Making the most of your visiting fellowship, or What I did in February in Berlin

I’m writing this from Berlin, where I’m just about to conclude a monthlong visiting fellowship at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society. It’s been an all-around fantastic experience – thanks to everyone at the Institute for being such generous hosts. Since it’s the end of my time here – I’m heading back to Canada on Sunday, assuming that the coronavirus doesn’t sweep Berlin in the next 48 hours – I thought I’d share a few thoughts about why I think it worked out so well.

Warning: This post contains some humblebrags, mainly because I’m very happy with how much I got accomplished.

  1. The importance of preparing for your fellowship

I took this fellowship as part of my half-year sabbatical. Sabbaticals are supposed to be a time to regroup, change directions or engage in the intensive research and/or writing that’s hard to do when you’re teaching and carrying out departmental administrative duties. (For the non-academics out there: it’s not a vacation; it’s actually a chance to do more research-focused work.)

Of course, one’s obligations don’t just evaporate once your sabbatical starts. My strategy was to start the fellowship a month into my sabbatical. I used that first month to take care of some remaining teaching obligations as well as some smaller projects so I could devote myself full-time to the project that was bringing me to Berlin.

I’m happy to report that this deck-cleaning allowed me to concentrate on my main project, a manuscript that really needs to be written now. So, that was good.

  1. Choosing the right institute

The advice here is straightforward: go to an institute where the people are interested in you and your work. This seems like a no-brainer, but if the match isn’t great, you won’t get much out of the experience. These types of things are supposed to be mutually beneficial: a chance for you to learn from others, and they from you.

That’s exactly what I got from the Weizenbaum Institute, which has a great interdisciplinary cohort of researchers – mostly other research fellows and doctoral students, which is also great since doctoral students as deep in the work and the literature as any tenured professor (perhaps moreso). Most importantly, we were all studying variations on internet governance, data and intellectual property, but from a lot of different perspectives. As a result, I’ve received really valuable feedback from so many people here.

Beyond the informal chats, the Institute generously hosted a workshop to discuss some of my manuscript-in-progress (co-authored by Dr. Natasha Tusikov), as well as a lecture, where I presented a paper on global platform governance (a previous version of which is available here).

It also helps that everyone here is incredibly friendly and open. Also, they have absolutely the quietest open-concept office I’ve ever been in. Very conducive to getting lots of distraction-free work done. If you’re interested in digital/internet issues from a societal perspective and want to do some work/research out of Berlin, drop them a line.

  1. Travel is good

As a Canadian, one of the other benefits of working at the Weizenbaum Institute is that it’s far away from my North American comfort zone. If you can swing it, travelling to another country is a nice way to see how the rest of the world thinks, and to help you identify your own biases. For example, a lot of my recent research is focused on increasing government involvement in the economy. While this is a worldwide trend, it looks differently in Europe, where industrial policy never fully fell out of style, than in Canada, where we haven’t really thought in those terms in over 30 years. As a German-Canadian former colleague at the Library of Parliament once remarked, “Neoliberalism in Europe means something different than neoliberalism in Canada.”

  1. A distraction-free, disciplined work schedule

One of the benefits of a visiting fellowship is that you get rid of the distractions and obligations of your everyday routine. It is, in other words, a chance to get a lot of work done, so take advantage of that.

My main goal at the Weizenbaum Institute was to rework significantly a book proposal and three chapters. I also have several papers and chapters that need attending to, as well as a forthcoming volume I’m co-editing on internet governance. So, I’m not lacking for things to do, but the book is the priority.

My strategy was to work weekdays from 9-12 on the book project, break for lunch (there’s a cohort at the Institute that gets lunch every day, and lots of good restaurants around), then back to the book from 1-4. From 4-6 I work on my other projects. While not every day went according to this schedule, most did.

And it worked! In the past month I was able to: complete the book proposal and totally rework my three chapters; finalize a journal article for submission; prepare and present two in-town seminars (and another in London just before I arrived in Berlin); hold a (very useful) manuscript workshop; begin preparations for a chapter for another project; edit some chapters for the aforementioned edited volume; prepare a submission for the Quayside evaluation; and come up with a pitch for a long-form oped I’m considering.

Yeah, it’s been a good month, work-wise.

  1. Have a project, and focus only on that

While I got a lot accomplished during my previous fellowship, it was a lot of little things – finishing an edited volume, some interviews, a whole slew of conference papers. This time, I arrived with one project – write the damn book – and stuck to it.

That said, I also made sure to schedule a few presentations over my time here (which all went very well), as well as attending a few talks. It’s all about that academic exchange.

  1. Get to see the city

Travel for a fellowship isn’t just a chance to work in a different (and hopefully inspiring) environment; it’s an opportunity to see a different part of the world. So you should do that, no matter where you go. Here’s what I got up to when I wasn’t writing.

  • Eisbären hockey: I got to four Eisbären Berlin hockey games, and they were great fun. The hockey itself isn’t NHL calibre, but it’s professional hockey played at a high level. There’s less contact than in the NHL, which I actually like. And in the final game there were around four fights(!). From where I sat, the lack of contact meant that the fights felt more meaningful, rather than just an extension of the more brutal side of NHL hockey.

While the hockey may be a step below the NHL, as an entertainment product German hockey is actually more enjoyable to watch live than an NHL game. There are no TV timeouts to interrupt the flow of the game, the cheer section behind the home goal keeps the energy up (even if it’s weird that their cheering rarely mirrors what’s actually happening on the ice), and the players all shake hands at the end of the game (something the NHL should institute to make the game seem less macho and self-serious). Plus at the beginning of each game, the mascot or a kid uses an upright bear-shaped sled to deliver the puck to the referee. It’s adorable.

And 46 euro gets you a seat at centre ice.

I’m just disappointed I didn’t get a chance to see Berlin play my favourite team, the Kölner Haie.

  • Weekend road trip!: As a Canadian the best thing about Europe is that it’s Just. So. Tiny. Last year, my home base was 4 hours from Paris, 90 minutes from Amsterdam and 4 hours from Berlin. Berlin, meanwhile, is only four hours from Prague, which, as you’d expect, is quite charming. Beyond the usual sights, I also got to see US punk-gospel heroes Algiers (a fantastic live band), and my first-ever opera, La Bohème, at the stunningly ornate Prague State Opera House.

So, opera is basically the Latin Mass of theatre, right? Also, Act 1, Scene 2 of La Bohème felt like a hangout comedy that I could’ve watched forever. Anyway, I enjoyed the hell out of it all. Which is why yesterday, here in Berlin, I attended my second-ever opera, The Barber of Seville (adapted from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, I believe). And I’ll be going to my third-ever opera, Carmen, tomorrow night. If you’re on a continent known for opera, might as well do the opera thing while you have the chance.

  • Art galleries. Got to see a whole lot of great art in Berlin and Prague. Highlights included the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg’s collection of surrealist art (Berlin), the National Gallery Prague’s Trade Fair Palace location, whose permanent collection of modern art is something else, and Berlin’s Hauburger Bahnhof’s exhibit of the finalists for Preis der Nationalgalerie 2019 – some exceptionally cool stuff there. Also, art in a bunker!
  • What else? Saw a couple of concerts – Yacht and Poliça – in Berlin. Very enjoyable. Oh, and while it happened in the pre-Berlin week I spent in London, I finally saw Hamilton! For the past five years I’d gone out of my way to avoid hearing any of the music (with the exception of “Cabinet Battle #1”) or reading anything about it, so I had no real idea about what it would be like, other than it was supposedly a “hip hop musical.”

The delayed gratification was more than worth it. Hamilton has to be one of the most remarkable works of art in any medium that I’ve ever had the privilege to experience. It really is a monumental artistic achievement, although hopefully it won’t represent the pinnacle of American society. We’ll see how the election goes.

In particular, I wasn’t prepared for how well Lin-Manuel Miranda captured the spirit of being in your early twenties and looking to make your mark on the world, and the importance of the friendships that you make at that time of your life. For a musical about such monumental historical events and people, it’s a very human-sized play. Definitely worth the wait. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for the past month.

  1. Ditch social media

One thing that I think really contributed both to my productivity and my general sense of well-being in Berlin was getting off Twitter almost completely (I did come back on a bit in the last week or so related to the Waterfront Toronto-Sidewalk Labs consultations). Staying off Twitter helped me focus on the long-form writing that’s our bread and butter. I wasn’t distracted by hot takes or or the groupthink panics of the moment: Turns out, if it’s important, it’ll probably filter into the newspapers.

It was also refreshing to step away from the relentless snark and negativity that defines Twitter. The staccato one-liner is not a healthy form of conversation for anybody but stand-up comedians.

And staying away from Twitter helped me focus on my work, rather than wallowing in pointless comparisons with how everyone else in my field is doing. That’s never a good idea, because somebody’s always doing better than you.

Here’s the thing: Being an academic is the best job on the planet. I get paid very well to read and write all day, every day. I get paid to teach interesting things to students at the beginning of their life’s journeys. It’s great to be surrounded by all the enthusiasm and hope that comes with that. And I think I’m pretty good at my job. All of these things are independent from what other people are doing.

And I’m writing this from Berlin! One of the world’s great cities. When I was a kid, I never thought of travelling farther than Toronto. Since then, my job has taken me all over the world. I mean, I was a visiting researcher for eight months in Australia – literally the other side of the planet. And now, Berlin. I still sometimes stop and laugh at how improbable all of this is.

  1. Get a nice apartment

Finally, I made sure to rent a (furnished) apartment that felt comfortable enough to hang out in. For me, the most important part (besides a comfortable bed) was a decent kitchen and a large living room. The upside was that I looked forward to coming back to the apartment at the end of the day and didn’t feel a constant need to escape.

Although I didn’t plan it this way, the apartment’s lack of a TV turned out to be an extra bonus. I still streamed Star Trek Picard (which is just getting better as it approaches its endgame) and revelled in the Edmonton Oilers’ playoff push, but I also got a fair bit of recreational reading done: a few Beckett novels, Clive James’ hilarious Unreliable Memoirs, about growing up in Sydney, Australia, and Between the Woods and the Water, in which Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts his mid-1930s journey across Europe by foot (a recommendation from my friend, Michael Forbes).

This reading list really has nothing to do with planning a successful fellowship – I’m mostly noting it because it’s the most sustained non-work-related “serious” reading I’ve done in years.

Like I said, a good month.

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