Although I was trained in modern German history and European cultural history, I gravitate increasingly to questions of a global, comparative nature. What has remained consistent is my interest in the history of knowledge. I am particularly intrigued by historical alternatives to the modern, discipline-based research university. This means that I study other institutions where intellectuals have applied their talents, and other venues where different kinds of thinkers have sought practical, often political, influence.
My first two books pursued these interests within the framework of German history. One of them, "Medicine on a Grand Scale": Rudolf Virchow, Liberalism, and the Public Health, was a short study of one of the nineteenth century's most famous physicians and political reformers. The other, The Emancipation of Writing: German Civil Society in the Making, 1790s-1820s, explored the scribal culture and civic activism of southwestern Germany during the age of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasions.
With Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet, coauthored with my wife and Oregon colleague Lisa Wolverton, I turned squarely to the comparative, long-term study of intellectuals and knowledge systems. The book chronicles the six institutions that have fueled the quest for knowledge in the Western tradition from ancient times to the present day: the library, the monastery, the university, the Republic of Letters, the disciplines, and the laboratory. Each, we argue, has superseded its predecessors in fashioning entirely new rationales and practices for pursuing knowledge.
My current research examines the first scientific attempts to study all the world’s languages in the decades around 1800, focusing on the career of the Prussian statesman-intellectual Wilhelm von Humboldt.
I also currently serve as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences.