Jakob Stenseke

Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology

Jakob used Erasmus+ staff training funding to travel to Göttingen and meet a talented senior researcher and her doctoral students. The journey there and back was not without challenges, but what he gained made it all worthwhile.

Hello Jakob. You are a doctoral student at the Department of Philosophy. In which subject? What is the topic of your thesis?
I am a doctoral student in practical philosophy. My thesis project is called "How to build nice robots: ethics from theory to machine implementation" and – very broadly – it is about how to build moral AI systems, as well as whether it is even (theoretically/practically) possible, and whether it is (morally) a good idea.

You travelled on an Erasmus exchange in spring 2022. Tell us more!
Right after the Midsummer holiday, I boarded a train and travelled 700 km south, from Malmö via Copenhagen and Hamburg to Göttingen in Germany. There I spent about a week at Georg-August-Universität, where Catrin Misselhorn is a professor. What did I do there? I did what philosophers love to do most – critically discuss philosophical topics of interest with other philosophers. In Göttingen, there were plenty of such opportunities - especially if you hang out with Catrin Misselhorn and her lovely group of colleagues and students.

How did you make contacts in Göttingen?
I simply emailed around to a bunch of universities in Germany. I was particularly interested in Göttingen because of Catrin Misselhorn and her research profile. She has a long history of research on issues that are highly relevant to my thesis work. I know from my own experience that it can be difficult to reach busy researchers – who can get hundreds of emails a day from weirdos like me! – but in this case, I managed to establish contact quite quickly. Maybe after C19 there was a pent-up need to meet people from "outside their bubble"? To people who find it difficult to make contact: keep your emails short and to the point, be persistent (send it again!), and if you cannot reach "the top dogs" (busy professors) email their colleagues instead.

What did you get out of your mobility? What are you taking with you?
I learned a lot – especially about things related to my research interests: AI/ethics/moral machines, etc. I also got good insight into how universities work in Göttingen (and Germany in general) – with education and research, what it is like to be a student, teacher, and researcher – and how it differs from Lund (and Sweden in general). About the practical challenges they face there and how they are tackled. But all these lessons pale in comparison to the warm personal contact I had with the people I met in Göttingen. That is what I take with me most of all: wonderful memories of interactions with great people. Isn't that what life is all about?

What was most enjoyable or rewarding about the exchange?
This is perhaps captured in the answer to the previous question. But I can tell you about one "fun" thing. The Midsummer weekend in Strömstad was sunny. I happened to fall asleep in the sun, and my legs got really sunburned. It was like a flesh wound. This plagued me incredibly on the long train journey. I really needed something to cool off my legs! When I arrived in Göttingen, Catrin picked me up at the station. I told her about my agony, and she immediately said: "We can put yoghurt on your legs when we get to my place". Naturally, I had been nervous about this meeting – she is an eminent professor, and her husband is a judge. I thought, "These are serious people. I have to behave". But moments later, there I was, at a dinner party in their beautiful garden, with my bare sunburned legs covered in cold yoghurt. It was an absurd scene. But at the same time, it immediately created a very relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. My Midsummer blunder made me vulnerable, and this vulnerability was immediately met with compassion in the form of cooling yoghurt. And we all had a lot of fun with this.

What was most challenging?
My sunburned legs were actually just a small part of a long chain of misery. Now that I have a chance to whine about it, I'll tell you all about it!

Misery 1: Corona. Do you remember when all planned social activities were haunted by "We'll see what the Corona situation is like then"? I managed to hit a perfect no-man's land where there was both hope that things would open up, but also just as much doubt. This led (naturally) to me having to postpone the trip twice, which resulted in triple the planning work. Checking new dates, hunting down people for signatures, checking with the travel agent, etc.

Misery 2: Once I managed to get away, I hit European travel chaos. Do you remember that? Once C19 was over, EVERYONE wanted to leave at the same time (June 2022). There was a shortage of staff at airports. The Germans had also launched a great idea: tickets for €9 that allowed you to travel on any train in Germany for a month (except fast trains). State-subsidised staycations for everyone. Naturally, this led to packed trains and stations. If you did manage to get a spot on the train, you had to stand. And if the train you THOUGHT you would be taking was not cancelled, it would be incredibly late. This, coupled with the heat, made people impatient and unpleasant. A journey that I hoped would be a comfortable eight hours turned into a nightmare 16-hour trip.

Misery 3: I was coming off an incredibly intense period – a trip to Umeå, the Philosophy Days in Lund, a conference in Örebro, and Midsummer – all in one go. I was looking forward to eight hours of reflection; a chance to catch up with myself.

Misery 4: My sunburned legs! The pain kept me awake all night right before the trip.

All these miseries together made by outbound journey a Kafkaesque experience to both laugh and cry about. I remember Copenhagen–Hamburg particularly well – a journey where I had a reserved seat. But the train cars were mislabelled, so everyone had to change seats in two rounds. It was just my luck that I ended up between two families with screaming children. One child screamed non-stop for a whole hour. The journey home was no better – a train car full of drunken Dutch people scream-singing non-stop while spilled beer flowed under our seats.

At the same time, I cannot blame Erasmus for any of this. And after all, didn't it make my trip more memorable?

How did things work financially? Were you reimbursed for your expenses?
I was reimbursed for everything! Travel, accommodation and food.

Was it complicated to apply for and report the exchange?
The application itself was not very complicated, and I got some great help with it when I was unsure. However, as I said, I was very unlucky. I had to reschedule my trip twice due to uncertainty over the Corona situation. This became somewhat of a bureaucratic hell, as I had to chase down people and get their signatures THREE different times. Quite simply, my process was three times harder than it would have been in normal circumstances. But now that C19 is practically over, I hope that no one else has to face the same ordeal.

Is there anything else you want to tell us? Do you have any tips for other doctoral students who are also considering travelling abroad on an exchange?
Do it! Especially if you are doing something a bit more "niche" – outside of Sweden (but within Europe), there are great opportunities to meet nice people doing what you are doing. But if you can, try to avoid global pandemics and train chaos.

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