Research Happens in English

I’m working on a big post about European higher education, but frankly, my opinions on the subject are so complex that I’m going to have to wait a while to do it justice.  In the meantime, here’s what a German thinks about his specialty.

As part of its retrospective of 2007, the Year of Liberal Arts (Geisteswissenschaften) in Germany, DeutschlandRadio Kultur interviews Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher of consciousness from the University of Mainz here (G) (interview can be heard here (G)).  Metzinger praises some aspects of German higher education and critiques many others.  He is reassured, for instance, by the fact that philosophers can have an impact on public discussion (unlike in the United States), and believes that lots of excellent work is being done in Germany, a view I’d second.  However, Metzinger also has some criticisms.

First up is academic hiring.  Here’s a little background from me, to put Metzinger’s remarks in context. In many specialties, you still have to write a Habilitation to be considered for a professorship at a German university.  You write your Habil after getting your "Dr." degree (which is generally slightly easier to get in Germany than in the U.S.).  The Habil often takes 7 or 8 years to write, and by the time you’ve finished it, you will usually be be in your late 30s.  After that, your chances of getting a job are about 50-60%, depending on region and specialty.  If you don’t get a job, you face the unpleasant prospect of having spent 15 years of your life carefully preparing for an academic career that will now never materialize.  Your knowledge will be too specialized to be of any use getting you an ordinary job.  Further, you will never often never have have had an ordinary full-time job.  In former times, the options for those who spend a decade of their lives failing to write their Habil would have been "a bullet, or the colonies," to quote Sibylle Bedford.  Now, you may become a high-school teacher, or, if you’re really unlucky, a massively overeducated cab driver.

So the uncertainty is one major drawback.  But that’s not all.  During these 15 years, you will be at the mercy of the other older professor who supervises your doctoral dissertation and the another who supervises your Habil.  Many of these senior colleagues are enlightened, reasonable people who encourage dissent and independent thinking.  Others are — not to put too fine a point on it — despots.  So the system  as a whole combines an enormous front-loaded commitment of time and energy (including lots of moving around and living in humble student quarters) with an unpredictable outcome.  For instance, if you notice in the 3rd year of writing your Habil that your supervisor (Habilvater) has started behaving very coolly to you after you made a remark that seemed to offend him, you may be in deep trouble.  Without the active support of your Habilvater, you may have a difficult time finding a decent job.

There are some advantages to this system, but it’s criticized by German reformers as being too rigid and taking too long.  It discourages interdisciplinary work and transfers into academia by gifted people from practice.  Further, it’s especially problematic for women, since it keeps most aspiring academics in a state of uncertainty and penury until well into their late 30s.  (This may help explain why only 15% (G) of German professors are women). 

Metzinger notes that young German academics he knows who have a chance to make their career in other countries often do so.  Most of the people he trains, for instance, leave to take posts in foreign countries — not only because the academic hiring system is much more flexible and transparent there, but also because of the difficulty in finding academic positions in Germany that allow, or acknowledge, interdisciplinary research. 

Metzinger also chides his colleagues continue to refuse to publish in English.  Some of them, he suggests, may fear the "stricter and better-operating" peer-review system which prevails at most English-speaking academic journals.  Many German-language journals, Metzinger notes, have become completely "irrelevant," and serve only as "archives" for written work that will have no impact on the broader debate.  International academic debate takes place these days in English, Metzinger says, and those who refuse to recognize this will remain ignorant of the latest ideas discoveries.  "Research happens in English," Metzinger states.  (For what it’s worth, I agree.)

Metzinger also has interesting things to say about the relationship between humanities — in particular philosophy — and the natural sciences.  Metzinger believes that philosophy has much to gain from closer collaboration with neuroscientists, and that neuroscientists are quite interested in interdisciplinary collaboration.  Some of Metzinger’s colleagues, however, react to any attempt to apply empirical research to "humanities" questions with ideologically-driven fear and suspicion.  The fact that the public seems to pay much more attention these days to neurological explanations for human behavior than philosophical ones helps spur accusations of selling out.

So there’s a summary of the interview for non-German speakers.  Believe it or not, I’m writing this post in real-time on December 31st, so to everyone out there, Happy New Year!

5 thoughts on “Research Happens in English

  1. > Some of Metzinger’s colleagues, however, react to any attempt to apply empirical research to “humanities” questions with ideologically-driven fear and suspicion.The idea that what happens in the world is based on some hard physical reality rather than the unverifiable ruminations of some self-proclaimed community of philosophy professors is a harder sell in Germany than in any other country.


  2. Andrew, what you highlighted was easily the least interesting part of the interview 😉

    Especially since these are hardly very original points: More interdisciplinary work, easier ways to professorship, command of English important like wut. We’ve heard each of those a thousand times. And it’s not like no-one is heeding those calls. Nobody asks for research money anymore without bandying about the word “interdisciplinary,” for example. (I do however wonder how “transfers into academia by gifted people from practice” could look like at the Theoretical Philosophy Group, but then those weren’t his words ;))

    The part about publishing in English is a bit confusing too. If German scientists refuse to publish in English and at the same time German journals have become irrelevant paper-dropping zones, then, uh, wouldn’t that imply that German scientists have nothing to contribute to the real debates? And if you think that of me, why would I care what language you want me to publish in?

    (I don’t think, by the way, that this is a problem in the natural sciences at all. Those scientists who work at the forefront of research are well-acquainted with the relevant international publications and will usually be anxious to get their findings out to everyone who’s working in the field. It takes a lot of time to prepare a three or four page article for a journal – the English language will be the least of worries, especially given the rigid scientific jargon that typically characterises such articles.)


  3. Must be a year ago or sth. when I read on Spiegel Online, or maybe, how a German professor complained about what quality German scientific summits held in English have. I remember quite well that he was quoted with something like “In English we’re all a little bit more stupid.”
    I personally have the impression that this is very true, since your command of a language also influences how clear you can think about something and how easy it is express something, especially in the liberal arts.


  4. Sebastian: “The part about publishing in English is a bit confusing too. If German scientists refuse to publish in English and at the same time German journals have become irrelevant paper-dropping zones, then, uh, wouldn’t that imply that German scientists have nothing to contribute to the real debates? ”

    No, I think there is a difference between relevance and quality here. The things published in these journals aren’t useless crap, they are becoming irrelevant just by the fact that not enough people are able to read them, compared to the things published in competing english-language journals. So they don’t get the influence they could/should have, at least on an international scale.


  5. I have no opinions worth considering about German academics, save perhaps those of an amused outsider. This discussion has something of the quality of the “Portugese Irregular Verbs” series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, written about three German professors of “Romance Philogy” in Regensburg.

    from an outsider’s perspoective the qualification system for German academics does not seem too much different than that for professors in the US, with the Habilitation taking the place of postdocs. Academic ‘despots’ exist in the US as well as in Germany, and students unfortunate enough to be under the influence of such despots probably suffer equally.

    Metzinger’s comments about English publication are more interesting. Assuming that in the past publication in German were perfectly adequate for the purpose, what has changed? I think there may be a kind of ‘globalisation’ of the marketplace of ideas (insofar as academia can be described so), and the lingua franca of that global marketplace is not French or German – but English. So to reach that global audience and maximise one’s influence one must publish in English.

    Presumably the information ‘market’ for German academics was limited to Germany (or at least Central Europe) sometime in the recent past. 1950, perhaps, or perhaps as late as 1970. This seems to have changed, and an academic who does not publish in english may be doomed to being globally ignored.


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