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Comparative Literature

Andrew K. Piper ’95

Assistant Professor of German Studies, McGill University

I majored in comparative literature with a focus on German literature. I chose the major after trying almost every conceivable introductory course at Princeton. I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I like to say that I chose “comp lit” because it had the fewest prerequisites—and that by taking so many classes in so many different departments I had disqualified myself from all other majors. 

The truth, of course, is a little more complicated than that. By my sophomore year, I had become more passionate about reading, and reading literature in particular. I also was interested in studying abroad, seeing something beyond the narrow confines of campus or U.S. Route 1. After spending a semester in Berlin—this was 1993—I was hooked. It was the most interesting place I have ever lived, then or since. 

I continued to become more and more interested in all things literary, and I was able to develop some very close relationships with a few professors in the German department. They were fantastic and brilliant. They prepared me incredibly well to go to graduate school, something I had no idea I wanted to do when I started college (neither of my parents finished college). I remember Professor Michael Jennings in particular taking me aside and talking to me about considering a profession in the humanities. It was eye-opening, and I’ve always been thankful to him for that. It’s these types of conversations that are one of the true benefits of having small departments on campus. 

Exploring language and the world

Since then, I spent another year in Berlin on a Fulbright Scholarship, finished my Ph.D. in German literature at Columbia University, and am now going through tenure review in the German department at McGill University in Montreal. My first book, Dreaming in Books, was awarded the Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book this past year. I have two children (ages three and six), and my wife directs the student programs at the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill. 

In my acknowledgments to my book, I write that in life we often encounter a teacher or mentor who fundamentally alters our path. For me, that person was Stanley Corngold, now a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Princeton. He was the one who taught me how to read literature. 

These are things you cannot predict when you choose a major. All you can do is follow your curiosity, because learning is about developing a sense of who you are. But it’s also about living. I loved the way my major forced me to travel, to get outside of my comfort zone, both geographically and linguistically. I now teach German literature as an American in French-speaking Canada. Life is strange and sinuous. That is also its beauty. As one of my favorite writers, Ingeborg Bachmann, once said: “I hope my life never turns out the way I hope it does.”