Wissenschaftskolleg: It’s not just time to write, it is connections with fabulous novelists, thoughtful former politicians, historians, and scientists

The welcome with Hassan Salem, Peter Hammerstein, David Queller, Janis Antonovics, and Mandy Gibson

Ever since I got to the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, I have been trying to understand  what I can offer it and what it can offer me. This is the script: I come here for 10 months, take no more than a combined one month off during this period, eat 3 lunches, one dinner, and one brunch with my fellow Wiko members, go to at least one talk a week, and for that and whatever project suits my fancy I am paid, given a lovely apartment and all the library and computer help I could dream of. Oh, and also 3 weeks of intensive German and continuing classes in the language should I want them. Did I say Berlin? Berlin! A city to love!

Why does Berlin do this? You can see here who we are this year. What will we offer to Berlin? Or what will we not offer in terms of fellowship, scholarship, academic advances, and personal freedom for those of us that come from places not so free. We are given some guidance from our leader, Rector Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, and Thorsten Wilhelmy, here.  Actually, there is a large staff and they all help.

Barbara told us that although we all wrote detailed proposals to come here, we do not have to do that work. We are free to explore. There will be no evaluation, no pressure, other than that what you put on yourself. “We offer you time.” she said. It is a respite with an inspiring intellectual environment, perhaps broader than we have at home.

Barbara went on to tell us what she wanted to hear in our Tuesday talks and this has had me really thinking. Since we are so diverse, a research Powerpoint will not work. Instead, she wants to know: 1) what counts as a problem in our discipline; 2) what counts as a sound argument in our discipline; and 3) how do you know when you are right. I have been thinking about these challenges for the last month. They actually caused me to write my first piece here on something entirely new for me (creativity).


Thorsten gave me other things to think about. He focused on the Wiko paradoxes in a way that brought us all back to earth. He started with the paradise paradox and reminded us that while Wiko was amazing, it is not a paradise. After all, we are not teaching students, so if everything were like Wiko, we would die out in a generation. If I leave here feeling that I loved it, but love home more, that will not be a failure. Another of his paradoxes was the Humboldt paradox, by which he meant that solitude has its negative side, so Wiko welcomes partners, spouses, and children. And it encourages us to talk to others. I won’t tell you all the paradoxes, but one I have noticed having a large effect is that we are all playing an away game. No one of the fellows is permanent (well actually there are some permanent fellows, those lucky souls), so we are making faster friends than we might otherwise. The last paradox I will reveal is the productivity paradox. We are not required to be productive. Is this the way to get the most counter-intuitive imagination to blossom?

Our home in Villa Walther

Why does Berlin care is something I keep getting back to. Well, we had the Empfang, a huge welcome with more than 300 people, including the mayor of Berlin. There were people from all sorts of places, including several academics I already knew. This place has put Berlin on the academic map, perhaps more than any other. What a wonderful thing that Berlin lionizes independent thinking in the way another city might celebrate its sports team.

Now I am here for another 9 months. I hope to write a book that will help people be a help to our troubled natural world. I hope to become more creative. I hope to take away things that transform my existence in my home institution. I hope to come to terms with the city my father had to flee in 1937. Maybe we can all bring a bit of the Wiko mentality away with us and around the globe.




About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Managing an academic career, New ideas, Sabbatical, Social interactions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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