Must scholarship be “compatible”? Frauke Rostalski

Must scholarship be “compatible”? Frauke Rostalski

Translator’s note: the central term of this essay is Anschlussfähigkeit, (adj. anschlussfähig), a buzzword currently common in discussions of German academia, but whose multiple connotations do not have a single English equivalent. From the verb anschließen, or to connect, most simply anschlussfähig means compatible or accessible, but at the same time it means connective, especially in discussions of logical systems theory; in this essay, the author shows how these multiple connotations intertwine, often at the expense of academic freedom

‘Under the smokescreen of “compatibility”, unpopular opinions can be kept out of the scientific discourse’

The meaning of academic freedom will become clear to anyone who dares to search beyond the well-trodden paths of others. As Georg Christoph Lichtenberg chose to put it; ‘I cannot really say if it will be better if it is different, but I can say this much; it must be different if it is to become good’. Motivated by a scepticism against all things traditional – whilst simultaneously recognising the achievements of others – a scholar implementing (new) ideas inevitably strikes a tone that does not please everyone. This is hardly surprising; if any specific “state of knowledge” had not predominated for so long, it might have been exposed to more than a few isolated disputes. In the face of these expected obstacles, the way out of someone else’s pre-existing tracks can quickly become difficult to navigate.

Despite all inconveniences, we would like to call out to our free spirit – the one who occasionally cries out, thanks to the many members of its guild who resist it – that it should feel lucky; only academic freedom allows the space for a critical attitude about the theories and thoughts of others. In Germany, academic freedom even has legal codification, with its fundamental guarantee in Article 5, Paragraph 3 of the federal constitution, which one contemporary commentary interprets as stipulating ‘no scientific monism, nor any corresponding monistic claims to validity of individual scientific approaches or methods’.

"a lively struggle for the correct solutions"

So far, so good. However, academic freedom – at least in the field surveyed by this author (the law) – is currently characterised by a lively struggle for the correct solutions. Ostensibly everyone’s voice is heard, so our free spirit can also speak in print. But the first shadows are cast over this situation when our gaze moves upon a pervasive phenomenon in the legal disciplines, wherein the quality of theories somehow becomes dependent on their number of adherents. As such, in their first semester studying law, students are already learning that in their discipline, certain positions (often represented by the majority) “dominate” over the “minority opinions”. At the same time, this language of power – which is, by the way, factually unconvincing – has thus far deterred any serious scholar from using his or her clever ideas to bring that “dominance” into doubt.

While the groupthink within the scholarly discussion has, in general, not translated directly into peer pressure, various dangers do persist in the present situation for the aforementioned ideal of academic freedom, which is also enjoyed by the lateral thinker. I speak here of a notion that has crept more and more frequently into job postings for professorships in German-speaking universities, which detail the requirements that the applicant must fulfil for an interview, as well as later employment. Recently, in a posting for a W3-level position at Leibniz University of Hannover, one reads that the department seeks a ‘designated research personnel in the field of substantive criminal law and criminal procedure, as well as a subsequent discipline whose research emphases are compatible [anschlussfähig] with Leibniz University’. A survey of postings in other disciplinary organisations turns up similar results. For example, in its advertisement for a professorship of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the University of Göttingen stipulated that the successful candidate must ‘show compatibility [Anschlussfähigkeit] with at least one of the research emphases of the Göttingen campus’. This list could easily go on in perpetuity, and in doing so would increasingly solidify the impression that “compatibility” of research personnel—that is, that the trendiness of one’s research—is a relevant criterion for the hiring of new professors. But what does this actually mean

For further illumination, we might look at the origin of this concept, which plays a particular role in the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. In this theory, labelling units of a system as “connective” (anschlussfähig) serves to express the fact that they belong together logically. A reproduction of social systems, over communication or actions, presupposes their connectivity or compatibility. A lack of connectivity or compatibility means that the classifier follows a logic that deviates from the existing system – simply put, it does not fit in, therefore excluding the possibility that further communications or actions associated with the system may follow. 

„under the smokescreen of "compatibility", unpopular opinions can be kept out of the scientific discourse“

The aforementioned survey of examples—abridged only for space concerns—nevertheless paves the way for two interpretations of the criterion of compatibility of research, which makes its way more and more frequently into job postings for positions at German-speaking institutions of higher learning. First of all, a wider understanding of the term ostensibly becomes apparent, after which the research of a scholar is classified as compatible (anschlussfähig) in the view of the research emphases of a particular department – provided that such research has a general, unspecified reference to the topic in question. Compatible in this interpretation would be, in the case of research in criminal law at a German institution, a person who fundamentally works with criminal law – independently of how exactly this engagement plays out in the content of the research. However, the concept of compatibility or connectivity can also be understood in a narrower sense, after which the specific contents of a research emphasis are used as a further criterion. A scholar in the discipline of criminal law would here be compatible only when his or her work itself shares specific premises that the department in question, or the discipline in general, deem “state of the art” — with all of the sometimes-serious consequences of this position. It seems more likely that the writers of these job postings, who determine the compatibility and suitability for the recruitment of a scholar and his or her research based on the priorities of that institution, use the former understanding of the term. Nevertheless, they must be careful about the way they formulate their language, for there is always, at the very least, the inherent danger that the candidate’s future colleagues, those responsible for the hiring decision, should be called upon (or feel encouraged) to perform their search specifically taking into account the compatibility of the content of this scholar’s research, or the scholar him- or herself.

The consequences of such a (mis-)assumption cannot be stated clearly enough: the suitability, aptitude and performance as sole relevant selection criteria for research job candidates should not be determined by the extent to which the individual (for whatever reason) falls within the ranks of a numerically-predominant collective. The mere ability to “go with the flow” is not some sort of seal of approval for scholarly research. After all, the free spirit – ever resistant of influence by the authority of traditionally established opinions – can be a boon to scholarship and, as such, particularly well-suited and capable.

Compatibility as a hiring criterion turns out to be a dangerous instrument for the enforcement of a claim to power that some scholar or another might cherish with respect to his or her own conceptual model. Furthermore, under the smokescreen of compatibility, unpopular opinions can be kept out of the scientific discourse, simply by denying their proponents access to professorships and the subsequent possibility to visibly take part in the exchange of ideas. In this regard, it has become unjustifiably easy for the traditional thinker; instead of having to deal with one’s objections to the candidate’s unorthodox positions on a factual level, there is simply sufficient proof in the candidate’s insufficient compatibility. Those who wish to use new thoughts to raze an old system, in order to build something wholly new upon their rubble, can be defined in the very least as incompatible in content.

It is hardly necessary to stress how devastating the consequences are for a scholarly system that can ward off new ideas through targeted hiring decisions. Here is just one example: the Copernican worldview signified a break with the long-held geocentric one, so much so that there could be no talk of compatibility in content in this case. Today, the key players in the scholarly and scientific discourse (and with it scholarly and scientific progress) are professors at our research institutions. If that had been the case back then – and adherents to the geocentric worldview had been able to target hiring decisions based on the criterion of compatibility of content, and thereby regulate the “marketplace of ideas” in this fashion – who knows how long we would have kept believing that everything revolves around the Earth?

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