It was with a poignant mixture of sadness and celebration that we gathered this summer at Rick and Sabine’s beautiful Ballard home on the occasion of Sabine Wilke’s retirement. Everyone present lamented the great loss of Sabine’s leadership and scholarship to the University of Washington, but we were simultaneously happy that she can now embark on an exciting new chapter of her life. Sabine made it expressly clear that she didn’t want “speeches,” but the attendees shared stories and memories of their times with her. Amid the laughter and delight these stories elicited, it quickly became clear what a transformative impact she has made on many people’s lives.
Sabine was recruited to UW from Stanford University in 1989 (a propitious year in the world of German Studies). Of her thirty-three years of employment at UW, she spent sixteen serving as chair of the department. It is impossible to overstate Sabine’s lasting and positive impact on German Studies at UW. Even the new name of the department (formerly known as Germanics) was a result of her initiative and effort. Sabine is a natural leader, graceful and judicious even under the most stressful circumstances. She has a way of making chairing look effortless. Now that I have to fill that role (I could never fill her shoes!), I realize how incredibly impressive this feat is.
Even without taking into account the amount of time Sabine devoted to university service and department leadership, Sabine’s accomplishments as a scholar are astounding. She won many of the most prestigious fellowship and awards available to humanities scholars—several of them more than once! Sabine was distinguished with Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships; she was a Carson Fellow in Munich, a Hood Fellow in New Zealand, a FU Research Fellow and a Humboldt Fellow in Berlin.
Sabine not only had a knack for knowing what was going to be the “next big thing” in the field, but, much more impressively, she was able to contribute meaningfully and influentially to each new discourse to which she turned her attention. She did this through her prodigious output of original publications (eight monographs and over one hundred articles!) as well as through her invaluable work as a networker and convener of scholars from across the world, providing forums that allowed emerging fields to grow and thrive. At the height of the age of “theory” in literary studies, Sabine’s dissertation (University of Mainz, 1986) tackled the daunting triumvirate of Heidegger, Derrida, and Adorno. After that, she was always ahead of the curve: she was an early proponent and practitioner of feminist scholarship; she dove into DDR studies before East Germany was cool; she grappled with the troubled legacies of colonialism long before decolonizing became a mantra. Most recently, Sabine has been a leading voice in Environmental Humanities. Through everything from teaching popular courses to organizing conferences, not to mention her own articles, books, and collected volumes, Sabine’s “start-up” mentality has brought the field of Eco-criticism from the fringe to the frontline of humanistic inquiry.
Finally, Sabine has always been a generous mentor and inspiring teacher. From my own experience, I can attest to her invaluable guidance in learning to chair a department and navigate the arcane bureaucracy of UW. Sabine capped off an illustrious career of teaching in the prestigious role of Joff Hanauer Distinguished Professor for Western Civilization. In this capacity, she worked with six graduate students from across the humanities in year-long interdisciplinary seminars. A student in her last Hanauer seminar (2022-23) called it “one of [his] best experiences at UW.”
The clearest testimony to Sabine’s lasting impact is the in the words of the people whose lives she touched, as evidenced by the touching notes from students and colleagues below.
Notes from Former Students
Imke Meyer (PhD UW 1993); Professor, Germanic Studies; University of Illinois at Chicago
When I was a graduate student in German Studies at the University of Washington, I had the good fortune of finding in Sabine Wilke a wonderful teacher, mentor, and advisor. In many ways, Sabine helped shape my thinking about literature and theory at a crucial point in my studies. Her seminars taught me really to pay attention not just to what a text says, but to how it speaks—how does it reach the reader, what about its diction, its style, its form, its structures of thought? Most of all, Sabine always made sure we asked “why?”—what’s the point of a text doing things this way rather than that, and what are the implications of this rather than that? To this day, when I grapple with a text new to me and begin to make observations about it, I can hear Sabine’s voice in my head: “Ja, aber warum ist das denn so?” For many years now, I have tried to impart upon my own students what I have learned from Sabine—to pay attention to a text’s voice and details as much as to its structures, and above all never to stop asking why.
At the outset of my graduate training as a teacher I also benefitted enormously from the opportunity to intern with Sabine in an undergraduate seminar on Goethe. I learned a tremendous amount about syllabus design, grading, and office hour feedback. Most of all, though, I got to observe a master teacher at work. Sabine managed to make the engagement with Goethe relevant to her students, and she had the amazing ability both to take her students seriously as interlocutors and to remain utterly unflappable in the face of even the most unexpected classroom situations. I don’t know that I have ever managed to strike such a surefooted balance in my own teaching, but I will certainly keep trying until my own retirement!
Sabine likewise was the most holistic dissertation advisor I possibly could have imagined. Of course she was a highly engaged research mentor whose queries and feedback to me were enormously helpful. But she also made sure I understood that solid work alone probably wouldn’t be enough to help me get a job. Rather, there was also what Sabine called “der Performanzaspekt”—the way one presents a paper; both the substance and the style of one’s responses to questions; the way one engages with others as an interlocutor; and one’s poise in the face of pressure and high-stress situations. I never forgot Sabine’s advice about “der Performanzaspekt,” and in fact, this advice has been serving me exceptionally well in my professional life to this day. Related to “der Performanzaspekt,” Sabine also wisely didn’t leave the job interview outfit question to my grad student imagination. Rather, she took the time actually to look at the clothes I said I intended to wear, nixed what probably were some checkered outfits, and told me that “gedeckte Farben” were the way to go; but lest one were to appear too grau in grau, one should accent the outfit with a dash of color: “Ich mach’ ja immer ‘n Schal um!” I tried to heed every last one of Sabine’s pieces of advice, and when I actually did end up getting a job, Sabine likewise made sure I got my work done when it counted. I needed to focus to get my dissertation done prior to the start of my new position, and as was her customary style, Sabine, with simple yet highly effective means, managed to keep me on track: I will never forget that one day, back in the analog age, she called me at home and simply said “Schreibst du auch schön?” These few words somehow put the fear of god into me, and sure enough, I did get my dissertation done just under the wire.
Last but not least, I would be remiss not to mention the tremendous impact Sabine’s research has had on my own thinking, teaching, and writing: her work on gender, her writing on Austrian literature, her contributions to the environmental humanities, and her research on postcolonial studies time and again have shaped my own engagement with these issues in the classroom and on the page. Sabine is a thinker at once incisive and generous—a rare combination that makes her into an exceptional teacher and scholar.
Heidi Schlipphacke (PhD UW 1999); Professor, Germanic Studies; University of Illinois, Chicago
It is hard to put into words how much I learned from Sabine over the course of the 8 years during which I was a graduate student (M.A. and then Ph.D.) in German Studies at the University of Washington. Indeed, Sabine’s courses were formative for my thinking. In particular, her seminars on gender theory and on the Frankfurt School stay with me. I will never forget Sabine telling our Frankfurt School class that Dialektik der Aufklärung was the most important book we would ever read. Of course, I initially thought this was hyperbole, but now I tell my own students the same thing! I still try to emulate Sabine’s ability to show how theory provides a crucial ground for thought and to elegantly render theoretical concepts comprehensible and useful. I also admire her way of asking what seem to be simple questions that instantly get to the heart of the matter. It’s a mode of pedagogy that pushes us to think hard and deep about structures and concepts. Indeed, I frequently utilize this method with my own research!
Anke Biendarra (PhD UW 2003); Associate Professor, European Languages and Studies; University of California, Irvine
Sabine has been a role model, a Vorbild, for me, both in her work and life ethic and her unbelievable research productivity (which, to be clear, I have never been able to even come close to). I have always appreciated the way she approaches people and situations: unfailingly friendly, even keeled, and open for discussions. She asks pointed questions and offers ideas to move things forward. Sabine takes the ego out of issues, which I continue to try to emulate. Plus, let’s not forget her quirky sense of humor! Her positivity and can-do attitude continue to be an inspiration for me.
Verena Kick (PhD UW 2019); Assistant Professor, German; Georgetown University
I once teased Sabine that she would have been a good president of a small country or a good business manager of a company – and in some sense Sabine was that, as she was a great chair for the German department at UW. Her door was always open for students to come by, and she always found a solution, for which I am still grateful when I needed the department’s support during a time of personal issues.
My most vivid memories are of Sabine as my advisor. She not only always had time to listen when it came to chapter ideas but also taught me how to structure a chapter, making me a better and more self-aware writer. I hope to pass this on as an advisor myself one day, also holding myself to Sabine’s high standard of giving very timely and concise feedback. I also hope to pass on Sabine’s knowledge of academia’s “hidden curriculum,” and to be as supportive as her when helping students navigate the job market. I feel quite lucky that I had her as a department chair and advisor who I could trust with being there when I needed the support.
This trust also extended to a more personal level, when she and Rick entrusted me with their beloved dogs, first Lady and then Tessa, to look after while they traveled abroad for research stays. I still have very fond memories of these times, and I wish Sabine now lots of time to travel and to spend with her family.
Justin Mohler (PhD UW 2021); Assistant Professor; Saint Anselm College
On reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, I can confidently say that my years as a graduate student at the University of Washington were some of the most challenging and fulfilling I have ever experienced. As many of you know, learning to balance the competing demands of teaching, researching, and writing can be a difficult process. Like any novice juggler, I doubtless dropped a ball or two before finding the right rhythm. To my great fortune and endless gratitude, Sabine was there for all of it. In this I am certainly not alone. It seems impossible to overstate the impact she has had on the department and on those who call it home. Speaking for myself, I know that my time working with her was transformative in the best possible sense. Sabine set me on a path which promised nothing more and nothing less than a chance at a life spent doing what you love. It is an incredible gift, and one that she has given to many students over the years. Our inability to ever truly repay her efforts stands as a testament to her great generosity; it also does not excuse us from the attempt. For my part, as I chart my own path forward with new colleagues at a new college, I will always treasure the lessons gleaned from my time working with Sabine. As Doktormutter to my dissertation project, she was a constant source of both roots and wings, modeling the kind of unflinching support coupled with gentle nudges into the unknown that I have come to understand as a hallmark of parenting excellence. While I may never be able to adequately express my thanks to her for all that she has done, it is my sincere hope that in following her example, I might one day foster in my own students the kind of verve and dedication to the profession that Sabine inspires in so many of us.
Notes from Colleagues
What can I say? It was wonderful to be your colleague and friend for thirty years, to have been part of yours and Rick’s lives, and to have had you as part of our lives. You have been everything all of us hoped for when you first came to the department–a scholar of tremendous breadth, a great teacher, an energetic and effective leader of the department, an enthusiastic and warm supporter of all of us in the department. I’m sorry not to be there for your celebration, but not entirely, because it would make me very sad. Much love and good wishes to you and to Rick for this new stage in your lives!
German Studies at the University would be unthinkable without Sabine. Her clear-headedness and calm steered us successfully through numerous financial crises. And the dynamic and remarkable remaking of the department to meet the daunting challenges facing the Humanities nationwide is a direct result of Sabine’s wisdom and vision.
While there are many accolades that Sabine deserves for her decades of successful stewardship of the department, what I appreciate most is not her scholarly and administrative acumen—though I no doubt owe my employment here in part not to that, but rather the peals of laughter that reverberated from her office and throughout the third floor of Denny Hall on a daily basis. Sabine was remarkable present in the day-to-day life of the department and all the people that make it up, from students to staff and instructors. Her scholarship in the environmental humanities was truly cutting-edge, as her many speaking invitations around the planet demonstrated, and that scholarship empowered a generation of scholars both here and abroad, but she still managed to reserve the majority of her attention to building and maintaining a vibrant scholarly community here. For this I am most grateful.
My warmest thanks to Sabine Wilke for her leadership and support over the years. Sabine was part of the committee that first brought me to UW, and she has been a generous and dynamic presence throughout my years in this department. She is a powerhouse, and I am very grateful for how she channeled her amazing energy into bolstering up the Department of German Studies.
When I arrived at UW in Fall 2016, Sabine was already a seasoned scholar looking back at an impressive career. Despite her busy schedule and the fact that our research interests were quite different, Sabine regularly took time to talk with me about all job-pertinent topics, from scholarships over teaching to mapping out a career. Sabine offered advice and generously shared instructional material with me that helped me rethink my teaching pedagogy and make classes radically interactive and student-centered. Sabine always made time for questions and concerns even when she was not the chair and thus became my informal departmental mentor. Especially in the first few years of transitioning from a graduate student to a tenure track professor, she offered not only advice but also genuine encouragement in my skills and abilities as a teacher and researcher. I genuinely appreciate Sabine’s openness when it comes to academic success but also to failure. Before retiring, Sabine made time to discuss the next career steps with me, always emphasizing staying focused on academic goals while not forgetting that our lives include more than our academic identities. I am deeply indebted to Sabine as a mentor and female faculty role model.