As part of the alumni engagement initiative, American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Board and staff have been visiting alumni across the United States. Professor Sabine Wilke discusses her Humboldt experience and its impact on her subsequent career as well as the importance of Alexander von Humboldt to her current work.
On her time in Germany as a Humboldt Research Fellow
“My initial experience with the Humboldt Research Fellowship was through my spouse Richard Gray, who was in Tübingen from 1989 to 1991. I accompanied him for one of those two years and gained an insight into what an important, career-defining, and career-changing opportunity the fellowship can be. As a German citizen, I had to wait a few years before I was eligible to apply to the Foundation. One also had to be under forty years of age for this particular fellowship program, so I barely made the cut when I applied and received the award at age 39!"
“My mentor was the acclaimed theater scholar Professor Erika Fischer-Lichte. She was teaching at the University of Mainz and directing a graduate training program on recent developments in theater research. As a German literature scholar, this was an eye-opening experience as I learned to analyze plays not only from the perspective of written texts, but also as blueprints for live performances. All my subsequent work was forever impacted by this experience."
“The outcome of my Humboldt Research Fellowship was a book on Ambiguous Embodiment: Construction and Destruction of Bodies in Modern German Culture (Synchron, 2000). Several chapters deal with performance and the use of the human body in artistic installations and would not have been possible without the Humboldt fellowship. My Humboldt fellowship also played a crucial role when I was up for promotion from Associate Professor to Professor at the University of Washington—the prestige of the fellowship likely played a significant role in my receiving tenure.”
On her interest in German literature
“German literature and culture were part of my high school education. I concentrated on both German and English during my undergraduate studies at the University of Würzburg, but German literature and culture quickly became my main passion. I was intrigued by the narrative tradition and drama and theater. For my dissertation, I concentrated on my favorite philosopher Theodor Adorno and his relationship with Martin Heidegger. While fairly abstract and theoretical, this work underpinned my subsequent studies of German literature and culture.”
On “environmental humanities” and the 21st century evolution of the humanities
“The environmental humanities connect the humanities to the sciences, social sciences, and policy and will play an important role in shaping the field. They combine interests in environmental issues— ranging from climate change, energy, and clean water to extinction, pollution, and the plight of our oceans—with questions of language and meaning. While environmental studies are rooted in the science of environmental issues, the environmental humanities translate these concerns into human questions and provide a comprehensive approach to understanding the impact humanity has on this world."
On the impact of Alexander von Humboldt on environmental scholarship
“Humboldt’s greatest impact on environmental scholarship is through his idea of the world as a ‘cosmos’—that individual phenomena are interconnected. He also paid close attention to how the facts of his research were communicated. Humboldt acquired that sensitivity during his travels with scientist and explorer Georg Forster through the Lower Rhine region, a project that Forster would later characterize as Ansichten [views] in his book.
Humboldt later titled his arguably most personal work Ansichten der Natur [Views of Nature]. In the book, he takes readers on a journey through Latin America, painting pictures with his words. In my book German Culture and the Modern German Environmental Imagination, I argue that Humboldt was instrumental in shaping the modern German environmental imagination. In Humboldt’s prose, landscapes are described as if they were theatrical scenes—you see the continued influence of my encounter with performance studies during my Humboldt year, even in my work on environmental issues."
“Humboldt’s other legacy was his ability to capture data in stunning visuals—whether the first scientific images for understanding climate as a global phenomenon, his detailed maps, or the many artistic renderings that accompany his scientific prose.”
On the continued professional and personal impact of the Humboldt Research Fellowship
“I have maintained a life-long connection to the Foundation and the network of scholars it supports. I was able to apply for and receive financial support for publications—a great need for humanities scholars—and travel funds and made invaluable connections with other scholars that led to further collaborations. I recently spent a year at the Center for Interweaving Performance Cultures in Berlin deepening my connections to theater scholars—an experience unthinkable without the earlier Humboldt Fellowship. That is the beauty behind the idea of the Humboldt alumni family—it grows and you grow with it as a scholar."
“In 2011 I was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Alumni Prize for my proposal to build a Transatlantic Network in the Environmental Humanities—a core idea that honors Alexander von Humboldt’s legacy of the importance of research collaborations. The prize helped me found a network of German and North American scholars who work on environmental topics—historians, philosophers, and literary and cultural critics—and organized a series of meetings in the United States and Germany. The impact of that network on environmental scholarship in my discipline and the environmental humanities in general was huge, as it developed into other networks and working groups that are continuing to shape the discourse to this day. Alexander von Humboldt’s practices of research collaborations live on in today’s research networks.”
On her career highlights
“Looking back at over three decades of teaching at a number of North American institutions, I am thankful to all my colleagues and students for a wonderful time of growth as a scholar and teacher. I began my career at Stanford, where I was surrounded by fantastic colleagues and was challenged by bright undergraduates to give my very best. The University of Washington has been a great fit for my intellectual pursuits—I have been free to develop my own courses and shape my career path in ways that would not have been possible elsewhere."
“A postdoc and guest-professorship at Harvard exposed me to the challenges of teaching some of the brightest students in this country. It also gave me the opportunity to work in one of the greatest library systems and get to know New England. I am also thankful for the many grants and awards during my career."
“At present I am Joff Hanauer Distinguished Professor in Western Civilization and in that role, I am conducting a year-long research seminar with select graduate students from different humanities departments on the subject of rethinking humanism and human– non-human relations in the Anthropocene. We read and discuss core texts from the Western tradition and share projects that bring us into the field."
“All in all, I am filled with gratitude for all the enriching opportunities I had in my professional life. The relationship to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is the centerpiece in that trajectory. I am thankful for the support they provided and for giving me the chance to develop my own voice as a scholar. I hope to pass on my love and enthusiasm for researching environmental issues in the humanities to the next generation of students and scholars.”