Frieder Nake is not entirely sure if he really is the longest serving teaching staff member at the University of Bremen. Probably. After all, his 100th semester will begin in April. Even if it turns out that he is not: The 82-year-old computer science professor is certainly worthy of a campus story. Because he experienced the beginning years of the reform university in Bremen first-hand? Of course. But mainly because he’s fantastic at telling stories.
Before the storytelling begins, a photo shoot is on the schedule. After all, a portrait that really captures the subject is part of every campus story. The photo is to be taken in the lecture hall of MZH Building on campus - that’s where Frieder Nake feels particularly at home. The lecture hall is directly opposite his office and apparently, there’s no need for him to even put on shoes. He simply crosses the hall in his comfy mules. Right? “No, these are my normal shoes. I basically wear sandals all year round, as long as it is possible,” corrects Nake. A black shirt, hiking trousers with practical side pockets, and thick wool socks round off the look - the tanned 82-year-old needs nothing more for a day at the university.
“My teaching style was always quite relaxed,” smirks the computer scientist, who accepted a professorship in graphic data processing and interactive systems at the University of Bremen in 1972. You can spend a long time searching for specialist literature or PowerPoint slides with equations in his classes. “I prefer to talk to my students. In that way I pass on the specialist knowledge in a casual way and always in reference to a relevant issue,” explains Nake.
Sitting in a Circle with Students
With this approach, he has aligned his teaching with one of the founding ideas of the University of Bremen. A great deal was meant to change on the Weser River at the beginning of the 1970s. One aspect of said change was that research and teaching were to be relevant to society. For Nake, this means that he sat together with five students in a circle during his first seminar, and in the frame of so-called project studies, he spoke with them about the opportunities and borders posed by computers and used the example of employment. A civil servant from the Federal Labor Office in Nuremberg even came to the University of Bremen to find out more about the ideas of the students and their professor. “Everything that happened at the university back then had a direct connection to reality. I liked that,” says the computer scientist.
What he also enjoyed was the so-called one-third parity at the University of Bremen in the 1970s. Professors, administrative staff, and students held the same rights in all matters. “The one-third parity was sensational. I had never experienced anything like it in Germany,” enthuses Nake.
Professorship as Political Assignment
That so much was intended to be different at Uni Bremen was the reason that the native of Stuttgart returned to Germany from Canada at all in 1972. “I had emigrated several years previously because I found the German higher education system to be too rigid,” says the scientist. “Becoming a professor at this radically different university was a political assignment for me,” explains Nake.
But how? “Since the age of 16, I have always felt like I belong to the far left,” clarifies Nake. He was a member of communist associations and even had to go through disciplinary proceedings in the 70s in the frame of the so-called Radicals Decree. He stands by his political beliefs, despite the fact that a great deal has now changed at the University of Bremen. Marxism and a continual call for dialectical thinking influence his teaching. “We should always remember to think about contradictions and oppo-sites. I taught my children that and I recommend it to each of my students. There is not one person who took part in any of my classes who does not know the name Hegel.”
Teaching as Storytelling
Nake laughs when asked if he is sure that he teaches computer science. “Viewing the bigger picture is part of the job. Teaching must be storytelling, it should position itself based on specialist knowledge,” he states.
A current example: This winter semester, he is offering a seminar entitled “Algorithmic Thinking.” 70 students are taking part and he knew how he would start the class weeks beforehand: by going in, sitting down, and saying nothing. For a whole ten minutes. If someone whispered or moved in their chair, he ignored it. After ten minutes, he stood up and asked: What did you think just then? “That is how students find out what it means to be reduced to our thinking,” explains the university lecturer. The university as a happening. That’s how he likes it best.
90-Hour Weeks Are Normal
And when he’s not at the university? “Work is my life. I work a 90-hour week and finish in the evening just as the “heute journal” TV show is starting,” he says. He does, however, give himself one moment of peace each day: The computer scientist loves eating a slice of bread with cheese in the small kitchen of his Borgfeld house and looking out to the big trees in his garden.
What many people at the university do not know is that Frieder Nake is a famous computer artist. Thus, he creates art digitally using a computer. In the middle of the 1960s, he was one of only three artists worldwide who worked on this type of art and became internationally known in an extremely short space of time. He still regularly exhibits his works and interactive installations. The next exhibition will be in the Bremen Gerhard Marcks House in February. “I create projections on large displays that continually change without repetition. The computer calculates, processes, and then shows the art. They are dynamic images that appear when we look,” explains Nake.
He is, of course, officially a pensioner at 82 years of age. Yet, as a professor, he is allowed to teach for life. In his nearly 50 years of work, he has supervised a total of 453 students on their path to graduation - he knows the number exactly. However, a thought is starting to take up space at the back of his mind: “The summer semester 2022 may actually be my last,” he announces with an unusually tentative voice. It is clearly difficult for him to think about it. Even if he may not be going to the university on a daily basis soon, he surely won’t suffer from boredom: “Then I’ll do artistic programing - and I’ll do it until the end!”
Article in the WESER KURIER newspaper (only in German)
Information on the exhibition in the Bremen Gerhard Marcks House (only in German)