What is transnational history (to me)? The Q Factor OR Transnational History as a Hearing Aid
The following post is part of a series of postings in which our institute members ask themselves “What does transnational and global history mean for me and my research?”. Read the take by Kelsey Jackson Williams, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at St Andrews. The new post is by Bernhard Struck, currently co-director of the Institute for Transnational & Spatial History.
Another semester has just come to a close. That makes four years of teaching and co-teaching transnational and global history on our two modules that feed into our general Modern History MLitt / Masters programme at St Andrews: Crossing Borders and Global Histories. End of semester is always a good to moment to step back (breathe, think what have we done and taught, how and why) and start thinking ahead. Next term will see the launch of a new undergraduate module Doing and Practicing Transnational History.
Next academic year, 2015-16, the Institute for Transnational & Spatial History will be launching its new Masters programme (MLitt) in Transnational and Spatial History – an exciting step for us as a team. So, time to breathe. Time to look back and ahead. And as we are at the end of term, my personal spin on the question “What is transnational history? (for me)” goes through the lens of teaching. In a nutshell: teaching – that comes with doing and practicing – transnational history for me is:
- starting with & from curiosity
- having exciting and unexpected conversations with a great mix of different people from various corners (and borders) of the world
- seeing things differently and from different angles and perspectives
- being pushed outside the comfort zone (including mine)
- (re)mixing expertise & ignorance
- being a better listener
- give & take
- finding flow & inspiration
- thinking outside the box
These aspects and certainly others do not come in a particular order, though I have tried to put them in a order as I see them fit and interact. They correlate and reinforce one another. They may be more circular rather than linear or listed and ranked. But the circle has to start somewhere and, to me, transnational history starts with working with great, open-minded people in the first place. In 2011 we started teaching “Crossing Borders. European History in Transnational Perspectives”. Last year, in 2013, we added “Global Histories, Globalisation and its Histories”. Over the years we have taught groups of students that were small in size (which is part of the fun and quality, normally 4-6), but global in scale.
In our little teaching and research village (that is St Andrews) on the east coast of Scotland we had students from the UK (perhaps obvious – but a minority), from the US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, France, Austria, Greece doing and practicing transnational history. And I am sure this is incomplete.
In return the modules have been taught by a Scot working on France and colonial Algeria (Stephen Tyre), by a (well) Scott-Kiwi or Kiwi-Scott working on interwar Europe (Conan Fischer), a Brit working on the transfer of seeds and botanist networks (Sarah Easterly-Smith), a Norwegian-Scot-US breed with the (embarrassing – for me as I only know some European) capacity of speaking three Asian languages (and Norwegian, Spanish, English) (that is Konrad Lawson), a German with an interest in border regions and travel (myself), a Pole or should we say a “truly-speaking” Central-European who masters God knows how many languages and works on even more languages (Tomek Kamusella) and a colleague with an Indian and Empire background working on French imperial histories (Akhila Yechury).
With normally two of us in the room we try to teach and discuss aspects such as “comparative and transnational history”, “transnational and global history”, “the question of scales in global history”, “networks and ANTs” (Actor-Network-Theory), “border regions”, “transfers and circulation of knowledge”, the role of “global cities” or the relevance of space in transnational & global history. (Take a look: Handbook Global History 2014)
Back to the students: the national labels used above as shorthand are somewhat misleading. We have had social anthropologists joining in from the Californian-Mexican borderlands. We have had students from, historically speaking, places from the former Habsburg lands that cannot be easily labelled under one national banner. We have had takers from the Bavarian-Austrian border or the French Jura with a view of the Swiss Alps.
What do these people (students and tutors alike), put into a single room once a week, share? What do we have in common? Not much apparently. In particular not if one starts with the national label. The national label and background apart, however, this constantly varying group that comes from different institutions (yes, they matter and we discuss that in the modules as part of the role of institutions, places of science and the circulation of knowledge) shares a lot, despite or rather because of different (national) traditions of doing history.
What these groups share leads back to my list above: taking curiosity as a starting point (not the safe or assumed safer ground of starting from the nation as spatial entity), mixing different expertise, pushing one’s comfort zones – all these contribute to the joy of teaching in such an environment (transnational in itself). These are elements that, to me, tease out the extra edge in teaching history, often simply by bringing in an otherwise unexpected perspective, and feed back into my own research. I would not like to compare teaching transnational & global history to other ways of teaching and practicing histories. There are too many exiting ways of doing it. However, what I have enjoyed over the years teaching these modules and the type of student is that they come with a certain openness and curiosity to step onto new grounds and unexplored territory.
Students come prepared for methodological discussions and are receptive to the open (and puzzling) questions: Where is transnational history (when history is not set in a – national – container)? How to enter global history – from the global (daunting) or the local? They come prepared to run the extra mile – learning another language. (If I did not miscount: there were six different native languages around the table at the last reading and hiking away weekend.)
This leads to a level of openness, receptiveness and alertness. It brings together different and unexpected fields of expertise. It makes people talk to one another across time and space that otherwise may not sit around the same table. It opens up confessing ignorance. It is easy to listen to an expert in field X. But experts are not always the best listeners – or explainers, for that matter. The transnational mix in class makes for better explainers and speakers. If you do not share too much of the same common ground, expertise, historiographical background, you have to explain more carefully and nuanced. You share more, but take more. This is where the unashamedly selfish researcher inside me comes in: I take a lot of ideas away from our classes as I learn so much from students and colleagues. (Do not worry, I like experts and expertise. Achtung! If you click on this, be aware of unashamed self-advertising and something on experts.)
Perhaps in a nutshell: Doing and teaching transnational & global history feels a bit like the famous Q factor that helps explaining the success of Broadway musicals. The mix makes the music. And I find myself often being a better listener to the transnational or global music in class, when I am ignorant of something others can teach me. To sum up: transnational history for me is a hearing aid. Happy to put it back in next term and start from scratch – and curiosity.