This year has been a whirlwind for Samantha Whittle ’21. From being sent home early from studying abroad due to a global pandemic, to being awarded a national undergraduate essay prize, to having summer internship plans move online, there have been a lot of ups and downs.
Whittle, a comparative literature major with a minor in history and concentrating in Holocaust and genocide studies, started the spring semester studying abroad in the Czech Republic, but was forced to leave Prague and her CET Academic Program early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The final week I was in Prague was insane,” Whittle says. “On Monday, we had a meeting explaining that we would be limiting travel. On Tuesday, we were told classes would be online for at least two weeks, but we shouldn’t worry about being sent home. On Wednesday night, at 3 a.m., we got the news about Trump’s announcement, and that the program was sending us home. It was crazy.” After hours spent on the phone with her parents while trying to book a flight on websites that kept crashing, Whittle packed her bags and took a final walk around Prague.
When she arrived in the U.S., Whittle learned she had been awarded the Alexander Stephan Undergraduate Essay Prize in German Studies (in English) from Ohio State University (OSU) for her essay, “The Miscalculated Role of Women in the German Far Right: Literary Precedents for Nationalist Action.” The OSU prize is a national competition with categories for essays written in German and in English.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” says Whittle. “Receiving national recognition for something that I worked so hard on, something that I care so deeply about, was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time.”
Whittle’s essay examines how nation-defining literature in Germany portrays women, and how the German far-right political movement has used this national image of women to “enlist” more women to their ranks.
“For me, it was always bewildering how many women are involved in the far right, and this is particularly noticeable in Germany,” explains Whittle. “The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the most popular far-right party, is currently led by a lesbian woman named Alice Weidel, despite the party’s mission being notably homophobic and based in outdated gender roles. So I was wondering, how on earth did we get here?”
Her Language, Literature, and Culture professor, Robert Deam Tobin, was incredibly proud of her work. “Astonishing in its ambition and scope, Whittle’s essay frames the seemingly inexplicable phenomenon of powerful women in German far-right organizations in the context of a long tradition of women as nationalist symbols in German literature and film, from Margarethe in Goethe’s ‘Faust’ to Maria Braun in Fassbinder’s ‘Marriage of Maria Braun.’”
The idea for Whittle’s essay came from the German literature courses that she had taken with Professor Tobin. “I began to notice a pattern in how women were consistently a major part of German-defining literature, but their role in the literature was often more symbolic and obtuse than the main characters,” she says. “And just looking at the way that women were discussed in literature, compared with the way women of the far right still are discussed, the patterns were unavoidable.”
In addition to the OSU essay prize, Whittle received funding earlier in the spring from The Doris Tager Summer Stipend Fund, which is awarded to someone who will be completing either research or an internship related to Holocaust and genocide studies. Whittle will intern with the Upstander Project, a two-fold organization focused on helping educators and students become upstanders. It is split into the Project and Upstander Academy.
“The Project itself focuses on compiling firsthand accounts and research to present easily accessible films on genocides and mass atrocities,” explains Whittle. “Most of their films are about the indigenous American genocide that started with colonization and it still going on today. The other branch is the Upstander Academy, which focuses on assisting educators in understanding how to teach about mass atrocities in a way that brings true understanding without traumatizing students.”
While Whittle was supposed to complete her internship in person, she will now be working remotely due to COVID-19.
“The plan was for the bulk of my work to be archival research on the scalping of indigenous Americans in the northeastern woodlands, along with preparing documents for the Upstander Academy,” explains Whittle. “Luckily, due to the age we live in, many archives are now accessible online, allowing me to continue the internship regardless of when social distancing guidelines begin to be adjusted for reopening.”