Alexander Geppert is an Associate Professor of History and European Studies at NYU New York and NYU Shanghai. His work focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western Europe and centers on questions of spatiality in varying configurations including outer space and extraterrestrial life, as well as concepts of time. A DAAD Research Grant enabled him to move from Germany to Italy to pursue his PhD in Florence. He recently joined the German Academic International Network (GAIN) Advisory Board to help DAAD promote Germany as a destination for academics and researchers worldwide, for example at the upcoming Annual GAIN Conference in San Francisco, August 25-27th, 2017.
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We asked Alexander a few questions about his work and experience in Germany:
- When did you know that you wanted to become a professor of European History?
At the risk of sounding clichéd, somehow, I have always known that I wanted to become a professor of history, even before graduating from high school. But since declaring that at such young age sounds rather pretentious I waited quite some time before telling anyone. However, when I did begin university studies in history, I already knew I had to be pretty serious about what I was doing, and I was.
- What are you currently working on?
For the past few years, I have been working on the cultural history of outer space and extraterrestrial life in twentieth century Europe. At present I am completing a book entitled The Future in the Stars: Time and Transcendence in the Age of Space, 1942–1972. I am also working on the third volume in a trilogy on European astroculture that I am co-editing. The second volume in that trilogy, Limiting Outer Space: Astroculture After Apollo, will be published in the fall; the third one, Militarizing Outer Space: Astroculture, Dystopia and the Cold War, some time next year.
- What was the most ‘German’ experience you have had?
At risk of evoking a second cliché, I have always strongly identified as European, something I first realized when spending my first year in the US as a 23-year-old on a DAAD scholarship. Now I notice my Europeanness all the time: I learned that walking is unheard of in LA; I always wear long pants, never shorts; nudity does not shock me; I taught my in-laws the importance of making eye contact when clinking glasses; I am still speechless every single time I get carded. Being a foreign national is particularly interesting at NASA and the White House: they won’t let you go to the restroom without a security escort… Never have I felt more dangerous as a historian!
- What advice would you give to students who are thinking of working in your field?
Read, read, read, think, discuss, write. Follow your interests, nourish your curiosity, trust your instincts and develop intellectual taste and style. Do not think ‘strategically’ and do not engage in anything because you believe it is currently fashionable or what ‘one’ does. Find benevolent supervisors who criticize your work, and listen to them. And then start all over and persevere.
- What advice would you give to North American students who are thinking of studying abroad in Germany?
Go for it. Conditions have never been better, tuition fees practically do not exist, and universities are internationalizing rapidly. What’s more, due to the generosity of organizations such as the DAAD it is — fortunately! — still comparatively easy to obtain a scholarship. Never mind if your application is not successful on the first attempt, work on it as hard as you can and then give it another try.
- Which pictures, plants or unusual objects are there in your office?
A copy of NASA’s famous Earthrise photograph, a model of a Shenzhou spacecraft and a golden jubilee plate from Shanghai Jiaotong University in my office at NYU Shanghai; a Robby the Robot toy figure, a lunar globe and a map of Europe in my office at NYU in New York; Michelangelo’s David in Berlin.
- Can you cook a German meal without a recipe? If so, which one?
Sure, even though my American wife is a much better chef of German cuisine than I am myself. Over the years, I have perfected the art of the ‘Butterbrot’ — which only the unenlightened would mistake for a simple sandwich.
- Is there someone who has significantly inspired you in your career? If so, who and why?
There is this great Kurt Tucholsky quote which I have embraced: “If you want to fathom the limits of your home, travel. If you want to fathom the limits of your time, study history.” My own travel guides along the way, be it in Bielefeld, Baltimore, Göttingen, Berkeley or Florence, have been a number of stellar historians to whom I look up to as scholars and human beings. Now, I often find myself preaching an amalgam of what I have learned from these role models to my own students in Shanghai and New York, hoping that one day I will be able to play a similar role for them.
- Butterbrot: literally a buttered slice of German bread but in practice an open-face sandwich with a wide range of toppings
- “Wer die Enge seiner Heimat ermessen will, reise. Wer die Enge seiner Zeit ermessen will, studiere Geschichte.” Kurt Tucholsky, Interessieren Sie sich für Kunst?, in: Zürcher Student 2 (1 May 1926), p. 64.
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