Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Paul Jaskot

On January 14, 2022, Paul Jaskot (Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies) gave a talk entitled "Using Digital Methods to Analyze Humanities Sources: The Case of Nazi-Occupied Krakow" as part of our tgiFHI series.

Here's an interview with Prof. Jaskot on his research interests, method, and practice.

Using Digital Methods to Analyze Humanities Sources: The Case of Nazi-Occupied Krakow Paul B. Jaskot

What are your research interests?

I am a specialist in modern German art history with a sub-specialty in the art and architectural policy of Nazi Germany. Broadly, I teach on issues of modern art and modern architecture and am really interested in the political history of art. Because of my focus in Nazi Germany, I intersect quite a bit with Holocaust studies. I regularly teach in that area and am involved with the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, which has been around since 2007. Through that, I look at questions of how space matters in terms of understanding the history of the Holocaust. My interest in built environments--space as building, space as construction--has led to interdisciplinary conversations with a lot of different folks.

If my first hat is art history, and my second hat is Holocaust studies, my third hat is digital humanities. I've done quite a bit of work on mapping and modeling in Holocaust studies and do mapping and modeling of the built environment digitally, in collaboration with a wonderful set of colleagues here at Duke and elsewhere. That's something I try to rope into all of my art history classes, as well as think about in terms of my research.

How did these research interests develop?

When I first went to graduate school at Northwestern, I thought I wanted to work on the artists on the Left who were “fighting the power,” who were involved in revolutionary activities. But my advisor and I couldn't quite find a topic that fit. In my second year, I stumbled into a course on Hitler and Stalin as artistic patrons, patrons of painting and architecture, which was very unusual at the time. I thought, well, I could keep doing these artists on the Left, but it seemed to me that what was really needed was also looking at artists on the Right. That is, thinking about the extremes of politics and thinking about the extremes of politics from a rightwing perspective.

I plunged into a dissertation that led me to study forced labor concentration camps as sources for building materials for the monumental architecture of Nuremberg and Berlin during the Nazi period. When I started, several art historians said that I’d never get a job because what I was doing wasn’t art. It was focused on perpetrators and camps. But I kept pursuing it because I was really interested in the political question. Even now I continue getting drawn back to the central question of how architecture was instrumental for Nazi political action and pursuit of their plans.

This is a long way of saying that political history has really driven me from the start. It has driven me because no one else was doing it, but it’s a question that's been hiding in plain sight. The historians don't want to do it because it's “culture.” The art historians don't want to do it because it's about rightwing perpetrators and rightwing policy. So it falls between the gaps. Every time I think I’m done, I find another topic that no one is touching, like architecture, construction, and occupied Europe, which is about hundreds of thousands of people.

Look at the railroad system. Whether we are in history, art history, or literature, we all understand the importance to the railroad system as an infrastructure that enabled genocide and that promoted genocide. But we don't think about construction in that same way. Until we see construction as a cultural core of the genocidal project, I'm going to keep going down this path. We have to put those two words--culture and genocide--together.

I’ve tried to think this question outside the context of Nazi Germany in some of my publications. I've looked at Weimar. I’ve looked at post-War culture. I’ve done some work on Chicago architecture. Most recently, I’ve been interested in looking to the east, looking to occupied Europe. Currently I’m working on a Krakow project.

As an interdisciplinary scholar, what is your research methodology?

In some ways, I've actually given up on the question of interdisciplinarity. That might be surprising for someone who feels in between several disciplines. But I think there's a myth of interdisciplinary, which is that we can learn any discipline we want, at any time we want, and as many as we want. But no one would really say they do that. When we talk about interdisciplinarity, we’re really talking about one, two, or maybe three disciplines that we work between.

I say I'm “giving up” on the project because the more I've been involved in digital humanities, the more I feel the answer to real interdisciplinarity is collaborative scholarship across disciplines and acknowledging one’s own disciplinary limits.

That was a hard thing for me to learn. It came with my experience as part of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, in a really exciting summer workshop in 2007 at the Holocaust Museum. The Holocaust Museum brought together five professors who worked on space and five professors who were historical geographers who worked on Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, i.e. digital mapping. The GIS people knew nothing about the Holocaust and we as the Holocaust people knew nothing about GIS. So we got into the room and had a whole 10 day workshop all planned out. Each one of us was responsible for a day. At the end, we were supposed to present our own work and say how thinking with these GIS people made us think differently. That was the standard format. But something clicked on Day 2.

At some point in the conversation, we just stopped and said let's throw this 10 day syllabus out. Instead of doing 10 individual presentations, let's do 1 collaboratively with all of us. For the humanists in the room that was very scary because humanists do not typically complete new projects in 10 days and present it publicly as professional work. We write books over 10 years! We don't do them in 10 days! But it was also really exciting. We did 1 presentation with 10 people in 10 days, and it taught me some things. First of all, it taught me I can really learn from geographers who are specialists in GIS. Secondly, working collaboratively, really collaborating, means letting go of my ego and everybody else's ego. It was an empowering experience, so we kept working together. After about three years, I sat in a class of freshmen and sophomores, as a full Professor, learning GIS because I knew that I needed to be able to talk to the geographers in a much more informed manner. It allowed me to say I can embrace geography, and historical geography, and I can embrace GIS as a method, because I know its capabilities, its affordances, and how it allows us to answer certain kinds of research questions.

This is where interdisciplinarity comes in. Suddenly I could see why those research questions were interesting for my research questions. Learning about GIS didn't mean that I was a specialist in geography. I would be the specialist on the built environment and on perpetrator history of the Holocaust. This is also where I think the humanities can really go much further. If we start to think of interdisciplinarity as collaboration, we can embrace collaboration in terms of how we think about our own scholarship. Sure, this means starting to co-author publications, but it also means changing our institutions. How do we hire collaboratives in humanities departments? That's not the way we think. How do we value collaboratives? Our award system is all about individuals. That's a real problem. If we want to address “Grand Challenges,” if we want to address something as big as genocide, from a humanities perspective, then we must stop embracing the Genius Solo-Author, or Interdisciplinary Guru, and start embracing interdisciplinarity as a collaborative practice in which we can start to tackle challenges at much more fundamental, complex, and rigorous levels.

Working collaboratively has taught me to think about the ways different kinds of research questions can be approached at a much higher level. Art history has specific research questions. We have research questions about culture and objects in the built environment. We have questions about design and reception. These are not the same questions as historians or geographers or literary scholars. I want to hold on to the disciplinary questions, but in some ways, I want to go back to the 19th-century German university model in which you could be an art historian, but within a large umbrella of the humanities. We have to change our environment if we want these larger questions resolved, or not resolved. It's like curing the common cold. We will never cure the common cold, but collaboratively working on a cure is what drives fundamental research in important ways. I believe if we start asking what is crucial to human experience, including the bad parts like genocide, then we can think about it in a different way and come at it from a variety of different research questions.

What does your research look like day to day, and what do you imagine research in the humanities more broadly looks like day to day in this collaborative model?

The heroine of my research model is Anne Knowles, one of my longtime research collaborators. She is a historical geographer at the University of Maine. Right now, we are working on an NEH funded Holocaust Ghettos Project. Between Anne Knowles and our own digital humanities specialist here at Duke, Hannah Jacobs, I’ve really learned the importance of project management. Both of them emphasize, for example, the need for regular team meetings, structured goal setting, and understanding process. All of that takes time and means stepping out of your own individual priorities. That's really the only way you can collaborate.

Making time for process means making time for not what you think is the priority, but what you, as a group, can agree on is the priority in this particular moment. That can be a challenge because the way that our academic life is structured, time is the great variable. It is really the one resource, the commodity of choice. Stepping back from that and making time for other people's work, discussions, and priorities, doesn't come naturally. We're not trained to do that and we're not encouraged to do that through the award system that we have set up. The dissertation, for example, is not about your colleagues; it's about you. And there's real value to that, too. I don't want to devalue individual work. In fact, I think it’s absolutely essential. But for collaborative work you have to be a little more intentional about your planning, and more emphatic about process as research. Again that’s not something that comes naturally to us in the humanities. I've had to learn that. I learned that partially by working with my colleagues and writing collaborative articles about our process.

But that's something very new for me, new since 2007. The idea that I would write an article about how I put something together, what I learned in the archive, and how I made evidence into data--realizing that the process was also analysis, the process was also results, and the process was also always ongoing--that’s the step a true collaboration needs and it means carving out time for teamwork and process itself. You also have to trust your colleagues know what your interests are and trust yourself to let go a little bit. It's not easy. Not surprisingly, it's particularly hard for junior faculty and graduate students because they really do have to worry about publishing solo-authored books and articles, and I understand that too.

What is the topic of your tgiFHI talk and what do you hope people who watch it will get out of it?

My talk brings these three fields of art historical inquiry, Holocaust studies, and digital humanities together and asks why we would do that. The way that I framed it was that there's a dominant trend right now in Holocaust studies called integrated history. It is a term that comes from Saul Friedländer, a major thinker who is now a retired Professor from UCLA. It's a very common term for this idea that for too long Holocaust studies, broadly, has had either perpetrators studies at the scale of the genocide, or has focused on victims of Jewish experience at the level of the individual, particularly through survivor testimony with their very powerful and very important memorial function of honoring individuals. That's been really productive for us, but as many of us who have talked about integrated history said, it means they are two separate areas that often don't speak to each other directly. The move towards integrated history is trying to see how we might be able to bring these two areas together.

As I started this project on occupied Krakow, I thought this major city was a perfect example. It is the only one where you have both a major plan for reconstruction--from a German point of view, that is, Germanifying it, making a German capital of the East, “Krakow will be German again.” That was the kind of phrase you would see in the propaganda from the Nazi occupiers. And, at the same time, it had a major ghetto and a major concentration camp, Plaszow, made famous in Schindler's List. This is very unusual. No other major city had this set-up. Berlin didn't have this. Munich didn't have this. Nuremberg didn't have this. Only Krakow. So it seemed natural to be able to talk about integration.

But integration wasn't quite working because I was just putting things side by side. I was correlating but wasn't connecting. As I was thinking through this, and thinking through it digitally, I started to shift from integration to intersection. Thinking about intersection meant that I could talk about how buildings and construction sites work as particular, intense points of intersection in terms of perpetrator goals and policies with victim lives and experience. Thinking about the built environment became a way of bringing Jewish, Polish civilian, and German perpetrator experiences into the same world without collapsing them into each other. I would never say these were the same. And it's not that these people had equal power, control, or policy. All three of these positions, and there were many more, were distinct but intersected there.

So if we start to focus on buildings as points of intersection, how can we start to relate these various approaches to the Holocaust? Out of that, I talked about, for example with housing, how we can think about the goals of the German occupiers as they dreamed about making wonderful German housing estates for the new Germanic presence. In fact, some of that was realized. How, at the same time, were they thinking about Jewish housing, which became the cramped spaces of the ghetto? And how was housing also a point of intersection in terms of construction and forced labor, in which German perpetrators, as well as some Polish civilians, were also involved with building and construction using Jewish forced labor? In all these ways, housing became a way of teasing out points of intersection and of understanding how these various constituencies come together while preserving their individual perspectives.

My major point is that we can use the built environment to think through the complex history of the Holocaust and the various players of the Holocaust. Perhaps even more importantly, by thinking about the various players and their relationships to construction, we can see how the role of cultural aspirations that come with construction were central to genocide itself. That is what I hope people will get out of this lecture: that Genocide is not only a product of racism and power, but is also that which we think of as “good” in human society, that is, a cultural agenda.

Are you teaching classes next semester? If so, what classes?

Next semester, I'll be co-teaching a graduate level pro-seminar with Hannah Jacobs on cultural and historical approaches to digital humanities. It's an introduction to various methods as well as theories of digital humanities. That is for our M.A. students in digital art history and computational media, but it is also taken by other graduate students who want to learn something about the digital humanities. I will also be co-teaching a seminar on Comparative Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan with Gennifer Weisenfeld, who is a Japan specialist.

In the spring, I’ll be teaching one of my bread and butter courses, Art and the Holocaust, which is an undergraduate seminar on the history of the Holocaust, but a cultural history. It follows Jewish artists, but also German artists who were involved in racist policies and the State, and thinks about how art, architecture, film, painting, you name it, how cultural products and cultural interests, were central to the Holocaust itself.

Associated Program(s)