FAQ on my German Sabbatical
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
July 25, 2011 – 22:05
One week from today, I’ll be a (temporary) German resident.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on sabbatical from Middlebury for the 2011-12 academic year, and I’ll be moving my family to Germany to be on fellowship for a year. I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people about this, both online and face-to-face, so I figured I’d post the answers I’ve been giving for anyone interested in where I’m going & what I’ll be doing.
So where are you going?
I’m moving to Göttingen, Germany, which is in the center of the country, about halfway between Frankfurt and Berlin. It’s a small city (around 120,000) best known for its very old and well-regarded University of Göttingen. The American city it seems to most resemble in character and size is Ann Arbor – except that it’s got a Medieval wall around the city center, and it’s a typically European walking/biking city rather than car-centered (and yes, we’re going car-free for the year).
Why are you going there?
Because I was invited. Two years ago, I presented at a conference in Zurich about serial narrative, and was approached by a member of Göttingen’s American Studies department who was also presenting. He told me about a project that his department was proposing to the German Research Foundation (essentially the equivalent of our NEH and NSF rolled into one) for a research team on “Popular Seriality,” and asked if I would be interested in participating as a visitor. The funding came through and we worked out an arrangement for me to be a visiting fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg Institute for Advanced Study for the 2011-12 year.
So will you be teaching?
Thankfully no! (I love teaching, but I need a break from the day-to-day pressures of the classroom, and that’s what sabbaticals are for.) It’s a research fellowship, so my responsibilities are primarily to work on my own research – primarily, writing my book Complex TV. The Institute is modelled after Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where gathering a group of international researchers together serves to extend the university’s academic community – besides giving one or two public lectures at the University, my primary responsibility is to work in my office (in the beautiful historical observatory that used to be the residence and office of Carl Friedrich Gauss) and to participate in three community meals each week. Additionally, I’ll participate in events and conversations with the Popular Seriality team. (I know – a tough job!)
Does this mean you’ll be studying German media?
Not really. My book & other research are still focused on American television. Since I’ll primarily be working with the American Studies department, this will be a welcome focus. But I’m interested in how American television is consumed in Europe, so this will certainly be a point of some investigation and probably some blog commentary here.
Why does a German university have an American Studies department?
Why does an American university have a German department?
Do you speak German?
Alas, no. I started taking intro German in the fall, but dropped after 6 weeks when the daily grind of teaching, chairing, parenting, and life overwhelmed me. (I did learn the great German word überwältigt, meaning overwhelmed.) So I’ll study a bit of German while there, but my work is solely in English, so I’ll muddle through as a mostly illiterate ex-pat.
What is your family doing?
My wife will be continuing to work for Middlebury College’s budget office, through the wonders of VPN and Skype. (It’s worth noting that most dual career couples find it incredibly hard to manage a year abroad during a sabbatical due to spousal career concerns, so we’re quite fortunate that it works for her job to telecommute.) She thrived in German class for the whole year, so she’ll be the family’s designated communicator. My kids, aged 10, 7 and 5, will go to German public school, getting the full language immersion. I fully expect that they’ll all be highlighting my linguistic ineptitude by winter. And we’ll all hopefully be blogging about our experiences in our family travel blog, Fünf in Deutschland.
Will you be going to other cities in Europe?
Definitely. For the fall, I’ve already lined up talks at German universities in Mannheim, Weimar, Bochum, and Hannover, and will be attending conferences in Vienna and Innsbruck. I hope to hit other European countries and cities while I’m in easy train or plane distance – so if you’re in a position to invite me, please send me an email! And of course, the family will take advantage of the German penchant for vacations to travel around the continent.
What are your goals for the year?
I think setting realistic and diverse goals is key to a successful sabbatical. I certainly want to finish writing my book, and publishing the chapters to the book’s website. I have a couple of other writing and editing projects in the works that I’ll reveal when the time is right. But sabbaticals are not just for writing, as they also help provide new perspectives and experiences to refresh and revitalize your thinking. So I want to feel some productive disorientation – being in another country speaking a foreign language forces you out of your comfort zone, and I do generally feel quite comfortable in my regular life. I want a jolt out of my regular routine to help me rethink how I compartmentalize and separate the personal and professional. And I want to teach myself to play the mandolin.
Shouldn’t you be packing instead of blogging?