The emotion obsession

As an only child, Holly Yanacek, ’10, spent a great deal of time in the company of adults, sometimes sick and elderly relatives. She remembers being fascinated – at a young age – with expressions of grief, responses to loss, and learning to respond appropriately.

While she may have struggled early on to understand complex emotions, she discovered that she has been molded by them. Some might even say she’s obsessed by them – but in a good way.

Holly is spending the 2014-15 academic year in Berlin on a Fulbright U.S. Student Graduate Research Fellowship, pursuing her studies into the emerging field of the history of emotions. The basis for her Ph.D. research at the University of Pittsburgh, her chosen topic is a perfect pairing with her love for German language and culture, nurtured since she was a young teen.

“The connection between my interest in emotions and my passion for the study of German has been completely natural,” she says. From the time she was first exposed to German in the ninth grade, “studying German felt like what I was born to do.” In fact, her divergent pursuits first intersected while she was an undergraduate at Heidelberg.

Coursework at Heidelberg coupled with time spent at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in Germany confirmed for Holly that German should be the focus of her graduate studies. “It was ultimately my stimulating experience abroad during my American Junior Year that motivated me.”

The prestigious Fulbright award has allowed Holly to study at the Freie Universität Berlin and continue work on her dissertation as a visiting researcher at the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Human Development Center for the History of Emotions.

Emotion studies is a hot topic in academia. According to Holly, for centuries, Western societies have considered emotions to be deeply personal and natural, reflective of an individual’s personality. But recent work in various disciplines – including the field of the history of emotions – now examines the role that culture and historical transformations play in shaping human feelings and emotional expressions.

“After learning about the current research in the history of emotions field, particularly the work done by scholars at the Max Planck Institute, I became eager to engage with these new concepts and adapt them for the study of German literature and culture,” Holly says.

Essentially, she hopes to show how authors used literary techniques to represent emotions and address the reality and experience of shifting emotional styles at the turn of the 19th century. Her greatest interest lies in the study of “moral emotions” such as sympathy, empathy, honor, shame and guilt.

For Holly, it’s definitely a case of “right place, right time.”

German scholars in Berlin are currently undertaking some of the most innovative research in emotion studies. At the Max Planck Institute, Holly participates in fortnightly research colloquia and will share her research in the spring. She also is part of a colloquium for Ph.D. candidates in German at Freie Universität Berlin, where she presented some of the first chapters of her dissertation in December. Additionally, she has spent time at the Theodor-Fontane-Archive in Potsdam and plans to travel to other libraries and archives this spring.

Holly feels extremely well prepared for her graduate and Fulbright experiences, thanks in large part to the excellent foundation she received in Heidelberg’s Honors Program and the AJY Program.

“I visited a few college campuses during high school, but I only applied to Heidelberg. The American Junior Year Program was the main reason behind my decision,” she recalls. In addition to helping her become fluent in German and immersing her in the German culture, the AJY program allowed her to work as an English teaching assistant and get involved in co-curricular activities. Holly joined an improv group as an undergrad and currently sings with the Max Planck Choir.

But it was the personal influences of Heidelberg professors such as Holly’s academic advisor, Dr. Cindy Lepeley, Dr. Jan Younger (retired) and Dr. Vicki Ohl in the Honors Program, German faculty members Dr. Bob Berg (retired) and Christine Maiberger and psychology professor Dr. Ginny Gregg, among others, who nurtured her the most.

One thing that was immediately evident to me when I first visited Heidelberg was that the faculty members are fully invested in student learning and take an interest in our continued academic success.

’Berg faculty provided encouragement and inspiration, preparation for study abroad and grad school, academic challenges, support and intellectual stimulation, she says.

Certainly the coming years hold a great deal of promise for this future college professor and researcher.

“In addition to promoting foreign languages, study abroad and German cultural literacy through my research and teaching, I also hope to contribute to our understanding of the human experience in general through my study of emotions and German cultural history,” Holly says.

Keep your eyes peeled for publications on those “moral emotions.” There’s a good chance the author just might be Holly Yanacek.

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