Ready To Go - Doing Research in the Age of Academic Mobility

The Big Adventure

Text: Philip and Arachne van der Eijk

About frozen moving vans; wrestling with foreign languages and authorities; academic provincialism and the joys of being a citizen of the world. Experiences of a mobile researcher couple.

There are different types of academic mobility and different ways of working internationally in science. Some researchers spend their entire lives in one place, setting off on frequent research trips around the globe from this one location. Then there are researchers who change location, from one country to another, but only for a certain length of time, with the express intention of eventually returning home. And there are researchers who go abroad for an unspecified period of time – and not just once, but sometimes twice or three times, and not only while they are young and just embarking on their careers. People move from one unknown territory to the next; they strike camp in one place and pitch their tents again in another – without the security of being on an official posting or knowing there is a caring organisation waiting to welcome them back at the end of it. This is where the adventure really starts: with all its insecurities and surprises, but in all its alluring beauty, too.

In the new country lots of things look similar, but everything is subtly different: there are cultural differences which you do not always recognise straight away. You are constantly amazed by the way people react, by their sense of humour, for example, or their manners. Culture shock of this kind can seriously shake the system, and it may take several years before you really feel you understand this new world.

Life itself seems frozen solid

Academic mobility starts with your arrival – in our case in the middle of the Berlin winter. Charlottenburg was covered by half a metre of snow and the temperature was a chilly 15 degrees minus. Three days later, our furniture came, all frozen solid. Life itself seemed frozen solid. The removal men who transported our library, on the other hand, beetled around the new flat unpacking our books and stacking them up in random piles. This situation offers a fairly precise image of the way you feel when you first arrive abroad: you can just make out a glowing prospect somewhere at the end of it all, but the here and now is in total chaos, and there is a load of work to be done. You observe your new world and try to learn how to understand it as quickly as possible.

Mobility simply involves a host of banal tasks – quite apart from the practical, financial, legal, bureaucratic, and social security issues which still have not been solved satisfactorily in our unified Europe.

However, mobility is not just a matter of geography but also of changing from one scientific culture to another. Even in such an international field as Classics, one is always struck by the cultural differences in scientific communities, between Classics in the UK and Classics in Germany, for instance.

In scientific cultures there is constant tension between “internationalising”, being “interdisciplinary” and “crossing frontiers” on the one hand, and “belonging”, “engaging” with a certain community or group or academic atmosphere on the other. The need for such communities is quite natural: you do not work and research alone, you work together, share thoughts and findings, publish in certain media, and get feedback. But, nevertheless, you notice how quickly communities become closed circles, how developments outside the community are no longer perceived. This phenomenon, this scientific provincialism, captured in the delightful English word “parochialism”, can even be found at the most distinguished universities in the world. This makes it all the more important to go beyond these given, frequently local circumstances, traditions and frontiers, to engage with the outside world and find new fora in which you can share your views with other academics. And it is important to communicate this to junior research groups, by exchanging doctoral students and postdocs, for example.

Unexpected gains in the battle with foreign languages

Linguistic mobility is also a feature of academic mobility: the willingness to learn, speak and publish in other languages. Many mobile researchers feel the tension between their love of their own language and the effort they have to make to get used to new conventions of language and speech. Foreign languages do not only impose constraints but also open up opportunities because you sometimes express yourself more clearly and precisely than in your native tongue and spend more time thinking about what you actually want to say. And you sometimes even make the surprising discovery that you are able to express things in a foreign language which you cannot say in your own language, or at least not in the same way.

To many people language is synonymous with home, so the fact that they often have to resign themselves to dispensing with their native tongue could be seen as a symbol for the homelessness of mobile researchers. But what actually is the role of home in our globalised world with all its means of communication in which you can contact your so-called friends and nurture your relationships via Twitter or Facebook? You would think that home ought to be a phase-out model. But it is not as easy as that, because in a globalised world like ours, if anything, the need for a “home”, a community in which people feel they belong, is growing rather than declining. You pay a certain price for being a citizen of the world: the home you come from is not only somewhere else in geographical terms, it sometimes becomes less important to you as well, and the relationship to your country of origin changes.

The eternal outsider?

There is, however, another positive way of looking at it, and that is, that you feel comfortable in your new country and make a new “home” for yourself there, a new social world. Is this really possible? Even if you do everything in your power to fit in and to integrate, and even if the people amongst whom you are living are hospitable, are you not bound to remain an outsider, a guest? Or can you have several homes, just as you can have several nationalities? In his essay “Les Identités meurtrières” the French-Lebanese author, Amin Maalouf, refers in this context to a composite identity (identité composée). You acquire a compound, multi-layered identity when you go down the path of cultural and intellectual engagement, curiously discovering the other culture. So, instead of continuing to be a guest, you can try to become a fellow citizen. We tried to go down this path in the United Kingdom, and, by and large, our experiences were very positive. Now, we shall try to go down it again in Germany, and our initial experiences have made us feel confident that we shall be able to find a new “home” here, too.

In the last resort, all these forms and aspects of mobility originate in an intellectual attitude of openness, far-sightedness, curiosity about foreignness and foreign languages, all of which go beyond the borders of a country, a language or an academic discipline or scientific culture: precisely the kind of academic openness to the world so impressively epitomised by Alexander von Humboldt.