ABSTRACT: In response to the theme of border crossing proposed by Professor Craig Lockard in his “Crossing Borders: Disciplines, Cultures and Histories,” the author considers her own intellectual and professional “border crossings” and suggests the theme of “middle ground” as a prompt for furthering world historical research, teaching, and professional dialogue.
KEYWORDS: Borders, Middle Ground, Connections, History, Interdisciplinary, Abilities-Based Curriculum, George T. Staunton, Alverno College, Biography
Professor Lockard , in his “Crossing Borders: Disciplines, Cultures, and Histories,” provides us with a thought-provoking reflection on his career and the value of world history. The metaphor of “boundary crossing” unites Lockard’s observations and he argues that academics, teachers, and students develop the flexibility and versatility that are desirable and necessary for the twenty-first century world by intellectually stepping outside the rigid disciplinary category of “history” and physically traversing national and cultural boundaries. Like Patrick Manning, who wrote “The study of world history is a good rehearsal for life itself,” Lockard asserts that world history is a necessary field of study for the contemporary age because only with an understanding of the global past can we ask meaningful questions of the global future. Moreover, he provides examples of contemporary developments that might have been better considered in a world historical frame. I wholly-heartedly agree that “crossing borders” will not only assist our students to become well informed citizens, community members, and employees, but will also continue to fortify and expand the relevance and insight of our discipline. As a way of continuing this theme of border crossing, I will reflect on my own experiences of border crossing at my institution and in my research. Furthermore, in light of our inaugural issue of The Middle Ground, I will suggest that our readers consider another metaphor—middle ground—as a means of furthering world historical research, teaching, and intellectual conversation.
I have, like Professor Lockard, found myself in a tenure-track position at a college that emphasizes an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum. Rather than being based on “problem-centered departments” like University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB), Alverno College has developed a curriculum that pivots on core aptitudes (or as we somewhat ambitiously refer to them “the abilities”) that our faculty believe are essential for every person graduating from an undergraduate or graduate program. In order to support the integrity and intellectual underpinning of this curricular system, as faculty members we not only serve the institution as members of disciplinary departments, but also in “ability departments." This institutional organization is remarkable in that it facilitates, as Lockard describes his own department, “a robust exchange of knowledge and academic approaches.” As Alverno faculty elaborate on what certain abilities such as analysis, communication, global perspective, and valuing in decision-making mean in our disciplines we also learn more about our students and who they are as learners. Crossing the disciplinary border has allowed me to approach my students and my colleagues from a rich and nuanced perspective that enhances our common mission of learning. I am undoubtedly a better historian and a better teacher because of this immersion in interdisciplinary dialogues.
But what makes this crossing significant is not that I have had one conversation—that I have crossed over once or twice into conversation with my colleagues in nursing or theater—but instead, that I have continued engagement with these colleagues and my institution (students, faculty, staff, and administration), and they hold me accountable for maintaining that interdisciplinary dialogue. I am not simply crossing over and then retreating again into my disciplinary work, but I have, in a sense, become a resident of a middle ground where I must continually negotiate and redefine my practice of teaching and my understanding of my discipline. The act of sustaining this dialogue permanently creates a creative tension of interdisciplinary thinking. And, while I have certainly been transformed through this experience to better understand other disciplines and perspectives, part of the richness of my experience is that I have been forced to consider the unique characteristics of the teaching, and outcomes of historical research and learning, that I bring to our curriculum and that define my work as a professional historian.
Moreover, the pervasiveness of interdisciplinary work at Alverno College continues to spur curricular innovation. One recent example has been in response to our students’ need for global humanities content. In particular, our education graduate students who are currently teaching K-12 humanities-based courses have found themselves responsible for teaching increasing amounts of global content to an ever diversifying group of students. While I am overjoyed at the conundrum, it does pose problems for those current teachers who have had little introduction to world histories, geographies, cultures, and literatures. In response, a team of faculty from our humanities division including English, religious studies, philosophy and history professors has developed a “Global Humanities” sequence in the Education Master’s degree program. This four-course specialty offers students the opportunity to take courses in world literature, world religions, and world history. This summer I offered the inaugural course of the program based around the theme of encounters and global trade networks. Students included elementary, middle, and secondary education teachers who cover subjects from high school world history to middle school English to entire elementary grades. As these students have greater expertise than I in state and national teaching standards and I bring my expertise in world history, we have been engaged in a fruitful and invigorating conversation about how to integrate world history material into their courses. As they move on to their world literature course next semester, they will take with them a rich context of the encounters of peoples in the past that informs the literature they will read. By the time I meet these students again in the final course in the sequence entitled “Teaching World History” they will bring with them an interdisciplinary perspective of their own and our program’s hope is that they will take this perspective forward into their own schools. It is our intention to create a group of teachers who will create their own middle ground of intellectual pursuit and discussion around a common interest in global topics and issues that are relevant to every classroom regardless of the age of their students. This program attempts to create the ongoing dialogue of the middle ground that has been so critical to my own development.
It is not only as a teacher of history, however, that I connected to Professor Lockard’s ideas of border crossing. As a historian of British-Chinese relations, I am crossing a border each time I engage in research and communicate my findings in my written work. That research has taken me to Great Britain and China several times and I concur that this experience has opened my eyes to the world in ways that have dramatically and directly impacted my writing and teaching of history. The first time I visited Shanghai in 2001 I felt in a rudimentary way I had been “lied to” because the modern, cosmopolitan city I was presented with was not the China I had imagined. On further reflection, however, as I explored the history of China and Shanghai, returned to course notes I had taken on the Jesuits in Asia, and explored the relationship of China to my other passion, Great Britain, I realized I had not been “lied to,” I was simply ignorant – a humbling lesson for all of us, especially aspiring academics. That trip, along with the work of Jonathan Spence, inspired my doctoral dissertation research on Sir George Thomas Staunton (1781-1859) a British East India Company officer, diplomat, linguist, and politician.
Working in the field of biography and one that was quasi-diplomatic and transnational in scope seemed a real risk in 2001 when I began my doctoral program; however, I realized almost immediately that my initial decision to work in biography allowed me the privilege of crossing many borders in my research. For example, rather than being a dixhuitièmiste, the lifespan of Staunton allowed me to carry the meaningful context from the long eighteenth century into the mid-nineteenth. As the son of a Galway-born London intellectual, Staunton and his family continually crossed borders within Great Britain and continental Europe to the West Indies and India, and eventually these crossings led Staunton to a career in China. Furthermore, as a polyglot, Staunton’s intellectual and social connections with people from around the world including his work as a founding member of the Royal Asiatic Society has led me to understand the complexities and truly global scope of eighteenth and nineteenth century intellectual, political, and merchant networks. Approaching these networks that were constantly engaged and developing in scope led me beyond a study that at first seemed transnational to something that approached world history. Therefore, I see biography as a useful and insightful middle ground of historical study, like Professor Lockard’s interest in music, that allows for a simultaneously focused and inclusive study of the world historical past.
In his recent 2010 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, “When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century” Jonathan Spence demonstrates that encounters between just a handful of actors in the past can illuminate fundamental historical patterns and questions. Following the lives of “Oriental” linguist and scholar Thomas Hyde, Chinese Catholic novice, traveler and scholar Shen Fuzong (d.1681) and scientist and natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Spence illustrates that a historical document as seemingly simple as a letter of introduction (in this case a letter from Hyde to Boyle introducing Shen) can open a door to the seventeenth-century world of intellectual collaboration and global transmissions of knowledge. The world uncovered by Spence is one that demonstrates how interdisciplinary study (if we can call it that in the seventeenth century) and world travel contributed to the creation of a middle ground of language, history, and science. The result of these collaborations and meetings are ones that ring true for the field of world history as we move forward. As Spence reflected, the lessons of this seventeenth century “Meeting of the Minds” were “the importance of linguistic precision, the need for broad-based comparative studies, the role of clarity in argument, the need for thorough scrutiny of philosophical and theological principles, boldness of explication, and clarity.”
At the beginning of his lecture, Spence posits that the intellectual and social exchange between Hyde, Boyle, and Shen was an exploration, possibly a catalyst for change, as well as a harmonious and adaptive space. Like biography, studying the negotiation of ideas, cultures, and beliefs amongst individuals on middle grounds, whether physical or intellectual, provides a compelling framework to analyze the results of the myriad of border crossings that have occurred in human history. Moreover, there is a lesson for scholars and teachers of world history. Scholarly collaboration and dialogue are essential in the field of world history just as they were hundreds of years ago as Chinese and Westerners worked together to create the first translations of texts and other knowledge transfers. As Professor Lockard has rightfully highlighted, these border crossings can provide important clues as to how to respond to our rapidly changing and interconnected world for scholars and students alike. The more we engage in this type of research and encourage our students to practice the skills of world historians, the better prepared we will be to interpret past and future border crossings. I am grateful for Professor Lockard’s insights, for his work in the field of world history, and for offering his reflections on his career to this fledgling journal. Now that we have crossed the border, I look forward to the contested and collaborative work of the middle ground.
Edited by Jeanne E. Grant
(c) 2010 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 1, Fall 2010