Feb 05, 2018

Reflecting on three months in the U.S.

By Miriam Johanna Laufer

Miriam Johanna Laufer in Boston

Basically, anything goes. That was the information I received when I was asked to write an article for this website three months into my stay in the U.S. This comment left me with so many options to choose from that I, in the end, decided on a summary of different aspects of my life as a visiting researcher at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S. to give the reader a broad perspective.

Some introductory words: Providence is a city of roughly 180,000 inhabitants in the U.S.’s smallest state, Rhode Island. Boston is only a 1-hour long train ride away, to New York City it is four hours by bus. Brown University is an Ivy League research university with around 9,000 students in all kinds of fields. I arrived here in October 2017 as a so-called Visiting Research Fellow or visiting researcher and will be here until the end of March 2018 working on my dissertation project.

Brown University Campus

“What exactly is a visiting researcher?”, you may wonder. Well, first of all, a doctoral student. A doctoral student who successfully applied to Fulbright’s Doktorandenprogramm. What the stay exactly entails depends on the research focus and field of study. I am a doctoral student of American Studies focusing on the Japanese American internment experience during the Second World War in the United States and how it is remembered today in different media. During my stay, I have had to answer the following question more than once: “How come you, as a German, do research on the Japanese American internment experience?” The easy answer: “It’s interesting and I believe that people should know about the Japanese American internment experience.” The more complicated and personal answer would probably bore you, so I am going to leave it at that.

To get back to my stay here: As a visiting researcher in the humanities, I do spend a lot of time in the university library going through books that deal with different aspects of my research topic. As an American studies scholar, there is a lot of material to choose from here at Brown – definitely also material that I would not have access to at my German home university.

Brown University's main campus on a snowy day

But research for me luckily does not only include spending time in the library, but (maybe more importantly) talking to people who are familiar with my topic, both professors and (doctoral) students. Some of the students are committed to spreading knowledge about the internment in less academic settings, be it by teaching in high schools or by composing songs and performing them on stage. This is something I had not expected and makes me appreciate my stay even more.

During my first three months at Brown, I participated in an interdisciplinary writing group and audited two classes. In these, I was made aware of terminology issues, historical events and cases of racial inequality I had not known about before. I also had the chance to present my own research and receive valuable feedback from my local advisor, other professors and doctoral students. Generally speaking, auditing classes can be important in order to get to know people and the “American way of life,” whatever that may entail. The university in general offers many ways of socializing, be it academically or more casual: talks on a variety of topics are scheduled regularly, there are specific events for international students and researchers, then there is the gym and lots more.

For an American Studies scholar (and I imagine any other field of study), a stay in the U.S. also is useful because of the impressive number of conferences, symposia and annual meetings taking place all over the country. So far, I – together with doctoral students from Brown University – went to a conference at Yale University and to the annual meeting of the American Studies Association. For the latter, the stereotypical saying “everything is bigger in the U.S.” definitely is true. Within three days, “2,130 participants in 440 sessions” (https://www.theasa.net/about/news-events/announcements/welcome-asa-chicago) presented their research on any American studies-related topic imaginable. There was so much to choose from that it was sometimes a bit overwhelming, to say the least. To enable easy access to all those sessions, the organizers had even created an app!

Van Wickle Gates at Brown University, entry to the main campus, middle gates only open for special occasions

A research stay of six months also leaves enough time to get to know the country: I connected my research with visiting different cities in the U.S. After all, nobody can spend 24/7 researching (at least not I) and Fulbright promotes cultural exchange. Visiting a museum in Chicago has actually introduced me to an artist’s works that will play an important role in my dissertation.

Cultural exchange can also happen in daily life; simply noticing or pointing out differences between the U.S. and German university systems, in politics or even in grocery stores can be an interesting conversation-starter. In the humanities, students here really have to read a lot (generally speaking for each class a book per week… unimaginable at universities I attended before); politics: an interesting topic at the moment; grocery stores: at least in part do confirm the before-mentioned stereotypical image of the U.S. (who needs a gallon of lemonade?).

In summary, my stay here in the U.S. has already broadened my horizon – not only concerning my research, but also in my personal life. I am looking forward to the next months here; I am sure they will fly by.

Miriam Laufer is a 2017-2018 grantee of the Fulbright Doktorandenprogramm. In 2013, she graduated from the University of Vienna, Austria, with a Bachelor of Arts in “Transcultural Communication Studies” focusing on English and Japanese. She then continued her studies at the University of Freiburg, where she graduated in 2016 with a Master of Arts in “British and North American Cultural Studies”. In her doctoral studies, also at the University of Freiburg, she focuses on representations of the Japanese American internment camps during the Second World War. Currently she is at Brown University, Providence, where she works together with a group of students and professors who are interested in the same field of study.

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