Examining Literature Through the Ages with Wolfgang Neuber

Visiting Professor Wolfgang Neuber relishes his ability to engage with NYU Abu Dhabi students and finds that the UAE is the perfect place to do so.

Wolfgang Neuber may be a visiting faculty member, but he feels right at home at NYU Abu Dhabi. On a leave of absence from the renowned Free University of Berlin where he teaches more than twice as many courses with several times the class size as NYUAD, Neuber relishes his ability to engage with students and finds that the UAE is the perfect place to do so. Abu Dhabi is "an excellent place for the world's honors college," he said. But while NYUAD and the UAE may be an ideal partnership for a top-notch education in Neuber's mind, this professor of literature is not about to let students rest on their laurels or allow complacency within his classroom.

He praises his students' open-mindedness and "lack of any ideological stubbornness," especially admiring these qualities when a student finds it challenging to deal with different ways of thinking and must wrestle with the many different backgrounds of the student body. That is where Neuber's teaching begins. "I've always loved teaching," he said, and this is quite apparent when he speaks in earnest about his students' development.

Neuber has taught three courses thus far at NYUAD. Last semester, he co-taught Idea of the Portrait with Reindert Falkenburg, dean of Arts and Humanities, during which they examined the concept of the portrait in terms of the interdependence of text and image. As Neuber explained it, "to see through the paint upon the canvas to understand the underlying concepts and definitions of representations." They studied examples from antiquity through to the 20th century, including texts such as James' The Portait of a Lady and Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

Neuber also taught Classical Literature and Its Global Reception during the fall 2010 semester. During this course he was especially concerned with his students reckoning with "what interests a society in activating certain concepts in going back to tradition or, on the other hand, why certain traditions get forgotten over the centuries." Starting with The Odyssey, the course examined literature through the Middle Ages to analyze the impact of The Odyssey on other Greek and Roman works. They then completed the course by reading 20th-century literature informed by classical works "to show the vitality of its thinking," explained Neuber.

Neuber is currently teaching Ghosts: Constructing the Immaterial. Starting in antiquity, the course examines the presence of ghosts throughout history and culture. "It's not a marginal topic — we are dealing with the question of 'What does it mean for a member of a given society to be within this world?' We are dealing with notions of God, of invisible powers, and the friction between rational thinking and irrational explanation, intellectual and religious development, and their relationship with one another. These are all central topics in history and civilization." Neuber's course considers everything from Middle Ages Christian and Muslim views on the spirit world to ectoplasm photography in the 20th century, when "seeing spirits became a scientific endeavor."

Outside the classroom, Neuber is currently working on a book about European family books, texts between the 14th century and 18th century in which anything could be recorded by a father or mother for the benefit of their offspring. "[Family books] could include almost anything — as a family chronicle, a son or daughter could then add on, and it became an inter-textual dialogue." Neuber has studied family books that include life circumstances, prayers, maps, drawings, recipes, and more; he has even seen one example that contains a complete copy of a novel that predates the first print of the novel. "You can see how family bonds get externalized by putting them into scripture, the expectations that come with it, and the privileges to call oneself an author and guardian of a book."