Global Studies Gone Global: Teaching the Age of Revolutions in Germany and Ethiopia

By Megan Maruschke

Many of us are teaching Age of Revolutions or some variation thereof in a global or transnational perspective. I teach this course at Leipzig University in an Erasmus Mundus Global Studies program and at the University of Addis Ababa for the MA degree program Global Studies: Peace and Security in Africa. The Addis program offers a joint degree between Leipzig’s Global and European Studies Institute and Addis’ Institute for Peace and Security Studies. In Leipzig, the students come from around the world—US, China, Russia, Argentina, Poland, Taiwan, Ghana—and only a small percentage of the student body is German. The Addis program brings together students from across Africa and Germany. I am from the United States but have lived in Germany for over a decade. The diversity of the student body—in disciplinary background, nationality, age, and career experiences and expectations[1]—makes teaching the Age of Revolutions a unique experience.

Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University

Global studies’ institutionalization varies widely depending on the concerns and disciplines of founding faculty members. A seminar on the Age of Revolutions is probably unusual in an average global studies curriculum, where nothing predates the connectivity of the late nineteenth century or very often, even the 1970s. Yet so many norms that shape today’s world emerged from the debates of this era. Global studies developed out of various institutional contexts in the social sciences and humanities in the 1990s and early 2000s, when globalization became a buzzword. The programs that emerged shared the premise that we all live under conditions of globalization, and siloing knowledge into distinct disciplines is not only Eurocentric but hinders our ability to tackle complex global challenges that cannot be cut up into distinct spheres like politics, economics, and culture.[2] This inter- and transdisciplinary field seeks to develop new categories of analysis beyond the disciplines. My own standpoint, shared with the staff in Leipzig, has been that historicization is key to knowledge building outside of disciplinary confines.[3] I use this seminar on the Age of Revolutions to introduce students to global and historical methodologies as well as to raise new questions for students often focused on solving today’s pressing global problems. Indeed, revolution is not only an event of the past. The peaceful revolution of 1989 is an experience remembered by many Leipzig residents and recent uprisings in Africa have led the African Union, headquartered in Addis Ababa, to seek a definition of and policy script for dealing with “revolution.”[4]

In Atlantic Revolutions courses in France or the United States, I imagine that time has to be spent showing students how entangled these revolutions really were, thus overcoming the national narratives they were taught in middle and high school and the methodological nationalism that followed as a result. But students in global studies already assume that phenomena and events have global or transregional repercussions and causes. That’s why they enrolled in the program. There’s no convincing necessary! And many enter the seminar relatively unfamiliar with the course of events since these revolutions had not been part of their own national history training in school.

The thread that ran through the seminar was: what is a “global perspective” on the Age of Revolutions? After overview texts on the revolutions, we started by contrasting the perspectives taken by the volumes Age of Revolutions in Global Context and The French Revolution in Global Perspective.[5] While one contextualizes the “age,” the other positions globalization as a central problem in the French Revolution. An exclusively internal explanation of the French Revolution is no longer sufficient. We continued to explore this question as we moved to different places, actors, and themes such as Age of Revolutions in Indian Country, historiographical debates on empire and the Age of Revolutions, and legacies of human rights.[6] We then moved to later historical moments, including British imperial abolitionism in the nineteenth century and anti-imperialism, decolonization, and Pan-Africanism in the twentieth century. Students learned that though contemporaries searched for new forms of societal organization, that didn’t mean the end of empire.[7] Through these readings, we analyzed historians’ approaches to global and transnational history. The point was not to draw straight lines to the present, but to ask how the study of the past and the problems actors faced help us to think through some of our own, including reverberating legacies of the era—often different legacies than those experienced in France or the US, but interlinked, nevertheless.

Each student presented a book they selected from a reading list that fit into each week’s theme. Class favorites have been Freedom PapersJihad in West AfricaFreedom’s MirrorThe Common Wind, Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire, and Worldmaking after Empire. These books offered students examples of the different ways that global historical research might be done and allowed for a richer discussion on the primary sources behind these works. We studied a range of sources, including Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, Grégoire’s “Memoir in Favor of the People of Color,” The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence of Vietnam. We explored C. L. R. James’ life, politics, and scholarship in A History of Pan-African Revolt (including the introduction to the new edition by Robin D.G. Kelley). This book allowed us to discuss not only the difference between a primary and secondary source but to ask how we use source material, what questions we ask with that material, and about the relationship between sources and historical arguments.[8]

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we moved online. I connected with students using interactive online annotations (Hypothes.is) for the critical assessment of primary sources in a group setting. Students commented on each other’s annotations, and I drew on their written and interactive remarks, questions, and critiques in the class discussion. The pandemic also allowed me to integrate the Addis and Leipzig students into the same virtual classroom since I couldn’t fly to Addis as I had done since 2017. This integration led to stimulating discussions…while the internet was working. Major inequities in connectivity remained for Africa-based students. Often, it’s a question of infrastructure, but sometimes authoritarian governments shut down the internet during political unrest. I felt bad suggesting to students to find free book downloads; I usually brought books with me to Addis. Unequal access in the classroom and to literature can only be partially solved through extra virtual office hours, sending notes, and peer engagement. In a future where travel to Addis is possible, a hybrid format would help mitigate some of the downsides of online teaching, but I wouldn’t return to my exclusively on-site block seminar.

Contemporary discussions were never far from the surface, but each cohort came with their own ideas, often quite removed from my agenda. The resulting discussions on racism, imperialism, and human rights probably looked different than they would in an American classroom. Our nationalities and politics are all over the board, from Chinese party members to young Russians in opposition to the current regime. These multiple perspectives almost automatically lead to challenges to given national and cultural identifications; my job is to provide a conceptual framework and guide student interventions. Questions like who are “the people” and discussions on rights to self-determination ranged beyond current debates in France or the US to include the relationship between citizenship and religion in Narendra Modi’s India when learning about religious minorities and citizenship during the French Revolution. Students raised pressing questions about the Indian Partition and the differences in designation of citizens and subjects in the US and Britain/Canada after independence. They wanted to discuss Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s fraught attempt to build a new mode of federalism in Ethiopia.

Sensibilities ranged, too. For example, in Germany the term “race” is associated with the Holocaust and the scientific racism of eugenics, and it hadn’t occurred to me that even hearing it used in a classroom setting or reading it in our literature would jar students. Because many Germans believe that the term validates scientific racism, Rasse will likely soon be removed from the German constitution. I had to take a step back and explain the importance of this category in historical research. Meanwhile, in a course that devoted a lot of importance of African influences on the Haitian Revolution and political changes in West Africa because of the slave trade, abolition, and shifting imperial strategies, the students in Addis noted that critical approaches to gender were not central to our seminar, a problem I am still trying to remedy. Women’s rights, recovering pre-colonial gender identities, and refugee displacements were themes African students in global studies continued to raise year after year.

Reflecting a diversity of scholarship in a global studies classroom also requires different considerations. In a course that heavily featured work by female and Black scholars (not to mention the primary sources), my reading list remained Anglo- and American centric. I felt torn between providing a reading list full of “must read” titles from US/UK scholars and broadening that lens. And yet, by the global nature of the program, it was difficult to sneak in readings in other languages—even German or French titles. In contrast to important discussions on English as a barrier that excludes researchers from many countries from receiving wider recognition for their work, English books with foreign language terms proved challenging for some students. One Chinese student with excellent English chose Fradera’s Imperial Nation (not an easy book) for his presentation.[9] He managed, but he struggled with the many French and Spanish terms that remained in italics in the text—terms that would have been understandable to scholars in the West. This practice is common in the field. My Anglo-centric reading list doesn’t yet satisfy me: I used a critique of our reading lists to help students identify significant journals and publishers in the field and talk about the peer-review process (that is, why using whatever website that pops up on Google might not be a good source). Considering many societies’ growing distrust in media, scientific, and government institutions, I think it’s important to talk about the continued value of quality checks in scholarship through the peer-review process, despite its many flaws and biases.

Global studies students came to the seminar interested in specific “global” themes such as the connections between religion and citizenship and religious violence, the displacement of Indigenous people, and histories of refugees, which mirror much closer the types of topics taught in global studies curricula in the social sciences. They want to problem-solve. They are less concerned with recovering pasts of marginalized historical actors—a key interest among historians. I hope they ended their first MA semester with more questions than problems solved. History from below and transnational microhistories are valuable in global studies precisely because they draw into question the key categories we use to make sense of and order the world.


Megan Maruschke is a post-doctoral researcher in the ERC project “Atlantic Exiles: Refugees and Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1770-1820” at Universität Duisburg-Essen. She is writing a book on boundaries and refugee mobilities in the early American republic.

Title image: Global Studies students in Leipzig. Photo credit belongs to Annika Maurer.

Further Readings:

These chapters are an excellent resource for global and regional histories of the French Revolution: Alan Forrest and Matthias Middell, eds., The Routledge Companion to the French Revolution in World History, Routledge: Abingdon, 2016.

I look forward to adding this book to a future syllabus: Sujit Sivasundaram, Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire, London: Harper Collins, 2020.

Endnotes:

[1] For a breakdown of who these students are and what they do with these degrees, see the results of the 2020 alumni meeting survey.

[2] For methods, see Eve Darian-Smith and Philip C. McCarty, The Global Turn: Theories, Research Designs, and Methods for Global Studies (Berkley: University of California Press, 2017). For these authors global studies is more of a perspective than it is its own field. Information on graduate programs can be found here: https://globalstudiesconsortium.org/

[3] Konstanze Loeke and Matthias Middell, eds., The Many Facets of Global Studies: Perspectives from the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies Porgramme (Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2019).

[4] Ulf Engel, “A View from Addis Ababa: From ‘1989’ to Today’s Revolutions in Africa,” Comparativ. Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung, 29 (2019) 5: 27-44. https://doi.org/10.26014/j.comp.2019.05.02

[5] David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds. The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760–1804 (Basingstoke, 2010); Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson, eds. The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca, NY, 2013).

[6] Christian Crouch’s chapter, “The French Revolution in Indian Country” offers a wonderful addition to the many works that exist on the American Revolution and Native peoples. Christian Ayne Crouch, “The French Revolution in Indian Country: Reconsidering the Reach and Place of Atlantic Upheaval.” In Megan Maruschke and Matthias Middell, eds., The French Revolution as a Moment of Respatialization (Berlin), 85–105. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110619775-005/html

[7] The recently published forum “The French Revolution as an Imperial Revolution” co-edited with Manuel Covo in French Historical Studies is a promising classroom resource for that discussion. https://read.dukeupress.edu/french-historical-studies/issue/44/3

[8] Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, 2014); Pernille Røge, Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire: France in the Americas and Africa, c. 1750–1802 (Cambridge, 2019). Julius Scott, The Common Wind: African-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (London, 2018). Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard. Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge, 2014); Paul E. Lovejoy, Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016); Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019); C. L. R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (Oakland: PM Press, 2012 edition).

[9] Josep M. Fradera, The Imperial Nation: Citizens and Subjects in the British, French, Spanish, and American Empires (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

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