Turkic Studies – a minor subject with major themes

11 February 2020

The division of Turkic Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is in a period of transition. A second professor is currently being recruited, and new, independent degree courses will soon be launched. Professor Julian Rentzsch, who was appointed to Mainz University in 2017, is structuring and supervising this process.

Professor Julian Rentzsch likes his office to be tidy. Even the papers on his desk are neatly stacked, with precisely one stack per topic. "I do my best to work through each pile, but something always comes up," says the 44-year-old. He shrugs his shoulders, then turns to the Turkish tea maker next to his phone. "Would you like some," he asks, swirling the little pot. Two tea glasses are ready and waiting.

Rentzsch was appointed Professor of Turkic Studies at JGU in July 2017. At present he is the only full-time academic in the division, but that is about to change. Turkic Studies in Mainz is on the rise, and Rentzsch has been a substantial driving force. "In terms of numbers we are small fry," he concedes, "but as far as content is concerned, it is a big subject. After all, there are some 40 Turkic languages." And they are not only spoken in Turkey, but also in the Balkans, in Central Asia as far as China, and all the way to the Arctic Ocean. "That is a part of the world.

The capital of Turkic Studies

Turkic Studies has a long tradition at Mainz University. Back in 1946, the year in which JGU was reopened, Professor Helmuth Scheel came to Mainz as the first Director of the Department of Oriental Studies. "Turkic Studies was one of his areas of specialization," points out Rentzsch. His successor was Professor Johannes Benzing, who placed particular emphasis on the linguistic side of the discipline. "He made Mainz one of the leading centers for Turkic Studies in Germany." He was followed by Professor Lars Johanson and Professor Hendrik Boeschoten, likewise internationally recognized scholars in the field. "The first professor specifically of Turkic Studies at our university was Johanson." Rentzsch was one of his students. The JGU professorship was a return home for Rentzsch, a native of Mainz, after periods spent in Uppsala in Sweden, Szeged in Hungary, and at the University of Skopje in Macedonia.

Like Benzing and Johanson, Rentzsch is primarily interested in linguistics. "We will be gaining a second professorship for literature. I have been involved in dealing with the appointment for almost two years now, but I am confident that we will soon find a suitable candidate." There are just 13 professorships in Turkic Studies at ten locations in Germany. "With its two professorships, Mainz is a rarity," adds Rentzsch.

"We are in the process of consolidating our subject, in terms of personnel, research, and courses offered." However, this has meant a considerable amount of administrative work for the, currently, sole professor of Turkic Studies in Mainz. "I have not had much time for research recently, but I hope that will change soon."

Currently, students can only take Turkic Studies at JGU as a minor in a regular Bachelor's degree program or as an optional specialization in linguistics and world literature at the Master's level. Studying for a doctorate is also possible. But Rentzsch wants to achieve more. "We need to build up the profile of our subject. Hardly anyone comes to Mainz to explicitly obtain a specific qualification in Turkic Studies. Only when students are looking around for minor subjects to study they discover us. Many people come to Turkic Studies by chance."

New Master's degree in Turkic Studies

Rentzsch spent a lot of time refining the concept for a Master's degree program in Turkic Studies, and the new course is now in the starting blocks. "It will be available from the 2020 summer semester. We decided on English as the language of instruction, because we also invited students from abroad." The Master's degree program will combine literature, linguistics, and cultural studies components. In addition, an independent Bachelor's degree program is still in development. "Along with my colleague Professor László Károly of the University of Uppsala, I'm also planning a binational degree course in Turkic Studies. This cooperation will enable us to offer our students interested specifically in linguistics and philology a specially tailored alternative to our own program, which includes modules dealing with linguistic and scientific aspects."

Mentioning Professor László Károly highlights a major characteristic of Turkic Studies at JGU: It is a highly networked subject. Károly, for example, taught and researched in Mainz, while Rentzsch taught Turkic languages at the University of Uppsala. "Since there are so few of us at most institutions and no one person can cover all aspects of our subject, we are in close contact with each other." In the 2019/2020 winter semester, Rentzsch invited Károly to give a guest lecture as part of the Colloquia Philologiae Turcicae et Orientalis Moguntina, a colloquium on Turkic and Oriental Studies at Mainz. "In the first two years of my professorship, the lecture series allowed me to invite numerous important figures in the field to Mainz." This promotes cooperation and complements the courses we offer to our students."

In 2018, Rentzsch launched a new series, the Mainz Days of Turkish Literature. "For two days during the summer semester we welcome guests who give lectures on Turkish literature in the native language. This is where you can hear the language used at an academic level. It's a drawing point for people." And from September 16-18, 2020 the Fourth European Convention on Turkic, Ottoman, and Turkish Studies will be hosted by JGU. "We expect about 300 participants. This is another highlight."

Rentzsch is well aware that Turkic Studies is not an easy subject. "The difficulties begin with the secondary literature. Depending on the Turkic language involved, academic papers are often written in French, Russian, or other languages in addition to German and English. Depending on your research focus, you have to be proficient in one or more of these languages." Contemporary Turkish is the first subject to be studied, but soon the focus widens. "I myself am still actively exploring the field," says Rentzsch. "I know Kazakh, contemporary Uyghur, and Uzbek, but there are still so many Turkic languages that I barely understand."

Turkish hip-hop

Beyond that, broadening one's literary and cultural horizons is important. "This semester, for example, I'm giving a lecture on Turkish pop culture. Among other things, it will be on Turkish hip-hop, which, interestingly enough, evolved largely in Berlin."

Rentzsch broaches a whole range of other topics. He mentions the good standing in Turkey of Turkic Studies in Europe and, especially, Germany. "We have a particularly excellent reputation when it comes to linguistics and methodology." He touches on the tense relationship between Germany and Turkey and the difficulties faced by Turkish academics. "It worries me when a colleague is suddenly no longer allowed to teach and is put on trial. We try and help where we can."

To conclude, Rentzsch reverts back to Mainz and the future of Turkic Studies at JGU. When the second professorship has been filled, when the new courses are up and running, then he can finally return to his research. After all, there is still plenty for him to discover in the vast field of Turkic Studies.