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A New Look at History Across an Ocean, Across Time
History, simply put, is the study of the human past.
It's the story of who we are, where we came from and how we got here. It can be told through the eyes of those who lived hundreds of years ago; from the stories of those who witnessed events firsthand; or from the retelling of tales passed down through generations.
But it's how this narrative is researched, processed and shared with the world that is up for considerable debate. And the professors and students in the Transatlantic History Ph.D. Program at The University of Texas at Arlington are eager to be a part of that conversation.
"In history, there are different strategies," said Dr. Thomas Adam, Professor of History and Director of the Transatlantic Program. "You have different attempts to go beyond national history. Two approaches emerged: one is Atlantic history, the other is Transatlantic."
Atlantic History, which is closely identified with Harvard University, limits the history of countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean to a timeline prior to 1820, Adam said. UT Arlington's Transatlantic History looks at global events from the 1500s to present day and places an emphasis on topics and trends and how these events affected various people groups and countries.
"We take a global approach of looking at transatlantic history ... we have a niche. We're the only program which offers only a transatlantic Ph.D. Other universities offer a transatlantic focus, but this is the only thing we focus on," Adam said.
The uniqueness of the program is what drew the attention of the American Historical Association early this year. The AHA produced a short documentary on the Department of History and showcased the Transatlantic program at its annual conference in January. Adam said that spotlight, coupled with marketing efforts online, has raised the program's profile and garnered national and international interest.
Grad student Mylynka Cordona was part of the documentary and told producers the program offers a different perspective in how historians gather and conduct their research.
"For me, it's being able to put history in a larger context," she said. "Looking at ideas and topics I thought I already knew about and putting them in a more global perspective and seeing the inter-relations ... of people on the Atlantic basin. Our program is really good at helping us to realize the connectedness of the Atlantic."
For generations, history has come from a national perspective. Textbooks were mostly written in nationalist context and looked at the timeline and evolution of a single nation-state. Adam realizes the uphill battle his program faces in challenging others to look beyond their borders.
"For the last 150 years, you're taught that you have to be an American historian or a German historian or a French historian," he said. "To overcome such a tradition will take another 100 years.
"The program in this field is defined by subject matter and space, but also by the methodology. This reflects a larger trend in history, to go beyond the nation-state, go beyond writing traditional stories about one country isolated from other countries. [Our classes are] organized to be topical and we can focus on transferred processes, evolution, migration and cartography. There's a larger trend here ... to reorganize research and teaching along these lines. There are some researchers who are working to reshape not only the research but the structure of how history is taught. UT Arlington is a part of that larger enterprise."
Since the program's inception in 1998, 80 students have participated and 27 have gone on to earn their Ph.D. Not stunning figures, Adam admits, but until recently the program lacked proper funding to maintain a larger class in a growing discipline.
"It's not for everyone," said Dr. Robert Fairbanks, chair of the Department of History. "It touches on an approach to history that's becoming popular, so we're trendsetters in that regard. My major interest is to see the program grow with a national reputation ... [and] compete in national and international markets. We want to attract high quality people [and] boost the level of student and job opportunities."
Additional scholarship funds and new recruiting practices have garnered increased interest, including a student from Paris who will begin in the fall and is eager to do a dissertation comparing German settlements in southwestern Africa and Argentina. ("Here you've got everything in our program," Adam said about the student's interest in both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. "It's the perfect student!") The program's annual workshop has also drawn international attention and spurred question on how history is researched on the other side of the world.
"In Europe, you have emphasis on transnational history," Adam said. "It's mostly a research field that deals with European history. They don't cross the Atlantic, and they look mostly at English, French and German history and the continent."
While there are parallels between European and American universities and methodologies are being shared, Adam cautions that such programs offer a limited view of Transatlantic history. In England, for example, there's an interest in the subject, but only from 1945 to the present - the history of NATO. Much of the research, Adam said, focuses on political history and the actions of governments during the Cold War.
"There is a reluctance on both sides of the Atlantic to engage the other side," he said. "We hope with the new level of funding we have, we'll be able to compete on not only a national scale, but an international scale as well."
For a department that includes two German and two Canadian professors, an international focus should come naturally. But Adam is quick to point out the Transatlantic program is less about creating a more inclusive world history lesson and more about showcasing how various countries (and the people) dealt with past events, social changes, epidemics and revolutions.
"This isn't just about looking at history in a context larger than the nation-state," said Adam. "This is challenging because you're dealing with two different research traditions. You have to deal with translation in terminology and languages. This is a re-education because none of today's historians are trained in this manner. It means reading more and getting behind newer research traditions and methodologies that encompass both.
"Some of these things might sound simple, but for historians this is a revolution."
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