From the Teaching column in the March 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
Teaching Transnational American History in a Study Abroad Program: America and Vietnam
Mart A. Stewart, March 2013
One of the more important historiographical developments in the practice of American history in the last 20 years has come from the efforts of historians to understand what has not been national about the history of the nation-state. They have identified how the history of the nation-state has itself been a historical development, have analyzed the sources of that development, and have then begun to analyze American history as a relationship between the particular entities or places within the geographical area defined as the United States and the rest of the world.
"We need a history that understands national history as itself being made in and by histories that are both larger and smaller than the nations," Thomas Bender has pronounced, in an introduction to one of the most comprehensive reappraisals of American history in transnational terms. He continues, "The nation is not freestanding and self-contained; like other forms of human solidarity it is connected with and partially shaped by what is beyond it."1 Bender and other historians have forcefully reimagined many of the sites of significance in American history, and have explained phenomena that have density and force in history of the United States in terms of the transnational relationships that gave these phenomena potency and meaning. These explanations are now represented in several American history textbooks and in the classes we teach to undergraduates.
Students taking my U.S. history courses understand intuitively this scholarship, or at least the analytical impulse upon which it is founded—they now breathe an air that circles the globe, at least virtually. But apart from this virtual experience, few of my students have had easily identifiable experience with the transnational history of the United States on the ground. With this in mind, the study abroad course I've designed in Vietnam takes American history to one of the places where American hegemony has been most decisively tested and shaped, and teaches students how to think about it from multiple perspectives not in the classroom but in direct exchanges with those who have lived with this history in Vietnam.
One of the most seductive features of nation-state courses is that they supply ready containers of boundaries and borders. These allow us an easy default when more rigorous pedagogies fail or if we are lazy about defining what the course is about. On the other hand, a course that focuses on American history beyond borders risks slipping into a buffet offering of loosely connected information that, take the instructor's word for it, have something to do with the very arch and sometimes slippery term, "transnational."2
For this course, students and I developed research projects that provided a core exercise—to which other assignments in the on-campus course were linked—and that linked interests, disciplinary orientations, and the 20-day study abroad course to the on-campus course that it immediately followed. Students began developing their topics several months before the course began, and then did conventional research for an on-campus paper and presentation. They followed this with field research, with the help of Vietnamese student translators, in Vietnam—which then yielded presentations in a final research forum in Ho Chi Minh City, and for some students, further presentations and several publications when they returned to the United States.
This research assignment asked students to consider a question about the history of the United States in which the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has been important—or a question about the development of larger global economic or cultural circuits that can be illuminated by looking at this relationship.
Different projects, for example, studied the emergence of programs in English-language training after the normalization of relations with the United States and the process by which the study of English replaced Russian as a language of choice among Vietnamese students; John Balaban's translation of Ho Xuan Huong's poems, Spring Essence (published in 2000), as a cultural and political event; the legacy of Agent Orange and the evolution of explanations of this legacy by government officials, activists, and victims; foodway circuits and the cultural politics of Vietnamese food (specifically, pho); and the hybrid environmentalisms that converged in the development of the UNESCO Biosphere Preserve in the restored mangrove forests (defoliated repeatedly during the Vietnam/American War) at Can Gio adjacent Ho Chi Minh City. Students in the course possessed some useful differences in their understandings of the United States as "nation," but all students at first framed their projects in the terms most familiar to them—as topics that were rooted in American culture and, often, in a place or experience or at least a disciplinary orientation that was very close to home.
Their research in conventional sources in the on-campus phase of the projects often challenged them to think more broadly about their subject, but when they arrived in Vietnam most of them were challenged to rethink their projects from the bottom up. Most students also found that the notion of "transnational" itself fell on hard ground in Vietnam—the Vietnamese they interviewed reframed the issues they discussed in terms of Vietnamese national narratives, with the relationship between Vietnam and the United States a matter of imperialism, invited interloping, or friendship, and not as something less willful on the part of the Vietnamese.
Aside from the logistical challenges of arranging interviews, translators, and site visits for a dozen students, we collectively learned something about how research spaces themselves were shaped by the relationship between the Vietnamese and those who visit the country, especially from the United States. When we had to postpone an interview because the appropriate permission had not yet cleared, or a student had an interview canceled because the potential interviewee did not like the questions we were required to submit in advance, they were reminded that in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam an interview by a foreigner continues to be a political event that requires official permission—even if the interviews that were accomplished turned out to be quite informal and friendly. Students also learned something quite tangible about the importance of social capital and networks in shaping access to research resources in Vietnam. Most students learned much more about the negotiable terrain in which they did their research—itself, a kind of transnational culture in process—than they did about their research topics.3
When students came home from Vietnam, they often at first expressed what they learned with the diffuse and enthusiastic language of "transformation" that is common in discussions of history and cultural studies study abroad courses—the "best learning experience I've had at Western and one from which I'll continue learning," "a life-changing experience in a noisy, busy city [HCMC] of visible complexity," and the like. Just what this means is difficult to determine, and all of us who teach this kind of study abroad course struggle to find a mode of assessment that will yield a more precise understanding of learning outcomes.
It is clear that students had learned something, though, especially when they brought the study abroad experience back home and began turning their research projects into explanations—presentations, publications, related research projects—that are effective here on their home campus. That this learning has proceeded from the local to the transnational and global, from their own sense of themselves as students and Americans incrementally to a larger understanding of their place as Americans in the world—and does not simply attempt the conceit of "cultural immersion"—has meant that they have not only learned new information, but learned it in a way that is integrated into who they are becoming as citizens both of the United States and of the larger world.
Mart A. Stewart is a professor of history and an affiliate professor of Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University.
1. Thomas Bender, A Nation among Nations: America's Place in World History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 3. See also Carl Guarneri, "Internationalizing the United States Survey Course: American History for a Global Age," The History Teacher 36, no. 1 (November 2002): 37–64.
2. The fluidity of the term "transnational" is one of its appeals, at the same time that it is deployed in so many ways that it sometimes doesn't mean anything at all. See Bryce Traister, "The Object of Study; or, Are We Being Transnational Yet?" Journal of Transnational Studies 2, no. 1 (2010),.
3. Foreign scholars who have done research in Vietnam have found that the process of understanding and negotiating research spaces sometimes poses substantial challenges, and meeting these challenges often prominently shapes their research. See Steffanie Scott, Fiona Miller, and Kate Lloyd, "Doing Fieldwork in Development Geography: Research Culture and Research Spaces in Vietnam," Geographical Research 44, no. 1 (March 2006): 28–40.