U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Transnational History: An Update

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

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. My undergraduate training was in a physics department and as I first entered a history (of science) department I was surprised by the lack of collaborative work. Currently I am agnostic about collaborations in history. I would like to see it happen, but I am not sure how to make it work without giving up current methods of history. The main reason for collaboration is that it increases the speed with which projects can be completed and it also makes many projects possible with would be impossible with a single researcher. However there are two conditions necessary for collaboration in scientific project: shared, established methodology, and hierarchy/division of labor. Historians have difficulty accepting those. Large collaborations work if everyone provides a piece of the total work, and the pieces fit together according to some preconceived plan. This will only happen if each piece is constructed in a prescribed way. As historians, have we developed methods which would produce independently developed pieces that would “fit together” to produce one narrative? Would we want to have such strict methodologies?

    The second point is that as historians we very much feel ownership of everything that appears with our name on it. In the “science lab” model that will not work. Each person contributes a piece and is not necessarily responsible for how that piece is used. This is why Tim, I think, thinks that collaborative projects would take longer, because each collaborator would want to review the final outcome and make suggestions and corrections, rather than just contributing his or her piece and letting it go.

    In a way we have a different collaborative model in our profession: the edited volume. The editor, equivalent to the Principle Investigator (PI) in a science lab, who is responsible for selecting all the chapters and making sure they fit together, but each author is not necessarily responsible for what the other authors write. We could take the edited volume model and extend it, make it even more collaborative. Start with clear statement of the historical issue and methodology and scope. Integrate the individual chapters into one narrative. Allow individuals contributors to query each other. Make all the contributors as the authors of the collaborative work. (List the roles of each contributor in the overall project)

    I am not necessarily advocating this kind of collaboration, but I don’t think we should look to disciplines as alien to ours (physics or biology) for models, but rather, if we are going to embrace collaboration, we should look for more organic development from what we already feel comfortable doing.

  2. Sylwester,

    Thanks for jumping in. I do think that the profession can function under a multiple author scenario, it’s just not how we’re trained. In fact, multiple authorship would help younger historians get the credit they deserve as grad school assistants. I recall that’s how grad school scientists build their resumes.

    I think the problem here is a linguistic one. Readers desire a unified voice in writing. This is what makes historians more like humanists than scientists. Insofar as a historical publication can be more social-science like, then it’s ripe for multiple authorship. Otherwise, the narrative might not “sell” because it’s not as readable. Of course you allude to this in your first paragraph. But even if the historians found it acceptable as a less hierarchical working arrangement, readers might not like the product. I suppose a good publisher/editor can help smooth out the rough spots in a multiple author project.

    – TL

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