Modern Languages

Transnational German Studies: Embracing Travels of the Mind

By Rebecca Braun & Benedict Schofield

This blog shares some key insights we have gained from editing the volume Transnational German Studies. We are presenting them here in the form of three provocations – provocations for research and teaching in German Studies and the Modern Languages, but also for the Arts and Humanities more widely.


1.   The transnational as trans-period

When we began conceptualising our volume, we were certain that we wanted to avoid the danger of only talking about contemporary transnational experiences, which would have limited our scope in multiple ways. Yet going back in time, before the nation-state, and adopting a trans-period take on our subject of study meant we needed to be very open to what we classed as relevant objects of study in the volume. These ended up covering, for instance, not just the history of the German language, but the history of religious practices, major trade routes, gendered social practices, and explored diverse material objects from churches to printing presses. In putting together the book, we thus asked ourselves how we could construct a network of meaning that is multi-directional and multi-actor but still coheres around the shared characteristic of being in some way ‘German’, even as it runs through and beyond any essential or exclusive notion of ‘German-ness’. We wanted to give our student and other disciplinary readers topics that would give them both a much bigger German-language ‘world’ than they might have been expecting, but also access to a number of different ‘worlds’ beyond that, modelling  alternative ways of ‘doing German’, but also alternative ways of being, shaping in turn our readers’ sense of how they might orient themselves in the world.

Provocation 1: We should always locate ourselves across time, but in relation to our time

This points to developing not just a critical humanities, but a confident humanities. We hope our readers will take inspiration from this collection that spans the medieval period to the present day to take the big sweep across large timeframes, but without fearing loss of specificity as they explore the nuance and detail of human interactions.

2.   The transnational as trans-lational

A second major concern for us was how to put this in accessible language – the need to be trans-lational. How much complexity is needed for a subject to be opened up to further enquiry (as a post-graduate student in German might go on to do), but also to fruitful comparisons, for instance for student readers coming to us from other language zones, or for researchers in any number of cognate disciplines, who might turn to our book for knowledge they then might take to other, entirely new disciplinary places? A criticism made of Humanities scholarship, particularly of theory, has been its tendency towards jargon and hermeticism. We wanted to avoid that whilst remaining very alert to the nuances of language, space, time and subjectivity that have been the focus of those identity politics and the related linguistic, spatial and temporal turns.

As part of opening up what Modern Languages scholarship is and whom it speaks to, we also felt strongly the importance of giving space to collaborators from other parts of the world, with other ways of doing things. This entailed really fruitful exchanges with scholars working in languages other than English or German and with alternative priorities for their readers, but it also found us bumping up against some real difficulties. One of our originally planned contributions couldn’t be completed because climate change had made air pollution so severe in that part of the world that the contributor was physically unable to meet our publication deadline. These practical aspects of the different conditions under which transnational scholarship can take place matter and we need to find ways of keeping them visible in our ongoing work and actions.

Provocation 2: How we say things must always go right through what we say

This provocation encourages us not to get too stuck in our own nationally-bounded networks and self-perpetuating jargon. Perpetuating the discipline means communicating it in such a way that it has the core ability to get beyond itself, to carry on moving through time and into different ‘worlds’ and/or scholarly communities.

3. The transnational as trans-disciplinary

All of the contributors to Transnational German Studies were united by a desire for the book to point forwards, to new ways of doing things. For many, this included explicit reflection on methodologies that are ‘core’ to the traditional discipline of German Studies (such as philology, archive work, close textual analysis) as well as those occupying more of an ‘outlier’ position (notably Social Network Analysis / Actor-Network-Theory). By focusing our attention on how each chapter exhibited a particular methodological approach to conducting research relevant to German Studies, we deliberately eschewed a ‘state-of-the-discipline’ approach which would have implied a fixed body of canonical texts, material or knowledge. Focusing on methodologies that connect up texts / material / knowledge-sets in different ways can entail shifting the gaze away from humans and the qualitative traces they leave of their cultural endeavours, and involve compiling and interpreting new data sets. Above all, the interest and value in seeing multiple trans-disciplinary methodologies side by side in this way rests in the different kinds of questions we then find we are able to ask, inspiring students to do the same. The more we reflect on our methods, the more we are effectively reflecting on the disciplinary language we are using, and the more we are able consciously to engage with other disciplinary languages as a result.

Provocation 3: Modern Languages – and Arts and Humanities disciplines more broadly – should show humility and be alert to learning from other ways of doing things

This provocation implores us not to shun methods, either because they appear too complex or indeed too simple. Rather, we need to get better at reflecting on what the learnable techniques are that are germane to the discipline of Modern Languages but which other disciplines could also take up, as well as what we can adapt and apply from those other disciplines.

Outlook: Transnational Connectivities

Speaking about how to make the case for German in 2015, Nicola McLelland concluded a historical survey of learner motivations since the 1600s with the following verdict:

It is not hard-headed commercial reasoning that wins individual learners to languages in general and to German in particular, but the promise of enriching cultural encounters, both in travel […] and in travels of the mind.[1]

The phrase ‘travels of the mind’ is resonant in multiple ways, and hopefully it is clear by now how it structured both the content and the experience of editing Transnational German Studies. When we began our editing, we asked ourselves: What do we mean by something called ‘Transnational Modern Languages’? Are we trying to define the scope in terms of content – studying examples from right around the globe, with an emphasis on shared histories, entangled cultures? Or are we looking first and foremost at ourselves: how transnational we are as a group of researchers, and how mutually intelligible our research questions and methods are? In the end, our trans-period, trans-lational, and trans-disciplinary approach shows us how to connect across these questions, and across the world, in multiple ways. In doing so, we map a linguistically-informed, creatively-connected world which we shape through our research, teaching and study, not just in German Studies, but across the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences.

[1] Nicolla McLeland, ‘German as a Foreign Language in Britain. The history of German as a ‘useful’ language since 1600’, Angermion 8.1 (2015), 1-34, p.33.


Transnational German Studies is part of the Transnational Modern Languages series.

Use discount code LUP30 for 30% off when ordering directly.


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