The Transnational Turn at UB

Published April 3, 2013

Rinaldo Walcott addresses the "Transnational Turn in the Humanities" conference.

A unique conference held at UB at the end of March brought together a wide range of scholars to discuss the “transnational turn” in their respective disciplines.

“...most of the subjects they teach about--such as the New Deal, or modern fiction, or slavery, or immigration, or avant-garde filmmaking, or the feminist movement—are all subjects that transcend national or regional borders: they are ‘transnational.”
Carl Nightingale, Associate Professor
Department Transnational Studies

The notion that we live in a “global” world is, by now, such an accepted truism that it tends to fade into the background. From an economic standpoint, everyone understands that instability in the Euro zone impacts the economy in the U.S., in complicated and unforeseeable ways. Warfare in distant countries affects security elsewhere, setting in motion bellicose rhetoric and complex military maneuvering. What about the academic sphere? A recent conference at UB—held in part to celebrate the founding of a new Transnational Studies Department—provided some answers to this question, articulating the ways in which fields of study in the Humanities can no longer be contained in traditional geographic parameters.

Carl Nightingale, Associate Professor in the Department of Transnational Studies, writes, “Universities tend to divide up knowledge about the humanities by national or at most continental categories. So, when a college student takes a history course, for example, it will be very often titled ‘American History,’ ‘African American history,’ or ‘Latin American Women’s History’ …  In the last two decades or so a critical mass of academics has expressed dissatisfaction with these categories of knowledge. They point out that, in fact, most of the subjects they teach about--such as the New Deal, or modern fiction, or slavery, or immigration, or avant-garde filmmaking, or the feminist movement—are all subjects that transcend national or regional borders: they are ‘transnational.’” Nightingale co-organized the conference with UB professors Keith Griffler and Erik Seeman.

On March 22 and 23, the Humanities Institute and the Department of Transnational Studies co-hosted a conference, “The Transnational Turn in the Humanities,” during which scholars and students discussed the ways in which this turn continues to alter their respective disciplines. Nightingale writes, “The conference was unique in that it brought scholars from a variety of different fields, each of which are wrestling with the implications of the transnational turn within their own traditions of scholarship and their own methodologies and their own languages. This is an exciting moment, filled with great new research and also with scholarly controversy.”

Visiting scholars included Richa Nagar, Professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota; Daniel T. Rodgers, Henry Lea Professor of History, Princeton University, Audra Simpson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University; and Ato Quayson, Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, University of Toronto, among others. Nightingale explained some of the ways in which the “transnational turn” has impacted each of their disciplines: “Perhaps the most encompassing implication of the concept of ‘transnational’ is to widen the range of geographic scales we can use as main reference points for our research and not think of the nation as the only ‘container’ for our work.

“But that can mean a lot of things,” he continued: “for scholars in Black Studies or African Studies like … Ato Quayson, it’s about continuing a tradition of transnational thought that has gone back over a hundred years and involves, among other things understanding the dynamics of the African diaspora and what it means to be part of a transnational community rooted in forced migration. For Native American Scholars like Audra Simpson, the nation remains a critical concept, for Native treaty rights are based on negotiations between sovereign nations … For a women’s studies scholar like Richa Nagar the transnational turn inspired something quite different: a new method of research that seeks to even out the hierarchies between trained scholars and the people whose voices and knowledge those scholars wish to bring into wider visibility.”

The conference also showcased the Department of Transnational Studies at UB—the first of its kind in North America. Founded two years ago, it includes several disciplines that have been forerunners in transnational research, including African and African American Studies, Global Gender Studies, and American Studies, as well as Canadian, Caribbean, Latino/a, and Polish studies. Nightingale noted the research being done by members of the department that contributed to the conference, including, “Don Grinde and Theresa McCarthy’s work on the history and current politics of Haudenosaunee communities … Kari Winter’s work on the autobiographies of slaves who moved around between the U.S. and the Caribbean … Theresa Runstedtler’s pathbreaking work on the world of black boxers in the Atlantic world and beyond. In addition, there are scholars in many other departments at UB—including history, English, geography, anthropology and elsewhere, who engage in many of the debates surrounding the transnational turn in the humanities.”

The “Transnational Turn” conference provided a glimpse of the type of exciting, interdisciplinary, border-crossing scholarship in which UB’s Department of Transnational Studies engages. Nightingale adds, “This, we think is an important part of the education of new generations of students in a period of human history when almost everything in the world is connected in some way to something elsewhere, usually across huge distances.”