As a historian, assistant professor Robbert-Jan Adriaansen (born 1982) takes a great interest in time – more particularly, in the question as to how the past, the present and the future relate to each other and to eternity. With his wife and two children, Adriaansen lives in Middelburg, the city where he came into the world and to which he returned after getting a degree in history from EUR. He conducts research on how the past is represented on today’s social media, and in his capacity as the Chair of ESHCC’s Faculty Council, he seeks to help shape the future.

Reading behaviour

Number of books read each year: ‘Reading is my job’

Main reason to read: to gain new perspectives

Favourite genre: classical literature

Most recent read: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes 

Looking back at the past, Adriaansen thinks he was a mediocre pupil in secondary school. “My life was a little boring and I did what I was told to do. I wasn’t exactly a brilliant student when I was doing my bachelor degree in history either.” It wasn’t until he did his master degree and was allowed to pick his own subject for his dissertation that he became passionate about his subject. “I was allowed to design and create a study myself. I was tremendously motivated by that.” He was awarded a cum laude degree for a thesis on generational theories in history and went on to be awarded a cum laude doctoral degree for a thesis on how we experience time.

Philosophy and a good time do go hand in hand

In the second year of his bachelor degree programme, Adriaansen and some friends travelled to the south of France. “On a coach operated by a tour operator that specialises in young adults. You know the deal.” Just before boarding the coach, he bought a book: Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which is about an Indian young man, Siddhartha, who devotes his life to a quest for spiritual enlightenment. “When the coach turned dark and everyone tried to get some sleep, I got out the book. I finished it in one go. I was blown away by it.”

The eponymous Siddhartha commences his quest by meditating in the mountains. When that doesn’t provide the results he is after, he becomes the Buddha’s disciple, but does not find what he is looking for with him either. He then embarks on a life of luxury, boozing and womanising, but ends up in a simple life near a flowing river. “The book made me realise that people become enlightened because of all their experiences combined. You don’t gain understanding because of one particular thing. A party holiday and a philosophical book complement each other rather than contradict each other. Politicians or scientists like to say that the other person is wrong, thus implying that they themselves are right,” he continues to say. “This book showed me that no one is ever completely right or wrong.”

Adriaansen spends his life trying to gain as many different experiences as possible. “It’s not about travelling to faraway places or aspiring to high status. I’ve met students who, after failing three degree programmes with better job prospects or higher starting salaries, ended up studying history after all, because they were finally brave enough to choose to do what they really wanted to do.” He himself likes to steer clear of very obvious choices too. “My career would benefit if I were to specialise in one particular subject, but I always want to know more, so I seek out different subjects.”

Selfies in Auschwitz

As far as academia is concerned, Adriaansen loves conducting research on potential new points of view. “If everyone says A, I wish to conduct research on whether B might be possible as well.” For instance, he conducted a study on selfies taken at Auschwitz and posted to Instagram. Many people would say such selfies are in poor taste, narcissistic and disrespectful, given Auschwitz’s past. However, Adriaansen’s study showed that people who share selfies taken at Auschwitz on their social media often add a caption that connects the present to the past, while photos without any people in the foreground often lack such captions. In other words, selfies can actually be educational, although obviously, many aren’t.

Robbert-Jan Adriaansen is assistant professor of Theory of History and Historical Culture at EUR. In 2013 he was awarded a cum laude doctoral degree for a PhD thesis on youth organisations in Germany in the early twentieth century. His research focuses on opinions on history and historical time, then and now. He is currently working on a project on the way violent events from the past are represented in present-day historical culture, with an emphasis on the way they are represented on social media and in historical re-enactments.