In Practice

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.

Discussing Spatial History and C. Withers "Placing the Enlightenment", Nov 2014
Discussing Spatial History and C. Withers “Placing the Enlightenment”, Nov 2014

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.

Morenish House, Loch Tay - Transnational Away Weekend, January 2014
Morenish House, Loch Tay – Transnational Away Weekend, January 2014

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.


In Practice: Kelsey Jackson Williams


The Baltic in 1539.  Olaus Magnus draws his world
The Baltic in 1539. Olaus Magnus draws his world

The following is the first in a series of postings in which our institute members ask themselves “What does transnational and global history mean for my own research?”. Our first posting is by Kelsey Jackson Williams, now a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at St Andrews.

Why transnational history? My background is in the intellectual history of early modern Britain and as I write this I’ve recently begun a new book project which focuses on antiquaries in Enlightenment Scotland. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound very transnational at all. To make things worse my graduate degrees are in English Literature, a discipline which by its very nature tends more often than not to rigorously reaffirm the existence of linguistic and national boundaries. So why transnational history?

Because anything else would be a tremendous distortion of the people and issues I study. The antiquaries I’m currently investigating were not living isolated in Scotland – quite the reverse. From their vantage point on the north-eastern coast they were entangled in sea routes which stretched to France, the Low Countries, Denmark, Sweden, the Baltic coast of the German lands, and as far as Reval or Ingermanland at one extreme or Italy and the Levant at the other.[1] Positioned as they were, they found themselves participating in an intellectual culture which does not map onto national borders, then or now. Even something as basic as their university education challenges the assumption, so often made, that early modern Scotland was insular, peripheral, or otherwise cut off from the rest of the world: Robert Sibbald (1641-1722) studied in Leiden, George Mackenzie (1669-1725) in Oxford, another George Mackenzie (1638-1691) in Bourges, John Paul Jameson (1659-1700) in Rome, Thomas Innes (1662-1744) in Paris, Patrick Abercromby (c.1671-post 1735) in Douai. The list goes on. And as for what they read? Sibbald is a good example because we have a relatively complete catalogue of his library. Randomly sampling it I see books published in Würzburg, Raków, Rotterdam, Paris, Messina, Geneva, Treviso, etc. In this light, thinking transnationally seems like the sensible thing to do.

I’m still figuring out how to go about this – transcending nationalist assumptions is easier said than done. What I have learned, though, is that looking past the preconceptions of older literature (say, Scots were backward, isolated, and only cared about Scotland) can reveal remarkable, untapped riches (say, a 25,000 volume library, now in Bavaria, which was assembled by a community of Scottish scholar-monks at Ratisbon throughout the early modern period).[2] I’ve also become increasingly convinced that maps are incredibly powerful hermeneutic tools. Like the beautiful 1539 carta marina drawn by the Swedish scholar Olaus Magnus (printed, however, in Venice) and pictured here, all it takes is a different envisioning of space to make you think, “hold on – what if the relations between x and y were actually this?” Thinking about space and how the real and imagined spatial contours of the early modern world affected scholars continues to be vital to my research.

So for me, the answer to the question of “why transnational history?” or “why spatial history?” is quite simply: it opens new avenues of research, it makes me think about my subject in new ways, and it makes me reach beyond older nationalist assumptions to begin to recover the rich, strange, and thoroughly transnational world of early modern scholarship.

Andreapolis / Cill Rìmhinn / St Andrews
October 2014

[1] Reval being the German for the city we now know by its Estonian name of Tallinn.  Ingermanland (in Swedish) at the far eastern end of the Baltic was Ingeri to the Estonians, Inkeri to the Finns, or Ингрия to the Russians. The Ingrian noble family Pistohlkors believed they were descended from a younger son of the Scotts of Craighall (an easy drive from Dundee).

[2] Ratisbon being the English and Scots name (at least until recently).  It’s Regensburg in German, Ratisbonne in French.

Image, Carta Marina, public domain on WikiCommons.

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