German Studies and the History of Knowledge

We are publishing the following information in conjunction with the German Studies Association’s 2020 virtual conference, which runs from September 29 to October 4.

With instructors and students facing many more months of online teaching and learning, I would like to briefly highlight some blog posts in the history of knowledge that might prove useful to those working on various aspects of German history, culture, society, and language. The selection comes from two blogs that I co-edit for the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, and its Pacific Regional Office at UC Berkeley, namely, History of Knowledge and Migrant Knowledge. I was initially inspired to identify such pieces by the German Studies Collaboratory’s own efforts to foster collaboration and experimentation during the pandemic. Appropriately, none of the articles are behind a password or paywall, and their average length is only some 2,000 words. They might be useful for students’ own research or for assigned class readings. If you are using blog posts as assignments, the posts in this list might also serve as instructive examples, for better or for worse, depending on the assignments you envision.

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Some Links related to the Historian’s Profession

“History, Historians, and ‘the Current Moment,'” Perspectives, November 2017

Jim Grossman, executive directer of the American Historical Association, reflects on what historians can do in these challenging times. Not surprisingly, communication is front and center, but his suggestion is more nuanced and very in tune with this period of myriad small publics: “Historians know lots of things that matter in the current moment. Find your niche. Identify an audience.”

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Sources: Child Labor in the United States

On this May Day, it is interesting to read a Progressive Era speech by Florence Kelley from December 1905 entitled “The Federal Government and the Working Children.”1 Kelley was arguing for a federal solution to the dearth of accurate and timely data about child labor in the United States. The industrial and agricultural interests that objected to a federal role, she pointed out, were quick to band together when it came to demanding protection for their own commercial interests.

Never again can it be a matter of merely local concern what hours the children are working. They will be the Republic when we are dead, and we cannot leave it to the local legislators, here and there, to decide unobserved what sort of citizens shall be produced in this or that State, whether they shall be strong in body, mind and character, or whether they shall grow up enfeebled by overwork in early childhood.

Of course, compiling and disseminating the data would have political consequences.

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History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science

The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it offers some food for thought.

In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway.

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‘More than forty miles of shelves’

The handwriting on this fascinating image taken inside the British Museum Library, ca. 1906, reads, “More than forty miles of shelves, two millions of books, and ‘of the making … is no end.’” The accompanying summary at the Library of Congress appears to get something wrong, however: “Photograph shows the book stacks in the reading room of the British Museum library, London, England.” This scene shows an important aspect of this library’s support for reading and research, but it should not be mistaken for part of a reading room.

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The ‘Academic Nachwuchs’ Label in Germany

Ein Forscher, eine Forscherin ist meines Erachtens mit Abschluss der Promotion wissenschaftlich mündig.

After earning a PhD, a scholar has, in my opinion, reached academic adulthood.

I have only ever heard the German term Nachwuchs in an academic context, which I understood to be a label for people rather junior in the profession, “trainees” or “young ones,” if you will. The word sounds strange enough when talking about people with one or more books behind them, families, substantial teaching experience, and so on. Nachwuchs can even mean “offspring,” however, which fits perfectly with the parental term one uses in German for a dissertation advisor—Doktorvater  or Doktormutter. Thus my translation of the above quotation, which comes from a worthwhile read by Karoline Döring on what Americans might call the status of scholars with “nontraditional” academic careers in Germany: “Wollen wir wirklich BeStI(e)n sein? Ein Plädoyer an und gegen ‘den wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchs,'” Mittelalter, February 13/14, 2017. (Don’t miss the comments.)

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Organizing and Communicating Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations

In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me.[1] Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?

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