Global History

As part of our 150th anniversary programme, we recently hosted a symposium on ‘The Future of History: Going Global in the University’ with the Oxford Centre for Global History at the Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian Libraries. Dr Priya Atwal, a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, reflects on the symposium and asks how we can make global history ‘work’.

As an early career academic with an interest in global history, I attended the first day of the symposium with a view to understanding more about how the university space is working to adapt itself in order to ‘embrace the global turn’, and how this may well impact on the practice of historians going forward. The formal discussions (as well as the on-going conversations over tea and lunch) showed just how many challenges and opportunities the practicalities of ‘doing global history’ have thrown up for historians individually and the higher education sector as a whole.

The tightly-packed programme aimed to explore the multi-faceted issues connected with this question by adopting a punchy and lively approach to stimulating discussion: running four panels a day, each with three 10-minute summary papers, followed by plenty of time for debate with the audience. The topics included were wide-ranging and eye-opening: drawing on insights from academic research collaborations across continents, alongside reflecting on the value of museum expertise for interdisciplinary projects, as well as on the importance of working closely with university librarians to shape new kinds of undergraduate curricula.

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Prof. Karen O’Brien (Head of Humanities at the University of Oxford) addressing the symposium in the Ashmolean Museum

One critical issue was brought out powerfully from the outset by Prof. Maxine Berg – who warned against slipping into a sense of complacency and simply passing off the history of European imperialism as global history, even though the two may intersect in many ways. This argument was taken further by Prof. Esther da Costa Meyer, who urged historians based in the West to engage more closely with the work of different scholars from around the world, who are themselves pioneering new kinds of regional and global studies within their own university spaces. This opened up a lively discussion about the often challenging practicalities of working in the field of global history: centring most interestingly on the importance of historians learning more languages in order to be able to access source materials and specialist literature that will enrich their research; or alternatively, to find ways to build international research networks that can enable practitioners with a variety of skills (historical research, language knowledge and museum/archive collections management, for example) to advance knowledge together through working relationships that are meaningful and mutually beneficial, both in a professional and intellectual sense.

The comments of Professors da Costa Meyer and Berg certainly highlighted the risk of the new interest in the ‘global turn’ repeating and further entrenching older patterns of inequality in the practice of scholarly research: wherein ‘native’ specialists would only be recruited for their usefulness in rendering their archives accessible to Western scholars (by providing access to source materials and translating their contents), who go on to impose their own understanding and rationales on such raw material, without engaging in any kind of meaningful discussion with their foreign counterparts. What was promising about the programme and the conversations that it sparked, was the variety of solutions that were being proffered to guard against such issues and lay foundations for truly exciting future developments in promoting the study of global history.

The issue of language learning provoked a great deal of debate and is certainly one of the key long-term challenges that university History departments need to actively engage with if they are serious about embracing global approaches in the curriculum and future research projects. It is a well-known fact that language learning takes a considerable amount of time and dedication, and can add months if not years on to the training of a historian, if one wishes to become truly proficient in understanding a different tongue.

A major brewing problem for the future of historical study in the UK is the apparent lack of interest in language learning amongst British school pupils. Since the government removed the compulsory requirement for students to take a GCSE in a modern language, the number of students taking subjects such as French, Spanish and German have dropped considerably. Those taking non-European languages otherwise available in schools (for example Punjabi, Mandarin and Urdu) have never been high and have often been limited to ethnic minority students, whose engagement with Humanities courses at university-level has also been less than that compared to more vocational courses such Law, Engineering or Medicine. Thus it may well fall to History departments to engage more actively in schools outreach work that not only seeks to make the study of History appealing to more diverse groups of students, but also to make the case for why learning a language on a post-16 course would be beneficial for a student’s career development (whether as an historian or beyond academia).

IMG_om7j20The Ashmolean Museum’s ‘West Meets East’ Gallery

What about developing a pipeline of pioneering global historians from the History students and academics already working at universities? Bodleian History Librarian Isabel Holowaty highlighted the steps that are currently being taken by Oxford’s History Faculty Library to respond to the changes being made by the University’s History tutors, to broaden the remit of the curriculum and introduce more diverse, global perspectives into regular reading lists for undergraduates. Tapping into digital content (whether e-books or digital journals) seem to be the quickest way to enable more historians of different ages, stages and backgrounds to easily learn from and engage with ideas about global history – something that Dr Rowena Olegario backed up with her argument about the importance of connecting researchers around the globe through open access e-journals, to further debates in this field.

Again however, the debate came into difficulties when the language question reared its head, as all of these ideas were predicated on the assumption that all scholarly literature about global history would be produced in English. Should our university courses (both at undergraduate and postgraduate level) therefore include more formal, even compulsory, language learning elements to better support budding researchers with an interest in global history? (Certainly, if this was implemented at the doctoral level at British universities, greater funding support would be needed to lengthen PhD programmes and afford graduate students more time to study languages in addition to completing their research and theses – much more like the American model.)

Going further still, why not also introduce built-in time and support for mid-career or even senior academics to acquire training in language or digital communication skills, to allow them to embrace the global turn at a later stage in their careers? Surely a greater emphasis on life-long skills development would be beneficial for boosting not only the field of global history, but also the professional quality of historians working globally.

Lastly, the other aspect of the day’s discussion that most excited me was the possibility that global history contains for the building of networks that can span the boundaries of nations, disciplines and institutions. Prof Paul Betts’ collaborative research project – exploring the relationship between Eastern Europe and Africa, and the shifting dialogue around socialism within this – was an interesting case in point, demonstrating how new partnerships spanning across and including researchers from previously marginalized/less well-studied parts of the world can inject fresh insights into seemingly old debates.

Alternatively, the work of Dr Laura Van Broekhoven on the colonial legacy of the Pitt Rivers Museum provided brilliant examples of how using material culture more creatively – alongside collaborating with a mix of scholars, heritage specialists and community groups – can transform and enrich our historical understanding considerably. These issues were also discussed in a fascinating presentation by Prof. Wayne Modest of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum. Perhaps most movingly of all, Dr Steffen Burkhardt’s account of his experiences of running a ‘digital memories’ project (to record and preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors with a diverse team of German undergraduate historians) highlighted how useful technology can be for taking innovative findings from such inclusive research teams out to a broader audience, stimulating positive social dialogue in the process.

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Dr Sujit Sivasundaram (Co-Chair of our Race, Ethnicity & Equality Working Group) addressing the symposium in the Bodleian Libraries.

It seemed to me from all of this that the world of the global historian may become quite different to that of an older, stereotypical type of History scholar. Global historians may well need to increasingly work in teams; collaborating with researchers with different regional specialisms, as well as perhaps linguists and curators. They may also likely need to access sources, conferences, literature and audiences through various different digital media platforms, if they are not always going to have sufficient time or funding support to physically travel to locations to be present for such activities. We will equally need to invest time and energy in growing the number of students who are interested in global history and also equipping them with a range of skills in languages, digital communication and even public history, if this shift is going to be a sustainable, long-term change and not just an academic fad. Universities will therefore have to think quickly and creatively about how to build a supportive infrastructure around this evolving culture and practice. It will be interesting to see how, going forward, our History departments will prioritise the kinds of changes that they are willing and able to make, in order to the ensure that the study of global history can really work.

Dr Priya Atwal is a TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Oxford, and is taking up a new post as a Teaching Fellow in Modern South Asian History at King’s College London from September 2018. You can follow her on Twitter @priyaatwal.


Featured image (top): Standing figure of Buddha, from northern Pakistan c.200AD; Ashmolean Museum. This image was used for the programme of the symposium and was discussed in a presentation by Prof Peter Stewart, Director of Oxford’s Classical Art Research Centre.