“It feels like coming home”
Professor Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf is this year’s distinguished Max Kade Visiting Professor from the University of Münster. In Münster, Dr. Wagner-Egelhaaf works as a professor of Modern German literature, leads a wide variety of interdisciplinary research groups, and holds several editorial and advisory positions. She recently edited the three volume Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction, released this year, taught a graduate level course here at UW, and was kind enough to sit down with me for a short interview in Cafe Allegro.
How are you enjoying your time in Seattle so far?
I have enjoyed my time very much. It’s not my first time in Seattle, I have taught here at the University 3 times now, and it feels like coming home.
How has the University and Seattle changed since you first came here?
More expensive. Although really, to me, the things don’t seem to have changed that much. There are always the places that you recognize coming back, although U Village has certainly changed, and the inside of Denny was a shock at first. I am sure my colleagues would say a lot has changed, and the Germanics faculty is a lot younger.
You just finished editing a three volume handbook on autobiography, how does it feel to be done?
Yes, it just came out in January and is on autobiography and autofiction. Well, it took more than 7 years to complete and we had over 150 authors and contributors… I have sworn to myself never to work on a handbook again.
The project involved scholars of literature from different fields, what was that process like?
Well yes, we had scholars from all over the world and from different cultures, and they were mostly literature scholars, but we tried to be interdisciplinary. We had contributors from political science, one from neurophysiology, history, and religious studies. But, given the topic, it was focused on literature.
Working with all of these different disciplines, it broadens your mind, keeps you reading new ideas. Although, it is also quite difficult, technically difficult, to edit texts from different fields. One always has a difficult diplomatic mission as an editor. There is a Latin phrase for this, fortiter in re, suaviter in modo: soft in the way, hard in the execution… and one needs to be persistent.
The course you are teaching this quarter, Signaturen des Entscheidens, how has it gone so far?
It is interesting discussing with American students a text that I first read in the ‘90s. To me, it is a different text. Texts change as you get older and read them again. The first time I focused on certain aspects and now it seems like there are so many topical issues in it. Also, the students are always coming up with new ideas and I am very impressed with their ability to handle such a long and difficult text (Der grüne Heinrich).
The topic of the course, and one of your collaborative research groups, is decision making. This topic and group seems very interdisciplinary, what is it like working with scientists, economists, and sociologists?
It brings new aspects on a theoretical basis, and sometimes it is a challenge to adapt your own material. It is also not as easy to understand your colleagues from other disciplines, they often use the same terms, but with very different meanings.
This research on decision making seems to really impact the way that everyone, not just academics, deals with or thinks about their lives and choices. What implications or new ways of thinking could your work inspire in those outside the university or with undergraduates?
Well first that we are not aware of our decision making. Often we are not aware of the parameters or even that we are deciding at all! If we can say “stop” and reflect, you know, decision making is not self-evident, it is hard to recognize. If we can get people to think about who was involved in your decisions, and think about this, you gain a better view on your own life and can make better decisions in the future.