Profile: Michael North, Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Modern German Studies


Michael North, Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Modern German Studies, feels at home on the UCSB campus as he bikes to work.

Michael North, who is visiting the College of Letters & Science this year as the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Modern German Studies, is learning some interesting lessons about American university culture even as he shares his expertise in German history with his students here. North, who is professor and chair of modern history at the University of Greifswald, Germany, is spending the academic year in the Department of History, teaching a variety of upper-division and graduate courses. “I am impressed by the multicultural background of the students and especially their work ethic, which is different than that of university students in Germany,” he says. “This is something that I will take away with me.”

The Distinguished Chair is funded by the German-American Fulbright Commission, and is open to faculty from German universities in select fields in the humanities and social sciences  who study German-specific issues. This is the first of three years that the College’s is hosting the chair; past hosts have included Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Duke University. Says David Marshall, Executive Dean of the College of Letters & Science and Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, “what makes the Fulbright Distinguished Chair unique is that it because it is a visiting professorship, we have the invaluable opportunity to host a senior professor who is here to teach and interact with our students as well as collaborate with our faculty.”

Professor North’s wide range of interests fits well into UCSB’s interdisciplinary culture. He specializes in the economic, social and cultural history of modern Germany within a wider European context. In addition, at the University of Greifswald, he leads a multi-country research group that focuses on the history and culture of the Baltic borderlands. (Greifswald, one of the oldest universities in Germany, is located in Northern Germany on the Baltic Sea.) North also has an interest in art history with a focus on collecting, art markets and cultural exchanges from the 15th to the 19th centuries. In fact, it was through this research that he first came to know California and UCSB. In 2004, he was a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. He also knew Mark Meadow, who had been a visiting fellow at the University of Greifswald, and Ann Adams, both professors of the history of art and architecture.

The strength of the history department, combined, it must be said, with the beauty of the UCSB campus, made the visiting professorship attractive to him, says North. Although he had lectured at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and other California campuses, he soon learned that this is very different than being responsible for everyday teaching. Each class requires careful preparation, and he finds that he must use a different pedagogical approach here since the students come from varied backgrounds and have different levels of knowledge about specialized subjects. “In Germany, I can assume that my students will have a basic knowledge of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, but that was not the case when I taught a course on that subject last quarter,” he says, “so I have been introducing them to new ideas.”

Unlike his German students, however, if UCSB students are not familiar with the material, they don’t hesitate to ask how they can improve their grades and are willing to do more reading. Overall, North finds that Americans students are much more demanding than their German counterparts with respect to teaching and reading assignments. “In Germany, students are not grade-oriented, probably because they do not pay for their education, except for minimal costs of about €1500 ($2000) per year. The students here are more serious and are more invested in their education because they must pay tuition. I really admire their devotion to their work.”

In addition to the course on the Holy Roman Empire, during the fall quarter North taught a graduate seminar on 18th-century German culture, which included students from the departments of history and art history. This quarter he is teaching an upper-division course on German economic history and another graduate seminar on the Dutch Golden Age. He will not be teaching during spring quarter but is already busy organizing an academic conference on the theme of Comparative Borderlands, which will take place on May 2. The conference, which is being sponsored by the Department of History, the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, and the IHC’s Ancient Borderlands Research Focus Group, will examine a diverse range of borderlands topics from Mediterranean antiquity up to the modern era. Some 15 graduate students and 5 Ph.D. students from Greifswald will attend the conference, and also take part in a joint seminar, with UCSB students, on the history of collecting at the Getty Research Institute.

Another responsibility of the Fulbright Distinguished Chair is to represent Germany while he is here, says North. To that end, in spring he will be lecturing at the University of Toronto, the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., and the American Association for Asian Studies in Hawai’i, where he will speak about the Dutch colonial experience. He will also speak at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, and the Getty Research Institute.

One of the best parts of the experience has been living on the UCSB campus and being part of the local community, says North. “I ride my bike to campus, which is the same way I get around in Greifswald,” he says, “and living in Storke Family Housing means that we are close to everything we need.” His son is attending Dos Pueblos High School and his daughter is a student at Isla Vista Elementary School, so they too bike to school. His son plays soccer and his daughter rides horses at a nearby ranch on most weekends. In fact, says North, one of the best benefits of being here is being able to spend more time with his family, because due to his teaching commitments, he has declined invitations to academic conferences that would require travel. The family, which also includes his wife, a musician, have also become UCSB sports fans and attended a number of Gaucho soccer games at Harder Stadium. Understanding the importance of sports as an identifying factor for the university has been another surprising lesson, as has the cultural contribution made by Arts & Lectures, which he says “is a marvelous thing."

Although his appointment as Fulbright Distinguished Chair will be over at the end of this academic year, North plans to continue collaborating with colleagues here. With the participation of his graduate students in the May 2 conference as a springboard, he says, “we would like to stimulate and establish regular student exchange and also faculty cooperation and exchange between Greifswald and UCSB.”

February 2011

News Date: 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011