In November I wrote here about the promise and perils of transnational history. Here is an InsideHigherEd article that is much more optimistic (Pollyannaish?) about the trend. I was informed by a colleague that the just-completed AHA meeting in NYC held at least one panel on the topic, and apparently this article is based on one of those prominent panels. Among other things reported from the gathering, InsideHigherEd’s Scott Jaschik provocatively concluded as follows:
Some observers here said that they believe transnational history has the potential to lead to dramatic changes in the profession. Rana Mitter, a professor of history at the University of Oxford, said that transnational approaches could change history from a “lone scholar” discipline to one more like “a physics lab,” with group contributions. “The inability of all of us to learn 15 languages or cope with 17 different archives” could encourage “a more team-based type of historical practice,” Mitter said. While some have long advocated such a shift, transnational methodologies could be “a motivation to make it happen.”
I think that Rana Mitter is articulating a somewhat distorted view of how history has been written before transnationalism. While history books are traditionally credited to one “author,” we all know that books are very much a group process involving peer review, interactions with archivists, editing, etc. However, with regard to the optimistic “lab” or team approach to writing, well, that means books will take at least twice as long to come to publication—if they are ever finished. Team research or editing is one thing, but team writing is another. In my experience, group writing accidentally encourages delays and procrastination.
Also, per my earlier reflections, those “dramatic changes” that might occur are predicated on affordability. Those changes might be possible at schools with high or unlimited budgets, but your average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill PhD program won’t be able to afford the proper training of transnational historians. And if the already great schools do this, it’ll simply perpetuate the already inordinate hiring of historians from ranked, top-10-type programs. – TL