This is the page where you find some reflections from students over the past few years and semesters
In AY2017-18 semester 2, the module was co-taught by Jordan Girardin and Bernhard Struck.
Andrew – The radical reformer of the School Curriculum & Writing (blogs) without even thinking…
“Now that we have finished a full semester of transnational history, I am firmly convinced that traditional history is in some way lacking if it does not incorporate a transnational perspective. I also am somewhat amazed that my exposure to this way of analyzing history has come so late in my academic career. What is more, it is incredible to think that most history graduates will have gone through their entire university career without gaining any exposure to the topics that we discussed. This is something which we discussed at the unconference earlier in the semester (and disagreed about a lot!) and which I would like to explore further now. The question I wish to raise is whether transnational history should be taught as an integral part of the history curriculum, including at primary and secondary school level?
Let’s face it, our history education before coming to St Andrews was based almost entirely around the nation-state. At A-Level, I studied a history of the Soviet Union, the history of post-unification Germany and Italian unification. All three of these topics are heavily ‘un-Transnational’. Take, for instance, Italian unification, which focused almost entirely on how a nation was built and how it interacted with other nations (for example, Austria, France and Britain). What is interesting is that within this, there would be countless networks that you could use to analyze the Risorgimento. Of course, there is some focus on the network of Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi, but there were also lots of freemason networks and other kinds of networks that could be included in this. However, I am not trying to say that we should not include nation-centred analyses, but rather that a national and transnational approach can be intertwined together. History curriculums could, say, examine the history of the nation-state and its macro political and international history whilst also examining the individual actors and networks which comprise these broader processes.
Of course, if you were to include a transnational history curriculum in primary school, you would have to significantly modify the content in this course. Indeed, primary students may end up being put off history altogether if the teacher started talking about the complexities of Actor-Network Theory, strong and weak ties, and even Patricia Clavin’s ideas. One way in which you would have to modify the course to suit a much younger age range would be to have less of a theoretical approach to understanding transnational history and more of a practical, case-study focused approach. A class of primary school students would be much more interested in learning about postwar German guest workers, the Singapore Mutiny and Lüderitzbucht than, say, Bruno Latour or Mark Granovetter. Another thing would be to bring out the micro and anecdotal aspect of transnational history into the curriculum by trying to introduce interesting transnational stories. The reading that comes to mind is Tonio Andrade’s piece which we read earlier in the semester. History could have more of a case-study focus which brings history to life in the imagination, something which I certainly felt when reading Andrade, perhaps my favourite piece of academic literature I have read during my whole time at St Andrews. We could also teach them about A Croatian Electrician, Two Army Officers, and a French Tennis Legend in order to help bring history alive!
Another important part of our transnational history course this semester that could be brought into school education could be all the different types of alternative learning which we experimented with this semester. I found the unconference idea to be a wonderful one and I think pair-writing could definitely be something that could be introduced in high schools (though I think getting them to meet on a Saturday like we did might be a bit of a stretch!). Another thing that could be introduced into the school system could be the blog post idea. What I found particularly useful about this was that it encouraged me to get into the habit of writing, whereas I previously tend to massively overthink things before I put pen to paper, I now feel more confident in just writing without even thinking about it. Why not also bring mapping and databasing into the school curriculum? History as a subject can very easily be criticized for not teaching students many practical skills. But, mapping and databasing goes hand-in-hand with transnational history and could really encourage students to pursue history beyond school. Moreover, if schools taught transnational history, I think they should also adopt the project idea which we are doing this semester. Many of my high school history classes involved just listening to teachers try and explain history to a class. I definitely think there needs to be more of getting students out there to research a part of history which they are actually interested in, rather than sticking to a set school curriculum. This kind of inquiry-based teaching would definitely help make primary and secondary school students more curious and develop personal interests in history.
So, what’s been the purpose of this post? It is partly to say that the primary and secondary school system should incorporate transnational history alongside national history. But, it is also to say how grateful I am that I have been exposed to transnational history (albeit maybe slightly too late in my academic career for my liking). It has encouraged me to think differently about how we as historians may wish to think about how we go about doing history and challenge our previous ideas about how history has to be focused around the nation. In many ways, I wish I had been encouraged to think in these terms earlier, even at primary school level, as it would have promoted my interest in history much more. So, yes, history at all levels should have a transnational focus.”
Marissa – The US-Mexican border, cotton, Chinese migration
“There’s a lot to say about this module as it comes to an end. When I registered for it, I really hadn’t grasped just how new of an experience this would turn out to be for me. It really wasn’t what I thought it would be (honestly I don’t know what I thought it would be). I can’t deny that transnational history was a somewhat difficult topic to navigate in the beginning. This was probably due to several misconceptions I’d had about transnational history, the most notable of which being that transnational history was the same thing as international history. This is an idea which has certainly been corrected, but which I also had a hard time letting go of for probably the first 2 or 3 classes of this module. Nevertheless, I arrived in this module excited to do international history and I ended up with something totally different.
Transnational history wasn’t necessarily in my comfort zone of scholarship. Half the time I didn’t really think what I was doing even counted as transnational history. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to present my final project that I actually thought that I had something that was viable and that I could work with. You can’t imagine how many times I went back to Patricia Clavin because I was pretty sure I’d gotten myself off track again. In retrospect, I’m really grateful for the hurdles that I worked to jump. I think they made me a better history student. I’m glad that instead of writing essays about Nazi occupation–something that has been done more times than I can count–I was writing blog posts and project proposals about things that I had hand-picked because I felt they were historically fascinating and important to learn.
Without this module, I would never have known that Mexicali was built by a Chinese diaspora community. The border between the United States and Mexico was never an area that I associated with migration from third-party nations. This may sound bad, but I’d honestly figured the borderlands were a place few people ever wanted to live, especially since the militarization of the border on behalf of the United States. Looking at the borderlands for transnational elements was something I’d decided to do because it sounded more possible than connecting the entire Chicano community to transnationalism–evidence for this kind of exists, but not to an extent that I could write 5,000 words on it. It ended up turning out that all I really had to do to find what I wasn’t even necessarily looking for was turn to the 19th century global economy and read into how this facilitated migration. It turned out that these lines that demarcate territory can actually inspire the unique growth of civilizations. The rest came together like a puzzle, which is really the most satisfying way to do history at the end of the day and something that truly rarely happens to me.
The thing that I loved the absolute most about this class was that it wasn’t a scramble for evidence that backed up some sort of thesis that really wasn’t amazingly original. It’s not always the most easy thing to come up with original ideas in a modern history class. I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but modern history is REALLY popular nowadays and has been for decades. This class was more of a test in just how much history we can uncover for ourselves when it’s not readily available to us in a secondary source. I’ve had classes kind of like this before, but I rarely ever felt like I had actually succeeded in what I’d set out to do. This time, I felt like I really got into what I was trying to accomplish. Every time I found something new I was like oh, cool! It was really this class that gave me the feeling that made me understand why historians really love to do what they do.”
Lilia – The Spanish Flu 1918, railways and infrastructure
“It feels like just yesterday that I was sitting in MO3351 for the first time, somewhat apprehensive about the semester. I’ll be completely honest and say that the reason I was wary of the module had nothing to do with how it was taught or the workload, but rather the subject material of the weekly reading. I dislike historiography (HI2001 was a dark time in my life), something I think stems from three semesters of studying almost exclusively theoretical approaches to the other part of my degree, International Relations (IR). My history modules were always sort of my escape from the endless talk of paradigms and epistemology and relativism that seemed to haunt every aspect of IR. Trying to do the early readings in this course, therefore, was an unpleasant awakening. I remember going home after the first seminar determined to switch modules – I felt out of my depth and like I was in the wrong module completely.
Of course, I realize that my aversion to theory is a personal problem. I know that historiography is a serious and in fact vital part of studying history. History is a subjective field and as a result, in order to represent the past accurately, we must understand how we approach its study. My boredom and annoyance with academic theory is my own issue – just because writing a historiography essay feels like pulling teeth does not mean that it is unimportant, merely that it is definitely not my forte.
However, just because I complained a lot about transnational historiography does not mean that I did not learn a great deal from or enjoy this module. Like Ollie mentioned in his previous blog post, I feel that I have come away from this module with an actual (if not perfect) understanding of what transnational history actually is. Before, I had simply assumed it meant history that had occurred outside of the borders of a specific country – any history of World War I would thus be automatically transnational, because WWI was global in scope. I did not connect the ‘transnational’ element as referring to a movement of actors, goods, and ideas across borders, nor did I understand the importance of networks in transnational history (Andy’s blog post on Actor-Network Theory was particularly helpful in this).
I also noted a definite improvement – or at least acknowledgement – of my work habits through this semester. Having to write down exactly how many coffees I will go to in order to avoid work was truly sobering. I found our pair-writing exercises far more effective than I thought they would be, and even the day I was most dreading – our Saturday seminar, of course – to be beneficial. While I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people that plan their assignments out months in advance or finishes them weeks ahead of time, our repeated check-ins on our respective progress certainly made me more aware of and proactive towards deadlines.
Finally, despite my earlier melodramatic complaints about historiography, I genuinely enjoyed this module. My semester-long (and ongoing) project on the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 is the longest amount of time I have spent focusing on one specific topic, and instead of becoming bored with the flu, I’ve only become more interested. I’ve particularly appreciated the format of the class, and I feel like the discussion and collaboration helped me both in terms of my project and also in understanding transnational history. After years of sitting in lectures or classes in which the students did all of the listening and none of the speaking, I felt more like an adult and less of a high school student in our discussions. This module may not have been what I expected, but I think the tools I gained from it and the new understanding I have of transnational history made it very much worthwhile.”
Further afterthoughts can be found here:
The early days – How it all started
In 2014-15 (second semester) we (Konrad Lawson and I) ran this module for the first time. It was certainly a jump into unknown territory for us – in many ways. Team-teaching a module between a twentieth-century East Asian historian with interests in legal history, World War II, the Japanese Empire (to name only a few of Konrad’s research areas) and a Europeanist with interests in the eighteenth and nineteenth century mainly, travel, borders or science (Bernhard), does not work on the grounds of common and shared knowledge and expertise. Almost by default such a module is not “research-led” by the teachers / tutors / professors. In all honesty: it is perhaps more “ignorance-led”, to some degree. But that was the purpose. If anything the module is driven by a shared common ground analytically around transnational, comparative, global and / or spatial approaches.
Once that was introduced in weeks 1-3, we flipped the idea of (professor) research-led teaching – and let the students go and develop their projects independently, but always with support from peers and tutors and through elements like pair-writing or the “unconference” on a Saturday morning or the 7-minute “speed-dating” like Project-Talks.
It has been a very inspirational semester in many ways:
- Team-Teaching away and beyond one’s own area of expertise is very inspirational and mind-opening
- Seeing students lead the way of research was very rewarding (including dead ends and “failures”)
- The level of co-operation between students and students-staff was an exceptional experience
We also discovered that we are not alone with such an approach. Fabricio Prado from the College of William & Mary does something similar, inspired by his work on empire and networks in the South Atlantic in his seminar on Cities of Empires.
This is how we advertised / promised for MO3351:
Over the past ten years transnational and global history have emerged as some of the most vibrant fields in late modern history. With their interest in cross-border activities, with their focus on the flow and interconnection of ideas and goods and their transformation between different cultural and national contexts, with their emphasis on people on the move who create nodes between cultures, both transnational and global history very much reflect the world we live in. The team-taught module provides an entry point to the field of transnational history, its approaches and tools. At the same time, the module is designed around key aspects of today’s work life and transferable skills: a strong sense of sharing, exchanging, collaborating and presenting in informal and more formal settings. It is deliberately designed to be open and flexible as it seeks to allow students to take ownership of the content and the cases to be studied. Following an introduction to the field along a series of text based seminars, the module is mainly designed around a number of workshops and training sessions that will equip students with the skills to analyse, map and visualise transnational histories – that is “doing” and “practicing”.
This is what students thought in 2015:
“This module was vastly different from anything I did at Sub-Honours and even at Honours. With such an emphasis on sharing ideas and engaging with my peers as well as the tutors, this module gave me the opportunity to find my voice, express my own opinions, and listen to constructive feedback about my ideas in a positive environment. I am much more confident now in my ability to make a concise but effective argument regarding a journal article or a broader idea than I ever would have been at Sub-Honours and even in my first semester in Honours.”
“Without a doubt I can say this is the most dynamic, innovative course I have taken and know of at the university. It felt like our class and professors were all a part of a method of learning greater than we realized, part of something that is fundamentally changing the way history is taught. The responsibility and autonomy given to the students by Dr. Struck and Dr. Lawson is an exceptional approach to preparing honours students for developing their own research ideas, especially with dissertations looming ahead. It was the first time at honours level that a class demanded true initiative and engagement on the part of the students.”
“This was a stimulating and enlightening module. Dr Struck and Dr Lawson challenged the traditional way of teaching history, not necessarily to undermine more conventional methods of teaching but more to present us with a different way of approaching our discipline. At times, the tasks laid in front of us seemed daunting, but the encouragement I received both from my peers and from the tutors helped me quickly get over that anxiety and inspired me to offer the the same support to the rest of the class. Presenting transnational history and introducing new research tools like qGIS and Gephi in just one semester is a challenging and cumbersome undertaking, and it would have failed were it not for the passion and enthusiasm for the subject held by the tutors. Their fervor for every aspect of the class made me look forward to every weekly session. This was truly a very enjoyable module.”
“Independent learning was a big priority, and made me feel more accountable for my own success.”
“I very much like the project running through the entire semester as it allows us to develop one idea over a semester which is not usually the case.”
“I am currently a 4th year student, I can see that the focus on independent research will benefit the 3rd years in the class who will be researching their dissertation next year.” (Comment on the last two comments: Yes, progression is something we clearly have in mind. This module is not exclusively designed for junior-Honours, i.e. third year, it is explicitly open to both Honours years, but it is meant to encourage independent, autonomous research on the learning curve towards an Honours Dissertation.)
“The use of a shared Google document for collaborative notes allowed me to draw inspiration from the work of my classmates. The interaction between classmates and tutors which this fostered led to valuable feedback on my ideas. The paired-writing process forced me to write efficiently in a way which I usually struggle to do. The structured but relaxed nature of the seminars was such that it quickly became normal to discuss ideas openly. This helped me to gain confidence in my ability to articulate ideas, and inspired me to partake in academic discussions in a way which previous modules have not.”
“The module included a strong focus on presentation skills that have allowed me to consider new techniques for future presentations.” (Comment: Presenting formally and informally, standing in front of a group and speak for a very short time 1-2 minutes, 7 minutes or up to 20 minutes max. is a core part of the course as a key transferable skill that we all need.)
“The digital humanities aspect of the module was especially rewarding. A thoroughly good module that was well-taught and led by Bernhard and Konrad. I am very interesting to see how this project develops over the next few years. I am very grateful to be part of this new module, and new way of learning.” (Comment: And there is more now to discover and manouvre the early steps of map-making for historians. – Thanks to a University of St Andrews Teaching Innovation Grant.”
“The class didn’t end once we walked out of the room, but was a continuous learning process week to week. From writing blog posts, commenting on one another’s ideas and then further exploring these thoughts in only 2 hours meant that our engagement on the course went far beyond meeting the bare minimum. Everyone remained engaged and enthusiastic to allow this course to continually inform our experiences. For example, one Saturday we all gathered for an ‘unconference’ to try out ‘pair programming’, a system in which one person acts as the driver and writes while the other person oversees the operation, and then switch roles. It was unlike anything any of us had experienced, but just one example out of many in which we were challenged to explore our knowledge acquired thus far, to engage with the freedom of developing our own ideas and inform one another respectfully. My praise and admiration for this class is endless. From discussing how each of us can practice better study habits, which is especially important at honours level, to the flexibility and opportunity to shape this class along with the professors is what marks this class as truly distinct and special to St Andrews.” (Comment: On the idea of pair-programming in the Humanities see Konrad’s ProfHacker blog. On study hacks and habits see #THRaSH: This is certainly something I would like to develop further. Of course, we are passionate about history and teaching history. But the reality is that most of our students will not end up being academic historians. The question is what skills and habits to teach. And this is where the ‘ignorance-led’ teaching opens opportunities in terms of discussing habits, reflecting on routines such as regular writing, preparing a talk in different forms and length or how to act and interact in collaborative and team-work environments that are part and parcel of many areas of today’s work.)
“The blogs were an excellent idea, because it encouraged increased interaction with class mates.” (Comment: This was new to us. It worked, as can be seen on this website, but what we need to improve is clarity on what we expect and when to be posted.)
“This class benefited my confidence through many challenging but unique activities. The autonomy given to the students demanded true initiative and engagement. The class didn’t end once we walked out of the room, but was a continuous learning process week to week. In particular it was the steady input necessitated by the structure of the class that allowed me to grow as a better student. The class was shaped by our understanding and interpretation of texts or approaches, the questions we voiced in lightning talks at the beginning of every class, the ‘unconference‘ and the multiple presentations of a long-term research project that ensured continual improvement of study habits and confidence in my skills. The long-term research project allowed me to hone in on an idea, present it to the class, receive feedback and be challenged by my peers, return to the drawing board and later present an improved, more succinct project. The conference style of presentations replicated the feeling of a conference due to its high expectations of subject matter and independent research, and for the first time made me feel like an equal. The students informed the professors as much as they us.” (Comment: At the risk of sounding selfish – yes, I did learn a great deal from the students’ projects and their self-driven research agendas, more than in any module I have designed and taught before.”)
“Generally a very well run and interesting module. Great to have the freedom to choose an area of history which interested me specifically, although the expected workload was considerably more challenging than any other modules I have done.”
“Dr. Struck and Dr. Lawson have developed something extraordinary here, and I hope this class has the future to let other students feel and be treated as real historians.”
Thank you very much for thorough feedback and food for thought. It has been a great pleasure and privilege teaching this class. We will be back together with Dr Nikos Papadogiannis in second semester 2015-16.