Peripheral Vision: The Authors' Response

Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt, June 2013

This is part of an online forum on a survey of historians’ research interests by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt. A description of the survey can be found here. More roundtables can be found here.

We are grateful to the respondents for their thoughtful and inspiring comments, and to the editors (and readers) of Perspectives on History for their encouragement of our project. While US-based departments currently set the gold standard for covering the diversity of the world’s history, there is no reason for complacency: we should neither assume that the job of diversifying our historical geographies is complete, nor rely on a supposed trend within the profession to make the case for the wider world on our behalf.

Fortunately, the benefits of building departments with greater diversity and wider range are considerable.  As Kenneth Mills and Mary Elizabeth Berry point out, larger conversations and imaginative connections make us better at what we do. (We enjoyed Berry’s report of the “routine combustion” that takes place within a department where neighborliness nurtures a global curiosity.) For our students, with their increasingly diverse backgrounds, increased access to wider-world history promises finally to deliver “the story of us”: a story that transcends the “outdated histories of imagined unified national units” that Anne Gerritsen rightly critiques.

The respondents identify the limits and the limitations of our project to date. It’s true that a number of wider-world historians have escaped our grasp thanks to their affiliations with other departments. (Though these scholars do appear in our dataset when they enjoy a joint appointment with history.)  On the basis of our limited sampling of humanities and social science faculties more generally, however, western dominance of subjects and data has meant that the ratio of wider-world historians outside history resembles that within history.  In fact, other disciplines’ Eurocentrism is often deeper and less acknowledged than our own.  Our western history courses are at least qualified as “European,” but western philosophy courses are often simply “philosophy.” You’re unlikely to find Africans or Muslims rubbing shoulders with Kant, or even encounter questions about why they are not included.

Berry makes the heartening observation that wider-world history is alive and well in many liberal arts colleges, but Teofilo Ruiz and Gerritsen wonder about the challenges facing historians who teach at smaller institutions and at colleges with very stretched resources. Kenneth Pomeranz’s call for “flexibility in what we teach,” and for a willingness to teach beyond our core research fields, suggests that we can utilize our existing faculty in more imaginative ways. Ruiz’s proposed seminar series, dedicated to the honing of new courses and teaching methods in wider-world history, would be enormously helpful to this realignment. (We particularly like his suggestion that this could involve faculty from traditional fields at better-resourced universities as well as historians teaching at smaller institutions.) We share Ruiz’s anxiety that wider-world history might become one of the casualties of the MOOC revolution, and would prefer that we make the effort to expand wider-world teaching outside elite academia before we conclude that it can only be delivered via iTunes U.

Gerritsen addresses the striking discrepancy between wider-world history in the UK and in North America, and suggests that the uniquely inflexible culture of “research assessment” may be to blame for the UK’s narrowed horizons. A system that privileges quantity over quality, insisting that all “research-active” staff produce four published “outputs” every six years, is especially harmful to younger scholars making their way in wider-world fields. Even if we can persuade our British colleagues to advocate additional wider-world hiring, we need to create professional structures and expectations that allow outstanding scholars to develop at a realistic pace. If promotion committees in North America continue their creeping escalation of expectations, suggesting that assistant professors should have made considerable progress on a second manuscript before tenure, the same will be true for the US and Canada.

Given that the respondents agree on the benefits of more wider-world history, the costs of moving south and east in our hiring are harder to discern. An argument we’ve heard in the UK is that the greater emphasis there on European history is justified by chronological reach: this explanation holds that history departments in North America have little depth before 1750, and effectively subsidize their commitment to the wider world by short-changing early modern and medieval history. This seems to us demonstrably false, and raises the awkward question of why UK departments remain reluctant to hire medieval historians in non-European fields. There are some encouraging developments in this area, such as the Global Middle Ages project coordinated by the Centre for Global History at Oxford, but there is still much work (and hiring) to be done.

A more persuasive caveat would build upon Berry’s points about the reimagining of our “traditional” fields. These days, North American history happily bounds work on indigenous peoples, immigration, African Americans, borderlands, and a host of other topics beyond European colonization. The case for wider-world history should not overstate the parochialism of “traditional” fields. At the same time, a modest rebalancing between “traditional” and underrepresented research regions would not damage the gains made in diversifying American, Canadian, or British history. In fact, by fostering more expertise in the wider world, it might encourage the comparisons and connections that are already making the “story of us” much more exciting and inclusive.

Berry and Mills wonder about the extent of geographical curiosity in history departments beyond North America and the UK. A glance at the flagship universities in Mexico, China, India, and South Africa suggests that historical research in these countries is more inward-looking than in Britain. Some of the wider-world universities’ non-national historians work only on western history, while others have a faculty better balanced than anything we’ve seen in the West. Perhaps in anticipation of a Sinocentric world where Europe carries no more clout than Nigeria and Brazil, Beijing University exemplifies this second approach. Clues suggest the possibility of a shift from the former pattern to the latter—the University of Cape Town’s excellence in African history only recently emerged from under a long focus on Britain—but it would be productive to involve these historians and departments as our conversation develops.

—Nicholas Guyatt teaches American history at the University of York in the UK.
—Luke Clossey teaches world history at Simon Fraser University in Canada.