Finding your own way – part two of the series “Women in research”

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PD Dr. Nicole Grochowina chose the appointment to the order and has never regretted it. (photo: private

PD Dr. Nicole Grochowina is a researcher and sister of a religious community. In this interview, she told us why this was never a contradiction for her.

She had established herself in academia as a woman, yet after her habilitation she followed the call of God: PD Dr. Nicole Grochowina is both, project contributor and research assistant at the Chair of Historical Theology (New Church History), and a sister in the Protestant community Christusbruderschaft Selbitz. Even though her decision has been met with incredulity, she never let herself be deterred and shows that the two worlds of science and faith can be reconciled. In this interview, she talks about her path, the courage to change her life, and her research.

Find contact information as well as PD Dr. Grochowina’s publications here.

What was it that appealed to you about studying Historiography, Japanese Studies and Ethnology?

I am curious about people, the stories of their lives, and various ways of leading one’s life. In the field of history, I count myself among those who investigate interpersonal relationships, faith, social practice, and interpersonal hierarchies and draw conclusions about overarching structural questions. As a result, the topics of my research and teaching span from questions of confessional identity to civil legal practice in the 18th century and from gender relations to the core questions of death and fear in the early modern Period and beyond.

“It has been and still is important to me to make those voices heard and understandable that have ruminated over questions that we ourselves are still confronted with, in their own lives and with their own perspectives. Questions that revolve around our existence and our mortality.”

The arrogance of a contemporaneity that does not need a look into the past to better understand itself and put things into perspective has always been alien to me. In my understanding, everything that Becomes always also has a history.

And why Japanese Studies?

Japanese Studies have been and still are a great corrective addition as to not get stuck in a potentially Eurocentric perspective. But the subject also has a distinct value in itself; without enough motivation and enthusiasm for secrets, neither the language (modern and pre-modern Japanese) nor the culture and history (at least in parts) can be studied. Ethnology ‘fell victim’ to the same enthusiasm after four semesters, since I studied Japanese as a second main subject so that I could learn pre-modern Japanese as well. Otherwise, I would have missed the Japanese craftsmen’s poetry of the 17th century.

Japan is still alien to me, even though I studied culture and language and have lived and worked in the country. It is keeping my curiosity going and reminding me that I am never done thinking and searching.

What do you like about your work in research?

I enjoy the variety that arises from the combination of research and teaching, because it means I can think about things and immerse myself in eras and meet people whom I do not encounter in everyday life – and I can examine their questions and answers together with my students and colleagues and trace their steps in trying to understand their world and what lies beyond.

“Plus, science is the adventure of constant new beginnings.”

Every research project starts with a question, with reflection, before – depending on the amount of source material – a whole world unfolds that wants to be told about. Moreover, this serves the purpose of self-assurance in the present. It makes academic work valuable and special – especially when the research is also the subject of teaching and thus joint reflection – in the best sense.

What are your research interests and what are you currently working on?

My home is in early modern history, and I have done a lot of work on the ‘radical reformation’  and people who weren’t conforming to the system in the 16th century. In the 18th century, I have got different questions I’m interested in; about gender relations, gender hierarchies, the transformation of ideas all about femininity and masculinity. Currently, however, I am mainly doing research on the 20th century. It’s a project on Protestant religious orders that actually should not exist as per theology. It is about the question of why they still existed after the Second World War and why it is apparently no longer a problem, theologically, that they exist today.

You had a ‘classic’ career in academia, but in 2008 you joined the ‘Communität Christusbruderschaft Selbitz’. How come?

That was not planned. I finished my habilitation in 2007 and intended to dedicate myself fully to academia. As a woman, this is always even more challenging, so I was very happy to have come to this point in 2007. It was all sorted and making me happy – and then things turned out different all the same.

I had previously never truly stopped to listen to God’s request to enter a religious community. It had been easy to ignore. I also had not been aware that there were Protestant communities. But in 2006, this question became important again – and after the process of my habilitation I was suddenly faced with the explicitly free choice of university or community. What was important to me: both options would have been a correct choice. So, I followed my heart and decided to join the community. Back then, I only had a vague idea of how things would fall into place over the course of the life that followed. But that is how it went; things fell into place. And today I can say that despite one or the other difficulty, I have never regretted this step. On the contrary: I cannot remember ever making a decision as important or as correct as this one.

However, I had assumed that with entering the community, my academic endeavours would come to an end. I feel very glad, privileged, and happy that this was not the case and that I came to FAU in 2012 with my first teaching job. This possibility is allowing me to tackle research and teaching freely and with passion and curiosity.


Has there been criticism of your decision? What encouraged you to make your way?

In an academic context, I did not expect much understanding. And I do not know whether I would have gotten it from other people, either.

‘You are throwing your career away!’, was one phrase I came across. ‘All the funding was for nothing’, another no less critical and at the same time very uncomfortable statement.

Essentially, two ways of life were colliding, both of which have their own language, their own mechanisms, and their own rules – and which do not fit together, or so it might seem. After deciding to join the community, I spent another year at university. There, this tension became very clear, even if it came exclusively from the outside.

What encouraged me? I knew that this was the right way for me. And I knew that in a clarity that I had never experienced before. And I knew that with this ‘inner home’ in mind, I did not need to be afraid, because the place of this knowledge was inaccessible in the best and most peaceful way to all the accusations I had experienced especially in the university environment in the last year before I entered the community. I never lost this inner freedom during this time – that is what I marvelled at the most. And thus, this last year was, despite everything and overall, a very good for me that left a lasting impression.

Faith and science seem to be at odds – how do you reconcile these two areas of life?

I do not see a disconnect, and I do not live like there is one. On the contrary. Faith is not naiive, and it is not expression of a lack of knowledge. Faith is a reflected process that is nourished by an inner home found in God and it needs a good, reflected, and powerful language to put the trust in and the reason for Faith into words. And even if reason becomes nauseated at the border of this mystery, this devalues neither reason nor the mystery together with faith.

I have learned from Edith Stein, who has accompanied me for many years, that faith and science do not have to contradict. Edith Stein was a philosopher who studied, did her doctorate, and worked with Edmund Husserl and only failed her habilitation because she was a woman. I owe her the insight that “science can be understood as worship”. This insight led her to resume her scientific work in a monastery and to celebrate worship with her sharp thinking, her concise work, and her precision, and to honour through her thinking the one who gifted her with precisely this ability to think. This is how she is in her writing, her letters, her theological journal. I realized: We need science to get clarity on ideas of God, contexts, and human will. Thought and faith thus equally circle the borders of mystery and help each other find language, find words.


What else would you like to achieve in research?

I want to continue working on topics that have potential for questions of the present. When I am delving into religious theology and looking at the decline of religious orders in Europe, these are also the questions about a contemporary way of dealing with finitude, about old and new images of death and – very topically – about what a society can learn from disappearing religious orders to cope with the surprise of its own vulnerability. In addition, my love for those who strayed off the beaten path in early modern times remains. Understanding their writing, placing it in the context of their origin, and bringing them to light from the niche of historiography will always be important to me.

What motivates you?

The joy I derive from experiencing something very fulfilling with teaching and research; the knowledge that this is not a matter of course, and the freedom to let it be if I am needed elsewhere.

Thank you for the interview!


Current funding programs of the Women’s Representative

To honor excellent research achievements and promote women in science, the Women’s Representative announces the 2021 Research and Publication Award and the newly launched Postdoc Research Grant.

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