Center for Metropolitan Studies
Technische Universität Berlin, Germany
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I am currently working on two new projects – one about the impact of seasons on urban life in the US and Europe between 1900 and 2000. The other asks about the role of nature in the transition from war to peace in 20th-century Berlin. As an urban environmental historian who doesn’t conceive of cities as simply human-made spaces, I am very interested in the ways natural forces continue to shape urban developments. Moreover, I am very curious about questions of temporality and how they manifest themselves in urban practices. Well, and as a historian of warfare and as a citizen in this contemporary world, I also keep wondering about the meaning of peace, which is quite puzzling to me.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
This semester I am actually on sabbatical, which is great, not the least because it gives me a chance to really think about what I want to teach next semester to our MA students in urban history. Currently, I am playing with a new idea: rather than working with a set syllabus, we will start with “What is a City?” from Deyan Sudjic’s, The Language of Cities and based on it, each student will identify topics of interest that they will independently pursue in research groups and then present to the rest of the class. It’s an attempt to get students actively engaged in what they learn and to get them thinking about developing research topics. I am certainly curious if that can work…
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
Right now I am reading Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. She is an award-winning journalist and her book is absolutely fascinating in how it moves through the centuries making all kinds of rainy connections all the while telling a beautiful story. It’s a different kind of writing, maybe less academic but in that maybe also more accessible and I must say I learned a ton of new things. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how we as urban scholars write books, and for whom? As an urban environmental historian I am very interested in generating a dialog with politicians, and urban policy makers as well as with a larger public, and traditional history books might not be the best way to do that.
As far as my own publications go, I just co-wrote a short piece with my colleague Avi Sharma, which was a very inspiring experience because it forced us to closely discuss a topic both on the level of content and narrative.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
Think broadly about sources and potential inspirations! By that I mean read of course, but also walk, listen, smell, touch, and watch. Walk through the city and look around at urban life throughout the year. As urban scholars we have the great fortune to live in our field of research, so we should use all of our senses to tickle our minds and to continuously ask ourselves why we are studying the urban, why is it important? Be inspired by life!
Tell us about the transition from American to German universities. What was unexpectedly joyful about the move, and what made for a difficult adjustment?
Returning to Germany after receiving all of my secondary and university education in the US, it was quite a transition, not the least because I was trained as a historian, but now direct an interdisciplinary research center, so I had to learn a lot about the day-to-day workings of interdisciplinarity and also about management. The Center for Metropolitan Studies is a wonderful place because it brings together German and American perspectives on urban studies, in large part we usually have guest researchers from the US and Canada.