“Conducting Research with the Citizens of Bremen, Not about Them”
Strengthening the dialogue between the city of Bremen and the university was the goal of the project titled “Global Cotton – eine Uni – ein Buch – eine Stadt” (“global cotton – one university – one book – one city”) in 2018 under the leadership of Professor Michi Knecht. The example of cotton as a raw material was used to encourage thinking and discussions – for instance about the interweaving of local and global history as well as colonialism and the present-day social, political, and economic orders. “For us, it was exciting to bring together the various partners from the city and from the university,” says Knecht. These included, for example, the Theater der Versammlung and the Bremen Cotton Exchange, or the university’s fiber institute with the Anthropology and Cultural Research department. “We built bridges that weren’t there previously,” adds the academic. “Global Cotton wove the university and the city together in various models of teaching, research, and discussion.”
Julia Lossau also sees time and time again that academia and the city can be more closely linked through exciting models and partnerships. “As a professor of urban geography, I seek out dialogue with various players in the city to find out how they want to shape their city and what is important for them in doing so,” she explains.
That is why she likes to participate in events such as the “Wohntage Bremen” organized by the Senator for Environment, Construction and Transport – an interactive format where the people of Bremen get to speak their minds. Lossau would also like to strengthen her commitment on the board of the Bremer Zentrum für Baukultur: “The ‘Bremer Stadtdialog’ series does important work in terms of outreach and knowledge transfer relating to current topics of Bremen’s development. Urban geography has a lot to offer in that regard, and we can also learn something along the way.”
“The University of Bremen doesn’t have an inner-city campus, which is why formats need to be organized where the city comes together with the university,” notes Michi Knecht on her commitment to knowledge transfer. “On the one hand, that means taking the university to the city and, on the other hand, bringing the city to the university.” This worked perfectly as part of the Global Cotton project. “The project demonstrates what cultural studies at the University of Bremen can do for the city: we make sustainable knowledge available for Bremen that will help the people of Bremen understand the developments of the city in a broad context.”
In response to the question of how research can be taken to the city, Julia Lossau comments: “We should be aware that the format of centralized dialogue series doesn’t go far enough. In fact, we have to make direct contact with the people who live in the neighborhoods.” She considers cities to be nodes in a network of interwoven relationships. Currently, she is researching the postcolonial relationship between Bremen and Singapore with someone who lived it. During a visit to the Übersee-Museum, Lossau came across the story of a businessman from Bremen who grew up in China and is now once again living in Bremen. “Stories like that say a lot about the importance that people subscribe to the places they live.”
What unites the way the two academics understand public outreach is their unconditional desire to learn something through their work with the citizens of Bremen. “In our polarized society, we need to rethink what knowledge supposed laymen may have, how we take this knowledge seriously, and how we can make connections between this knowledge and academic knowledge. This is why I always refer to it as collaboration and coproduction,” says Knecht. Lossau takes the same approach: “Successful outreach and knowledge transfer are reciprocal – both or all parties involved are able to teach the others something. When many different perspectives are involved, then we can reach better conclusions about the world, which is why outreach and knowledge transfer have a lot to do with participation. The collaboration between academia and society should take place on an equal playing field.”