- Roundtable Discussion:Teaching Transnational Irish History
Teaching Irish history in a transnational and global context poses particular issues for scholars concerned with communicating the complexities of the Irish past to undergraduate and graduate students. The guest editors organized a roundtable to consider some of these challenges and to map out potential ways in which students can be successfully engaged in locating Irish history in a wider context. Michael de Nie (MdeN), Mo Moulton (MM), and Ciaran O’Neill (CON) participated in an online discussion between November 2015 and January 2016; they were later given the opportunity to review their contributions. Enda Delaney (ED) moderated the roundtable.
Many of the challenges of transnational approaches to Irish history are related to research and writing, but how can we also bring this exciting new work into our teaching? Let’s talk about undergraduate classes first.
The typical American undergraduate arrives in class with little knowledge of Irish (much less European or world) history. First and foremost, then, any survey course must have at its center an over-arching narrative, a clear story or theme that captures the students’ attention and offers a framework to which they can return as the semester progresses. While I introduce some theory and historiography in my upper-level courses, my introductory surveys concentrate on what draws my students to the discipline in the first place: the stories. Once they are equipped with the facts and introduced to the standard narratives of the history of a nation, region, or historical process, they can use the skills developed in their methodology and upper-level classes to analyze, interrogate, and challenge these narratives. The exciting potential of a transnational approach is that we can tell the Irish story from the beginning as a global one, familiarizing [End Page 266] students with the key events and ideas of the Irish experience while demonstrating that these transpired and evolved in a thoroughly transnational context. A transnational approach, in other words, allows us to teach a survey of the Irish world rather than just of the island itself, providing students with a sense of how the local, national, and international aspects of the Irish experience related to each other and the wider world.
I agree with Michael on many points, not least the denationalized mindset of our first-year undergraduates in terms of the historical knowledge they bring into the classroom on day one. The historians who are teaching them may well be several steps behind in our assumptions about secondary-school curriculum, which has become much more about studying lives and movements in wider contexts than we were taught in schools twenty years ago. In that sense it behooves us to be bolder in what we do with that potential. In fact, our freshman surveys at Trinity College Dublin are inherently multinational or global by virtue of the backgrounds of the students themselves. Whereas Irish undergraduates in their early twenties once comprised 95 percent of our student body, we now have classrooms in which fewer than 50 percent of the students have gone through the same secondary-education system in the same country. That is a great starting point to have, and it makes a rigidly national history somewhat anachronistic. One thing I would like to pick up on is the difference between teaching a survey course that gives due prominence to transnational elements and approaches versus a specialist undergraduate or postgraduate module that is wholly infused or structured according to a transnational approach to history. I think there is a difference there, and it is one that exists for a reason.
The issue of what our undergraduates bring to their studies is an important one. I teach at a North American university, and I have students in my courses from a wide range of backgrounds; for most of them Irish history is already foreign or comparative in some sense. I appreciate Michael’s point about the need for a “clear story,” but I think students cope well with narratives on different scales—global, national, local...