Growing -- and Defining -- 'Global Studies'

February 21, 2008

What, exactly, do we mean when we say “global studies?”

“That’s the central question,” Niklaus Steiner, the director of the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said when pressed by an assistant provost in his audience who asked, “What is the intellectual justification for global studies? What do you bring that’s new?”

“What’s the central answer?”

“I see hands going up,” Steiner said, smiling, not-so-deftly dodging the question but clearing the way for further discussion on the emerging field and its place in the academy.

Wednesday's session on “Fostering Global Studies Research In and Across Disciplines” at the Association of International Education Administrators Annual Conference, in Washington, sparked lively debate and discussion -- if not easy answers to that “central question” -- among participants who offered examples of their own colleges’ conceptions of what global studies education should look like and how best to support its instruction through library acquisitions, course development grants for faculty, and the like.

“We think we’ve answered the questions” relative to defining global studies, said Sara Tully West, administrative director of the Center for International Education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “But there’s a caveat to that. We’ve answered it in the context of our university setting.”

Tully outlined some of the main components of UW Milwaukee’s relatively new bachelor’s degree program in global studies, distinct from an already-existing international studies program, she explained after the session, that’s based in the social sciences (political science and economics, primarily). The global studies major has a more rigorous foreign language requirement – eight semesters – includes a mandatory semester spent studying abroad and an international internship, and more generally is built around themes of understanding the impacts and ethics of globalization. In addition to completing a series of required core courses, global studies students focus on one of five tracks: global cities, global classrooms, global communications, global management and global security. The global studies major is intended, Tully said, to be more pre-professional in focus than international studies (a liberal arts program).

Terri E. Givens, a vice provost and associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about a proposed major there in “international relations and global studies” that also would let students who take a core series of classes (including grounding in economics, geography and world history) specialize in one of four tracks: culture, media and the arts; international security; science technology and environment; and international political economy. Plans for the major were precipitated, Givens said in an interview, by students who weren’t satisfied with the political science department's international offerings. “The problem with international relations in poli sci is that it’s incredibly theoretical,” Givens said. “They understand that they need the history, the political science,” she said.

But some students also want the focus on area studies, and to some degree, she said, they want to be required to take lots of foreign language courses that they might have difficulty getting into otherwise. (Texas’ proposed major, which Givens hopes will be up and running by 2009, would require six hours of upper-division coursework in a single foreign language.) “Part of the impetus from the students was that they were having a hard time putting together a body of courses” on their own, Givens said.

During the panel discussion, Steiner, of North Carolina, said that while the value of an undergraduate degree in global studies is clear to him, what about a Ph.D.? "I daresay that not anytime soon will any of our history or politics departments hire a global studies Ph.D.," he said. Assuming Steiner's assertion, how to have a discipline unto itself, he asked, without Ph.D.'s populating it, and how to have Ph.D.'s without job security?

On the one hand, those on the panel cited evidence of an emerging field and burgeoning interest and opportunities. Steve Witt, associate director of the Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, referenced a number of young journals, including Globalizations and New Global Studies. (Steve Smith, associate director of global studies for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, followed up by describing the relatively new online journal composed of short, 750-1,000-word thought pieces, global-e). Panelists also mentioned programs at the University of California at Santa Barbara (which, as the Santa Barbara international studies center director, Mark Juergensmeyer, wrote in an October global-e piece, "houses one of the country's oldest global studies programs -- it stretches all the way back to the 20th century").

Witt said that a consortium of universities with graduate-level global studies programs will be meeting in Tokyo in May. And at Illinois, he added, they’ve created a global studies librarian position, and have worked to identify faculty doing global studies research in various disciplines and connect them with one another.

“It seems that there’s a lot of a groundswell, a movement toward this,” Witt said. “But it’s still ill-defined. I’ve yet to see any commonality among programs.”

“If we’re interested in global studies, how is it different from IR [international relations] and political science narrowly defined?” asked Steiner. “What is the unit of analysis” for global studies, he asked. Is it all of humanity, “all 6.5 billion of us?” Or should the focus be on global systems?

The key, he said, is not just to replace the word "international" with "global."

“I would urge us to think of global studies as much more than warmed-over IR and much more than renamed international studies. But what does that mean? Where does that leave us?”

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