Students drifting off to sleep during their history lectures often feel a sense of disconnection to the material at hand. At times, it seems as if the sets and dates exist only in their textbooks with little to no relevance to their own lives.
However, steps have been taken in order to combat this false notion that history has no bearing on today. Recently, the University of California, Santa Barbara History Department has organized itself into research clusters that attempt to bring historians together to collaborate on questions pertaining to the present day.
The research clusters aim to bring together historians who specialize in different areas. These new research clusters reflect a recent trend in historical study to transcend traditional categories. History departments were once divided into fields that covered periods such as medieval history, or geographic divisions such as the history of South Asia. However, some concepts cannot be encapsulated within these arbitrary boundaries. These research clusters seek to explore broader themes that cannot be adequately explored within one of these traditional categories.
For example, one of the clusters is “Empires, Borderlands, and their Legacies.” According to the history department website, one of the goals of the cluster is to study why “groups sometimes polarize discourse and behavior by claiming that primordial sentiments constitute nations, peoples or groups of true believers.” Such a study goes beyond traditional categories, attempting to bring together knowledge from several different periods to make a comprehensive statement about issues like nationalism and sectarianism that continue to have effects on the present.
Professor Alice O’Connor studies the history of poverty in the United States. She works in the Policy & Political Economy cluster, which deals with the history of capitalism. Working in a research cluster has affected her own work, challenging her ideas in new ways. Collaboration with other historians helps her place her ideas into a larger context.
“You rethink your ideas when you’re working with people across places and timelines,” O’Connor said. “If I’m writing about these issues in the 20th century, how can I learn from people who study them in the 9th century? What kind of theoretical perspectives do we share?”
In addition to the collaboration between faculty members, the cluster regularly sponsors colloquiums that deal with political economic issues, featuring speakers that come from all around the world dealing with diverse topics. Guests for this quarter include Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University, speaking about labor movements and popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and Professor Peter Drucker of the International Institute of Research and Education, Amsterdam, speaking about the political economy of homonationalism and Islamophobia.
O’Connor encouraged undergraduates to come to these events, saying that it was an opportunity to “see how historians think about some really big issues that you’re not necessarily going to get sitting at a course or reading a textbook.”
O’Connor expressed optimism about what the research clusters could achieve, displaying confidence that various historians working together could produce some new and interesting work. “Having these research clusters gives you a venue to take a thematic and say, ‘We have so much to say about this. How are we going to say it?’” O’Connor said. “I think that could be really exciting.”