As sweet as 517 tif files

It has been the first in a long time: today, I did some actual work. It was interrupted by a run to the accountant, a work lunch at the cafeteria including an interesting mix of ananas and sauerkraut, e-mails, layout questions concerning the collection (Anna sent in volume 2 on Friday and Sabine is working on volume 3), a call to bring my empty bottles to the 5th floor, ok, I will stop the list there. It was obviously objectively more often interrupted than it felt.

I opened the magnificent tif scans of a file (more of a box actually, but the pages are bound together, even though by a thin filament that tends to lacerate the margins) from the University Archive and felt unmixed pleasure at being able to get deeper into these 517 pages of material. The file is called Philosophische Fakultät 210 and it contains all the protocols and debates relative to the first 10 years or so of PhDs in the Humanities at what would later become the Humboldt University. For each applicant, the file contains his “Gesuch” (application), then a page opened by the dean designing 2 reviewers and asking every member of the faculty for their opinion – the answers could lead to opening further pages on that topic. The applicants were then to submit both a Latin and a German paper, which in some cases are also to be found in the file. And each application is closed with the dean and faculty’s decision. The first years of the Berlin University are specially interesting because the final regulations of such things like PhDs were not operative yet. So there was a lot of discussion going on on the subject of what rules and their exceptions are/should be about in an institution like a university.

I have been knowing this file for a long time. In fact, it has been on my top 10 list of favorite manuscripts to be edited for at least 4 years. It contains the German thesis of Fichte’s son. It contains harsh dialogs on such subjects as what do we produce doctors for; what qualifies one as a doctor; what is an original research work. It also sheds light on teacher-student relationships and the way teachers “pushed” their protégés or tried to avoid others to gain traction. From 1818 on, a new professor also intervenes in those debates: the freshly appointed Hegel. What I still don’t know clearly is to what extent his coming induces a clear and sudden shift in the balance of the forces.

I published a first paper on this file (and others), trying to retrace the atmosphere of general experiment (in war times!) in the first years of the University (“Dekanat, Rektorat, Promotionen. Die Gründerjahre der Philosophischen Fakultät am Beispiel von Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger (1780-1819)”, in: Publikationen zur Zeitschrift für Germanistik, Bd. 23, 200 Jahre Berliner Universität, 200 Jahre Berliner Germanistik Bd. III, 2011). Only describing things from Solger’s point of view is always a bit depressing, since he never managed to get influential and died in the middle of everything.

I will be pursuing my transcription of the file looking for material on two topics I am writing papers on for December:

– one paper is for Sabine’s volume on Boeckh and will deal with the way Boeckh supports the former members of his philological seminar when they apply for a PhD;

– one paper is for a volume directed by my 2 colleagues Steffen Martus and Carlos Spoerhase on new sources for philological studies and will deal with the genre “Promotionsgutachten” in general and what can be gained from them for the history of science.

And here’s what I like most about the convolutes you trust in: 4 hours of transcription suffice to give you enough material to back up your work hypothesis and your first intuition. It is the following hours that make you develop new ideas. Manuscripts know they have to establish a confidence relationship with you before they show you their novelty and actual beauty. Manuscripts are clever.

I probably won’t get to it this week though: I will be in Lyon to talk about network visualizations. Meanwhile, Selma will be in Reims to hear about women writers, Anna and Janin will be in Frankfurt to talk about “Musenhöfe”, Janine will be in Leipzig to hear about “Totality and Fragmentations”, e.g. collecting. What a Friday that will be!

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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