Last Lectures: We salute retiring (and not-so-retiring) professors.

Prof. Ülker Gökberk [German, 1986] (continued)

By Alex Blum ’14
Prof. Ülker Gökberk

The full weight of her retirement still hasn’t sunk in. “I just can’t imagine yet that I will not have the students to interact with in the fall,” says Prof. Gökberk.

Students formed the central pillar of her time at Reed. Prof. Gökberk has a remarkable memory for them; each of her anecdotes comes with a postscript of what her former students are doing now. She has stayed close with many of them, and advised many on their scholarship.

Former students recall her passion for the subject and her belief that they could always push themselves further. “Ülker had the academic depth that made students take her seriously, but she also had a warmth and welcoming demeanor that made it much easier to knock on her door and reveal doubts I was having about my thesis project,” recalls Christopher Fast ’90.

Max Weissberg ’04 recalls Gökberk’s persistence: “She really drew me back to Thomas Mann, to areas I did not understand and things I even feared. I once read the beginning of Doktor Faustus, got angry at a few passages in the middle, and threw it down. But Uelker really gave me the depths to understand someone who would become my favorite author.”

Gökberk earned her BA and MA from the University of Istanbul and her PhD from the University of Washington. She arrived at Reed in 1987, when the department included Prof. Ottomar Rudolf [1963–98] and Prof. Kaspar Locher [1950–88]. They were completely dedicated to students,” she recalls. “Kaspar Locher used to tell us about how he used to live in what are now the language houses, and he used to write his book in the attic secretly,” to avoid criticism from the administration.

Gökberk was unique in the German department, not just because she was the youngest professor and the only woman, but also because her interests roamed beyond the standard German canon to include Turkish-German literature, of which she has been a leading scholar. At Reed she played a crucial part in the department’s turn towards the “new German studies” approach, which takes a more critical look at the mainstream canon, compared to the classic Germanistik approach. With her focus on the literature of her native Turkey as well as her mastery of the classical works of German philosophy and literature, Gökberk bridged two generations of Reed’s German department. In retirement, she plans to stay involved with the German department and will teach a course in Reed’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program this fall.

Prof. Kaatje Garloff [German 1997–] calls Gökberk “one of the first people at Reed who had a concrete vision of how multiculturalism could be taught and practiced.”

But for all she gave to her students, Gökberk learned from them as well. She gives the example of her thesis student Julia Reagan ’12. “I tend in my scholarship to spread myself out too much,” she says, but Reagan “synthesized with great calmness... Her decision to just cut through this important and very difficult philosophical stuff with focus and, not overambition, but a reasonable approach, was helpful. I learned.”

She was just printing out a paper by Julia as we spoke. If her record so far is any indication, it won’t be the last time Gökberk goes out of her way for an old student.