A comment made by Sophie towards the end our last tutorial regarding transnational history’s restricted engagement with the public got me thinking more about the current divides and how it could be better bridged. In particular, I began wondering why I myself did not know much about transnational history before this semester (aside from my own ignorance), and how this promising new field could expand its reach to other historians and to the public; and indeed, if it should.
In the case of the reach of transnational history academically, as usual, the nation has some part to play. The undergraduate history departments in most universities understandably have a large proportion of their teaching and modules centred around traditional nation-state frameworks. This is understandable for a discipline whose inception was practically tied to the institutions of the nation-state and whose readership was intentionally national.
But just as the wheels of history keep moving along so should the approaches used to study it evolve and adapt somewhat over time. I think there is certainly much rationale for introducing transnational as well as global and world histories into the historical curriculum at an earlier stage. This could then help to avoid the initial (and sometimes prolonged) disorientation you feel after you step into your first MO3351 tutorial and your nation-centred world starts crumbling all around you.
In terms of its wider reach within the public sphere transnational history does risk suffering some of the same problems that the academic writing of history generally does when trying to engage with a readership beyond the lecture hall and seminar room. One of the most notable of these is the overuse of jargon or at least very long, drawn out complex sentences which seek to fit in too many aspects and arguments into one idea or expression, and often go off on tangents, such that they risk losing the intended meaning they started off with – much like this sentence is currently demonstrating. Increasing clarity of expression and only using jargon where it necessarily aids the meaning and understanding of a concept (and is fully explained in laymen’s terms) is a particularly important consideration to bear in mind for historians of a new, evolving field like transnational history.
Yet in terms of subjects studied and context there is a potential widespread appeal to transnational history that seems unrealised. Within the diverse and multicultural historical episodes which transnational historians bring to life, from Tonio Andrade’s ‘Chinese Farmer, Two African boys and a warlord’ and Linda Colley’s Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh to broader event-based accounts like Heather Streets-Salter’s article, ‘“The Local Was Global: The Singapore Mutiny of 1915”, there is an underlying sense that you are reading a completely new angle on a previously well-documented event or being exposed to new accounts of people lives which were previously unwritten about.
In fact, in terms of method, a focus on local histories can often facilitate a direct engagement between the transnational historian and the public. This is especially relevant in the case of historians accessing family records and memorabilia as sources and aiming to sensitively and accurately portray personal relationships and stories. We saw a clear example of this in the Transnational Lives edited volume and Martha Hodes’ account of the sea captain’s wife Eunice Connolly. In discussing her search for sources, Hodes mentions how lucky she was to meet descendants of Smiley Connolly’s West Indian family in New York and New England as well as Eunice’s New England family. This enabled her to follow a more personal take on Eunice’s story and helped form her argument regarding the malleability of racial classifications across geographical borders in North and Central America in the latter 19th century.
There is no denying the complexity of transnational history, and many would argue that’s the fun of it, yet that does not mean it cannot engage with a public looking to explore a growing interest in history. Arguably, as well, it should; given its current relevance in a globalised era but even more so given that it’s simply interesting, status-quo challenging history. The difficulty lies essentially in taking complex transnational phenomena, often subject to various origins and influences, and expressing their significance in a simple, yet engaging way. Fair to say its easier said than done.