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Graduiertenkolleg "Authority & Trust"
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GKAT Researchers

Postdoctoral Researchers

Susana Rocha Teixeira


Susana Rocha Teixeira is a postdoctoral research associate in the DFG Research Training Group “Authority and Trust” (GKAT). She completed her PhD in American Literature and Culture at Heidelberg University “summa cum laude” in 2019. Her thesis titled “The American Makeover Culture and Masculinities: Roots, Connections and Representations” explores (fictional) representations of hegemonic masculinity in cultural products that employ makeover aesthetics, tropes or narratives in order to analyze how males resorted to forms of makeover in order to forge and reassert their masculinity and thus by extension reaffirm conventional notions of masculinity and national identity, especially during times of ‘crisis.’ From 2017-2021 Susana worked as a (postdoctoral) research associate for the DFG-funded collaborative research project “Practices of Comparing” 1288 at Bielefeld University, where she completed a research project on “Practices of Comparing in the Context of the Harlem Renaissance in a Hemispheric Perspective.” In 2015 she was a visiting scholar in residence at the History Department at the American University in Washington DC and in 2017 at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences/Center for Advanced Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

In her postdoctoral research project (“Re-Imagining the New Negro Renaissance: The Black Renaissance in Baltimore and Beyond”), Susana uses Baltimore as a case study to explore the formation of (literary or artistic) recognition, canon formation, and reading and reception practices in the context of the New Negro Movement. Although the primary interest of this study lies on ‘serious’ literature, it also takes the significant production of lowbrow, middlebrow or popular culture during the New Negro era into consideration, which reshaped, and had a lasting impact on notions of black identity and cultural production. It is also interested in the black press, which often was a platform for discussing writers, artists, cultural products, and disseminating ideas about literary, artistic and cultural values within and beyond the country.


Judith Keller


Judith Keller is a research associate in the Geographies of North America working group and at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. She applies a socio- and cultural-geographic perspective to urban space, focusing on questions of social justice such as access to housing, education, health services, supermarkets, and urban infrastructure. She is interested in right to the city and housing rights movements and their effect on urban politics. Her research focuses on US-American cities, broadening this perspective with a migration and mobilities approach to the Americas. Further, Judith enjoys thinking about the representation of (urban) space in literature and film, a discipline called Geo-Humanities.

Judith received her PhD in April 2023. Her doctoral thesis grew out of the research training group Authority and Trust at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, in which she explored the significance of trust relations for urban development and particularly for housing studies. Before pursuing her doctoral studies, Judith studied Geography and English at Heidelberg University and Heidelberg University, Tiffin, Ohio, graduating with a double-major in 2019. In 2019, she was a participant in the Abigail Adams Summer Seminar at Harvard University and in the winter term 2021/22 she was a visiting research scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In 2022, Judith joined the Radical Housing Journal editorial collective.


Doctoral Candidates, 3rd Group

Leyla Abbasi

Gkat Abbasi _leyla

Leyla Abbasi studied philosophy, French and mathematics with a focus on education at the University of Heidelberg, Université Stendhal in Grenoble and Portland State University. In the fall of 2021, she graduated from the University of Heidelberg with a teaching degree and subsequently completed a training program for teaching philosophy/ethics, French and mathematics at middle school and high school level (Referendariat für das Lehramt an Gymnasien).

Since October of 2023, she is a doctoral candidate at the Graduiertenkolleg Authority and Trust in American Culture, Society, History, and Politics (GKAT).

In her dissertation project, Leyla Abbasi aims to explore the evolving landscape of public philosophy in the context of its historical evolution and contemporary relevance. Increasing political polarization, eroding trust in institutions, and rampant disinformation are currently undermining the foundation of democracy in the United States. These forces fracture American society into evermore divided publics. This research project posits that public philosophy can counterbalance these forces by fostering cohesion and trust among the American public(s).

It approaches the topic of public philosophy from three angles: firstly, it delves into the role of public philosophy within the American philosophical tradition by exploring its unique connection to American pragmatism. Secondly, it investigates the knowledge generated through the practice of public philosophy from the perspective of the philosophy of science. Lastly, it scrutinizes the nature and scope of the public philosopher as a public agent through the lens of political philosophy, examining his/her relationship with the public.

Primary supervisor: Apl. Prof. Dr. phil. Magnus Schlette


Marcus Dietrich

Dietrich Foto

Marcus Dietrich studied history and economics at the university of Innsbruck with stays at the university of Zaragoza and Yeditepe university of Istanbul. He holds a diploma (equivalent of Master) in International Business and Economics and an M.A. in History. In his master thesis in international economics, he studied the institutional development of Argentina during the late 19th and early 20th century. His master thesis in History investigates the economic relationship between Libya and the GDR within the context of East-South relationships and globalizing financial markets during the Cold War. He also contributed to studies commissioned by the European Parliament and published in a student journal on historical sciences.

In his dissertation Marcus uses the concepts of authority and trust to study the Dollar and its force of gravity during the second half of the twentieth century. He plans to look into a specific subset of international financial markets, so-called Eurodollar markets, to get a better understanding of the financial side of the global Cold War political economy. By focusing on how international organizations representing countries outside the usual American-European axis, such as the socialist International Investment Bank, acted in these markets, he wants to contribute to the understanding of why the Dollar became so dominant in the 1970s and 1980s and how actors outside the West promoted or hampered the proliferation of the American currency across the globe.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Welf Werner


Franziska Friedl

Franziska Friedl Foto

Franziska Friedl studied English and German philology at Heidelberg University and Nottingham University (U.K.). Her B.A. thesis focused on the construction and conceptualization of body and space in The Walking Dead. During her studies, she worked as a student and research assistant at the English Department. She finished her studies in Heidelberg with an M.A. in English Studies with distinction, focusing on American and cultural studies, and an additional state exam in English and German philology in 2021. Sparked by her interest in visual culture, her M.A. thesis applied Roland Barthes’ semiological concept of political myth to The Hunger Games trilogy, revealing the confluence of visuality and violence in the novels and especially their adaptations. Before joining GKAT in October 2023, Franziska coordinated the Buddy Programme at the International Relations Department at Heidelberg University.

In her dissertation project, Franziska examines the cultural archetype of the zombie in fictional reimaginings of the American frontier, city and landscape. By reading contemporary cultural manifestations of the zombie through the lens of historical sources expressing the mythology of U.S. exceptionalism and expansionism, she aims to understand how authority is being negotiated through the configuration of post-apocalyptic space. She argues that narratives of the zombie apocalypse portray a counter-myth of American settlement and hypothesizes that this calls the interpretative authority of myths serving as the foundation of the national imagery into question. The theoretical groundwork of her spatially-oriented project draws on cultural studies, media studies, and literary studies to interrogate to what extent these narratives challenge the authority of the American master narrative through the construction and deconstruction of symbolic structures of American settlement.

Primary supervisor: PD Dr. Margit Peterfy


Layla Koch

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Layla Koch (she/her) grew up in Bern, Switzerland. She earned a B.A. in American Studies at the HCA in 2020 and an M.A. in Christianity and Culture at the Theology Department of the University of Heidelberg in 2022. Throughout, she spent two academic years abroad at Uppsala University and Yale Divinity School. Her studies focused on American Protestant history at the intersections with gender, sexuality, motherhood, and health. This led her to analyze the evangelical purity movement of the 1990s in her B.A. thesis. In her subsequent M.A. thesis, Layla examined a popular fundraiser by the American Board of Commissioners (ABCFM) in the 1850s that utilized the discursive construct of childhood.

As a student, Layla worked as a research assistant at the HCA, Heidelberg Department of Theology, and Yale University. She has done internships at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin and the UN Women's German National Committee. Before joining the GKAT, she worked for a year at the Swiss rectors' conference swissuniversities in Bern.

In her dissertation project, Layla is continuing to examine how the ABCFM utilized the discursive construct and charismatic authority of childhood in its publications, narratives, and fundraisers. Thereby, the thesis sheds light on an early children's consumer and popular culture that thrived particularly well within American Protestant missions. It argues that this culture relied on the simultaneous commodification of racialized childhood and practices of infantilization when encountering and negotiating 'the Other' to American readers. Thus, the thesis will aim to disentangle shifting nineteenth-century Protestant notions of childhood innocence, purity, and racialization. At its core, it seeks to demonstrate that childhood served as a powerful ideological vehicle of, what Laura Wexler calls, the "tender violence" of Christian American imperialism.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Jan Stievermann


Anna Köhler

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Anna Köhler received her B.A. in museology and material culture and English/American studies at Würzburg University in 2020. During her graduate studies in Würzburg and at the University of Texas at Austin, she started focusing on exhibition practices and spaces of cultural memory in the United States. Her M.A. thesis investigated U.S. National Parks as sites of national cultural memory, spatially anchoring and circulating a canonic narrative about the United States and its landscapes while overwriting memories and experiences of other groups, particularly those of Indigenous inhabitants. Supported by the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes (German National Academic Foundation), she was able to complete several internships in the museum sector while helping students with their projects at Würzburg University’s writing center as a writing tutor. Her interest in the power structures of museum display brought her to Heidelberg after finishing her M.A. in 2023.

Within the GKAT framework, Anna’s Ph.D. project questions the special status the museum enjoys as a highly trusted institution of “fact” and “neutrality.” By zooming into the mid- to late-nineteenth century, she aims to disentangle the increasing bifurcation of public spaces into “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” and to point out the history, discourses, and techniques that connect museums to spaces of “spectacle” like fairs, sideshows, theatres, and early cinemas. Using P. T. Barnum’s American Museum as a starting point, she examines how issues of cultural and scientific authority, taste, and citizenship were being negotiated in New York City in an era when consumer culture and the canonizing processes of shaping a national culture as a “civilizing project” were emerging simultaneously.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Günter Leypoldt


Richard Lange

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Richard received his B.A. in History and Political Science from Heidelberg University. During his undergraduate studies, he spent a year at Durham University, UK, where he studied International Relations and Classics. In 2021, he graduated with distinction from Heidelberg University with a M.A. in Modern and Contemporary History. His M.A. thesis focussed on German-British relations against the backdrop of early European Integration. In 2022, he obtained a second M.A. in International Relations from Leiden University, where he specialized in European Union Studies. From 2017 to 2022, he received the Evangelisches Studienwerk Villigst scholarship. His research interests include international relations in historical perspective, the foreign policy of the United States, transatlantic relations, and the history and politics of European Integration.

In his PhD project, Richard aims for a historical analysis of causes, forms and consequences of post-Cold War Euro-criticism and anti-Europeanism in the United States. He argues that publicly observable anti-Europeanisms in the run-up to the Iraq War 2002/3 were neither just direct reactions to disagreement with certain European partners over Iraq, nor a mere re-emergence of traditional isolationism. In contrast, it is assumed that distinctive Euro-critical and anti-European positions emerged during the 1990s as a result of waning trust in Europe, its political institutions, and negative perceptions of European policies, combined with fundamentally different understandings of state authority, power, sovereignty, security and international institutions. He further explores how critical perceptions of Europe changed transatlantic trust relations, contributed to American exceptionalism, and transformed the international authority of the United States at the turn of the millennium and up until today.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Manfred Berg


Anthony Meluso

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Anthony Meluso draws on critical development studies to improve wellbeing and mutual understanding. In his dissertation project, Anthony focuses on trust building in Mexico’s factory boom-towns. His research centers interpersonal relationships as well as geopolitical strategy.

Regionally, Anthony focuses on Mexico and the Southwestern United States. He translates experiences that transcend boundaries and languages with ethnographic and quantitative methods. To better understand perspectives on a transboundary water struggle, Anthony lived with activists in Mexico. Additionally, he helped draft water agreements with Native American tribes and worked on factory redesign and team building with a heterogeneous workforce in Boulder, CO.

He also works with visual media. Anthony produced, Amache Rose, a documentary about Japanese-Americans unjustly imprisoned during WW2, and efforts to preserve this memory. He has also worked on several mapping projects.

Anthony holds a M.Sc. degree in Geography from the University of New Mexico and a B.A. in Geography from the University of Colorado.

Primary supervisor: Jun.-Prof. Dr. Yaatsil Guevara González


Julia Schinnenburg

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Julia is a human geographer, particularly interested in power dynamics in cities. In her PhD project, Julia focuses on how power dynamics play out in digitization processes in city governments. Her research questions and methods are based on her past experiences in the US, Germany and Italy and rely on feminist theory and mixed-methods research designs.

Generally, she asks who decides about the goals and processes of digitization, as well as what benefit these projects bring to urban societies at large. Julia believes that digitized government can be a helpful tool in improving lived realities in cities. However, current digitization projects use processes from the business world that are not perfectly suited for government. Through her work she wants to contribute to the knowledge building currently underway, that supports governments in creating more accurate and therefore trustworthy data models to support them in their daily work.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ulrike Gerhard


Mehdi Sejdiu

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Mehdi Sejdiu comes from a small village in Kosova. He studied Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Şehir University (BA) and University of Heidelberg (MA). He worked as a political advisor to the First Deputy Prime Minister of Kosova (2021 – 2023) mostly coordinating Kosova – Eu affairs. He is a former IPS fellow of the German Bundestag and attended the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. Mehdi worked in several research institutes in Germany and Kosova, among others in the Institute for Political Science Heidelberg, Balkan Policy Research Group and Group for Legal and Political Studies.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Sebastian Harnisch


Nele Thomann

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Nele Thomann completed her B.A. in American Studies, Romance Studies (with a focus on Ibero-America), and European Ethnology at the University of Bamberg, Germany. In 2023, she earned her M.A. in Transatlantic Studies from Radboud University in the Netherlands. During that time, she also got the chance to spend half a year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In her M.A. thesis, she comparatively explored the roles of European and American substate governments in the field of global migration governance, with a special focus on the ways in which selected state and local governments conduct their own foreign relations (paradiplomacy) in that same policy area. By examining selected cases, her thesis argues for the need to include substate governments and their international activities in the academic field of Political Science/IR in order to get a more nuanced picture of the complexities of present day international relations.

Building on this research, and within the framework of GKAT, Nele is particularly interested in US substate government authority on both a domestic and an international scale. Drawing on selected case studies in various fields of policy, such as environmental and migration policy, she specifically looks at the intersections and interconnectedness of the contemporary state of US federalism and the behavior of US state and local governments, both domestically and internationally, to investigate how configurations of authority are (re)negotiated, contested, and/or shifted.

The complexities her dissertation aims to detangle include, but are not exclusive to, questions relating to the agency of substate governments within the US federal system, degrees of institutionalization of substate government authority, and the impact of partisanship and ideology on the ways in which substate governments are creating and asserting their (moral) authority in specific domestic and international policy venues.

Primary supervisor: PD Dr. Martin Thunert


Doctoral Candidates, 2nd Group

Asaf Alibegović


Asaf Alibegovic studied political science at the University of Sarajevo. He earned his first Master’s Degree in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva followed by the Master’s Degree in Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy from Tsinghua University in Beijing. Asaf also attended Sciences Po in Paris. His principal academic interests include foreign policy analysis and East Asia international relations.

Asaf Alibegovic’s Ph.D. project at GKAT and the Institute for Political Science at Heidelberg University aims to understand the dynamics of social processes of transformation of U.S. authority in East Asia during the Obama and Trump administrations. Attempting to develop a theory of practice-induced international social change, this project argues that presidential practices have decisive influence on the overall manifestation of U.S. authority in the region. The way presidential practices are performed and perceived shapes the social field of international life and contributes to renegotiation of roles and strategic positions of states within.


Nicole Colaianni



Nicole Colaianni studied English and history with a focus on education in Heidelberg. During her studies she gravitated toward American Studies, an interest that was furthered by the year she spent studying at the University of New Mexico. Her Zulassungsarbeit focused on the framings and conceptualizations of sexual harassment as part of the culture wars in the United States. She has worked as a teacher for English and history and as a student assistant at the Curt Engelhorn Chair for American History in Heidelberg.

In her Ph.D. project, Nicole Colaianni is continuing her research on the concept of sexual harassment. She aims to shed light on a so far unacknowledged aspect of the discussion on sexual harassment: one that engages with the topic as a matter of employment in which authorities are de facto transferred from the federal government to the private sector, causing a great shift in the power relationship between the federal government, employers, and their employees. She argues that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as the judiciary, by demanding private organizations to employ anti-sexual harassment policies, preventative measures, and grievance procedures, inadvertently relinquished much of their authority regarding this topic, transferring it to the organizations in question. In short, she hypothesizes that employers found themselves in a position of taking over government authorities within their microcosm of a company. The ensuing changes of trust relationships among those involved shall be a core part of her project.


Johanna Decker


Johanna Decker, née Mast, was born and raised in the Black Forest (Germany). After spending an exchange year in Odessa, Texas, she studied German and English Studies at Heidelberg University and at Bristol University (U.K.). She received a scholarship from the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes (German National Academic Foundation) and graduated with a teaching degree from Heidelberg University in the fall of 2020. Her thesis combined literary studies and linguistics to accomplish a fusion between hermeneutical linguistics and close reading. After getting to know the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg “Authority and Trust” as a research student in 2018, she joined GKAT as a doctoral candidate in October 2020.

In her dissertation project, Johanna Decker analyzes the representation and deconstruction of informal public gathering places in contemporary American literature. The spatially-oriented literary studies project examines the struggles to create, preserve, and defend these “third places” that exist separated from the home and the workplace. By combining sociological and geographical theories with close reading, the project attempts to understand the complex and dynamic relation between space and literature. With space as a contested good in the urban context of modernity, the fight for authority over public space is showcasing social injustice and segregation in postmodern times, problematizing the notion that public spaces are accessible to all citizens. Within literary texts, these informal public gathering places, in which trust and mistrust emerge and accessibility and exclusiveness are contrasted, serve as a plot-driving and character-defining tool. Classical settings, like the bar around the corner or the hairdresser next door, are not merely a backdrop, but employed to criticize the social dynamics of the city, providing a deeper understanding of the personal, individual, and socio-economic consequences of spatial injustice.


Aylin Güngör


Aylin Güngör majored in British and American Studies with a minor in sociology at the University of Konstanz and received her B.A. in 2017. She then moved to Heidelberg for her M.A. in English Studies, focusing on American literature and culture, and joined the HCA’s GKAT as a student assistant in 2019. Intrigued by the intersection of literature and geography, her M.A. thesis focused on the figuration of mobilities and immobilities in twenty-first century fiction of the Black Atlantic.

Aylin Güngör’s dissertation investigates how the contemporary artistic and cultural spheres of two American cities, Los Angeles and Atlanta, influence civic participation. Through the lens of performance, she analyzes how various cultural productions and their creators with strong ties to local communities can contribute to mobilizing people in minority neighborhoods. Against the backdrop of the current racial reckoning in the USA, Aylin hypothesizes that certain creators and cultural productions with specific urban affiliations contribute to the formation of practices of trust and civic participation through performances of race. To find answers, Aylin provides hermeneutic and contextual analyses of contemporary cultural productions. She also conducts interviews that provide further insight and shed light on the role of urban politics in the formation of said practices of trust and civic engagement.


  • Speech: "Community Participation in Creating the Narrative of Urban Im/Mobility: The Case of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.” Annual Meeting of the German Association for American Studies, Heidelberg, June 17–19, 2021.
  • Publication: “Entertainment, Politics, and Power: Georgia’s Creative Industries in Light of the New Voting Law,” HCA Graduate Blog, November 2021,


Shasha Lin


Born and raised in Guangdong, China, Shasha Lin earned her B.A. in English Language and Literature at Sun Yat-Sen University in 2017 and completed her M.A. in American Studies at the HCA in 2019. She wrote her master’s thesis on “Racial Balancing Versus Racial Discrimination: Asian Americans and Affirmative Action” and situated Asian Americans within the legal and political discourse on affirmative action looking at a case study of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College.

Shasha Lin’s dissertation is tentatively titled “Trust in the Fairness of College Admissions and Policy Acceptance.” Public trust in higher education, or lack of it, has been a crucial topic among policymakers and educators. Higher education institutions in the U.S. have been facing outrage and questions about the fairness of their college admissions practices, fueled by the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal and the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigations into admissions at Yale and Harvard universities. The project, by disaggregating the category of “Asian Americans” and focusing on Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese Americans, explores differences within a population that is often perceived and studied as a monolith. Since disaggregated data is limited, Shasha Lin will collect data from online surveys and in-depth interviews with experts in affirmative action, representatives of civil rights organizations, and students concerned with race-conscious admissions policies. The project compares and contrasts the extent to which Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese Americans trust the fairness of college admissions and its link to their support of affirmative action. The interdisciplinary project, which combines sociology, law, and political science, offers unique and refreshing perspectives on the decline of trust in the admissions system and the authority of higher education institutions.


Valentina López Liendo


Valentina López Liendo studied English philology and East Asian studies at Heidelberg University and Osaka University. Her B.A. thesis analyzes Rudyard Kipling’s depiction of Japan in his travel writing. After her B.A. degree, she continued to pursue her interest in literature with a Master’s Degree in English Philology and Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University. Her M.A. thesis centers on Colson Whitehead’s literary strategies in his zombie novel Zone One, drawing from discussions on literary writers’ use of genre elements and post-soul conceptualizations of African American identity. She has worked as a language teacher for English, Spanish and German and as a student assistant at Heidelberg University’s English Department and East Asian Studies Department. Before joining GKAT in October 2020, Valentina López Liendo coordinated the Bachelor in American Studies program at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies.

In her Ph.D. project Valentina López Liendo seeks to position Colson Whitehead in the literary field. Following Whitehead’s publication and reception history, she aims to analyze the different themes and genres he explores in each of his novels, as well as the varying contexts and frameworks within which his work has been received. She aims to examine how Whitehead can function in the media and scholarship as the literary successor of authors such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, a representative literary voice of Obama-era America, and as the politically aware prize winner. In order to trace Whitehead’s position in the literary landscape, she draws from current research in literary and relational sociology which focuses on the workings of literary prestige as well as African American studies and its contemporary discussions on how to conceptualize African American literature at this moment. She is interested in Whitehead’s self-fashioning as a multifaceted literary author as well as the different (and shifting) contexts in which his work has been and is read, interpreted, and reviewed. By tracing Colson Whitehead’s literary career and understanding the various positions he inhabits throughout, this project aims elucidate processes of authorial legitimization and how they reverberate outside of canonizing institutions.
Publications: López Liendo, Valentina. “Reading Colson Whitehead.” HCA Graduate Blog, 2 Oct. 2021.


Edward Manger


Edward Manger earned his B.A. From the University of Kent in the United Kingdom in 2010 before completing a M.A. in History at the University of Edinburgh in 2012. His thesis examined the periodical literature produced by missionary societies during the 1857 “Indian Mutiny.” His research highlighted the use of providentialist discourses and rhetoric of Christian militarism that reinforced British rule in the Indian subcontinent as a divinely instituted Christian mission. His research interests focus on Victorian Christianity in Britain and the United States, particularly the intersection of religion and military conflict. Flowing from this is an emphasis on the impact of romanticism and medievalism on the language, architecture, and visual culture of Christian communities and the role of those communities in shaping and reacting to historical narratives that formed the basis for national identity in the nineteenth century.

For his dissertation research, Edward will explore the role of the church in the Antebellum South and in the development of Southern Nationalism in the lead up to and during the course of the American Civil War. He will unpack the discourses used by church leaders regarding the American Revolution, which was widely cast in a theological light, to show how those narratives were re-purposed to fit the cause of the South and preachers were able to draw upon a preexisting rhetorical tool kit in order to theologize their contemporary political and military situation. Alongside this will be an exploration of the use of “church history” more broadly to see the complex and sometimes self-contradictory nature of the identity perpetuated by southern clergymen in the reinforcement of “traditional” southern authority structures and social hierarchies. The impact of many clergymen serving in the military and the perceived “Christian” nature of the armed forces of the Confederacy will also form a central theme of the research. The decades prior to the Civil War were a time of stark religious development in the American context, the growth of populist religious movements, the Second Great Awakening and evangelistic enthusiasm as well as romanticism and the beginnings of biblical criticism. Edward will seek to elucidate how these trends affected the church’s position in the South and its relation to Southern Nationalism and the Confederacy.


Lauren Rever


Lauren Rever is a public historian whose work at GKAT focuses on authority and trust in U.S. historical institutions. Since 2012, she has worked at museums, historic sites, and cultural institutions, often as a public-facing staff member. Originally from New Hampshire, Lauren received her bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 2014 with a double major in history and German. She then spent a year teaching English on a Fulbright Scholarship in Ahrensburg, Germany. In 2017 she completed a Master’s Degree in American Studies, Museums and Material Culture from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. This degree provided a strong foundation in the scope and methods of public history, as well as a chance to explore a personal research interest in popular music fandom. During and after graduate school, she stood as a gallery aide at the National Gallery of Art, gave tours at the U.S. Capitol, worked with toddlers at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, edited lesson plans for the National Park Service, and ran educational programs at historic houses. While crafting these visitor experiences, she formulated a question that brought her to GKAT: what role do these complex interactions at historical institutions play in the larger notion of U.S. history-making?

Lauren uses the lens of authority and trust to unpack what happens at these points of contact between historical institutions and “the public.” Breaking down these points of contact is a starting point to explore tourism, the history profession, labor, identity, and space – key components of historical institutions. Her interdisciplinary approach draws from geography, American studies, and public history. Furthermore, Lauren continuously strives to place visitors and public history workers at the center of her research in order to upend traditional institutional hierarchies. Lauren believes museums are not neutral, and she stands with history professionals against the notion of “patriotic education.”


Stefanie Wallbraun


Stefanie Wallbraun grew up in Thuringia before completing her Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration at the Ludwigshafen University of Business and Society in 2014. Afterwards, she attended Hamburg University to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science in 2019 and a Master’s Degree in Peace and Security studies in 2020.

The working title of Stefanie’s dissertation project is “American gun culture and its potential to polarize the society: An analysis of harmful effects on institutional trust and government authority in the United States.” Stefanie intends to show how the debate surrounding gun control promotes social and political polarization and therewith impairs institutional trust and the authority of the government. Of special interest to her is how the public debate on gun control affects political views of individuals and influences the perception of and interaction with individuals that hold different opinions.


Doctoral Candidates, 1st Group

Kristin Berberich



Kristin Berberich studied English, German Philology and German as a Foreign Language with a focus on linguistics at Heidelberg University. After working at the University of Auckland and teaching German at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and Mannheim University, she returned to the English Department at Heidelberg University where, in 2014, she joined Prof Beatrix Busse’s team to compile and build a multimodal corpus to analyze place-making strategies in Brooklyn, New York. Following her growing interest in urban linguistics, she completed her master’s thesis in 2016 with an analysis of the discursive reclamation of the Boston Marathon. Her research interests lie in the realm of sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, corpus linguistics, and gender studies.

At GKAT, Kristin investigates the discursive construction of neighborhoods, with a special emphasis on representations of the ‘good’ neighborhood. For her analysis, she compiled a corpus of spoken, written, and online data in neighborhoods along Bedford Avenue. Due to the strong connection between discourse and social practice, neighborhood discourses immediately affect the lives of their residents. Kristin brings together corpus-based discourse analysis and linguistic ethnography to analyze neighborhood discourses produced by individual social actors whose perspectives are often underrepresented in decision-making processes in the urban space. Her dissertation project aims to shed light on various degrees of inter-personal, cross-spatial and cross-genre variation that create an intricate picture of neighborhood discourse, with special regard to trusting relations between neighbors. These insights reveal that an integrative view of the micro- and macro-levels of discourse is crucial to the analysis of urban spaces.


Elizabeth Corrao-Billeter


Elizabeth Corrao-Billeter, a native to Ohio, studied psychology, art, and English literature at Ursuline College (B.A.) and English literature and composition at the University of Akron (M.A.) before earning a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from INTESOL Worldwide and relocating to Heidelberg in 2013. Since 2008, she has held editorial roles at various research institutions and private publishers such as Cleveland Clinic, Wolters Kluwer, EMBO Press, Heidelberg University Clinic, and Simmons University. She has taught English conversation and academic writing at the University of Heidelberg, and was a writing consultant at the university’s Academic Writing Support office from 2013 to 2016. She was also a member of the founding editorial team at Heidelberg University Publishing (heiUP), a DFG-funded Open Access humanities publishing project, where she helped to produce numerous articles, monographs, and edited volumes for the book series “Heidelberg Studies on Transculturality” and “Transcultural Research” (Springer), as well as the Open Access e-journal Transcultural Studies. In January 2017, an article she co-wrote on the experience of founding heiUP was featured in The Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

Elizabeth Corrao-Billeter’s dissertation identifies an emerging subgenre in contemporary American non-fiction, the voluntary simplicity memoir, and explores how these works advocate what can be called a pastoral of practice. In this context, voluntary simplicity refers to the deliberate adoption of a lifestyle that is materially simpler than that which mainstream American culture typically encourages. While the extent and modes of these practices vary, voluntary simplicity memoirs argue the need for a quiet form of subversion against mainstream authority by calling the value of consumerism and globalization into question. Voluntary simplicity does not, however, disdain authority or contemporary culture in general: it instead shifts the placement of trust to alternative forms of authority by focusing on personal responses to simplification, as well as emphasizing the importance of collaboration, community, and the revival of traditional skills. These memoirs thus provide a backdrop for the cultural history of voluntary simplicity as a social movement, as well as a context for the recent re-emergence of pastoral ideals and voluntary simplicity’s shift in status from fringe movement to general acceptance by mainstream culture. In recent years, this acceptance has become so widespread that the movement itself is subject to commoditization—a development that may negate its original function and attract participants with less altruistic motives than those its founders originally held. Finally, this project examines the impact that this mainstreaming effect has had on American popular culture and public perceptions of what constitutes “the good life.”


Claudia Jetter


Claudia Jetter was born in Stuttgart, Germany. After working in Bristol and Liverpool (U.K.), she studied Protestant theology and English literature, language, and culture at Heidelberg University. In the academic year 2010-2011, she worked as a German language assistant at a British boarding school in the United Kingdom. In 2016, she graduated with a teaching degree. Her research interests include gender and religion, new religious movements, and the intersections of American religion and politics. Claudia has presented conference papers at meetings of the Ecclesiastical History Society, the American Society of Church History and the Methodist Studies Seminar and has recently been a visiting scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.

Claudia Jetter’s dissertation focuses on transformation processes of religious authority in mid-nineteenth century America. The project investigates the complex dynamics between prophets, scriptures, and communities to more adequately describe the charismatization of religious leaders like Holiness revivalist Phoebe Palmer, Transcendentalist R.W., or Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Regarding charisma as a dynamic and relational concept, the project is interested in highlighting the interplay between the performance of prophets through textual production and the followers’ response to these texts through textual practice. The project draws on theoretical concepts of charismatic authority and scripturalization from sociology and religious studies and seeks to provide a comparative framework that helps situate the striking increase of new religious leaders with additional scripture in antebellum American religious history.


Aleksandra Polińska-Nestmann


Aleksandra Polińska-Nestmann was born in Warsaw, Poland. In 2013, she earned her B.A. in English Philology from the Warsaw School of Applied Linguistics. Her thesis focused on the translation of culture-specific items and the assessment of the understanding between American and Polish cultures such renderings offer. In 2015, she received her M.A. in American Studies from the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw. In her thesis, she analyzed the process of gentrification of two Brooklyn neighborhoods with the focus on the powerful role of real estate developers and, most notably, the media.

Aleksandra Polińska-Nestmann’s doctoral project investigates the transformation of trust and authority in American news media and its political implications. While distrust of the news media has been expressed across the American electorate, it has followed significantly different trajectories on each side of the political spectrum. This development, embedded in the rapidly evolving news media landscape of the United States, has had significant impact on the political dynamic and developments in the country, including the 2016 presidential election. This research contributes to the studies of trust and authority in the news media in the United States by shedding more light on the different ways in which Americans’ trust in the news media has been transformed on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. While certainly not the only source of information, the news media continue to play a very significant informative role as indicated in numerous polls by Americans themselves. Therefore, the analysis of how and why Americans’ trust in media has been changing in an asymmetrical way as well as the political implications of this phenomenon are of vital importance. It is particularly so in the face of the ongoing proliferation of conspiracy theories and disinformation efforts, both domestic and foreign, as well as the (also asymmetrically) growing political polarization. As such, the project deals with historical, socio-cultural, and political matters, which guarantees its interdisciplinary character.


Aline Schmidt


Aline Schmidt majored in English Studies with a minor in political science at Heidelberg University. She graduated with a B.A. in 2014 and an M.A. in English Linguistics in 2017. As she focused on American politics and sociolinguistics throughout her studies, her master’s thesis examined the performative authenticity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries. Aline’s research interests include critical discourse studies, pragmatics, social media discourse, and urban linguistics. In this research area, she supported Professor Busse’s team at the English Department in the compilation of a multimodal corpus to investigate discursive place-making in Brooklyn, NY. In 2017, she joined the HCA’s Graduiertenkolleg “Authority and Trust.”

In her dissertation, Aline investigates the construction of a charismatic relationship between Donald Trump and his followers from a linguistic angle. She draws on social-constructionist perspectives in Max Weber’s work, integrating language as a meaning-making resource that constructs and construes social reality and Weber’s classic framework of charismatic authority as a highly personalized form of political leadership. Charisma is conceptualized as a social relationship between leader and followers, which is ultimately negotiated in discursive interaction. Considering the impact of social media on political action and on the dissemination of discourses and ideologies, Aline emphasizes the role of social media for the construction of the charismatic relationship. Synergizing methods from corpus-assisted discourse studies, she outlines interactional processes of performing and recognizing charisma under modern conditions. In particular, she analyzes reddit and Twitter as affective discursive spaces which catalyze processes of charismatization. Her dataset is comprised of a number of ad hoc specialized corpora, spanning genres from political speeches, televised debates, and Trump’s tweets to comments and multimodal data on the subreddit The_Donald. Her project thus integrates various dimensions of authority and trust during the Trump presidency and aims to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of irrational and affective politics in the contemporary United States.


Sebastian Tants-Boestad


Sebastian Tants was born in Lower Saxony, Germany. He studied philosophy and English Studies at Heidelberg University and, as an exchange student, European Studies at Cardiff University (U.K.). He received his state exam from Heidelberg University in 2016. In his thesis, he conducted a critical reading of Dave Eggers’s dystopian novel The Circle (2013), establishing an intellectual link between Eggers’s novel and the philosophical critique of modernity of the Frankfurt School. Before joining GKAT in the fall of 2017, Sebastian worked, among other things, as a teaching assistant for philosophy at Heidelberg University.

In his dissertation project, Sebastian Tants focuses on the configurations of trust in the work of Herman Melville (1819-1891). Tracing the way Melville used this theme throughout his career, the project examines a broad selection of his texts, ranging from his short fiction to his novels, with the aim of establishing a panorama of the multifaceted vision of trust embedded in Melville’s prose writings. Considering Melville as a theorist of trust, Sebastian employs close reading as well as sociological theory in his textual analysis. In addition, he reads Melville’s prose, which is often heavily intertwined with central societal and political discourses of the antebellum era, in its historic environment and discusses it alongside a selection of texts by its contemporaries. The concept of trust is analyzed in such varied contexts as the debate on slavery, colonialism, and intercultural contact as well as in regard to the production and reception of literature. Through these aspects, the research project aims at gaining a clearer understanding of the “performance” of trust literary works such as Typee and The Confidence-Man are engaged in.


Former Postdoctoral Researchers

David Eisler

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David Eisler grew up in Florida before attending Cornell University and earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Astrophysics in 2007. He then served five years in the United States Army, earning the rank of captain and completing overseas tours in Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After leaving the military in 2012, he moved back to the United States and attended graduate school at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, earning a master’s degree in 2014. He then spent the next three years as a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia, before coming to Heidelberg to begin his doctoral studies.

David Eisler’s dissertation, completed in the fall of 2020, is titled “Unburdened: Civil-Military Relations, Cultural Authority, and Contemporary American War Fiction.” From the war in Vietnam to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the work examines the dynamic between the military and American society to understand how that relationship has influenced the literary fiction written about the wars. The project opens by tracing the evolution of the soldier-author’s cultural authority over the literary representation of war throughout the twentieth century before showing how the end of the draft and the shift to an all-volunteer force has affected the authorship, content, and form of contemporary war fiction.


Associated Doctoral Candidates

Jeanne Deysson

University of Strasbourg


Jeanne Deysson was born in the Paris region. She studied history at the Paris-IV Sorbonne, specializing in early modern history. She then embarked on an international Master's program in Interreligious Studies between the Universities of Strasbourg, Basel and Heidelberg. She also worked for two years within the French diplomatic network in Germany. She is now working on a co-tutelle PhD in Religious Studies at the faculties of theology of Strasbourg and Heidelberg, and looks at the transformation of religious authority in a digitalization context.

Her dissertation project focuses on an increasingly influential network of independent American charismatic leaders. She examines how and to what extent the use of digital media allows them to build networks of influence outside of traditional institutional regulations. Organized around the production of a rhetoric of spiritual warfare, these leaders recognize each other as prophets and apostles. They call their followers to help establish the kingdom of God by fighting evil forces that would dominate American society. These leaders operate far-reaching individual ministries and exercise religious authority on digital platforms structured around mass media. They perform a charismatic authority based on their ability to build audiences, which determines their influence both within the network and on the pentecostal/ charismatic field. Jeanne conducts a digital ethnography of leaders' online platforms, media websites (Charisma), digital media - both mainstream (YouTube, Instagram) and alt-tech (Rumble) - and Telegram channels, complemented by ethnography in two Texas megachurches. The analysis combines social network analysis (SNA) and qualitative discourse analysis.

In addition to her association with the GKAT, Jeanne Deysson is also involved with the GSRL-CNRS institute in Paris, where she is co-organizing a transversal seminar on digital religion. Her research is funded by a three-year grant from the University of Strasbourg and a DAAD short-term research fellowship.

Supervisors: Prof. Christophe Monnot (Strasbourg), Prof. Jan Stievermann (Heidelberg)


Jula Maasböl

HCA Ph.D. Program


Jula Maasböl studied English language and literature and art history at Heidelberg University and Durham University. Her B.A. thesis examines the performativity of gender and witchcraft in the work of Terry Pratchett. She received her M.A. in German literature and English Studies from Heidelberg University. Her M.A. thesis analyzes human-animal relations as a vehicle for ethics and morality in contemporary role-playing games. During her studies, Jula Maasböl was active as a student council representative and worked as a tutor and research assistant at Heidelberg University’s English Department. Upon completing her M.A. in 2020, she joined the research tandem “Culture Wars: Contested Cultural Heritage” within Heidelberg University’s flagship initiative “Transforming Cultural Heritage” as a doctoral research assistant. She is an associated Ph.D. student in the HCA’s Graduiertenkolleg “Authority and Trust” (GKAT).

Jula Maasböl’s dissertation project investigates the depiction of cultural heritage in the secondary worlds created by writers emblematic of a recent shift in Black Speculative Fiction: N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Tochi Onyebuchi. Using the genres of science fiction and fantasy, the works of these authors depict processes of heritage-making and the contention of cultural heritage that are thoroughly enmeshed with the fantastical elements of their worlds. The project seeks to elucidate the intersections of the representation of contested cultural heritage, processes of heritage-making, and challenges to heritage with issues such as race and racism, oppression and displacement, and intergenerational trauma and identity, which are at the heart of these texts.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Günter Leypoldt


Bariah Altaf Qadeer

HCA Ph.D. Program


Bariah Altaf Qadeer is a Ph.D. student at the HCA and the Institute of Geography at Heidelberg University. Her dissertation focuses on community building in different housing forms in mixed-use areas of Toronto. She was born and raised in Toronto where she received her bachelor’s degree in English. After analyzing the themes of alienation in the city in various forms of literature, she wanted to research this idea further. She then completed a Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies (MES) with a specialization in urban planning from York University. The aspect of community building has been central through an interdisciplinary lens in her master’s project and also in her Ph.D. studies. Bariah believes that places are reshaped through the experiential perceptions of residents, and understanding these perspectives is key in bringing positive change in neighborhoods for better community building. Although Bariah grew up in a mixed-use neighborhood, she has seen the impact that various societal changes have brought in community building. People do not interact in the same way due to various complex issues in housing. She is interested in analyzing these various issues through an interdisciplinary lens because she sees the clear bridge between academic fields and human societies. By constantly travelling in North America and Europe, she has developed a keen interest in different housing models. Architecture based on New Urbanist ideas can enhance the residents’ experience for developing a sense of community, but it is not the only factor. However, an interdisciplinary approach with the fields of psychology, sociology, and geography can provide some answers.

In her Ph.D. project, Bariah Altaf Qadeer uses the multidimensional lens of community and trust to analyze planning practices in mixed-use neighborhoods. Bariah acknowledges that community is not an object but rather an experience. She specifically focuses on different forms of housing to learn how residents feel about their community. Communities are the core unit that people are a part of and tend to define their relations with the greater surroundings, based on social processes that usually impact geographical processes. Urban planning, architectural design, geographical location, and psychological/sociological processes are all key elements that need to be analyzed in this project. Our lives are connected to the environment as we experience community through our choice of social interactions, which defines our identity in the city.

Primary supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ulrike Gerhard


Maren Mariani

HCA Ph.D. Program


Maren Mariani studied International Business in cooperation with ALDI SÜD, graduating from the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University in 2008. After receiving her B.A., she managed key accounts and international projects in an online marketing agency before she joined the MAS program at the HCA in Heidelberg. As part of her studies, she spent a year at the University of New Mexico as a recipient of the Baden-Württemberg-Stipendium. In 2016, she graduated with a M.A. in American Studies. Her Master’s project reflected her interest in political rhetoric, dealing with “The American Presidency and the ‘Power to Persuade’”. While working as a program coordinator at the SRH University in Heidelberg, Maren joined the HCA’s PhD program in 2017 to further pursue her interest in political rhetoric. In her dissertation, she focuses on the issue of contemporary populist rhetoric and framing in the United States.

In her dissertation project, Maren focuses on the impact of contemporary populist rhetoric and framing on people’s attitudes in the United States. Despite being a recurring feature of American politics, populism has perhaps reached an all-time high. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, increasing inequality and distrust of elites seem to have contributed to this development while the mass proliferation of digital media outlets and mobile devices has facilitated direct communication with a mass audience. Trump’s victory in 2016 is seen by many as the manifestation of this trend. In the contemporary United States, more and more mainstream actors of all ideological persuasions seem to be employing populist rhetoric to shape people’s attitudes and beliefs in their favor. In particular, framing has become a popular strategy to alter the ways in which information is being presented, in the hopes of influencing people’s attitudes. In her project, Maren will address the issue of contemporary populist rhetoric. She aims at understanding how and why framing, especially with an underlying populist notion, can influence audiences by focusing on the political discourse among stakeholders of different ideological backgrounds.


Research Students

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