Ni Dieu Ni Maître

I survived the seminar in which I was to analyse my potential and to plan my career – together with twenty other talented young women researchers from Berlin universities. We are all in the post-doc/ham-in-the-sandwich position and were all theoretically accepted in the program because we want to become professors. As it turned out during our first session in June, I am, among the persons selected for the program, by far not the only one with doubts as to the feasibility of the whole professorship-thing. Which is reassuring, really. Talking to women who raise their kids, same age as mine, with the same fears, the same guilt feelings, the same form of attention to the kids’ affective and intellectual balance – that does me good.

The training we are going through, well, I am not sure it does, or rather, I am not sure yet how it does me good. We all went home depressed yesterday. And were all depressed at how cynical we all are about the academic system. That goes against my combative nature. I am the only one in the whole group who stated as an explicit professional aim to make things change in academic culture. I am also the only one who at no point began a sentence with “My boss said that” (the more frequent variant with “My boss” being a man, of course). At first, I found it weird that adult, responsible women refer to a boss when it comes to, say, deciding whether they want to get involved in University strategic meetings. I begin these kind of sentences with “I asked some colleagues what they think of it”.

Do I really not do what people advise me to, like it felt after hearing woman after woman quote their boss’ advice this morning? Am I a free spirit, or am I just – completely out of the system? As I wrote yesterday, being independent has a price in a highly hierarchical system. Not belonging to a school is making things more difficult, that is no news. My situation does not help either. I came from France after completing my PhD, then worked  in a research institute that was closed a few years later with everyone saying “It is sad, but it can’t go on like it does” (which was true). No particular glory in having worked there, no particular school either, as the institute died of bad management and an non-existent inner coherence, everyone trying to scientifically drown the other camp (typical east/west conflict). I arrived where I am with a protection that was (and still is) strong, but by someone who goes by the principle that the best will find their way up anyway, which I considered an invitation to define my own standards and work by them. I certainly was lead by others to one decision or the other (and some were bad) during the course of my eleven years in Berlin. But what became stronger and stronger as time went by was the urge to owe nothing to no one, assuming that flat hierarchy relationships are the only way to truly work together. This nice idea does, alas, not really fit in the realms of reality. It is in many ways utopistic to imagine any configuration in the academic system in which the sum of the interests of a given group of individuals would not contradict or annihilate itself by nature. Still this is, somehow, my scholarly ideal. I am obviously still living in the 18th century, exchanging letters and enriching my library…

It exists, though, I saw it with my own eyes. When I was a PhD candidate, we got together – we, PhD candidates from different universities, different disciplines – and we tried to make our point, actively, and by putting our joined creativities together. We created a Webpage called “Ebrain” on which you could post your scientific profile and put a price on your head (it was not a real profile database of course, more of a witty joke, and we had to turn it down after EBay protested). We made movies in which we showed the nursing room of newborn PhD theses, or a replica of Liberty guiding the People showing “the postdoc torn apart between Life and Academia”. We were young, it was cool, journalists were calling us (were calling me), we stopped doing science altogether for months, we made it to the front page of Le Monde, which is even cooler.

By then already, I was often required to speak up for the group. Because I was a woman and in the Humanities, I filled the quotas (“too bad you don’t also come from a minority”, they said with a wide smile). The frequency with which I am being displayed as the exemplary proving that “it is possible” has not decreased since then, considering I am now not only a woman, in the Humanities, but also mother of two (TWO!!) children and working with computer people. Maybe this way of being presented as “out of the norm” also makes me feel that I, somehow, don’t belong there, and have to be – without God or Master.

Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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