DAAD Research Ambassadors are scholars at Canadian universities who have conducted advanced long-term research projects in Germany and are interested in promoting research in Germany at their home institutions and among their peers and students.

Dr. John Plews, DAAD Research Ambassador, Saint Mary’s University (Halifax)

In the coming months, DAAD Canada will be interviewing these scholars in an effort to raise their profiles, both as scholars and on our behalf. The first of these is Dr. John Plews, a DAAD Research Ambassador since 2015 and Professor of German in the Modern Languages Department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

If you are a faculty member at a Canadian university interested in contacting John Plews with your questions about researching in Germany, he can be reached by email at: John.Plews@smu.ca.

DAAD Canada: Can you tell us about your current position and activities?

John Plews: “I have been a professor of German at Saint Mary’s since 2005 and I teach in an Undergraduate Program in a Modern Languages Department. This involves teaching the German language at all levels as well as German literatures and cultures. At the university, I’m also a Special Advisor on a new initiative involving Multicourse International Field Schools which we plan to set up. For the past four years I have also been the Director of the Canadian Summer School in Germany (CSSG) a study abroad program offering students from Canadian universities intensive immersion German language classes in Kassel, Germany each May and June. And of course, I’m also the DAAD Research Ambassador here at Saint Mary’s.

DAAD Canada: What are your research interests?

JP: “In terms of my research, I used to work on questions related to German culture, but more recently my focus has shifted to applied linguistics.”

DAAD Canada: Why did you want to become a DAAD Research Ambassador?

JP: “I wanted to share the experience I’ve already had through my life long connections with Germany, whether these be research focused, or more social or to do with language and culture. I realized that these experiences shaped my life in a very positive way, and I was motivated to share that experience.

I also wanted to help make my colleagues aware of the opportunities that exist to do their research work in Germany or in collaboration with colleagues there. I work at a small institution, an institution that can easily be overlooked because of its size and fewer graduate programs. We have a good standing within the Canadian academy, but we are not necessarily supported to the extent we would like by those central government institutions which help fund research in Canada, so I was looking for some avenues to help my colleagues do their work and to help my university be the best university it can be.”

DAAD Canada: How did you find your way to German / German Studies as a student?

JP: “I grew up in the United Kingdom and I was fortunate enough to go to a high school which offered German to its students. I started taking German; I was interested in languages and already taking French at school. And then I took part in a school exchange, so I had a pen pal in Schleswig-Holstein (ed. The northern most region of Germany) who lived in a tiny, little village and I went there. It was a fantastic experience, I got along really well with him and his family. I came from a small coastal town in England, but it was an urban setting. My German home was a village which was very agricultural, very rural, so it was quite a different experience for me at that level. And it really made me very, very enthusiastic about German.

DAAD Canada: Do you have any recollections about difficulties you may have had adapting to life in Germany on any occasion on past stays?

JP: “Growing up in Europe and being very European oriented, I haven’t really experienced what you might call culture shock when working in Germany. To be honest, I first experienced culture shock when I came to Canada, life here was really a step different from what I was used to. But there are all sorts of things that I have struggled with in Germany, for example, real, everyday cultural behaviours. For example, how you get on and off a tram or how you approach people in service encounters are quite different and you have to navigate those. As you become more aware, you either adapt to the way the local populace works, you just become more easy with it or you send signals that culturally you are a little bit different.

Germans are also very, very direct and I appreciate that greatly as it does fit well with my character. But even with my own character, Germans can come across as abrasive, even in situations where you wouldn’t expect this in either British or Canadian culture. Most of the time, I am able to understand this knowing that people there aren’t intending to come across in that way. But when I work with students, particularly Canadian students who are even more gentle in terms of encounters than British people are, they don’t necessarily read that abrasiveness as anything other than abrasiveness and so often I have to walk them through those experiences.

I used to joke with my German friends that when I get on or off the tram, I have to put on my steel elbow pads. If I didn’t, I simply wouldn’t have gotten on the tram!”

John Plews (l.) with participants in the Canadian Summer School in Germany at Berlin’s Poutine Kitchen in June 2019.

DAAD Canada: How about differences as they relate to academic cultures?

JP: “In terms of the academic culture, even with my years of experience in the country, there are still many things that I am learning here. One thing that has come up several times in working with German collaborators is the different attitude towards research ethics, particularly when working with human subjects. My experience with a number of different colleagues in Germany has been that this is an area where Germany is simply not as advanced or careful as is the case in Canada. German colleagues in the humanities and social sciences who are working with humans . . . don’t have a fine-tuned sense of the type of process we go through in an ethics clearance.

In many cases in the social sciences in Germany, you don’t even need an ethics clearance, so that has become a place of tension because I have found that my colleagues in Germany are less inclined to move towards embracing the Canadian process as the common denominator and that has made it difficult to collaborate in some cases. . . . But then there are other colleagues who react in a more positive way, wonder whether these aren’t questions they should be asking themselves and it can be a moment of real cultural exchange. This experience has really surprised me because when I began collaborating with German colleagues, I made the assumption that in Germany this would be much stricter and it wasn’t!”

DAAD Canada: What impressions or misconceptions do your faculty colleagues have about Germany?

JP: “People here are aware of the progressiveness of Germany and the forward thinking nature of the German academy. In very general terms, people are aware of how Germany funds research and how it has a very long tradition of research, in particular in science and engineering. There’s a very healthy understanding of that, but I think the misconception comes when people don’t necessarily realize that there’s also a very strong collaborative and international culture which is part of that. People here will tell me, “Oh, I’d love to do some of my research in Germany, but I just don’t know if they would be interested in collaborating with someone from Canada.” And I often laugh and tell them that many scholars there would jump at the opportunity, that they’re looking to make these sorts of connections.

When you start to tell people about the sheer range of opportunities for exchange and collaboration, teaching and research, they can be quite surprised and excited.”

John Plews with CSSG student Christa Bezooyen at the Berliner Phiharmoniker in June 2019.

DAAD Canada: What advice do you give to colleagues looking to forge links with German scholars?

JP: “I always tell people, think about people you’ve already made contact with, look for conferences in Europe where you know that there might be colleagues from Germany and when you’re there, go to those talks, have those conversations with the presenters and see if there’s a “click” in terms of your research interests, how you approach your work and your personalities. In my experience, research collaboration comes from that human contact. The most successful collaborations, in terms of both research outcomes and longevity, are based on good human communication.

The other advice I give is to search through the different research and exchange products that are available through DAAD and the other German research organizations and look for the ways in. I also tell people not to be afraid to start small, in the sense of leading a study trip with students or planning a short initial research trip to create a foundation which you can work from.

The third bit of advice would be to look at what your home institution is up to with regards to Germany. Are there partner institutions already? If so, those are often sites where activities like those I just mentioned can be easily facilitated. Grounding activities this way has the potential to facilitate more support from a scholar’s home institution as things evolve.”

DAAD Canada: Why do you encourage your students to spend time in Germany?

JP: “I absolutely encourage them and this is because of the distance your whole life will travel when you undertake that kind of adventure. I take students to Germany and I see changes in some within 48 hours or two weeks, it can happen very fast. . . . I think there’s nothing more exciting than to see how their horizons grow because it opens up new professional opportunities, free time pursuits, friendships and even romance opportunities as students realize that their worlds are much more abundant than they’d originally thought.”