What is a scientific community about anyway?

After travelling a lot and finally settling back home again, getting ready to begin my life after the junior research group (in a couple of weeks, there will only be me left from what was at some point a 7-person-group), I came to think about what makes one feel like being part of a scientific community and what it is worth for one’s research to belong to such a community.

The crucial question is of course: How do you define a community when you have been like me, working for almost 15 years with humanists of all flavors?

In my understanding of my belonging to a scientific community, there were 2 key moments, 11 years apart from one another and in completely different contexts. The first one occurred 13 years ago. During my dissertation defense (an exercise that, in France, lasts about 4 hours, with about 3 hours and 45 minutes aiming at making the doctor in spe feel like an insignificant worm), the professor chairing the jury said that, because I worked with methods ranging from philology to history of ideas including paleography and close reading, I had given a superb example of what German Studies really are about. I considered this as the best reason, if there ever was one, to be part of the community of German Studies, and I felt that way for a long time.

But of course, when I moved to Germany, it became difficult to stick to that notion of “German Studies”, which in all non German-speaking countries brings together everything that is in any way related to German language and civilization, while in German-speaking countries, they logically dissolve into differentiated disciplines. Literary studies, history and philosophy would have been the three disciplinary areas I could consider I would belong to in the years following my PhD.

What is more, you also have to name your century to define where you belong. Are you an 18th-century or a 19th-century scholar? There too, things were not so easy. Does 1760-1848 belong to the long 18th or to the 19th century? Is it a period by itself? The “Sattelzeit” was my friend for a long time, before I heard it was outdated and didn’t exist as an operational category any more. Too bad, really. And as it turned out, you don’t work with the notion of “intellectuals” in literary studies either, that too is passé. That’s what comes from borrowing methods and concepts from one discipline and using them in a different disciplinary context. Literary history, as it turns out, has little to do with history of ideas.

The second key moment was when I was told, in the course of an application training for professorships, that the societies you are a member of are a key element to your CV, since they tell what scientific community you belong to. I had never considered this as being that important a matter and it made me take a new look at it. In fact, I never experienced anything but a feeling of being displaced when I attended society congresses – those events, precisely, that are meant to bring a whole community together. Every single time, I felt like I did not belong, like I was an usurper, lying about the methods I really use, the century I am really working on.

Still, I have been very true to the societies I once became a member of. I never left them, even if I tend to avoid congresses. The list of societies to which I contribute a yearly obolus draws a kind of map that sums up my scientific path. It started with the Association des Germanistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur, then came the Deutsche Gesellschaft für die Erforschung des 18. Jahrhunderts, the Text Encoding Initiative, the Chamisso-Gesellschaft, the European Society for Textual Scholarship, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft germanistische Editionen, the Digital Humanities im deutschsprachigen Raum, and finally the newly founded Tieck-Gesellschaft.

Being part in a scientific community is not only about showing the right flag on the right place, though. It is about keeping an ear open to its evolutions, methodological and otherwise. The different societies and associations I am a member of have shown me that a lot of that depends on the way the board communicates with the members, and that being a board member does not necessarily mean being grey-haired and sitting pope-wise on all decisions that are essential to the community. Being a board member can also mean opening the communication channels between the board and the members, and make the community a lively one, one that actually exchanges ideas, breathes and evolves somewhat organically.

Achieving that kind of transparency, of fluidity, within a scientific community, is a daily work, and not an easy one. You have to respect positions, to know old stories in order to write a new one, to listen when you have to listen and not to let pass the chance to act when it shows up. It is a work that does not necessarily show on the CV for as much actual work as it can be, and what is more one that is susceptible to attract you new friends, but new enemies just as well. Still: it is one that brings more than one person forward, and that is what a scientific community is about anyway.

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