HIST 4806A: Global and Transnational History – “Humanity: the history of a troubled concept”
Summer 2022

Instructor: Professor Andrew M. Johnston and Prof. Jessica Gienow-Hecht (Free University of Berlin)

Course Description

“Humanity” typically encompasses both humankind and the integration and care for individuals previously barred from taking part in the rights, standards, and the dignity accorded to humankind. Today, the term plays a key role in the connection between humanitarian activism and human rights to mobilize individuals and justifying governmental action in often distant lands, in the name of “humanity”. Yet the consensus surrounding these terms obscures their complex and sometimes disturbing history. This seminar explores the changing concepts of “humanity” and how the term has been used and abused in recent international history. Alongside cultural interpretations in the form of sounds and visual display, texts and themes may be drawn from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its abolition in the 19th century, imperial expansion and decolonization from the late 19th century through the 1960s, 20th century genocides, the emergence of human rights as a global norm, and the contested history of humanitarian interventions.


The seminar will be held online and delivered synchronously over Zoom. Students must have a stable internet connection and the ability to attend classes at the scheduled time. This will also allow us to undertake one important innovation: the seminar will be twinned with a small group of (English-speaking) students simultaneously taking the identical course at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University in Berlin (FUB), Germany. For a portion of each week, both Carleton and FUB students will attend the seminar together, working on shared presentations and projects, and engaging in the common discussions.


Siep Stuurman, The invention of humanity: equality and cultural difference in world history (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)