Global academics and historians du terroir

It was nine years ago last week that I first started this blog, so to celebrate here’s a post about one of the themes that most inspired me at when I started: the interaction of the academic world with family life. This particular post has been lurking in my mind for months, as I have, for the first time in my career, attended a number of overseas conferences. In particular, it’s inspired by two conferences I went to last summer/autumn.

The first was in Zürich, on the theme of The Gender of Authority: Celibate and Childless Men in Power, Ruling Bishops and Ruling Eunuchs, 400-1800. I’ll say at once that this was a fascinating conference and I learnt a lot from it. But it did bring into particularly sharp relief for me the extent to which academic life is becoming globalised at all levels. I was one of the minority of participants who wasn’t employed outside their country of birth. And other than because the organisers were based there, there was little connection between Zürich and the conference or theme. Reflecting this, in an officially trilingual country, the language of the conference throughout was English.

What also became clear, listening to other historians at conferences and elsewhere is that while the global academic life may offer new opportunities to people, it can be tough on personal life. The ideal global academic has no permanent ties: he or she can relocate anywhere in the world for a few years or even just six months at short notice. Family and friends can be left behind briefly or permanently if a fellowship or a job is on offer.

What I’m also coming to realise is that the stresses that result are less and less a matter of biological sex, sexuality or marital state. Gay men can find it just as hard not seeing their partners/husbands regularly for three years because their job is in a different country. If your elderly parents are in the UK and you are in the US, how do you ensure they’re OK? Unmentioned but lurking in the background, are wider ties: to particular churches, voluntary groups, political parties. And how can you act locally when you have few long-lasting local commitments anymore?

This globalisation is no longer for a few academic superstars: it’s for would-be academics at all levels. In a recent discussion of postdoctoral careers in The Guardian, someone made the entirely unironic claim: ‘people come with lives and commitments, but they have to understand what those mean for their job prospects’. Other contributors talked of moving halfway across the world for a short-term contract: one had just enough money to go back for his father’s funeral.

Despite all the talk of globalization in the job market more generally, I can’t think of many other careers where such mobility (repeated moving between countries) is expected of relatively junior staff. There are examples in transnational companies, international organisations and the armed services, but they tend to have support systems in place for staff working overseas and their families. What seems distinctive to academia is the lack of any such support systems as globalization has increased.

But beyond these important practicalities, I want to ask what such a career pattern does to the outlook of those researching history. In a modern career world where deep connections to people and places are a positive disadvantage, how do we imaginatively understand past worlds where kin and location were vital parts of people’s existence? Are we creating an academic world which restricts more and more researchers from sharing common lived experience? Where having lives and commitments really is a major problem for anyone who wants to stay in academia?

I’d better say at this point that I’m not arguing for a purely insular attitude to academic life. Many of us carry out research on a country/area that isn’t where we ‘come from’. And some of the most important contributions to historical research and the academy have come from outsiders: you only have to think of the profound influence on British universities made by German-Jewish historians escaping from the Nazis. But I think we are danger of loss as historians if we do become purely global academics. Some of us, I think, do need to remain as historians du terroir, deeply rooted in a particular locality and its traditions and connecting those into wider historical networks.

I felt something of that connection at the second conference I went to last summer: one entitled „Gott handhaben – Le Dieu Maniable – Managing God“. Religiöses Wissen im Konflikt um Mythisierung und Rationalisierung, held in Reims. As the title implies, this was a trilingual conference, organised jointly by a German and French university and held in a location (Reims), which is a symbol both of European conflict in World War I and of subsequent Franco-German reconciliation. The conference was a matter of local pride and we were invited to a reception by the mayor of Reims, involving a certain amount of speechifying and a lot of champagne. The careers of the conference delegates I talked to seemed to me to have far more of a ‘local’ feel to them than in Zürich: there was some movement required for career advancement, but it was less frequent and smaller-scale. And the research itself seemed more locally-rooted, partly because a number of papers were talking about grassroots religion, which is very much a matter of regional divides in premodern Europe. Even though I struggled more with the languages at this conference, I did end up feeling rather more at home here than in the new global world of global history. I don’t want to say that there’s only one way of doing history or being a historian. But I think we do need to start asking quite seriously how we can ensure that historians keep both personal and professional connections to places and people as the job market alters.


One thought on “Global academics and historians du terroir

  1. Dear Magistra, thank you so much for your reflections. (It made me remember why I dropped out of the University after a post-doctoral stint at the University of Copenhagen in the end of the 80s. A continued academic career at that point would have meant uprooting my whole family.)
    But they also made me wonder whether this has to do with different academic traditions. On one hand an American and uprooted culture has been allowed to set its mark on our Universities inside the Humanities. On the other hand this has not happened inside Theology, which academically has much longer local traditions. I noticed that for instance Leppin gave a paper at the conference in Reims. I have read much of his work on the Reformation and is a great fan of the way in which he works as a church historian. But he is obviously steeped in a traditional form of German Academia, with which we are very well acquainted with here in Denmark and which does not translate very well into an English context. For instance the people from Radical Orthodoxy (who seem not to really read German) are not very well read in Lutheran theology and hence skirt it. What I mean is that some academic fields and hence some Universities have adopted traditions for global superficiality, while other traditions – like e.g. the Annales School (hence Champagne in Reims) or theological departments just carry on as they have always done. Thus they are able to maintain a certain decency towards their younger scholars.

    I am not sure, though, where medieval history is heading… we used to have enormously vibrant departments inside the History departments in Denmark. Nowadays they are beleaguered and bereft of funding.

    Probably this has to do with the fact that history is often very embarrassing for politicians who just want to move on. Perhaps Medieval History has become a sort of whipping boy for this. Who wants to know these days about the enormous energy Charlemagne and his entourage spent on theological questions like adoptionism, iconoclasm and trinitarian theology ? Or the magnificent investments in places like Saint-Riquer and Aachen, which this fueled? Not a modern lazy EU-politician bent on “forgetting” that theologically inspired cultural renovation was of paramount importance in the forging of the Carolingian Empire.


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