Professor Kelly Whitmer wins prestigious von Humboldt Fellowship

By Colton Williams
Executive Editor

Dr. Kelly Whitmer, professor and chair of the history department, was recently awarded a research fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, an organization founded by the German government to increase cooperation among scholars both in Germany and abroad. 

Starting in April of 2020, Whitmer will spend a year as a resident scholar at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, where she will spend time continuing her scholarship on the history of childhood, youth culture, and the production of knowledge, and working on a book project tentatively titled Useful Science, Youth, and Pedagogies of Innovation in the Early Modern World.

This work is intimately related to her first published book, The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment. “In many ways this project is connected to the first project,” Whitmer said. While the Halle Orphanage was not thought of as a scientific organization, Whitmer makes the argument that “the people who created it, founded it, and hired university students to teach in it, really envisioned it as a scientific academy.”

The importance of youth culture in producing knowledge, and how that knowledge is produced through teaching practices, is crucial to Whitmer’s work.

“Youth culture, students at the university, young people who were acquiring expertise in various artisanal workshops and settings, they participated actively in the production of particular disciplines and in particular forms of scientific knowledge,” Whitmer said of her scholarship. 

“They weren’t passive recipients of it, they actively participated, they played activist roles. Making an intervention like that can actually be quite provocative, because that tends not to be the way that the history of science or history in general is told,” said Whitmer. 

It is perhaps no surprise that the history of education is one of Whitmer’s specialties. She comes from a family of teachers, and said that she landed on her scholarly focus because “for me, teaching was always a subject of conversation, a subject of interest, and in graduate school I just fell into a community of people who were doing the history of education and the history of childhood, which is a relatively new field.”

“It’s almost intuitive, it’s hard to explain, but I love teaching,” Whitmer said. She gravitated toward the history of education, and her current projects in particular, because she sees a connection between the work she does teaching and the research she performs on how students and teachers both create knowledge.

“I view the teaching that I do in my own classes as quite open-ended,” Whitmer said. “It’s about wrestling with ideas, getting students to wrestle with open-ended, still unresolved questions, rather than just kind of presenting this narrative of truth: this is what happened, this is what you have to know, and so on.”

While Whitmer always knew she wanted to be a teacher, it wasn’t until she moved across the country from Washington to upstate New York to attend Colgate University that she became confident that she wanted to be an historian. She said it took a lot of deliberation to finally decide to pursue a Ph.D. in history, but was influenced by her mentors, such as Deborah Harkness, then a professor at Colgate and now at the University of Southern California. Harkness, now a successful novelist of the All Souls trilogy, was an early modernist who helped Whitmer shape her historical interests. 

As to her focus on Germany, Whitmer said, “I just felt this sense of acceptance there.” After a study abroad trip as a student at Colgate, Whitmer become fascinated with the study of Germany and its history. 

After college, Whitmer won a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in Halle, Germany, where she was placed to teach in the same orphanage complex that would later become the subject of her first book. 

Whitmer often wondered as a student whether she would still be able to engage with the wider world as an activist if she became a professor and a scholar. Now, she thinks that her work does just that.

“For me,” Whitmer said, “doing work that prompts us to think about issues of power and knowledge, that’s a kind of activist impulse that’s embedded in a lot of my work.”

In Whitmer’s absence, Dr. Susan Ridyard will take over as interim chair of the history department for Easter 2020, and Dr. Nicholas Roberts will chair the department for the 2020-21 academic year. In addition, a historian will be hired as a leave replacement to teach early modern history courses while Whitmer is in Germany as a von Humboldt fellow.