Rename International Studies “Global Studies”

Rename International Studies “Global Studies”

Christian Wibe, Contributing Writer

Last semester, I took the most timely course imaginable: International Public Health. Ignorant of the impending pandemic, I walked into class as any first-year would: prepared to learn about “international” health for my “international” studies major and possibly an “international” development concentrator.

However, my professor, Vanessa Voller, was about to turn the course on its head. She made her debut appearance to her students virtually, rather than in-person. She even changed the name of the class on the syllabus to “Global Health.”

 At the time, these oddities seemed to be explained by either quirks in her personality, or that she was new to both Macalester and teaching. Professor Voller’s virtual appearance was later explained not by pandemic precognition, but by her ongoing rendezvous with Partners in Health in Rwanda. Yet the significance of the name change remained a curiosity to me for months, during which I gradually realized that what we were studying wasn’t very “international” in nature — instead, it was global.

At first glance, the two words appear like synonyms, each meaning something like, “intercultural,” “transnational” or “cosmopolitan.” As we shall see, this is only broadly true.

The difference is evident in that who we call “international students” by definition come from countries other than the U.S. When stamped “international,” these students are immediately associated in our minds with some definite country, and further one that is not the U.S. We see country, and not other global dimensions to life, such as climate or culture, which may hold more relevance to the student’s background; we see not the U.S. due to an underlying presumption that the other countries revolve around the U.S. — again, quite the opposite of an authentic, global perspective.

So there is an enormous chasm between the values and history necessarily embedded in “international,” and those of “global.” As a whole, this nomenclature is not reflected in the Macalester international studies (IS) department’s name.

I must be clear here: my argument is related to nomenclature and to its associations thereof, not the teaching of the IS department. In fact, the department’s webpage description sums up its progressive attitude: “We take an interdisciplinary approach, drawing together the humanities, social sciences, fine arts, and the physical sciences, in order to examine how our increasingly globalized world not only connects people, but also highlights, threatens, polices and protects difference — and to what consequence.”

I chose a geology emphasis within the IS major, meaning I am encouraged to direct-enroll into the University of Vienna, pick a course like “Geologie der Bergen” (“Geology of Mountains”) and head into the Alps. Truly, today’s international studies at Macalester is much more than a “subset of political science,” as the webpage says.

But notice the phrasing of “globalized” in the first quote. This is what the IS department has become in all but name. It hasn’t always been this way. When IS was first conceived at Macalester, it was only a program and not a major, and was promulgated in U.S.-centric and diplomacy-focused language.

The Macalester international studies program was inaugurated in 1949. Much as a concentration is now, IS began as a collaboration between the political science, sociology and economics departments and was headed by Dr. Huntley Dupre.

The 1950 course catalog states that IS offered a functional major in international relations; The Mac Weekly archive of Sept. 23, 1949, clearly defined its design: “to train students in general citizenship, foreign service, foreign trade, missionary work, journalism abroad, and relief and welfare abroad.”

At the time IS was established at Macalester, the United States had only recently initiated the containment strategy against Soviet Russia. Anti-communist countries were friends, communist ones enemies and the world a battleground. Through this lens, America had to navigate its way carefully to save the world from the USSR’s red grip. Hence the need for an international relations major to teach students how to convert the third world to capitalism and create protective coalitions such as NATO.

This is the original international studies, or the study of relations between (inter-) countries. Technically the second part of the term, “international,” comes from “nation,” not “country.” But after World War I the concept of “nation” was superimposed on “state” to make “nation-states” such as France and Hungary. These types of political considerations form the basis of internationalism in history. On the contrary, the term “global” does not carry any of these hyper-political associations or the U.S.-centric position.

After disappearing from the catalog during the 1960s and 1970s, international studies resurfaced by 1980 as something much more familiar to current students. It featured collaboration with an array of departments, among which students had the choice of as core emphases: “anthropology, economics, French, geography, Germanic languages and literatures, history, philosophy, political science, religious studies, Slavic languages and literatures, or Spanish.” While not yet involving arts and sciences, IS earned its mark of interdisciplinarity at this time.

Since then, the department has described its concerns in an increasingly broad manner. Its department catalog started with “international and intercultural” in 1990, “transnational and intercultural” in 2000 and finally “transnational and intercultural global” since at least 2009. Over time, there appears to have been a deliberate replacement of “international” with “transnational” and a slightly awkward-sounding addition of “global” after “intercultural.”

Are these latter terms equivalent? The word, “transnational,” holds some promise according to the catalog writers of 2000 — perhaps the department could be renamed “Transnational Studies.” However, my own experience in an IS classroom contradicts this proposal. The term “transnational,” is actually quite old, and unfortunately outdated. When my Introduction to International Studies: Literature and Global Culture (INTL-111) class read Randolph Bourne’s classic “Transnational America,” in which he coined the word, we found a writer who decried nativism as harmful to the nation’s character. He wrote, “We must see if the lesson of the war has not been for hundreds of these later Americans a vivid realization of their transnationality, a new consciousness of what America meant to them as a citizenship in the world.” Transnationalism is rooted in the American concept of defending immigration as a noble component of American exceptionalism.

“Intercultural” is perhaps more appropriate than “transnational,” but the perspective of “culture” is still limiting what the world trends have really been. Culture, like diplomacy in International Studies, is only a partial view of what we know to have interdisciplinary methods, or the whole or the global. The global is the sum of the media, cultures, economics, arts, technologies and yes, the politics and governance, of its infinite number of conceivable “regions” which interact with globalization.

Now, these regions are often not represented at all by countries. Countries are socially constructed entities which have now lost credibility due to globalization and the Internet. Without countries, the international model cannot exist. Global studies, however, can. Through global studies, one can study any world trends, such as climate change, which involves no borders at all.

This revelation has accelerated in just the last couple decades. Since Google has started tracking the amount of search terms like “international studies” and “global studies” in 2004, the ratio of results for the two has changed dramatically. While in 2004, “international studies” had a 50-point lead over “global studies,” 2020 showed a much smaller difference of 9 points. Even more striking, “global health” has achieved a 59-point lead over “international health,” a term which back in 2007 was searched about as often. And in 2008, the Global Studies Consortium met in Japan to draft an outline of the important aspects of global studies, a historic moment.

Then, has Macalester’s IS department been resistant in adopting the new terminology out of nostalgia for the antiquated notion of 1940s internationalism? When Professor Voller changed her course’s name to “Global Health,” it was indeed to align with what most of the world had already settled on as the most appropriate terminology.

All this nomenclature may seem irrelevant. After all, Macalester’s Asian and African Studies programs could be traced to ancient etymologies’ references (Asia minor and Roman Africa, respectively). This is not the same for International Studies. For one, IS was instituted in a time period that is coterminous with the present — we are informed by our immediate ancestors what kind of foreign policy America held at the time, what influences came with that experience.

Next, the word, “international,” is associated necessarily with countries. Students and professors alike stick themselves to America (or whatever country they call home) and view the world from the limited grasp of what is near them: Canada and Mexico, for example. Global studies would detach us from any country’s perspective and teach us to look on Earth from outer space, from where aliens would not be able to discern the U.S. or any other country.

Thus, the nomenclature is actually exceedingly relevant, since it frames through language the ideas we have on things, especially abstract ones such as the world. A faulty worldview can spoil even great technical knowledge. Can Macalester’s IS department afford to continue to promote these misconceptions in its student body?

The pandemic has obvious global effects that cannot be helped in the container of diplomacy or anti-communist missions. So why does the Macalester IS department, as a pioneer in the field, not rename itself to disconnect from the mid-century environment which created it?

Follow through and rename your department. Match what you say you teach with what you teach. Professors willing to protest the traditional course names, write your syllabus with the term, “global” instead of “international,” as Professor Voller did. It may slightly confuse your students at first, but they will thank you after class for the freedom of a clear globe-view.


Email: [email protected]