Shaun Oon, one of our MA Students, attended a summer school in Tübingen this past summer. He wrote the following report of his experience. Tongue in cheek, of course.
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by Shaun Oon
You should never trust anything that you read on the internet. That has always been my general policy and is one that has rarely steered me wrong. Except that it was the reason why I was under three layers of winter clothing, standing at the Tübingen train station, in the Swabian summer sun. Who would have expected the German weather forecast site to get their prediction right? Under my coats and heavy backpack, the delightful Tübingen weather, which persistently refused to get worse throughout my stay there, was insufferable. The long, never-ending 800 metre walk to the youth hostel where I was to spend the week brought to my mind the cantos of Dante’s Inferno. On top of that, when I got to the hostel, I learnt that I was not provided a bath towel. Thankfully, as an avid fan of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, I had brought my own, but imagine if I had not done so and had to rent one from the hostel! You would imagine that the organisers of the Unseld Summer School, after flying me across two continents, paying for my lodging as well as some of my meals, would have been willing to pay for a towel rental, but there was obviously a limit to their generosity.
The next few days, with the Summer School getting under way, did not prove to be any better. The topic of discussion was Martha Nussbaum’s version of the Capabilities Approach – an account of social justice that puts forth the view that the proper indicators of justice were the choices beings had with regards to what they could do or be. This was potentially exciting stuff, especially with Professor Nussbaum herself in attendance. However, the sessions were annoyingly multidisciplinary with a practical slant. Instead of discussing whether the use of the indefinite article, rather than the definite article, on page 118 of Nussbaum’s unpublished manuscript had any significant meaning, we turned to much more prosaic practical concerns. The morning and early afternoon discussions dealt with the validity and application of the theory with regards to issues like the provision of clean water in India, healthcare services in the UK, working conditions in Mexican factories and education in the Namibia. The afternoon sessions were a thematic analysis of the new manuscript that was given to us to read before the conference, where me discussed developments in Nussbaum’s thought, her new ideas and, once again, their practicality.
Amidst all of this, I was made to give a presentation which, including answering some questions, lasted about an hour. It was a mortifying experience. Not only was I critiquing Martha Nussbaum’s arguments while seated next to Nussbaum herself, Professor Nussbaum actually listened to my presentation with obvious attention and responded directly to my critique. On top of that, she indicated that she had read the paper I had submitted for admission into the programme and addressed my arguments there as well. Even after that session, there were several more informal chats where she addressed yet more of my concerns. Such unexpected intense and detailed scrutiny from a distinguished academic can only be described as unbearable. I must say that I saw too much of Martha Nussbaum in those five days in Tübingen.
At the end of the Summer School, the attendees were encouraged to go punting down the Neckar River that ran through the town. It was to be an informal and lazy ride down the small passage of water, a chance to enjoy the town after a long week of work, and a chance to shore up the friendships made in the course of the session. Not wanting to seem like a wet blanket, I reluctantly agreed. Hence I was granted an opportunity to humiliate myself in front of other young academics and scientists working in my field of study, an opportunity which I duly took. I was not good at punting. Waves of embarrassment flushed over my cheeks as I listened to their condescending and insincere praise of my boating skills as I stood at the front of the boat, silently praying that they did not equate the way I handled the oar with the way I handle Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. Even the ducks on the banks of the Neckar looked scornful as I crashed into a tree.
It all sounded too good to be true. A chance to meet other passionate young scholars in my area of study and get their feedback on my research, a chance to meet and talk at length to a major academic in the field and have her comment on my work, a chance to explore the different ways in which the philosophy that I do is practically applied, a chance to just visit Germany, and to get all this fully funded for by the organisers at the Forum Scientiarum in Tübingen. And while I did get all of that, surely it must be said that there are some times where the things that are too good to be true really are too good to be true. In the end, from my experience there, I must say that I would not recommend any other student to apply for the Unseld Summer School next year. At least not until I do so again and, if I get selected, be presented another opportunity to write a follow-up report. Fingers crossed, wait for my update next year. Maybe this time, they will provide a towel.