in English translation and also come to the point where they can assess the philosophical and careful choices that go into translations. This assessment can trigger useful insights into how the original text was conceptualized as well. That’s something I quite miss. 

Are you planning on teaching any new classes, any time soon?

Definitely. But for now, I know that I’m not teaching next semester. I’m planning to teach again the semester after that. I’m still exploring potential courses to teach. Do you have any ideas?

Florian and I at his office during the interview. (Credit: Abdullah Naseer)

I’d say a course on the Germanic translation of visual media. Maybe even animations. Judging from my encounter with various translations of movies, I think a lot of contextual meaning is vacuumed away in the process. I guess I’m saying animations because I think a myriad of people resonate with them in some form. Which is a huge assumption, I admit. Did you watch any cartoons growing up? Any SpongeBob or The Simpsons or Sanjay and Craig, Rick and Morty maybe?

No, actually in my family, my parents were very skeptical of cartoons and pop culture, as were many out-of-step parents of their generation. So they wanted to some extent shield us, their children, from watching too much TV. I was allowed to watch one TV show each week, as a child. I think it was Sunday morning and I could tell you what it was but it probably isn’t that interesting.

And now, as a parent, of course, I have a slightly different approach, although I think that my parents are probably right and I’m probably wrong, but it’s not really possible anymore to shield your children from pop culture. You can always choose what the conversation is about and whether you as a parent, or as an educator for that matter, approve of that. So I’m saying that without saying anything negative about SpongeBob, or animations in general because I didn’t really watch much of it in my childhood. 

Although you have no favorite anime, you certainly have a favorite TV show.

Yeah. Actually, I recently rewatched a TV show. It’s called The Singing Detective, highly recommended. It’s very comical, and has this noir and musical feel to it. And I also love the documentary production of the Seven UP! series. It is one of the great things which only television can do as a medium. 

It follows the lives of a cohort of roommates, I think, randomly chosen, from the sixties onwards. The subjects in the documentary are interviewed and their responses cover a wide-range of topics like social class, family, religion, and mental health. It’s quite famous, it’s by Michael Apted, you can easily find it. And it is fascinating. So those are my two TV tips.

Exciting. What about music? What type of music do you listen to, and do you have any opinion about the Beatles?

I’m very much a part of my generation, in that, I have to admit that great pop music is from the late 1990s, as, of course, I would think. I am a fanatic follower of Radiohead and have been since my time at Oxford when they first emerged. They are from there and first emerged around the mid eighties. You’ll find that a lot of people, even in your generation, still know and listen to Radiohead. Radiohead are still very active. I can send you a list, if you like, of three or four favorites. 

I think the Beatles are also great and anyone who says they are overrated probably doesn’t know what they are talking about. The Beatles are The Beatles. Are there songs by The Beatles that are at the level of Radiohead? Well, they’re utterly incomparable, but they’re not inferior. 

A picture of Florian expressing his love for Radiohead. (Credit: Abdullah Naseer)

In the second part of the interview, we talk about recent key administrative decisions, Florian’s scholarly work and his favorite space and place in Berlin.

In response to the horrendous outbreak of violence and unrest in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal of its troops there, Bard Annandale and BCB have been in a joint effort to facilitate the transfer of students from Afghanistan to Annandale and Berlin, respectively. The first cohort of students has arrived and more are yet to come. Could you talk a little bit more about the steps that were made and the insights throughout the process. 

So far only six or seven individuals have made it to our campus in Berlin. There are more students either on the way or still processing their travel documents. That often has to do with the difficulty of getting out of Afghanistan and the difficulty of getting a visa to come to Germany. 

Very briefly about the funding. To start from early August of 2021 onwards, we put together an appeal to private donors, including a foundation which had helped us before with special scholarships and the Program for International Education and Social Change (PIESC). We also reached out to a number of people who don’t have millions at their disposal per se, but who, like the PIESC foundation, wanted to help. And this is all in addition to us engaging with public sources and especially a group within the Foreign Ministry that was also trying to help. We also reached out to public organizations like the DAAD which has various sorts of scholarships. I also appreciate members of our faculty and staff who appealed to people they knew. 

We are still very much working to get public scholarship money for as many students from Afghanistan as we can and will be able to admit. So that’s a very important part of it because BCB is atypical in Germany as a non-profit institution. We have to, on the one hand, secure the tuition because we don’t get tax money to pay our professors. And on the other hand, the living expense part of scholarships is a vital component of these scholarships. So, the general idea is that whenever it’s possible, we try to find public money from these bodies that will go directly to the students for their rent and living expenses.

You’re now working on building a new cafeteria. How’s that panning out? Is it going to be as good as K30 and W15? They turned out to be architectural marvels, I have to admit.

I’ve seen wonderful sketches of the pre-planning that the architect who designed the HKH Student Residence Hall has been doing before the pandemic. I think we absolutely need this building, not just as a cafeteria. We need it for a number of reasons. Firstly, because we need a new cafeteria to re-establish the lost sense of community that we cherish and that is vital to the essence of this college. Secondly, it is going to be a good addition to the factory, which is also small. Thirdly, we need more space for civic engagement, for student clubs, student activities, informal, artistic and other performances. The sketches that the architect made, I think would make for a building that would be ideal and flexible for so much of what students will benefit from in future. 

However, the difficulty is in obtaining the funding. It’s financially easier to fund a residential building because it is self-sustaining than it is to find money for building a new cafeteria. Nonetheless, I’m very positive that we will be able to get a new cafeteria.

With the blueprints in place, a new cafeteria seems very likely. However, the cafeteria, K30 and all the bureaucratic work you do as Managing Director are not the only things that fill your time, you also contribute to scholarly work. I leafed through a book you co-edited, Imagining Human Rights in Twenty-First-Century Theater: Global Perspectives. It explores the encounter between theater and human rights, by looking at a repertoire of performance practices across the globe. In the book’s introduction you et al. say the book examines what theatrical works and performance “can or should”  do for human rights. In your opinion, what should we expect theater to do for human rights?

The main point of this introduction was that we had a book which was very much concerned with contemporary art and how that translated to the political landscape. To my mind, there are very different kinds of performances all over the Global South and also the Western world that examine different levels of quality and sophistications regarding human rights. And the concept of human rights needed some historical contextualization. What I tried to do in that introduction, together with my colleagues, Paula Hernàndez and Brenda Werth, was to give a sketch of how human rights emerged as an actual social demand, and as a reality, as something that then could also be institutionalized to a certain level. 

Photo of “Imagining Human rights in Twenty-first-century Theater”, the book edited by Florian. (Credit: Abdullah Naseer)

One of the authors, Diana Taylor, observes that embodying theater with cultural practices offers a way of knowing “linked inextricably to its capacity to generate a human connection through sensorial intensity, social intimacy, and the joint physical presence of bodies on and offstage.” I liked this observation very much. But, a lot of people view theater as an art form divorced from reality, in the sense that people are more likely to misinterpret information if it rests solely on infotainment as opposed to entertainment. Can modern theater offer a way of knowing that does not simplify or reiterate scenes of violence espoused by human rights narratives?

Yes and no. Yes, because political activism through theater can educate and create a critical discussion around certain norms that induce human rights violations. No, because you can never predict whether these ideas or discoveries are going to make a huge difference to that discussion. But you always work with that hope that the complexity of violence and human rights violations can be adequately presented through performance and make political change. But one has to be careful about propaganda and the politicization of violence. Friedrich Müller, a German linguist, said something to the effect of “the time for art is not the time for politics.”

Speaking about art, Berlin is the hub of plenty of museums, theaters and various cool artifacts. Do you explore some of these things? Another way of asking this is, what’s your favorite pastime in Berlin?

I think I agree with a lot of other people that Berlin has a combination of things which contribute to its vibrancy. It is also accessible in the sense of it being affordable compared to other German cities and European capitals. In Berlin, you can see exhibitions that you would spend 30 bucks to see in the U.S., for eight euros. You can see a lot of stuff for free. You can go to concerts. You can even go to the opera, which generally speaking, is the most bourgeois because intrinsically it is the most expensive art form there is in the West. In Berlin it’s €20 or less. And I take advantage of that, and sometimes go to operas with my children. The fact that they can do that, that they’re in the middle of everything without even knowing that, is something that I deeply appreciate about being here now.

I like taking walks in Mauerpark. I live right next to it. So yes, I’m there with my children on the weekends. I walk through it all the time and I stop and I listen and I look like everybody does. And that’s the fun of it. I love that. However, I hate the trash. It’s a little anarchic. I think that’s just disrespectful that people litter all over. I think it really is about respecting the time and work other people are doing to make sure that we can have these communal spaces. You know, smoke or not, smoke or drink or not drink. That’s part of the community, right? But, there’s no community without some sense of responsibility for maintaining that communal space. Sometimes there’s just a lot of broken glass everywhere which is dangerous to little children. But Mauerpark can be Mauerpark and remain less trashy.

I agree with Florian about the trash problem at Mauerpark, and I think lots of people, including BCB students, are realizing this, and uniting to do regular clean-ups there. While these heroic acts do not alleviate the chronic problem of irresponsibility, they at least show that there are people out there who care about the cleanliness of our beloved Mauerpark. Hopefully, with these efforts, more people will learn to contribute to the cleanliness of Mauerpark.

Florian attended two bastions of academic excellence, the University of Oxford, for his bachelor’s degree and Princeton University, for his doctorate. Prior to BCB, Florian was, and still is, the Associate Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Bard College (USA). He and his wife, BCB’s Associate Dean, Prof. Dr. Kerry Bostrom first arrived at BCB in the summer of 2012. 

Before that, he had visited BCB when it was the European College of Liberal Arts (this was BCB’s name before it partnered with Bard College in Annandale), in November of 2011. Florian was impressed by its double vision of providing a liberal arts education to students in Europe, and subsequently around the globe. A decade later Florian is telling  me, “ I’m very happy with how it worked out both personally and  for our family. It’s a delight how things unfolded and how the institution has developed throughout the years. It really succeeded beyond what I thought would be realistic, optimistic.”

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