M.G. Piety

Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Something on Privatdocenten

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on March 4, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I read a very interesting article in today’s Inside Higher Education. It was about how scholars of English literature should be more entrepreneurial. I don’t mean to suggest that this would be of particular interest to readers of this blog. What I think might interest readers is the beginning of the article because it talks about the institution of the Privatdozent in Germany. We don’t have anything that corresponds to Privatdozenten in the U.S. and this has been a source of some confusion for both translators of Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard scholars more generally. Kierkegaard tends to speak scornfully of Privatdocenten, but few people understand why because few people really understand what a Privatdozent is. The beginning of the article, entitled “English Prof as Entrepreneur,” by Richard Utz, will help readers understand why Kierkegaard heaps such scorn on Privatdozenten.

In 1892, the president of Leland Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, managed to convince Ewald Flügel, a scholar at the University of Leipzig, to join the young institution’s rudimentary English department. Flügel had received his doctoral degree in 1885 with a study of Thomas Carlyle under the aegis of Richard Wülcker, one of the founders of English studies in Europe. Three years later, he finished his postdoctoral degree, with a study on Sir Philip Sydney, and was appointed to the position of a Privatdozent at Leipzig.

The position of the Privatdozent is one of the most fascinating features at the modern German universities in the late 19th century. Although endowed with the right to direct dissertations and teach graduate seminars, the position most often offered only the smallest of base salaries, leaving the scholar to earn the rest of his keep by students who paid him directly for enrolling in his seminars and lectures. In a 1903 Stanford commencement speech Flügel warmly recommended that his new colleagues in American higher education embrace the Privatdozent concept:

What would the faculty of Stanford University say to a young scholar of decided ability, who, one or two years after his doctorate (taken with distinction), having given proof of high scholarly work and spirit, should ask the privilege of using a certain lecture room at a certain hour for a certain course of lectures? What would Stanford University say, if – after another year or two this young man, unprotected but regarded with a certain degree of kindly benevolence […], this lecturer should attract more and more students (not credit hunters), if he should become an influence at the university? What if the university should become in the course of years a perfect hive of such bees? […] It would modify our departmental boss-system, our worship of “credits,” and other traits of the secondary schools; it would stimulate scholarly life at the university; it would foster a healthy competition in scholarly work, promote survival of the fittest, and keep older men from rusting.

Unabashedly Darwinian, Flügel was convinced that his own contingent appointment back in Germany had pushed him, and pushed all Privatdozenten, to become competitive, cutting-edge researchers and captivating classroom teachers until one of the coveted state-funded chair positions might become available. He held that the introduction of this specific academic concept was instrumental at furthering the innovative character and international reputation of higher education in Germany. Flügel himself had thrived under the competitive conditions, of course, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to make a number of auspicious foundational moves: He took on co-editorship of Anglia, today the oldest continually published journal worldwide focusing exclusively on the study of “English.” And he founded Anglia Beiblatt, a review journal that quickly established an international reputation. (Inside Higher Education)

My guess is that Kierkegaard was contemptuous of the competitive self promotion that appears to have been essential to the role of the Privatdozent. Popularity with students, as we all know, is not always an indicator of philosophical profundity.
I’ll be back soon with a post on publishing news. Peter Tudvad has yet another new book coming out soon that will be of great interest to Kierkegaard scholars. I’ll say a little bit about it.
P.S. Forgive the highlighting. I don’t know how it got their or how to remove it. Hopefully, the folks at WordPress will be able to help with that soon.
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