It was 1996 in a pre-gentrified Baltimore that Christian Anderson decided he needed to leave. He packed the few bags he owned and headed west.
Just the year prior, his graduation from University of Maryland at College Park spun him into a state of discontent which he dealt with through Grateful Dead tapes, philosophical musings and a gig at Greg’s Bagels — the gem of Baltimore’s bagel scene that Anderson is still devoted to.
Anyone who meets Anderson, a German professor at Cal Poly, knows his past doesn’t really make any sense, but it’s not supposed to.
Back to 1996 — Anderson had just graduated with about as much idea of his life’s purpose as, well, anyone.
That year included a stint in the Appalachian Mountains where he worked as a counselor for what he calls “wayward youth.” His job description there included cutting down trees, resisting hypothermia and making sure no one ran away or murdered each other. He only lasted 10 days.
So concluded a year of bagel rolling and trust falls with “psychopathic” teenagers in the mountains. He sold a chunk of his belongings and headed to California by car.
Halfway through his travel, in Wyoming at Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, he had a vision compelling enough to make him turn back on the 1,100 miles he already drove: He was supposed to be the mayor of Baltimore.
So, he turned around.
On his way to begin his political campaign, he stopped in Urbana, Illinois to celebrate his birthday. He planned to leave the next day but ended up staying — for two years.
Anderson’s office in the department of liberal arts is a menagerie of things living and deceased: thick philosophy and historical texts packed like sardines on his bookshelf, Red Bull he drinks out of shot glasses and a ferociously mint Bernie sticker.
The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Anderson cancelled class and instead hosted office hours all day. Today, class is cancelled again, but not because of Trump. He read me an email he sent to his German language class that contains links to all kinds of German media: a silent film showing Berlin before World War II, old hymns,
In fact, media — music, film, art and literature — all are central to coursework in Anderson’s classes, even if they don’t immediately concern culture. He has a master’s degree in 19th and 20th century German cultural studies, and his Ph.D is in 18th-21st century German cultural studies. Some days, he spends class marveling with students at the sound of classical music in the dark.
“It’s being open to sensory impression,” he said. “I don’t care what people learn in my class, but I do want them to come out stronger and more flexible. It only matters if it’s something they care about because that’s what will germinate, and later on, be the basis for some other thought; that’s how the mind grows.”
Anderson’s classes draw students who aren’t even enrolled; they just come because they like him. And it seems even he finds his popularity amusing, something to poke fun at rather than bask in.
Despite his doctorate degrees and the accelerated speed at which he learned German himself, Anderson describes himself as having been a “terrible language student.” He struggled with the way languages were taught in school; he thought some of the programs propagated unfair divisions between those who swam and those who sank.
In his lower level classes, he allows students to speak English and sometimes spends entire class periods writing complex sentences laden with historical and cultural references and dissecting them piece by piece. It’s language as a cultural medium that he finds significant, not the correct phrase for greeting a German bank attendant.
Many students in his classes might never guess he only started learning German in his twenties, during his previous life as an investment bank analyst at Alex. Brown & Sons in Baltimore. When Deutsche Bank bought the company in 1999, in an effort to “sweeten the deal” they offered one-on-one five-hour-per-week German lessons to employees.
Anderson was thrilled. He was even more thrilled because his path to become a full-time, soon-to-be six-figure-making employee at their office in Frankfurt had really been, he partially quips, “a long, strange trip.”
Like most things in his life, he explains, it was largely about personality. To be clear, Anderson had no financial experience. He had long hair and no plans to tuck in his shirt. But after his crusade to the Midwest, he was broke and finally realized he had to negotiate with a reality which for most of his life was elastic and open to interpretation: adulthood.
Anderson is particularly interested in adulthood — the way it looms over all, not just as a concept but as a collection of daily actions and choices everyone seems expected to resign themselves to. He likes to joke he’s been 20 for 20 years. In a given moment, his speech patterns oscillate between hyper-intellectualism and “fer sure.” He can house pataphysics, Beethoven’s thoughts on Napoleon and the irony of craft beer all in the same sentence.
“I’ve stayed away from every convention that I could,” he said. “I’m not married, I don’t own a house, I went 15 years without a car until just last year.”
The stock pathway to adult “normalcy” has always been an area Anderson liked to explore. He doesn’t own a dresser because he’s been living out of suitcases since 2001. But to be clear: it’s not general convention he’s up against, just stagnation. One singular path feels confining, unfulfilling and not representative of a larger world which to him appears borderless and utterly uncertain.
“I think it’s astonishing how stable life is, given how little we know about it,” he says.
Chapter 1: Urbana
Anderson has always welcomed the untrodden path of the unknown. He calls it an “emerging adulthood,” and traces it back to that formative summer of 1996 in Urbana.
Before he got to Urbana, he was worn out from emotions, romantic strings, ties to a fraternity and the stress of finding a job. He wasn’t ready to face reality. Urbana was a necessary sabbatical — it was when his life as he knows it began.
“When I got to Urbana, I had no friends, no job, no money; I basically started at ground zero,” he said. “And so when I think about who I am, it doesn’t really go back to childhood, it goes back to that summer.”
In Urbana, Anderson pulled himself up by his bootstraps and ignited what would eventually become a career in teaching; he got a job as a teacher’s aid in a home/school for abused children.
His two years there taught him more about human behavior and teaching than any course or degree could. These kids, some as young as five years old, had been severely battered and tended toward violence and misconduct, but it was precisely the noise of conflict that put him at ease. He was good in crisis mode. He was the oldest of four brothers in a family that could “suddenly erupt into strong emotion.”
At the Cunningham Children’s Home, it became clear to him that even against all odds, it was possible for the kids to have good times.
“They [the students] weren’t paralyzed — they just tended, very often, to go into sub-optimal thought patterns that preserved them in miserable states,” Anderson said. “But you could get them out.”
So he started looking for ways to do that. He was the master of activities. He bought the students raw materials for grotesque meat sculptures, with radishes for eyes and spaghetti for guts. He put on Hook and introduced them to anchovy toppings on ice cream sundaes. It was teaching, just in a different way. He didn’t have any illusions about them being studious; it was the least of his concerns.
“I mean sure, it would have been nice if they learned how to read, but honestly, at that level of dysfunction, who even cares,” he said. “The important thing is that they don’t wake up suicidal.”
Anderson was good at that, and found he could even distract them into learning. He learned there that teaching was best directed from an oblique angle.
“If you can find a path in all that chaos, you have succeeded in quieting the mind,” Anderson said.
History senior Scout Schiebel worked closely with Anderson in and outside of the classroom. He said Anderson’s openness to new ideas and alternative routes is part of what bonds students to him so closely. One time, he said, Anderson joked that the only thing to make local cafe Kreuzberg, CA better, would be a saltwater hot tub on the roof.
What started off as a joke, Schiebel said, was actually put into action: engineers in the class were interested. Anderson and four other students formed a small group to start seeing how far they could take the design. They worked tirelessly, coming up with real plans and water-friendly designs.
“It turned into something a lot bigger, I think, [than] anyone thought it would,” Schiebel said.
They drafted an outline for a 125- foot water wheel that would pump water from Los Osos to the back of Kreuzberg Cafe.
They made a mockumentary out of it, which Schiebel helped film.
How to not become a zombie
These days, Anderson researches transcendence, both in broad universal strokes and within the confines of the mind. He’s also interested in the German Bildungsroman, or ‘coming of age’ narrative. But most of all, it’s the astonishment of life he doesn’t want to lose sight of.
“It’s easy to become a zombie, or if you don’t like a zombie, a robot — or, if you don’t like a robot, someone who’s living an unexamined life,” he said. “I like to examine it. I have a feeling we’re only here for a little while, and to go through [life] without probing at all the different edges to me seems like a waste.”
Straying from the unexamined life is something that Anderson’s former student Jose Quintero has in common with him. Taking German with Anderson was a refuge from Quintero’s excruciating second year as an economics major.
“He had a different way of teaching,” Quintero said. “It was a conversation.”
Quintero was dead-set on studying abroad in Berlin, but was discouraged to find that the program seemed like a rip-off from an economics standpoint.
Anderson helped him find another way. He suggested Quintero move there for a few months and take classes. Most students who dreamed of this unorthodox academic route were unable to because of push-back from parents or social expectation. Somehow, Quintero convinced his parents and with Anderson’s help, he found an apartment in the center of Berlin and took German courses. He lived alone, but was totally immersed. It wasn’t the study abroad experience most have, but it was one he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“I became one with the city,” Quintero said. “By the time I left, I didn’t feel like someone who had studied abroad; I felt like I belonged — it was really rewarding.”
He’s always felt he and Anderson were “on the same page.”
“It’s sort of a rare wavelength to be on when you find somebody else like that,” Quintero said. “Especially someone usually in an authoritative position; it’s really special.”
To Quintero, living eclectically is risky and uncertain, but it mirrors the way the world actually works. If you have the opportunity to pursue many different interests, he said, in a way that’s random and fluid, the world’s much more interesting. Anderson is someone who recognizes that, he said.
Anderson’s life hasn’t been linear, but it’s managed to follow some order. In his case, it’s just the energy of the alternative.