Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany

.تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Julia Hauser (Global History, University of Kassel, Germany)

Julia Hauser. Photo by Hubert Kudlinski

The humanities are united by their aim of promoting critical self-reflection. History shares this aim, and so do recent turns in the field. In the context of one of these turns, global history was created as a new field in the early 2000s, aiming not so much at a comprehensive history of the world but rather questioning the prominence of the nation and of Eurocentrism in history. This brief contribution will explore the challenges that history in general and global history specifically face at present. It then sketches its position in academia, before suggesting topics and ways for Arab and German historians in this field to cooperate and outlining why such collaborations might be helpful. It concludes by looking at teaching, another way through which global history can reach out into society, suggesting that this might be an even more effective way of living up to history’s social responsibility.

Neoliberalism and the Imperative of Fast Research: Narrowing Perspectives

Historical research is faced with a number of challenges in the twenty-first century. There are actual or impending restrictions on academic freedom in many countries around the world, and the threat of new forms of right-wing populism and extremism is evident.

A new research culture that wants quick results is less severely but equally harmful to historical research. This is certainly a problem for critical in-depth research. This new research culture corresponds to a new, neoliberal culture of labor. Many young researchers in Germany are on short-term contracts. There are almost no permanent positions below the professorial level. It is young researchers, however, who do the bulk of the research and a considerable part of teaching, while full professors in permanent positions often struggle with a heavy load of administrative duties, which leaves them with less and less time for research.

This acceleration of the research culture is at odds with the development of new approaches in history, including the field of global history. To some extent, the term global history is a misnomer. The purpose of global history, as defined by Sebastian Conrad and others, is less to provide an encyclopedic history of the world in terms of universal or world history and more to examine global or transcontinental entanglements and question the dominance of the nation in historiography.[1]

Global historians argue that the nation is a historical construct and notions of the nation as a homogeneous community are not just highly problematic but have always been fiction rather than fact. They point towards the evidence that modernity, long seen as a phenomenon originating in the West, came into being as a result of encounters between Europe and other parts of the world, with the latter contributing to it significantly. They also criticize the predominance of Eurocentric narratives, emphasizing the agency of non-European actors.

Successful projects in global history rely on global cooperation and research mobility. They also depend on scholars’ willingness to immerse themselves in cultural contexts that are new to them, including new languages, demanding a commitment to lifelong learning, a corresponding resilience to failure and an awareness of one’s own intellectual limits. Global history, in other words, has an agenda that can hardly be reconciled with a culture of fast research.

Broadening Perspectives: Arab-German Cooperation in Historical Research

From the point of view of my own research, I can think of a number of topics that would benefit from Arab-German cooperation and collaboration.

The history of scientific travel has long been written from a Eurocentric perspective, with a heavy focus on the alleged European ‘discoverers.’ It would be highly rewarding to write a history of scientific travel that took place during the era of imperialism or the production of geographic/historical knowledge about the Arab world as a collaborative enterprise performed by both Arabs and Europeans. Arab collaborators remain largely in the shadow in European travel reports. In addition, little is known about how European scientific travelers were perceived locally. This is because a number of these travelers ran into troubles and conflicts with Ottoman authorities. One may find sources on this both in Ottoman and Arab archives.

Another phenomenon related to imperialism is the history of European schools in the Middle East, which has long been told as a Eurocentric story of modernizing the Arab world. While this perspective shifted with the more recent historiography on the Arab nahda of the nineteenth century, more research needs to be produced on European-Arab collaboration in the history of education.[2] Many prominent Arab politicians and intellectuals attended European and American schools in their youth. On the other hand, some European women were hired as nurses and tutors in wealthy Arab households or worked at local schools. The biographies of Arab teachers in Western schools are also only starting to be researched.

Cooperation and collaboration along such lines could have many benefits for all partners involved, whether in society or academia. German global historians could widen their perspectives by getting to know their Arab colleagues’ condition of work, cultures of research, etc. Arab history departments could receive additional funding, Arab historians could shed critical light on German history, and Arab and German historians could explore new aspects of Arab-German entanglements. Together, they could also co-teach classes on the subject of their joint research, which would help to broaden the curriculum in all universities involved. Cooperation in the domain of teaching, moreover, could lead to new opportunities in student mobility, which, in Germany, has so far been largely restricted to mobility within Europe. It is important, especially for fields such as global history, to promote student mobility in partnership with countries outside Europe very early on.

Moreover, some topics in connection with German history, and which might not be connected to the Arab world, would also profit from German-Arab cooperation. German history lacks a perspective from outside due to the fact that area studies have a long tradition of analyzing others’ cultures rather than one’s own; this could be beneficial in pointing out blind spots in one’s own self-image. The study of tolerance is a case in point. Present-day European societies consider themselves supremely tolerant due to their alleged secularism. As recent studies have shown, however, there is a long history of tolerance and debates on tolerance in Arab contexts.[3] It would be of great interest to have Arab historians study German or, on a broader front, European notions of tolerance.

Teaching Global History: A Potential for Diversity

Arab-German research cooperations are not the only way to broaden global history. Teaching is another important field for implementing such an agenda. Despite its importance to society, history has lost its popularity among students in Germany. While this is particularly true for courses in ancient and medieval history, modern history is also impacted by this trend. History should not just step back into its public role but also be made more inclusive in order to arouse greater interest among students. National history should be complemented by new narratives, such as the ones offered by global and transnational history, since the idea of the nation as a homogeneous community hardly corresponds to current realities.

University teachers should actively embrace the diversity of their students’ backgrounds, since many of them bring skills that could enrich classes for everyone concerned. Many students have a command of languages that allows them to draw on sources and research literature inaccessible to other German students. The fact that these skills have not yet been employed to date is symptomatic of a flaw in the German educational system and in German migration politics. In contrast to supposedly important languages such as English, Spanish and, occasionally, French and Latin, knowledge of languages such as Turkish, Arabic or Polish has long been actively suppressed in German schools. What informs this practice is a unidirectional notion of ‘integration,’ which required migrants and children of migrants to adapt to German culture, rather than focusing on what Germans (supposedly) without migration histories of their own could learn from their neighbors and how they could adapt and change in the course of the encounter.[4] Universities could be a testing ground for a new, potentially more equitable approach to conviviality, allowing some students to bring in their additional skills while allowing others to learn from them. Fields such as global history could only profit from such an exchange and so would German society in general, with students teaching students, their teachers and the rest of society to question stereotypes, inter alia, about Arabs and Islam.[5]

More narrowly, such an approach to teaching would also help the discipline of history recover. If university teachers in history departments communicate to students that they can help make history more diverse, this might well increase the students’ interest in the discipline. In the long run, this might help confront another problem in German academia, namely, the startling lack of diversity in faculties – a problem that not just universities are facing but also schools, where history curricula, moreover, are even more Eurocentric. Perspectives could be broadened to an even greater extent if schools and universities were to cooperate with NGOs and cultural institutions, which, in the past few decades, have often been far more active in questioning Eurocentric narratives in history and far more vociferous in pointing out racism than have formal educational institutions. It needs to be added, however, that a focus on a new approach to teaching should not come at the expense of research. This new approach can only be implemented by scholars with a strong record in research and with tenured positions. Faculties composed of tenured staff focusing on research and nontenured hired staff for teaching would hardly be able to succeed in making this transition.

Conclusion

Through international, specifically Arab-German, cooperation in research and teaching, outreach beyond the narrow sphere of education and academia and a new approach to academic teaching, therefore, global history could come one step closer to its intention of challenging Eurocentrism. A new approach to teaching, which might contribute in a much more direct manner to a change in consciousness within academia and the educational system at large as well as among the general public, could add to this. By demonstrating its relevance, global history might well become more popular again with students in and beyond Germany. None of these changes would address the problems scholars are confronted with because of neoliberalism in academia, and indeed, great care would have to be taken in order for these changes not to come at the expense of research; they would, nonetheless, help history to step out of the ivory tower to live up to its position between the humanities and the social sciences as a discipline with a social responsibility.


[1] Sebastian Conrad, What Is Global History?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Forum Transregionale Studien and Max Weber Foundation, eds., All Things Transregional?  A Conversation About Transregional Research. Areas and Disciplines 4, Berlin-Bonn, 2019, https://perspectivia.net/receive/pnet_mods_00001155 (accessed 29.01.2021).

[2] Julia Hauser, Christine Lindner, and Esther Möller, “Introduction”, in: Julia Hauser, Christine Lindner, and Esther Möller (eds.), Entangled Education. Foreign and Local Schools in Ottoman Syria and Mandate Lebanon (19th–20th Centuries), Würzburg: Ergon, 2016, 11–28.

[3] Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence. The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World, Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. Sarhan Dhouib, ed., Toleranz in transkultureller Perspektive, Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2020.

[4] Kübra Gümüşay, Sprache und Sein, Berlin: Hanser, 2020, esp. 36–38.  Margarete Stokowski, “Sprache”, in: Fatma Aydemir and Hengameh Yaghoobifarah (eds.), Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum, Berlin: Ullstein, 2019, 150–155.

[5] As Ozan Zakaria Keskinkılıç argued recently, these stereotypes are deeply rooted in German society. Ozan Zakaria Keskinkılıç, Die Islamdebatte gehört zu Deutschland. Rechtspopulismus und antimuslimischer Rassismus im (post-)kolonialen Kontext, Berlin: Aphorisma, 2019. Historians have shown that such resentments were already quite common during the nineteenth century when German politicians and churchmen dreamt of expanding German influence in the Ottoman Empire.  Malte Fuhrmann, Der Traum vom deutschen Orient. Zwei deutsche Kolonien im Osmanischen Reich 1851–1918, Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2006. Julia Hauser, German Religious Women in Late Ottoman Beirut. Competing Missions, Leiden: Brill, 2015.


Julia Hauser is Associate Professor of Global History at the University of Kassel. Specializing in the entangled history of Europe, the Ottoman Empire and South Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she is interested more specifically in the history of missions, gender and imperialism, as well as the history of food, the body and visions of New Man. In her current research project she is looking at the entangled history of vegetarianism between Europe and South Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Her publications include German Religious Women in Late Ottoman Beirut: Competing Missions (Brill, 2018) and, with Harald Fischer-Tiné and Ashok Malhotra, “Nutrition, Identity and Improving the Indian Body Politic, 1925–1957”, Special Issue for South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (forthcoming). Julia Hauser is an alumna of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA).


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.


Citation: Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Reserach, 01.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27576.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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