Adult learning as embarrassment: more adult learning in crime fiction

I’ve polished off another German crime novel, which I bought in the Oxfam shop in Bonn. It features a middle aged male detective, Adalbert Kluftinger, who is rather set in his ways, and lives in the picturesque but socially conservative southern region known as the Allgäu. And as in so many German Krimis, up pops adult education. Twice.

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The Allgäu town of Kempten, image licensed under Creative Commons

On the first occasion, Kluftinger heads to the local university for applied science to interview a witness, who happens to be lecturing at the time. After getting lost on the campus, Kluftinger walks through a door into the lecture hall, where everyone assumes that he is a pensioner who has come along out of interest. Far too embarrassed to explain otherwise, he waits until the lecture is over.

This episode assumes that the reader knows of the German practice of Seniorenstudium, under which for a small fee, older adults may attend courses as ‘Gasthörer‘, or ‘guest listeners’. In Kempten, as in my old haunt of Cologne, the fee is €100 (or up to €300 per semester depending on the number of courses taken), and the university doesn’t separate older adults from others who register (online) as Gasthörer. But in practice, most such associate students are older adults, and the scheme is a popular one.

The second occasion involves a dancing class. Frau Kluftinger, a dance lover, has enrolled herself and her husband for the course, which inevitably involves him in humiliation at the hands of the tutors. I’d like to think that most adult teachers don’t enjoy humiliating their weaker learners, and the novel turns the tutors – an ultra-camp German male and an Italian woman whose grasp of German grammar is weaker than mine – into parodies. it isn’t clear in the novel who the course provider is.

The novel is called Laienspiel, which I understand as roughly equivalent to ‘Amateur Dramatics’, and the plot involves wicked goings on around a community performance of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. It’s a novel with a lot of humour, and it exploits adult education in order to emphasise the awkwardness and discomfort Kluftinger feels with the unknown, uncertain, and unpredictable. And it’s another example of the way in which adult education serves so often in German krimis as an unremarkable backdrop to dramatic events.

I wonder, though, whether we have underestimated the importance of embarrassment in adult learning. Or rather, in deterring some people from taking a formal course, with the risk that others will judge you for needing to ‘return to school’, or that you will show yourself up in some way by making mistakes in front of people who seem more confident and competent than you. Perhaps this is one more reason why remote forms of learning, where no one sees you fail, attract some people ?

Adult education in fiction: the rhythms of the year in Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13”

I’m constantly impressed by the regularity with which adult education features in German crime fiction. What stands out is that in most cases, adult education doesn’t stand out – it is there in the background as part of every day German life. That’s rare in English language fiction, where adult education is either the main setting or serves as a marker of difference.

In Jon McGregor’s award-winning Reservoir 13, though, adult education features as a marker of passing time. The novel covers 13 years in the life of an English village, mirroring the age of a missing teenager. And every year, as regular as well dressing (Derbyshire perhaps?), harvest festival, or the village panto, the Workers’ Educational Association holds a class in the village.

McGregor doesn’t go into detail about the WEA classes. Their role in the novel is to mark the turning of the months, as one of the threads of continuity that are woven into the changing relationships and lives of the villagers. Who takes part, and why, are not particularly important.

McGregor also has one of his villagers – Susanna Wright – arrange a yoga class in the village hall. This provides something of a contrast with the routine rhythm of the WEA class:

It had taken a while but by now the classes were more popular than some had assumed they might be. She kept saying it was open to everyone, but whenever a man showed up he found himself the only one there, and soon decided not to come back. Most of the women were regulars, and after a few months some of them were disappointed by how few poses they could hold. Susanna tried to tell them yoga wasn’t about goals. There are no badges or certificates here, she said; it’s all about finding your own point of stretch.

This time, the class gives us an insight into some of the characters involved. It also serves to provide an example of change in village life, contrasting with the steady rhythm of the WEA. Susanna is new to the village, arriving in the third year of the narrative, and she is initially greeted with some suspicion. Her first attempt to organise a yoga class attracted three people, and only later does it become popular.

Reservoir 13 is an outstanding novel, and I heartily recommend it. It’s gently experimental in form, but thoroughly engaging, hypnotic even, and the disappearance at its heart remains unresolved. Quite aside from its treatment of adult learning, I really enjoyed it, and despite my general efforts to downsize my book collection, I’m hanging on to this one so I can read it again.

Murderous learning – more reflections on adult education in crime fiction

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Recently I’ve been enjoying a crime novel by an Irish writer, Tana French. The Trespasser is set in Dublin, and its central character is Antoinette Conway, a hard-boiled murder squad detective of mixed race. The novel is interesting on belonging, family, gender, low-level racism, and internal hierarchies in the police. And it also touches upon adult education.

Aislinn, the murder victim, is described as a serial attender of evening classes. The detectives draw up a list of all the classes she took with a view to checking out ‘all the other students or whatever they call them’, a lead they pursue by looking though her financial records for fee payments.

I’d wondered whether this meant that the murder turned on an evening class, which would have been mightily entertaining. But no; Antoinette describes the list of evening classes as ‘depressing as hell’:

Aislinn genuinely paid actual money for a class called Restyle You!, with the exclamation mark, also one for wine appreciation, and something called Busy Babes Boot Camp.

So the evening classes turn out to be a side-alley, something the reader wonders about but which provide nothing by way of leads. Definitely not a plot device, then.

But the evening classes are nevertheless important: they tell the reader something about Aislinn’s character. Her serial pursuit of adult learning reflects Aislinn’s underlying uncertainty about who she is; and they signal her interest in adopting a new social role, restyling herself in order to explore the mystery of her own father’s disappearance.

Needless to say, hard-boiled Antoinette doesn’t think much of this, and indeed she tends to despise Aislinn more generally for being so unsure of herself, and for allowing her vanished father to dominate her life.  From this the reader concludes that Antoinette has dealt with her own childhood losses differently, so that perhaps the role of hard-boiled detective is itself a defensive performance of some kind.

As I say, an interesting novel, not only because of how it deploys adult learning. And  Antoinette’s rather cynical and dismissive view of adult learning, of course, is consistent with her seemingly hard-boiled character. So here is another fine example to add to my accounts of adult education and crime fiction in Germany, neither of which involve detectives who are ‘hard-boiled’.

As for the Busy Babes Boot Camp, no way would I let that pass by without investigating further. It turns out there is a clutch of similarly named fitness classes for Busy Moms, Busy Women, Busy Ladies, and Busy Girls. Busy Babes, though, is French’s invention

Teaching adults dancing- it’s murder!

I enjoy a good crime novel, or sometimes even quite a bad one. My most recent read was a novel called Ostseetod (Death on the Baltic) by Eva Almstädt, a popular writer who sets her stories in the North German port city of Lübeck. Some of you will already know that I enjoy spotting scenes that occur in an adult education context, and Ostseetod provides a great, if brief, example.

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Lucie Warnke, a middle aged mother married to a furniture dealer, is a dancer by occupation. Because the family live in a small and remote town in Schleswig-Holstein, the opportunities for dancing are few and far between, so she makes a living from teaching local women and children. The passage is set in a morning class, with Lucie (‘for the hundred and fifty thousandth time) telling the women: ‘Chests out, tummies in, legs higher, ladies – higher!’.

The seven participants, we are told, are aged between their mid-20s and mid-60s, and are hoping to stay supple with a mix of dance and gymnastics. Privately, Lucie thinks the class is good but useless for the woman, and imagines herself telling them that they just need to eat less. ‘But this type of class was the bread under the butter that Lucie at present needed’, for not only does she need her own spending money, but her husband charges her rent for the dancing space.

I can’t go much further without spoiling the plot, though that might not matter much to people who don’t read German, as German and Austrian crime fiction – which can be absolutely excellent – is rarely translated; the only exception seems to be Nele Neuhaus. What is interesting here is what adult education does for the novel.

I’ve speculated previously about why adult education classes are such ideal sites for crime writers (read more here). In this brief scene, Almstädt tells us something about two characters: Lucie, with her best years of dancing (and life?) now behind her, and her more-or-less useless husband Florian, as well as the relationship between them. She also communicates something about the local community and its limitations.

Almstädt can assume that her readers will see nothing unusual about a woman earning a few euros by teaching a class in a spare room. Germany has a thriving public adult education sector, as well as a lively voluntary sector. But it is also very common to see opportunities for private educational activities. On a short walk home last night from the football, between the bus stop and my home, I spotted a firm offering yoga classes for busy professionals and a flyer for a series of comedy workshops.

Almstädt belongs to an association of women crime writers called Mörderische Schwestern, the German chapter of Sisters in Crime, which provides mentoring and support for less experienced authors.Now I think about it, Mörderische Schwestern provides a kind of adult education. It surely can’t be long until someone writes a murder story set in their ranks  – or perhaps they have already?

Murder in the evening class: adult education and the crime novel

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I’ve just been to hear Klaus-Peter Wolf reading from his latest novel at my local bookshop. Wolf is best known for a series set in the far north western coastal region of East Friesland, whose central figure is Hauptkommissarin Ann Kathrin Claasen. Luckily for me, his work is highly readable, with relatively (for German) short sentences, lots of humour, and enjoyable plotting.

Several things strike me about the Claasen series. First, Claasen typifies a trend in German crime fiction, much of which has a female as the main detective. Some commentators have observed that you are much more likely to encounter a female Hauptkommissarin in fiction than in reality.

Second, the series is firmly rooted in its region. Indeed, I thought Wolf’s latest novel went overboard in contrasting the close, decent and upright communities of East Friesland with the freetic, atomised peoples of the cities (exemplified in this novel by an ambitious and ruthless reporter, who is promptly killed off).

It’s not just Wolf and East Friesland. Most German cities and regions have their own local crime writers, just as each of regional broadcaster contributes its own locale and detectives to the long-running series Tatort. Perhaps this local focus and identity in crime fiction is one more hangover from the many local states and principalities that were pushed and pulled into a Prussianised Germany in the late 1860s.

Third, though, is the role of adult education. When the principal criminal is hunting down a victim in the small town of Emden, he enrols in an adult education class at the local Volkshochschule. He studies alongside his victim before abducting her from the car park, after which detectives question her fellow classmates and the Volkshochschule principal.

Back in the real world, staff at Emden VHS seem to have embraced their fictional infamy. Far from worrying that their reputation had been stained by a vile crime, they invited the author to read from his book, accompanied by music from his wife Bettina Göschl.

This made me wonder whether and how adult learning generally features in fiction. It might be a natural location in Germany, where adult education centres are everywhere (there is a large one ten minutes’ walk away from where I live), but what about writers in other countries? I’m aware of Maeve Binchy’s novel The Evening Class, set in a Dublin suburb and  apparently often discussed by reading groups, but I can’t think of other novels that feature adult learners.

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I can’t help but think that British crime writers like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid have so far missed a trick. Adult courses can be filled with suppressed intrigue, they sometimes make people frustrated with their circumstances, and they have been known to provoke jealousy from spouses and even children.An ideal setting for murder and mayhem, then.

Yet how many murders are linked – in fiction, of course – to adult courses? Is fictional mayhem in adult education a positive indicator of a learning society? And what about the shift to digital learning – can you actually murder someone in a MOOC?