Global History as Past and Future: A Conversation with Sebastian Conrad on “What Is Global History?”
It’s a common question that teachers of global history face. We belong to one of the most quickly-moving, contested, and changing subfields within the historical profession, and the travel schedules on many of our dockets—Istanbul one week, Tokyo the next—make our colleagues who slave away in the same provincial state archive blush. The years spent learning foreign languages begin to pay off, as one can not only read the newspaper but also foreign colleagues’ peer review comments on an article scheduled for publication in this or that journal. Life, it seems, is good.
But when it comes time to teach global history as a field, one hesitates. For audiences of graduate students, of course, it’s possible to follow the tactic of assigning a pile of monographs bringing global history perspectives to different regions of the planet: China the one week, the Gambia the next. But how to put it all together into one common language that speaks to the Americanists and the East Asianists in one seminar? Worse yet: how to teach this all to undergraduate audiences for whom the monograph approach would incite revolt?
Fortunately, as we’ve noted in earlier installments of the Global History Forum, scholars of global history who formerly had to throw their hands up in response to this dilemma increasingly have at their disposal an array of good introductory works to the field. One might only think of the work of Diego Olstein, for a recent work in just this niche in English, or, for German-speaking audiences, a 2011 book that fills the same need by Austrian economic historian (and former TPF interviewee) Andrea Komlosy. At the field grows and becomes more sophisticated, though, so, too, are the options for introductory texts expanding. One of such works constitutes the focus of this installment of the Global History Forum, namely the aptly-titled What Is Global History? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) by Professor Sebastian Conrad, the Chair in Modern History at the Free University of Berlin.
Billed as a “problem-oriented” approach to global history that provides much-needed criticism and pauses alongside enthusiasm, Conrad’s What Is Global History? appears at just the right time for a field in much need of explaining itself to students—and to critically interrogating its own limits. Recently, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan had the chance to speak with Professor Conrad to discuss his recent book and what he sees as the biggest challenges facing the field as it matures and grows in years ahead.…