Catching up in World History

Back in the day (like, 1989) I was hired to teach World History. When I first arrived at the college, I was given the syllabus.

Now, I had been trained to teach Western Civ. I was a Europeanist, with an emphasis in medieval technology and a secondary field of early U.S. History. My graduate school language had been French (no, I don’t speak a word of it now — don’t ask me to order for you). But even I, with my Eurocentric background, could see that the syllabus was not World History. It was what I later learned would be called “The West and the Rest”, a condensed Western Civ class with a unit on India, a unit on China…you get the idea.

So I resolved to reform the curriculum and make the course truly global. I didn’t realize I was wading into a whole intellectual swamp about the history of the world, but I did know I needed help. So I founded the North County Global History Project, in collaboration with historians from other community colleges, and even National University. We created several annual conferences, inviting experts in global history to come speak. We also shared internally, with all the world historians working together, bringing in our various areas of expertise. It worked. The curriculum was revised and approved, and all our instructors have been teaching global history for years.

That included me, until about 2004. At that time, our Western Civ classes were expanding, and I was eager to teach them. Online classes were expanding, and I was learning to teach them. The following year I founded the Program for Online Teaching, and my focus for the next 12 years or so was on online pedagogy, and the creation of new class in the History of Technology.

Well, time’s a funny thing. I now have an opportunity, next fall, to teach World History again. So suddenly I am embarked on examining what’s happened in the discipline, what’s up in the scholarship, and what’s available as far as resources. I’ve been reading the current textbooks, and articles on the last dozen years of the field. Although I had belonged to the World History Association, my membership had lapsed as they priced me out of their conferences (they took place in Italy and on cruise ships). So I don’t exactly have an insider view.

If you read my blog, you know what I think of textbooks. But really, I’d like to start with one, and there are no Open Educational Resources for world history that cover the entire course. I assumed I could find a newer textbook with a solid thematic structure, since that’s where the field was heading back in 2004. It turns out there have been some efforts at thematic global history in recent years, including The Origins of the Modern World by Robert B. Marks, and Forging the Modern World by Carter and Warren. I have just finished reading the latter, except for the last chapter, because by then I was too depressed to continue to the end. A reasonably-priced, readable, book of a good length for students, it has themes that carry through. That’s what I’m looking for, a thematic framework to make history truly global, rather than just bouncing from region to region for each chapter (“Meanwhile, in China…”) But Carter and Warren’s themes have to do with the lengths to which states will go to establish legitimacy (think blowing things up and killing lots of natives) and the difficulty in resisting this. The losers lose horribly. There are names in the book (emperors and such), but you never see the real people, the people on the ground. They just seem to be buffeted by forces beyond their control. There’s no agency, no hope. Yes, I could add that in when I lecture. But I’d feel bad assigning such misery and helplessness.

When evaluating textbooks, I also like to “spot check” content– look in the index for certain things to determine how they’re covered. So since I want to be global, I looked for global things. For commodities, gold or silver work — so does cloth. For food, sugar or chocolate are good (and aren’t they?). I look for coverage of people like the Arabs, the Jesuits, and the Jews, people who didn’t necessarily fit evolving concepts of the nation and tend to operate globally.

And I look for women. Not necessarily individual Great Women, but rather women in groups, acting with agency and purpose. Great Men tend to be individualized as historical actors, even though none of them would have achieved anything without a network supporting them. Women may have to form groups just to be heard. Such groups have fought not only for suffrage, but for things like laws, peace, fair prices, and education. (I look for “peace” also.)

Looking at the books so far, those that have these people as actors tend to have a regional focus rather than a global, thematic focus. That includes Bulliet’s The Earth and Its Peoples (the current edition of the book I used in 2004) and the newer Smith’s World in the Making. The McNeills’ The Human Web and Morillo’s Frameworks of World History are more thematic, but I believe conceptually too difficult for community college students. It’s becoming pretty clear that I have to decide between a global focus without the real human experience, and the real human experience without a global framework. That sucks. You would think the field would have moved further in the time I haven’t been paying attention. I envision a book with global themes and flyovers, but with little boxes that telescope in on an event as an example, and sample those from around the globe.

And no, I’m not gonna write one.

4 thoughts to “Catching up in World History”

    It sounds like a book in the making!

    1. I think finding a “starter” book is key, John, to avoid having to create such a book! But yes, I could create the themes myself, or create them for sets of chapters, or start by creating them and then have students create themes themselves near the end of the class. But thanks for suggesting articles. I tend to think only in terms of textbook (fact set) and primary sources (evidence). The themes may well lie in scholarly articles.

  2. We are switching to Smith in the Fall, an attempt at a somewhat thematic and chronological approach. Rob and I used to discuss this at length. I tend to use Strayer for my own framework, providing the themes that way in the class room and assignment something, like Smith, for a more chronological approach that students seem to grasp more easily. I will try to check back at your blog to see how this works for you!

    1. Yes, Bethanie, I’ll also be looking more closely at Smith, but it is such a large book I worry about the reading load. Perhaps without additional primary sources? Thanks for suggesting Strayer — I’ll take a look there too!

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