Beauty in Difference: Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Kelling on Loving the Work

When I walk into Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Kelling’s office, he’s diligently working at his computer. “Have a seat,” he says kindly, “and help yourself to any of these treats.” On his desk is a pear, a bowl of M&Ms, and a bag of grapes. He jokes that he always keeps snacks at his desk so students will like him, though it became obvious over the course of our conversation that Dr. Kelling needs no help from the candy spread—his warm demeanor, genuine interest in others, and infectious energy for research are more than enough to make students feel at home.

He has worked in academia for nearly 60 years, past average retirement age—and yet, while many senior academics find it difficult to keep up the same vigor and enthusiasm for research and publishing in their later years, Dr. Kelling maintains an insatiable drive to continue his work. “I love young people, I love my students, I love my colleagues. People are important to me, and that’s why I’m in this profession. I see the progress that students make, and it’s very satisfying to me.” For those who are just starting out in academic research fields, he advises, “The most important thing is choosing something that you love—something you’re really involved with—and then check in on yourself and make sure it still makes you happy.” Dr. Kelling, who started out studying chemical sciences, but has since pursued research projects in German linguistics, culture, and literature, has done exactly that.

Right now, he’s working his way through over three thousand transcripts and documents of embassies in the latter nineteenth century, specifically Russian, French, German, English, and American embassies and the ways in which they communicated with each other to form alliances and keep other countries out of the impending French and Prussian war. Dr. Kelling also shows me a massive tome entitled The History of the Arab Peoples on his desk, which he explains he is reading on the side, “not because it has anything to do with my research—just because it’s interesting!” It’s clear that his hunger for information knows no boundaries or borders.

He also has a particular interest in the way meaning is deepened by studies in translation. “You learn your own language when you study a foreign language; you discover the equivalences and differences,” he explained. Whether that be different perspectives, different languages, or different religions, he finds that his understanding of a given concept is always enhanced when difference—and dissonance—comes into play. “Young people have a distinct perspective on things—they bring vigor and enthusiasm for the research. But the same is true of Americans and women. Each brings a new point of view and deepens the research: it’s a symbiosis.” For this reason, Dr. Kelling continues to use students as research assistants and mentor undergraduates in their own research projects.

This belief is perhaps a product of Dr. Kelling’s upbringing in Germany at the end of World War II. “I come from a culture that was very intolerant, so I had to unlearn what I was taught. That’s an important insight into scholarship, I think: you have to be courageous enough to admit that you’re wrong.” He says that after the war, it was as though he woke up—and now he revels in this ability to admit mistakes and move in a new direction.

Dr. Kelling finds that his scholarship strengthens his faith as well: “I see the Lord’s gift to these people. I hear God in Beethoven’s symphony, which affirms my belief in God. I see this in literature as well. I don’t have the gift of creating these things, but I have the gift of appreciating them—and those are my greatest religious experiences.”

Dr. Kelling’s sincere appreciation of beautiful things, whether that beauty be found in literature, art, music, or the light in another person’s eyes, may be perhaps the driving force behind his continuous research. In any case, when it comes to studying and teaching that beauty, he shows no sign of slowing down.


This post was written by Morgan Lewis, Humanities Center Intern.

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