As the second in our profiles of new DAAD alumni, we speak with Ms. Laurence Côté-Pitre, a 4th year PhD student in the University of Toronto’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures about experiences conducting research in Germany with a DAAD Short-Term Research Grant.

DAAD Canada: Can you please tell us about yourself and your studies?

Laurence Côté-Pitre, PhD Candidate, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Toronto

Laurence Côté-Pitre: I am a fourth year PhD student at the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. I finished my comprehensive exams in the spring of 2019 and I started my dissertation research in the fall of 2019 with a four month research stay in Berlin funded by DAAD’s Short-Term Research Grant.

DAAD Canada: What is the focus of your dissertation?

L C-P: I’m looking at environmental discourses in East German literature. In light of the research I’ve done these past few months, I think I’m going to focus on Christa Wolf, but we’ll see how things evolve. (laughs)

DAAD Canada: And where were you doing your work in Berlin?

L C-P: I was in several archives including the Federal Archive for the Parties and Mass Organizations of the German Democratic Republic and the Academy of the Arts where Christa Wolf’s papers and records are held. I spent five weeks at the Federal Archives and then three at the Academy of the Arts. I also examined the holdings at the Humboldt University where they have the private library of Christa Wolf and her husband Gerhard, resources which are overseen by the professor who hosted me while I was in Berlin.

DAAD Canada: As a scholar of German studies, you speak German and have been to the country before, correct?

L C-P: Yes, I had been multiple times before this last visit, but this was the first time where my academic work was really at the centre of my activities.

I have to say that have noticed a change in Berlin over the past two or three years and that’s that it is harder to speak German there now. This is a problem if you’re going there to learn German and there are just more and more people in the city who don’t speak German at all. So I went expecting to speak German and left having done less of that than I’d wanted.

DAAD Canada: I suppose this is part of Berlin’s evolution into a “world city”.

L C-P: Sure, but I took a weekend trip to visit a friend in Heidelberg and I spoke no English the whole time! (laughs)

Laurence at Berlin’s historic Tempelhof airfield (photo: Laurence Côté-Pitre)

DAAD Canada: Was this your first time working in formal archives and what was that experience like for you?

L C-P: Actually, it wasn’t my first time. I had been to Berlin to do archival work for a much shorter stay through the DAAD’s German Studies Research Grant, but this was my first extended period working in archives.

You ask what the experience was like, and it was lonely (laughs)! Other than that, being relatively inexperienced, at the archives, I always feel like a junior scholar and that everyone else seems to know what they’re doing so that is really challenging and you can feel like you’re lost in there sometimes.

It was a real learning process to realize that a big part of that work is being clear on your priorities, having a clear sense of what you’re looking for but also being open to what you find. If you go looking for one specific thing, chances are you’re not going to find it, so you need to prepare yourself for that. The challenge is to set the limit, to be able to tell yourself, ‘That’s enough here’ and to turn your attentions elsewhere.

DAAD Canada: To what extent did you get help from the staff at the archives? Or is that not something you can reasonably expect?

L C-P: At the Academy of Arts, which is a much smaller archive, it was easier because you can access staff who oversee the holdings and they have a real expertise on the artists whose materials they administer. In my case, the person who oversees the holdings they have from Christa Wolf has a real expertise on this writer and while I didn’t get the chance to meet with them this time, I’m hoping to do so in the future.

At the Federal Archives, you have to know what you want and be able to ask for it in German (laughs). It’s a much bigger facility and they don’t necessarily have expertise in your exact field. As a result, it is harder to use. They do provide help, which is great and really appreciated! But they also deal with a much wider range of material. In any case, whenever in doubt people should ask for help!

DAAD Canada: So, looking back at the stay, did you accomplish what you set out to do? Did you come away feeling more comfortable doing that type of research?

L C-P: I don’t know if I would say that I’m more comfortable doing archival research or if I’ll ever consider myself a good archive researcher, but I did find some very interesting documents. And it’s really only one of the things I do as a German Studies scholar. I am really hoping to go back to continue the work I started, but if that doesn’t happen, I think I would be happy with what I have now.

One of the things I learned from the first, shorter archival visit I had was to build in flexibility in the time you want access for. To work in these archives, you have to apply in advance and lay out how long you want to be there. This time, I asked for more time than I thought I would need and that proved useful, so that’s one bit of advice I’d give to anyone planning this kind of work.

Another aspect of this stay that was really nice was that the professor who hosted me took a real interest in my work. They gave me access to their research group’s offices, introduced me to their team, other scholars with an interest in my area of research, and they gave me ideas and suggestions for my work, so that was wonderful.

DAAD Canada: What about the logistical side of things? I’m thinking specifically of finding a place to stay. How did you navigate that?

L C-P: That was very hard and it was harder because I didn’t receive notice of my grant until after the application for the Humboldt University’s student residences was over. I was able to register as a Student at the university, but the residence spaces were gone. In Berlin specifically, it’s hard to find a place, very hard to find a place that’s affordable.

It can be a drawn out process, you have to go online to the various sites where people post rooms and apartments and message them. It’s time consuming and very stressful.

DAAD Canada: Do you have any advice or tips for other grad students planning a stay in Germany?

L C-P: Well, if they’re planning a stay that requires a visa I suggest that they start getting their paperwork together at the time they apply for their funding. There are a lot of different documents required for this and if you leave it until you get your funding notice, it can be really stressful trying to gather everything together at the last minute. If you have things ready to submit when you get your funding, then you’ll be giving yourself more time. Planning a bit of buffer in can help reduce your stress level.

DAAD Canada: What do you see as the benefits of doing research work abroad, more generally speaking?

L C-P: One is learning to work in different systems, both on site and online. Building up a comfort level with different platforms, developing confidence interacting with people in a scholarly way in your second language, learning the technical vocabulary. That’s all really important and useful. I think working in the way that I did, examining holdings which may or may not find their way into my project in the end, was all really valuable. Doing archival work in a broad way, being familiar with materials, all that gives you credibility as a scholar and a researcher and that’s important.

DAAD Canada: That’s great. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us to share your experiences. We appreciate it.