9th International PhD Student Workshop Exchange Bielefeld / Notre Dame Bielefeld University, 19 – 24 May 2018. A report by Nicholas Roberts (University of Notre Dame) and Daniele Toro (Bielefeld University)
How high is the potential for a transatlantic exchange between doctoral students from the USA and Germany? How challenging might it be in an international workshop to overcome differences in how doctoral students are trained? From 19 to 24 May 2018, the annual International Student Workshop Exchange between the University of Notre Dame and Bielefeld University offered for the ninth time to students of both universities a framework to tackle these issues by presenting and debating their own research. By the workshop’s conclusion, the Bielefeld and Notre Dame students and faculty had mutually benefited from each other’s different historical approaches. One of the major questions to arise from the workshop - perhaps the major question – dealt with the use of theory for historians. The workshop was a forum for the Bielefeld and Notre Dame students to collegially reflect upon their own experiences as doctoral students, and to debate different aspects of the historian’s craft.
The conference, hosted this year by the Department of History and the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology at Bielefeld University, followed the format applied during the past editions: it consisted of two days of workshops, a day-long excursion – which led this time to the Ruhr Museum, the Krupp Estate, and the Abbey in Essen – and one free day followed by a concluding dinner, which allowed extra time for the doctoral students to engage each other stimulating, friendly conversation.
For the workshop days, student papers were distributed weeks in advance. Each paper was introduced and commented by a student from the partner university and, after a reply by the author, widely discussed by the group. Despite rigorous discussion during the workshops, many students commented on how the best conversation and insights came during more informal activities outside the classroom. Students unanimously agreed that, whether discussing papers and research over ice cream on the charming Bielefeld streets or in the classroom, the week was thoroughly productive and rewarding.
Time outside the classroom provided students with opportunities not only to discuss their papers and dissertations more in but also to discuss the differences in approaches to history and graduate school education. As quickly became evident, Bielefeld and Notre Dame train their history graduate students differently. Yet many students remarked that, rather than hamper discussion, these differences enriched the workshop and represented a key element for its success. The simplest description of the different approaches might be that Bielefeld students are trained to use a dynamic set of theories for crafting history, while Notre Dame students are trained to use a wide span of historiography in which to root their narrative. The differences in these approaches can be seen in how students begin their particular papers: Bielefeld students generally begin with a theoretical framework, into which they weave their history, while Notre Dame students generally begin with a historiographical framework, which supports their historical narrative. In other words, a Bielefeld student might be trained to look for a theory into which their analysis can be woven, while a Notre Dame student might be trained to look for a historiographical gap in which their analysis fits. The workshop discussions were at once jovial, intense, friendly and stimulating for students and faculty of many different interests and backgrounds.
Paper topics varied widely, from military history, capitalism in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, fascism, portages, state and nation building, newspapers, student movements, intellectuals, cultural encounters, and sex scandals. In addition, Notre Dame Professor Darren Dochuk presented the keynote address from his forthcoming book The exchanges between the Bielefeld and Notre Dame students prompted everyone to reflect upon their own approach to crafting history, and several themes emerged from the week’s discussions. One of the most prominent themes was the concept of networks; connections and exchanges between peoples and ideas throughout history was a hallmark of the workshop. This was related to another topic: namely, how to transcend the “nation” when thinking about history. How to rethink various historical narratives in a transnational, global, or cross-border way represented the workshops intellectual center of gravity.
Each of these themes was also reflected in off-campus discussions between the students, who drew many connections between the papers and current sociopolitical issues. The week’s events were a reminder to all of the richness within the discipline of history and encouraged every participant to remain engaged in reflecting upon his or her craft, and to think in new ways. For example, some Notre Dame students remarked about how much they learned about United States history from their German colleagues and about the inspiring finesse with which they wove theory with their history. Bielefeld students, on the other hand, were impressed by the ability showed by many Notre Dame participants in crafting narrative that is at once analytical and entertaining.
The richness of topics and approaches presented in this workshop created a promising basis for building an exchange that will last well into the future. All participants benefited from the broad spectrum of the debate. The added value of this workshop, however, did not derive from scholarship alone. Rather, it was the dynamic, thrilling atmosphere created by bringing together doctoral students from five continents embodying transnationality and diversity within their very own life and scholarly experiences. The extremely positive feedback by the participants is in this sense a clear sign that the ongoing academic internationalization is proceeding in the right direction on both sides of the Atlantic, even though current political affairs lately seem to follow a different agenda. In this perspective, the Bielefeld / Notre Dame exchange assumes nowadays an even more significant role. Building on this year’s event at Bielefeld, we are certain that the Tenth Anniversary Workshop will be similarly remarkable, when held in May 2019 at the University of Notre Dame.