The heartfelt head-trips that give a lift in the race of life

Academics find information and inspiration in myriad places and forms, and what they do with it can transform and even save lives

October 26, 2017
Hidden camera
Source: Getty

Housed in a concrete municipal block in an unremarkable area of Berlin, the old Stasi headquarters is not a building one stumbles across by chance.

Seek it out, however, and it’s one of the most interesting places to visit in the city: a chance to immerse yourself in what still feels like relatively recent history. 

Now home to the Stasi Museum, the rooms once occupied by high-ranking personnel resemble sets from a Roger Moore-era Bond film, replete with wooden panelling and out-of-date maps.

Among the artefacts on display are sealed jars containing the scent of East Germans whom the Stasi might have wanted to track, and miniaturised cameras the size of matchboxes designed, rather implausibly, to be hidden behind a necktie. Technology, it is safe to say, has moved on.

The question we ask in our cover story is whether the approach to handling Stasi documents has also moved on, as we head towards the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Researchers, like journalists, have long delved into the Stasi archive: an unfathomably large quantity of documentation churned out by the GDR’s security service over the course of some 40 years.

As we report, the trove of personal information that it contains led to a complex system to manage access, with the aim of frustrating “fishing expeditions” designed purely to unmask Stasi collaborators who, decades on, found themselves in the -public eye.

There have, naturally enough, been examples where this has been bypassed – cases of archivists helping to expose some of the more dramatic revelations that have come out over the decades. 

But the question posed today is whether, with the passage of time, such sensitive handling, designed to protect people, for example, whose “collaboration” may in fact have been misdirection, is no longer necessary – if we have reached the point at which history becomes truly history.

Our second feature also explores the use of unusual academic source material, this time through the experience of one scholar who has drawn extensively on her own life.

Devorah Baum, lecturer in English literature and critical theory at the University of Southampton, is the author of two new books exploring the centrality of humour to Jewish identity. Although these investigations are grounded in personal experience, Baum tells us that she is writing not about Jewishness per se, but humour and identity in a universal sense.

To do this, however, she is adamant that a certain amount of self-reflection is not just valid but necessary, because “there’s a kind of lie being told if you talk about these things with no context”.

Baum’s approach takes an even more intensely personal turn in another recent project, a film she made with her husband that tracks their lives through a period of excruciating turmoil as she undergoes IVF, conceives twins and, tragically, loses one of them before birth.

To those who ask whether this constitutes research, her reply is that she may well submit it to the next research excellence framework, so perhaps we will get a bureaucratic answer.

More interesting than REF-ability, though, are the stories themselves: the million and one ways that scholars work with sources and collaborators of their own to illuminate and improve the lives of others. These stories -matter as debate about universities – their regulation and funding, the reduction of what they do to economic impact and output – gets increasingly utilitarian in tone.

I’ll give one more example: on a recent visit to a university in the North of England, a researcher casually handed me a small plastic object roughly the size and shape of an egg. 

She had been contacted by surgeons at a nearby hospital who were preparing to operate on a child with a particularly difficult heart problem. Working from scans, the researcher used a 3D printer to produce an exact replica of the child’s heart that could be sliced in cross sections so that the medics could see in advance exactly what they would find when they operated.

Whether transforming, interpreting or saving lives, this, surely, is what academia is all about.

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