“So you’re German? What do you study here?” – “Er, German literature.” – “?!”
At this point, the conversation can sometimes get a little stuck when I try to explain what I’m doing here in Nottingham. It’s perhaps a situation other German PG students in German Studies in the UK might be familiar with too.
In my case, the reason for studying in the UK is quite simple. My supervisor, who is an expert in my particular field of research, is a professor at Nottingham University and that’s basically how I ended up here. Apart from that, I got rather used to living abroad after having spent a year in Siberia teaching German at a university somewhere in the taiga. After this, Nottingham appeared manageable – at least no bears in the University Park! And, to round it all off, I’ve always been something of an anglophile and am really happy to be able to live here.
After having graduated in the German university system (which usually takes a little longer than in this country) I worked in various theatre projects in Berlin, then went to Russia and, back in Berlin, was a teacher at a drama school. I was therefore a bit older than the average English PhD student at the beginning of my course so I’m a mature student (can’t help associating this adjective with cheese somehow…). At first, I felt a bit uneasy about this but I soon began to realise that there are also advantages. I think it’s nice for example not to have spent my entire life at different universities but to have seen other working environments as well.
My work focuses on German 19th century literature. I’m interested in how the depiction of memory processes in the historical works of realist writer Wilhelm Raabe compares to memory discourses in contemporaneous German society. The memory bit actually only came in later, when I had already started my course. At first, I only wanted to look at heroism (or rather anti-heroism) in my selected texts but it soon became clear that it might be interesting to try and apply the methods of memory studies to 19th century literature.
At the moment, the topic of cultural memory is getting a lot of attention, especially in Germany. My aim is to show that, back in the 19th century, these questions were just as important and were as passionately discussed as nowadays, even if there was no scientific theory to describe the phenomenon. Since there was no such thing as a German nation state until as late as 1871, the question of national identity was quite an issue in contemporaneous discourses, and different versions of collective memory played a huge role in that. In my PhD, I try to explore the function of literature as a mnemonic art in that context.
Watching the initial idea develop and deviate considerably from what I had originally planned remains one of the most surprising and exciting experiences while writing my PhD. It’s really like going on a journey you don’t quite know the end of yet when you set out!
Dagmar Paulus, Nottingham University