“Akademischer Nachwuchs” doomed forever?

The following text was a reaction to the discussion after the keynote lecture at the International Indology Graduate Research Symposium 2021 by Prof. Jürgen Hanneder. Here are two responses to my comment, one by Prof. Jürgen Hanneder and the other by my Viennese colleague Georgi Krastev .
You can also follow the discussion on Twitter .

Today was the first day of the International Indology Graduate Research Symposium 2021 that takes place as a hybrid event in Vienna and online, organized by Dominik Haas, Christian Ferstl, Channa Li and me. It was concluded by a very informative and entertaining but also somewhat frustrating keynote lecture by Prof. Jürgen Hanneder from the Philipps University of Marburg titled “Akademischer Nachwuchs” – Reflections of a Veteran on a Strange Concept (cf. the abstract in the Symposium programme, p. 12). It sketched the situation of non-professorial academics in Germany during the last two centuries, exemplified by several anecdotes from the history of German Indology. In a nutshell, it showed that careers in this discipline were always a struggle, complicated through strong dependencies on the doctoral supervisors (Doktorväter) and a belligerent academic culture. In his conclusion, Hanneder wondered what could be done against this unfavourable climate, noting that nowadays a major part of the difficulties is due to external factors, against which also the elite of the discipline would be powerless.

Though most of the audience were younger colleagues, apart from Borayin Larios (who referred to the initiative #Ich bin Hanna – ichbinhanna.wordpress.com/english-version/ – which provides insight into precarious working conditions in German academia) and myself only professors participated in the subsequent Q&A session. Somehow frustrated, I tried to argue that the situation won’t change, as long as the academic world is not better financed. I said that as a beginning student I was surprised to be addressed as a colleague even by professors. I felt very much supported until I had finished my PhD, but afterwards the struggle began. Suddenly, after a long phase of dependence on supervisors, no-one felt responsible for me any more. Maybe this is simply the natural way; maybe it has to do with the fact that my department prospered during my study years and apparently got into a downward phase in the following years. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that the budgets of university departments depend more and more on their graduate numbers (i.e. every graduate means chances for a better budget in the following years), while career posts are rare and permanent posts nearly inexistent. Therefore, it’s only logical that among all the graduates (and this includes academics of every age until retirement) heavy competition is inevitable.

Prof. Birgit Kellner suggested that intensified international exchange could improve the situation, and Hanneder agreed that it could be helpful. Well, not in my situation. After the Q&A session, I hurried to take care of my 5 and 7 year old children, make dinner and bring them to bed. As a separated father taking care of them half-time, I am bound to Vienna (and a grim job situation) – or forced to actually give up my fatherhood to keep my career chances intact.
On the other hand, international exchange is already quite intensified in the German and Austrian Indology. For example, only one person of the whole departmental academic staff at my institution (which includes not a single Austrian) studied in Vienna (after spending some time abroad in between). All my study colleagues (apart from those who gave up, are jobless or in precarious employments) are working at other institutions or in other countries. In Polish, Hungarian, Italian or French departments the situation is quite the opposite: In Budapest the whole staff is Hungarian, in Rome they are Italian and so forth. This means, that while young academics from these countries get better job chances because of the intensified international exchange in the German-speaking countries, young academics from Germany and Austria get no jobs in the neighbouring academic communities. You could also say, while these countries take care of their young academics, we try to solve the “problem” by sending them away.

Prof. Somadeva Vasudeva probably had the same feeling as myself but put it more elegantly and more positive when he said that it was always like this and will always be. He argued that the higher you get, the rarer the jobs are, so the struggle is only natural. Therefore, he advised getting in contact with as many colleagues as possible, may it be cooperation or combat – because the worst thing are boring people. Vasudeva stressed that he got most of his jobs through friends (or even enemies), not through applying the regular way. His argument turned slightly sinister when he explained the situation by comparing it to the middle-age feudal system. (He excused his musings by the fact that it was rather late in Japan, from where he had joined the discussion.) While he is certainly right regarding the necessity of networking in the academic field, one wonders if the academic system really has to be comparable to the political system of the Middle Ages. At least, the feudal system faded – so maybe there is a chance for academia as well …

To come back to Hanneder’s concerns – what could we (and especially the professors) do to make this quasi-feudal system more humane? Here is the attempt of a provisional list of possible approaches that definitely could be extended:

  • Attack the limiting and suffocating external factors. The professors are in the best position to raise their voice and use their status. Up to now, I only hear lamenting (mostly in private conversations) about the deteriorating situation and a lack of understanding for the passive behaviour of the non-professorial academics and students.
  • Be honest with students. Don’t try to produce graduates if there are no jobs for them, only because the University administration demands it. Tell the officials that this is irresponsible, uneconomic and insane.
  • If you encourage your MA graduates to do a PhD, feel responsible for them, even after the PhD (at least until the feudal system is abolished).
  • Non-professorial academics: Engage in university politics, cooperate with colleagues across disciplines and institutions, speak up in meetings, don’t let the professors decide everything on their own. Work together with professors and students to make the best out of your department and university.


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