Why is it again that…?

That is one big problem when you are overworked. At some point, the meaning of the choices, the efforts, the strategies you make, simply vanishes. Usually, blogging keeps me rooted somehow. I knew I would regret not taking the time to blog for over a week. Well, it is too late now: I have reached the “Why is it again…?” point.

On the positive side, I have done some actual work. I have transcribed a great deal of the “Akte die Promotionen betreffend” and am finishing writing an article in which I show – with not so much effort, since the material has been giving (offering would be more accurate)  me everything I needed – how Boeckh developed two strategies, one of the level of the Philological Faculty, the other on the level of the University – one based on making his Philological Seminar the strong arm of said Faculty, the other based on making all Faculties equally strong. Even if the two strategies could incidentally collide, they both were all in all aiming at giving him more power, which he achieved by spotting and exploiting institutional niches. Considering he was about my age when he did all that, I must say I am in deep awe.

On the half-half side, I have done a big deal of the tedious copyediting I was supposed to do. But I am not done, not even closely. I will have to spend about two more months copyediting. The sheer idea of it makes my eyes burn.

Also on the half-half side, the application writing. Why is it that I promise myself not to write any more application in a close future and end up writing one every other month? What is more, very few of them worked out well in the past year. This is one thing at which I completely lose orientation. Why, why do I put my hopes, my dreams, my energy in that type of writing which above all forms of writing I ever experienced is one of the most excruciating? I know that these applications won’t give me a permanent position. I know that writing the application costs tons of time and in case I would actually get the grant, it would cost me even more time. I have stopped nursing the illusion that it is good for my CV to have one successful grant at the top of each of my fingers. So, why?

I ironically suggested this afternoon that I should try to make the sum of my grant applications pass as an habilitation. It is what they already are in a sense, since phrasing all these research questions forces me to go one step further in my own reflexion for each and every application. But there are, one would think, other ways to do so. Like reading books and getting new ideas by reading. But I should rather not think of that, because it won’t happen to me in months.

On the frankly negative side, I have had zero time for my digital edition, and received several e-mails pointing at transcription mistakes. Which is good, because I can implement the corrections quickly. But also painful because I had rather not have people spot that kind of mistakes before I do. Why is it again that I am always torn between seeing big things and having so little time to make them really good? – Em, yes, I remember. It is because I write grant applications all the time.



How to ruin your Academic career with one book, Or: A short history of German Plagiarism since 2011

Germans have a problem with plagiarism. The first big occasion to discover that strange phenomenon remained on the newspapers’ front page for weeks, if not months. That was in 2011, when German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg (who was – until then- one of the most popular and charismatic figures in German politics) was forced to retract from the government when it became public that his PhD-thesis was a page long copy from various other works (not by him!). There is a wikipedia article on the subject (in German) and I remember a hilarious youtube recording of someone reading out loud the introduction to said dissertation (one of the few parts Guttenberg wrote by himself).

After that, plenty of (less important) politicians saw their political career encumbered by plagiarism suspicions concerning their PhD. In a country where your doctor title is part of your identity, it hurts more than you could imagine coming from a country like France in which people with PhDs in other disciplines that medicine are considered as “no real doctor”.

In 2012, it was the turn of Research and Teaching Minister Annette Schavan to be accused of plagiarism in her dissertation. A website named schavanplag was dedicated to tracking the amount and the nature of the copying. All in all, the extent of “plagiated” passages (if you can speak of plagiarism at all, the sources being mostly quoted) was in no way comparable to what could be found in Guttenberg’s dissertation. But the hysteria was there anyway. And the commission which had to reassess her work in the University were she had done her dissertation leaked information to the press before giving it to her. It got so bad that the German Highschool Association just issued a call to all its members to please speak respectfully of this University.

The witch-hunt extends to philology. In the last spring for instance, an assistant professor of the University of Hamburg was accused of having plagiated an existing historical-critical edition of Kleist’s work “Der zerbrochene Krug” for his (cheaper) edition. The press was involved in the discussion from the very beginning on, without coming to any conclusion. Word is now “nobody knows whether there is anything to it or not”. But the assistant professor’s reputation is now irremediably connected to that. Even if there is nothing to it at all, he will have to carry the burden for the rest of his academic life.

The main accusators of the Hamburg assistant professor were two editors, well known for their historical-critical editions and themselves professors: Roland Reuss and Peter Staengle. They were  the ones who had done the 20-volume- historical-critical edition of Kleist they considered had been plagiated. Well, it turns out that they too can eventually make mistakes. A paper in yesterday’s Tagesspiegel shows that the cheaper 3-volume edition they had published as a byproduct of the big 20-volume historical-critical one was full of mistakes – and not just a wrong coma here and there, but real, big text modifications.

The person who could retrace precisely these mistakes is, interestingly, not a University professor, but a Hamburg printer who made it his hobby to find print mistakes and developed a digital collation of the different versions. Roland Reuss being against everything digital, it is certainly ironical that the computer can find the mistakes he has not been able to correct before his edition was actually printed.

Maybe I can’t speak for other disciplines, but I can speak for mine. Philology has always been based on trial-and-error, on several people working on the same source to reach the best results, even if the results can take different shapes. The condition for this to work properly is to be able to have scholarly discussion and exchanges. You would think these things work better nowadays because communication is easier, but I wonder sometimes whether 18th century enlightement and its faith in progress was not the better period to have debates on where to put a coma or a how to read a variant. It could get rough then too, for sure. But it was heading somewhere.

What is German, what is French

The schizophrenic situation of having somehow a French hemisphere and a German one sometimes leads me to awkward contradictions.

On the one hand, my mother tongue and culture, the whole system in which I grew up and that taught me how to think. On the other one, the culture I have been professionally active in for over ten years and which I feel I have been adopted by. Of course, having a foot in each of those cultures means having two feet in none and hence be rootless everywhere. That is the deal. As much as I figured, during my first five years in Berlin, that we would eventually get back to France, it has been a while now since we decided to  stay here for good, at least until the kids are big enough to cope with us moving to a place that has never been their home (that is, probably, not before they are 18, which leaves us some 14 years).

For a long time, I only occasionally accepted to acknowledge the fact that I know French in my scientific activity. When I realized how useful this linguistic competence could be  to study precisely the German texts I was interested in, I gave in and took advantage of it. That never made me a specialist of French literature though. I know the basics. But if I had stayed in France and made a PhD in French literature instead of German studies, I would know immensely more. My only advantage is of linguistic more than of scholarly nature. Does it count in terms of qualifications? I still don’t know.

There is another level on which the conflict between both hemispheres is more complex to handle: the method. The first aspect is the team constellation. Such a work environment as working in a team is still almost unheard of in French literary studies. It is considered at best typical for natural sciences. To be honest, it is weird in the context of German literary studies as well, even if the fundings that lead to that kind of group configuration are more widely spread in Germany.

The second aspect is deeper and harder to formulate. The methods I have grown in still define the questions I ask to the corpora I am interested in. It became clear when I had to define the profile of our edition. Of course, the whole “it is the research question that defines the edition” thing veiled it for a while and I could not see it. But it finally became obvious that the prevalence of genetic over historical-critical edition in my eyes has in many ways to do with the teachings I received in my student years, when historical-critical was considered a nice, pointless commentary that does not deal  in depth with the definition of the text layers. The question I am also trying to deal with on a more theoretical level (which could be as plainly as pompously summed up in four words: What is the text?) is certainly a reflection of the conflict between the two scholarly cultures that live in me, sometimes antagonistically.The text is what culture makes it be. Maybe my mission is to make this cultural discrepancy bear fruits within text interpretation. But should I accept it?

And who wants me to work on that? The French or the Germans? Back to square one…



Yet again networks

There are many things that were really great in Lyon. There was seeing old friends again – for sure, that counts a lot. But there was also seeing a really interdisciplinary lab in action (the IXXI), being able to have exchanges about major infrastructural questions, being asked part of these questions by clever and interested students, and hearing about digital projects close to mine.

The seminar consisted in 3 papers. It began with my paper, which was too long, but everybody was patient and let me talk (thank you!). Then came the paper by Élise Leclerc, a PhD Candidate in Italian Studies who presented her dissertation project. She is working on handwritten family books left by heads of big Florentine families between the 13th and the 15th century. It was fascinating to see the extent of the literacy competence summed up in that one city so early in history. It was also interesting to see what kind of advice were left behind by those men for their families to maintain their political influence. But the paper was less about the content than about the digital way of dealing with it. Élise Leclerc has assembled information on 150 of those family books and is trying to see in what form to encode them and what can be gained from it for the analysis of the political relationships and their evolution in time. She was accompanied by the engineer who is helping her out with her data, Severine Gedzelman from the SyMoGIH project.

The third paper was given by Thomas Lebarbé and his PhD student Émilie Charles. They presented together their project of an infrastructure that would allow to put online and connect book inventories (mainly literary ones) historically located in the Modern Age. This infrastructure is mainly aimed at helping out researchers who want to have as little to do with XML as possible. What seems interesting to me in the project is of course the mutualisation not so much of the resource, but of the information: which books do you find on all bookshelves / on which bookshelves do you find this or that book. Putting together scholarly projects that are likely to have very different structures in the first place is a bold endeavor and it will probably, as Thomas Lebarbé said, take a while until it actually works. It made me think of another mutualisation enterprise, recensio.net, and the constant act of balance it represents for them to reach a significant and yet manageable amount of participants for the test phase. I fear that one of the main difficulties for the book inventories project will be, at some point, to decide who is in and who is out  in the test phase, and then, with those, try and make a case for a bigger funding, that will then inevitably become some kind of infrastructural mammoth. How are infrastructures supposed to be governed anyway? (I mean being governed without being an elephant giving birth to a mouse, as you say in French)

Apart from the general infrastructural considerations,  I will probably remember mainly two aspects of the discussion. First, I presented (shortly) the work we are doing on hands, and it was received with great interest (always a pleasure). And the second thing has to do with networks. When I exposed my reluctance to go on working with the concept of network, Pablo Jensen refused to give up so easily. He asked me what it is that I would expect from networks that I don’t get. This lead me to formulate (at long last) more precisely what the problem is. The crux are the links. I expect the links to render objective relationships (X read Y) as well as subjective ones (X is close to Y), including a time factor (X is close to Y on this and that topic in this and that period). This makes it difficult to define strong and weak links. Maybe it is indeed worth trying to define those links somewhat more precisely and see if anything comes out of it. I am still pretty intimidated by noodle packs (like in this paper by Pablo Jensen) though, and not so sure I would be able to interpret them in any kind of way. Still a lot to learn there…


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!