World History Connected Home    
 
 
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        
   

The Quantity, and Quality, of World History We Expect Students to Learn in Fourteen Weeks: A Thematic Approach Incorporating The Earth and Its Peoples and Global Passages

Tiffany Trimmer, Willeke Sandler, and Brendan Wilson1
Northeastern University

 
Introduction: Constraints and Objectives  
    What are the primary goals of a World History course? Generally, we want to help our students learn how to identify, and untangle, the long-distance and long-term connections that shape the cultural, political, economic, and environmental realities of life in the early twenty-first-century. This exploration of 'how the world works' —or more specifically, how local community dynamics both shape, and are shaped by, global processes —offers students a broader understanding of the present-day concepts of 'globalization' and 'multi-culturalism.' For students who have grown up as citizens of nation states, the alternate geographic frameworks of world history courses—long-distance trade routes, ocean basins, migrant diasporas, colonies, plantation complexes, and empires—do more than just highlight the variety of political-economic structures that have shaped daily life in the past. They also call attention to the complex, and competing, factors (religious, ethnic, racial, regional, economic, and legal) that have historically influenced individual and community identities, many of which continue to inform those of the students in our courses. 1
    How do we consistently model the broader historical perspective that we are asking our students to grow into? Every instructor faces this question when preparing their syllabus, and continues to revisit it as they teach. At Northeastern University, we've experienced changes in the scope of content and course format for introductory surveys (World, European, and U.S.) over the past few years that have provided a fresh set of challenges, and consequently, opportunities to rethink the structure of introductory history surveys. In September 2003, a single-semester version of the World History survey debuted. Its course description, which states that, "the course may begin as early as the first settled towns or written documents, the appearance of the first humanoid species, or even the beginning of the universe,"2 set very broad parameters for course content. In September 2005, all three introductory surveys were redesigned as large lecture courses. Surveys which previously had maximum enrollments of forty-nine students and three weekly lectures were redesigned to accommodate up to one hundred twenty students. The third weekly lecture was replaced with a small-group recitation led by teaching assistants.
2
     The changes in course scope and format led our 'teaching team'3 to ask, "what quantity, and quality, of World History can we expect students to learn in fourteen weeks"? We decided that one of the most important advantages of a world historical perspective is the assessment of both change and continuity over very long time periods. The single semester survey offered us the opportunity to undertake explorations of world historical processes over the long term, for example comparing and contrasting the function of forced migrations in the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires (ca 911 - 562 BCE) with their counterpart in the development of the Atlantic Plantation Complex (ca 1480 -1750 CE). Yet effectively integrating such comparisons into a course hinges on student's ability to: 1) grasp the conceptual issues involved in the comparison, and 2) have a basic understanding of the historical details for each of the places and times being compared in the course. Both are somewhat problematic for introductory surveys since, for example, we discovered on the first day of recitation that 38% of our students had never taken a world history course before.4 In order to provide adequate historical detail while still focusing on long-term changes and continuities, then, we chose to structure the course around one overarching theme and five supporting processes (migration, trade, warfare, cultural conversion, and empire) which have frequently promoted cross-cultural exchanges in world history. 5 The advantage of this approach is that it creates an overarching conceptual framework that links weekly lectures and recitation discussions to course exams. The recurring references to these themes (described in detail below) give students a consistent analytical perspective that they can hold on to as the course moves rapidly across time and space.
3
   
Setting Our Expectations: Quantity and Quality  
    We wanted to reassure our students that we were not expecting them to learn the history of the entire world. However, we did want them to learn about a considerable range of places (selected African, Asian, American and European communities; trans-continental and trans-oceanic empires) and time periods (from the Neolithic Revolutions to the present day) over the course of the semester. If our emphasis on long-distance and long-term connections was to work, we needed to clearly communicate our expectations in terms of how much, and what types, of information students would be responsible for learning. In such a potentially broad course, the quantity of material could become overwhelming unless we clearly communicated the specific types of historical details students would need to learn. To help make the quantity of course material manageable, we needed to set clear expectations on the quality of the historical analysis we would expect them to illustrate on exams and in recitation discussions. 4
    We chose to directly confront this quantity - quality issue in the course description section of our syllabus. 6 In the section below, we attempted to alert students to the breadth of course content, and to communicate our strategy for making the most of our fourteen week semester. 5

Can we really learn about 5,000 years, 5 continents, and 3 ocean basins in fourteen weeks? Although we will explore a wider range of places and a longer timeframe, World History is not the study of the entire world at once. Instead, World Historians prioritize the activities and ideas that have increasingly connected human communities across time and space. Our primary goal will be to identify how, and under what circumstances, individual societies have been able to interact with and influence each other.7

6
    However, it is one thing to state in a syllabus that the main course priority is interactions and connections among human communities, and quite another to consistently sustain this priority across fourteen weeks of lectures and recitation discussions. To sustain a consistent approach as the course moved rapidly across time and space, we attempted to create mutually reinforcing discussions of our main course themes in the large lectures and small group recitation sections.
7
   
Thematically Structuring the Study of the Past  
    Structuring our course around a set of themes, and preparing students to take the thematic 'leap of faith' with us as they began to study World History, required careful thought about the meaning of 'themes' and the role of themes in students' individual learning processes. As Deborah Smith Johnston has argued, "an active theme encourages historical debate and  . . . allow[s] students to build historical thinking skills."8 Although a 'theme' could be broadly defined as a subject for discussion or investigation, we wanted to construct a more specific understanding of the term that would help our students manage the quantity-quality issue imposed by the time constraints of our course. As a result, we came to think of themes as dynamic, recurring patterns of interaction that could be traced across time and space. In doing so, we recast our weekly discussions of cross-cultural interaction, migration, long-distance trade, warfare, conversion, and empire as case study explorations of how a particular set of themes shaped daily life in a given place or time. 8
    Students' abilities to grasp the processes of interaction implied by our themes were essential for two reasons. First, we intended the themes to serve as guiding frameworks to help them determine what information from our textbook (The Earth and Its Peoples, brief third edition) and primary document readers (Global Passages, volumes I and II) they should prioritize.9 Second, given our stated emphasis on connections across time and space, we wanted to establish a method for structuring comparisons across the regionally - and chronologically - organized chapters within these three books. 9
    We intended the themes to be a conceptual framework that could orient students to the overall pedagogical goals of the course, and help them organize their own intellectual journey. Yet our themes were also designed to help us move beyond a recurring trouble spot for introductory World History surveys taught with textbooks: information overload. As conceptualized in Bloom's Taxonomy, an individual's learning process involves six stages: obtaining knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.10 Without clear and consistent articulation of the quantity and quality of knowledge of a given place or time that they are expected to obtain, students often become overwhelmed by the breadth of information within textbook chapters. This inhibits their ability to comprehend the bigger-picture trends world historians like to explore. Just as important, it also prevents them from being able to apply what they are learning to their analysis of other course materials such as primary documents and images of artwork and artifacts. Information overload also tends to make assessment (whether in the form of essays and short-answer components of exams, or small-group discussions) a more difficult and contentious process. The analysis, synthesis and evaluation of primary and secondary sources required for students to develop their own historical interpretations cannot successfully occur if they are unclear about how to navigate—and obtain knowledge from—the textbook chapters and primary documents we ask them to read. 10
    In the following sections we briefly summarize the working definitions we used with students in our thematic world history survey, then turn to a discussion of how our decision to prioritize cross-cultural interactions meshed with The Earth and Its Peoples and Global Passages. 11
   
Cross - Cultural Interaction  
     Adopting a thematic structure for our World History survey required us to answer two main questions:

(1) What types of human interactions or relationships did we want students to learn more about?

(2) How did we expect students to be able to locate these types of interactions or relationships within assigned readings from The Earth and Its Peoples and Global Passages?

 
    To encourage students to explore connections across time and space, we needed to select an overarching theme that focused on the ways in which individuals and societies sustained contact with each other. The theme of cross-cultural interaction was used to signal to students that our main priority was the study of long-distance and long-term connections among the regions of the world their textbook would be describing. Yet we also wanted to suggest a set of identifiable, recurring long-distance processes that promoted these contacts and connections. Our related themes of migration, long-distance trade, warfare, empire, and cultural conversion, became the boundary-crossing human activities that students could look for throughout text and primary document readings in order to locate cross-cultural interactions. As students grew accustomed to identifying these key processes within course readings, they also enhanced their understanding of—and ability to analyze—cross-cultural interactions. 12
     Drawing on the past decade of scholarship in cultural encounters11 we wanted to give our students a working definition of cross-cultural interaction that would also encourage them to think about the nature of interactions, the balance of power between societies, and the range of possible outcomes which might occur. These priorities were essential if students were to realize that not all cross-cultural exchanges have positive consequences, or lasting effects. Given the length and number of concepts we were asking students to absorb, the following definition was incorporated into a series of PowerPoint slides that were shown repeatedly throughout course lectures and were posted on our Blackboard course site. Continual exposure to this definition allowed students to improve their understanding of the theme as the course progressed. 13

 
Figure 1
 

 
     After introducing the theme of cross-cultural interaction, we then needed to give our students a set of clearly-defined pathways for examining it. Based on the content coverage in The Earth and Its Peoples and the primary document selections from the Global Passages series, we selected the following five key processes of cross-cultural interaction:

Migration — the movement of peoples, forced or free; shaped by environmental, economic, or social and political forces. Also the circulation of ideas, technologies, languages and artistic styles brought about by people on the move.

Trade — the exchange of goods in order to increase a society's economic and material resources; required for both daily essentials and luxuries that reinforce the power and position of elites. Particular emphasis on long-distance trade, which takes people out of their own cultural comfort zones and across multiple others.

Warfare — use of violence to expand political control, redirect trade and tribute flows, gain control of resources (including people); Also emphasis on shifting balances of power over time, and exposure to technology and ideologies from other parts of the world.

Creation and Maintenance of Empires — the long-distance and long-term imposition of one group of people's political, religious, economic, and cultural agendas on another, generally by force; the establishment of social hierarchies that categorize and reinforce distinctions between 'civilized' and 'barbarian,' and 'colonizer' and 'colonized.'

Religious and Cultural Conversion — acceptance or imposition of belief systems, languages, styles of dress and artistic representation originating outside one's own society; with possible social isolation resulting or long-term socio-economic and political benefits for those who convert.

14
   
The Content Supporting Our Thematic Framework: The Earth and Its Peoples and Global Passages  
The Earth and Its Peoples. The 'five thousand years, five continents, fourteen weeks' format of our course necessitated use of a readable yet comprehensive textbook that highlighted world historical connections. Bulliet et al's The Earth and Its Peoples sets for itself a challenge to "select the particular data and episodes that would best illuminate the . . . global patterns of human experience."13 The 'global patterns' that receive the strongest (and most consistent) emphasis seem to be the development of settled human communities, the growth of city-states and empires, and trade and warfare between these entities. The idea of a 'cultural community' is initially explored in Part One, with chapters on the first river valley civilizations (8000 — 1500 BCE) and developments in China, Nubia, the Americas, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean between 2200 and 250 BCE. The concept of cultural communities remains a central organizing structure throughout the chapters in Part Two and Part Three of the text, but fades into the background thereafter. Perhaps this is because of the authors' contention that "the keynote of this book [is] a steady process of change over time, at first differently experienced in various regions, but eventually interconnecting peoples and traditions from all parts of the globe."14 15
     By this logic, the overall narrative within The Earth and Its Peoples should gradually shift away from segmented regional narratives towards integrated discussions of the key historical processes that promote and sustain the "interconnect[ion of] peoples and traditions." As its title suggests, Part Four, "Interregional Patterns of Culture and Contact, 1200-1550 CE" moves towards this goal via emphasis of such boundary crossing peoples and political economies as the Mongol Empires (chapter 11), the Indian Ocean Maritime System (chapter 12), and Asian and European Maritime Expansion (chapter 14).15 This section acts as a sort of bridge between the first three parts of the text which emphasize separate cultural communities as their frame of reference, and the last four which use 'global' and 'world' frameworks (and employ these phrases in their titles).16 There are a few later chapters that highlight interconnections amongst parts of the world or globe especially well. Chapter 19: "Revolutionary Changes in the Atlantic World, 1750 -1850, and chapter 28: "The Cold War and Decolonization, 1945-1975" stand out as good examples. Yet regionally-organized chapters (21: "Africa, India, and the New British Empire, 1750-1870" or 22: "Land Empires in the Age of Imperialism, 1800 - 1870) also appear throughout the later sections of the text. 16
     Within this organizational framework, we were surprised to discover that the chapter with the clearest examples of "interconnecting peoples and traditions" was in an earlier "cultural community" part of the textbook. Chapter Six, "Networks of Communication and Exchange, 300 BCE - 600 CE" uses discussion of three zones of long-distance trade—The Silk Roads, The Indian Ocean Maritime System, and Trans-Saharan Caravan Routes—to concretely illustrate connections across Africa and Eurasia. In a class structured around cross-cultural interaction, this was naturally our favorite chapter in The Earth and Its Peoples. But more importantly, it was the chapter where students had the least difficulty understanding how and why individuals and communities might be brought into contact with each other. Ultimately, our students would have benefited from more "Networks of Communication and Exchange"-style chapters throughout the rest of the text. We understand the desire to keep the format of a textbook flexible enough to serve a diverse range of readers and instructors. Teaching our own rather vast World History survey we are also keenly aware of the challenges of juggling chronology, in-depth regional analysis, and conceptual frameworks that reflect current world historical scholarship within an overall historical narrative. Yet a more consistent attempt to include "Networks of Communication and Exchange" narratives—perhaps as a component of each chapter's conclusion—would be of great benefit to teachers and students undertaking the long-distance and long-term study of cross-cultural interaction. 17
     Our personal desire to see a more consistent appearance of our favorite type of chapter throughout other parts of The Earth and Its Peoples highlights the perennial textbook question: is the survey textbook intended to provide the instructor with a conceptual framework for their course, or to provide a series of regional and temporal narratives that can be incorporated into the instructor's independently-derived pedagogical agenda? The "Preface" to The Earth and Its Peoples gives readers the impression that it intends to provide a conceptual framework. The authors explain that their two recurring themes, "Technology and the Environment" and "Diversity and Dominance", will "serve as a spinal cord of our history."17 The result of this thematic focus is chapters which have a consistent and clear sense of the geographic, environmental, and cultural factors that have limited or promoted interconnections among parts of the globe. The "Technology and the Environment" theme (including discussions of the Indian Ocean dhow, gunpowder, and global warming) helped us draw in engineering and science majors taking our World History course because it was a graduation requirement.18 18
     Yet as it turned out, these two themes might be considered more of an appendage than a spinal cord. This is partly because the self-contained yellow ("Technology and the Environment ") and blue ("Diversity and Dominance") pages are not integrated into the surrounding chapter narratives. The most direct disadvantage of the separation of thematic and regular textbook narratives is that our students rarely read these additional sections unless we repeatedly reminded them to do so. Students also rarely read the preface, where the discussion of the authors' rationale for choosing their two themes is located. A discussion of the rationale for choosing to frame content sections around "Technology and the Environment" and "Diversity and Dominance" in the beginning of the first chapter, or in another more visible location early in the text, would encourage students (and teachers) to think more actively about the role these themes might play in their own intellectual journey through the course. 19
     Similarly, a more prominent discussion of the rationale for the "Issues in World History" sections (including discussions of "Climate and Population" and "Famines and Politics") would be helpful. The disconnect between thematic snapshots and the regional and chronological orientation of the chapters within The Earth and Its Peoples makes it more difficult to determine whether or not the authors intended these two concepts to be 'active' themes in the sense that we have previously described. The "Diversity and Dominance" discussions, which incorporate primary sources and discussion questions, do have the potential to encourage historical debate and to promote historical thinking skills. Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to activate the themes of "Technology and the Environment" and "Diversity and Dominance" within a course lies with the instructor. The Earth and Its Peoples might be characterized as having flexible, adaptable content with a bit of thematic perspective that individual instructors can emphasize or downplay depending on their own pedagogical agenda. We also encourage anyone thinking of using this textbook to ask the publisher for the companion cd-rom. Full of electronic images of maps, artwork, and artifacts from the text that can easily be transferred into a PowerPoint presentation or printed out, the cd-rom made it possible for us to consistently discuss geography and material culture with our students, even in a large-group lecture format. 20
Global Passages. The flexible, adaptable content with a bit of thematic perspective characterization applies equally well to the two volumes of primary documents we used as required readings for recitation sections. Although its documents are organized into regional and chronological chapters, an overarching emphasis on travel literature serves as its version of a 'spinal cord.' In their preface, the authors of Global Passages explain that "we decided students and instructors needed a primary source reader . . . that focused on foreigners' accounts of societies and cultures" because "foreigners or travelers are more likely to take careful notice of customs, manners, and rituals of native inhabitants, who often take them for granted."19 The 'outsider' perspective of many of the documents in these two volumes—Fan Yeh's chronicle of Chinese impressions of the Roman Empire, Oluadah Equiano's description of the Middle Passage, Usamah ibn-Munqidh's description of the crusading Franks, or Mohandas Ghandi's attempt to enter a first class railroad car in South Africa20—provide students with first hand insights into the complex, sometimes confusing and frustrating, process of cross-cultural interaction. The range of perspectives and experiences gave us a way to continually revisit the question of positive, negative, and neutral outcomes of cross-cultural interactions as we moved across the fourteen weeks of recitation discussions. 21
     The emphasis on travel literature—more specifically the consistent appearance of individuals or societies on the move—complements World History survey structures that choose to emphasize migration, long-distance trade, warfare, or empire. The documents in Global Passages also include details of the larger and longer-term effects of the processes listed above. Two documents from the chapter eleven, "Africa, 800 - 1500 CE" are particularly good illustrations. Ibn Shariyar's Kitab al-Aijab al-Hind recounts the enslavement of a tenth-century CE East African king who is enslaved through deceit, travels across Persian Gulf to Basra and Baghdad, converts to Islam, escapes his owner, makes the hajj, and manages to return to his kingdom. In the process of reading this account of migration, students also explore the inner workings of the East Indian Ocean slave trade, the potential benefits of religious conversion, and improve their understanding of the geographic interconnections between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.21 22
     Similarly, Ibn Fadl All'h al-'Umari's Pathway of Vision in the Realms of the Metropolises describes the fourteenth-century CE hajj of Muslim convert Mansa Kankan Musa of Mali. This account gives students insight into a range of broader cultural and economic issues. The sensational impression made by Mansa Musa's caravan, freely handing out gifts of Malian gold as it traversed the Trans-Saharan trade routes towards Cairo and then Mecca, gave students insight into the ways that religious, political, and economic agendas can often intersect. This promotional tour of sorts described by al-'Umari not only depressed the value of gold in Cairo, but helped make Mansa Musa and his gold into iconic symbols of what one might expect to find south of the Sahara.22 23
     Both Al-'Umari's description of the widespread fame of Mansa Musa's hajj and his free-flowing gifts of Malian gold, as well as Ibn Shariyar's recounting of the adventures of the enslaved East Africa king, helped our students understand how migration and long-distance trade connected fourteenth-century communities in sub-Saharan and North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. The balance between an individual adventure story that readers can connect with, and the exploration of larger issues of migration, trade and cultural conversion within such documents led us to design assessment activities that evaluated students' progress with tracing world historical processes. In recitation sections, we gave students a discussion question that asked them to (1) trace the movement of slaves and gold between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and (2) explain how the circulation of these commodities promoted cross-cultural interaction. 'Field testing' this question in the recitations, we discovered our students were able to pick up on the broader implications of Mansa Musa's pilgrimage. In the essay portion of our second exam, we were then able to ask students to trace the circulation of gold using Pathway of Vision in the Realms of the Metropolises, and to explain how the movement of this particular commodity had promoted cross-cultural interaction. 24
     The travel accounts which feature prominently in Global Passages lend themselves well to broader explorations of migration, long-distance trade, warfare, imperial expansion, and cultural conversion. Yet because of this conceptual focus the reader does not include some of the old standard favorites that World History instructors love to discuss with their students. Hammurabi's Code, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Qu'ran, the Analects, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Communist Manifesto, for example, would need to be acquired from other sources. 25
   
Imposing Thematic Perspectives on World History Textbooks  
    We elected to use the overarching theme of cross-cultural interaction as a means to impose a structure on what could have otherwise been an amorphous course. In emphasizing a particular quality of world historical interpretation -- encouraging our students to trace connections across time and space -- we attempted to purposely manage the quantity of names, dates, facts, and events they would be required to learn. There were two clear consequences of our decision to adopt a thematic approach: the challenges of living with content omissions, and of striving to avoid information overload. 26
Living with content omissions. Our pedagogical approach hinged on selectively utilizing examples that best illustrated how our five processes promoted cross-cultural interaction, rather than undertaking an exhaustive discussion of how they apply to every period and location. Consequently, some regions were focused on at the expense of others, while others would alternately disappear and reappear within the larger narrative as the focus shifted from week to week. The three most frequent regional casualties of this approach were Oceania, the Americas, and continental Europe. By defining the goal of our World History survey as seeking out cross-cultural interaction, we ended up discussing the 'New Worlds' of the Americas and Oceania only when they were brought into sustained contact with inhabitants of the 'Old World.' The most practical drawback of this was the expanded reading load for our students. The Atlantic Plantation Complex serves as a useful illustration of this problem. In addition to having students read the chapters in The Earth and Its Peoples which address European involvement in the Americas and Africa (chapters 14 and 16), we asked the students to bring themselves 'up to speed' on the pre-contact Americas by also reading chapter 10, "People and Civilizations of the Americas, 200 - 1500 CE." 27
     In addition to the omission of the pre-contact, local community dynamics of the Americas and Oceania, continental developments in Europe were also minimalized as a consequence of our thematic emphasis on cross-cultural interaction. From week to week, the European experience faded in and out of course lectures. Europeans were generally recast as invaders and emigrants; as agents of change provoking cross cultural encounters. Although The Earth and Its Peoples provides consistent coverage of European topics, from the Celts through to expansion of the European Union, we had students skip chapters such as "Christian Europe Emerges" (8), "The Latin West" (13), and "Transformations in Europe, 1500-1750" (15). 28
     As the course progressed, we also noticed a recurring trend of discussing the global expansion and application of European-created ideologies and events without devoting attention to the specific local circumstances that had shaped them. At the end of the term we had students read Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah's 1968 pamphlet The Spectre of Black Power, which calls for international socialist solidarity between peoples of the third world and racial minorities in the United States. From a cross-cultural perspective, this primary document was vital to helping students understand the global ideological connections forged by mid-twentieth century Pan-Africanism and Pan-Socialism. Yet, we had not had time or space in the course to discuss the development of European socialism in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and had to add a brief primer on the subject into recitation discussions of Nkrumah's pamphlet. We faced a similar challenge with other boundary crossing ideologies such as Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. We highlighted the spread of these three religious traditions across the Silk Roads and Indian Ocean Basins, yet did not devote much lecture time to the circumstances shaping their early development. World Wars I and II were similarly treated as events which began with specific European events but through the frameworks of industrialized European (and Japanese) empires, quickly spread into truly 'world' wars. 29
     Our chosen focus on cross-cultural interaction also meant we were sometimes unable to fully investigate certain key social dynamics — patriarchy and gendered identity formations,23 the relationship between religious and state authority, the development of social classes, and the evolution of racism — that have been comparatively explored within World History literature. Here, our main evaluation criteria involved a distinction between parallel local developments that evolved in a range of locations, and examples of boundary-crossing processes (migration, trade, warfare, empire, conversion) that forged lasting trans-oceanic and trans-continental connections among multiple local communities. 30
Striving to Avoid Information Overload. Asking students to apply a thematic, cross-cultural perspective to the study of world history requires understanding of the key issues associated with the broad concept as well as sufficient knowledge of the local or regional details of the various societies which are interacting. While we attempted to consistently structure weekly lectures and recitation discussions around boundary-crossing processes such as migration, warfare, long-distance trade, and attempts to expand or preserve empires, chapters in The Earth and Its Peoples alternate between conceptually and regionally oriented organizations. As previously emphasized by our discussion of Bloom's Taxonomy, students must obtain knowledge, before they can comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate newly-acquired information. To prepare for thematically-structured lectures, recitation discussions and exams, students often had to read several textbook chapters interspersed with regional descriptions of the effects of a certain process (for example, "New Imperialism") to get 'up to speed.' 31
     This recurring need to get 'up to speed' posed a particular challenge for our thematic course. In chapters where the work of cross-cultural analysis was left to the reader, some students became confused about what details were more or less important to remember. Overwhelmed by attempting to manage lists of similarities and differences, they struggled with our questions about long-distance and long-term cross-cultural exchanges. 32
     A comparison of two distinct discussions of empire serves as a useful illustration of the challenge of avoiding information overload. When discussing the idea of "imperial parallels"24 between Rome and Han China, The Earth and Its Peoples integrates both empires into a single chapter, ("An Age of Empire: Rome and Han China, 735 BCE - 330 CE") and includes a comparative narrative. This chapter is then followed by a conceptually-oriented one entitled "Networks of Communication and Exchange, 300 BCE — 600 CE," which stresses the roles that long-distance trade, migration, and imperial expansion played in promoting cross-cultural connections across both the Eurasian Silk Roads and the Indian Ocean Basin. 33
     A Eurasian zone of cultural exchanges, bolstered by the stability of the two empires on its eastern and western edges, is the model emphasized in the chapters mentioned above. Yet in later discussions of empire, especially "The New Imperialism, 1896-1914" (24) and "Striving for Independence: Africa, Indian, and Latin America, 1900-1949" (27) chapters are instead structured as successive discussions of how particular African, Southeast Asian, or American communities reacted to European attempts to expand or maintain control. In the earlier case, a discussion of parallel political, military, and economic trends within Rome and Han China was used to set the foundation for an investigation of long-distance cultural exchanges among a range of communities in Eurasia. In the later example, parallel descriptions of events surrounding colonizations, revolutions and independence movements were used to highlight similarities or differences within the Americas, Africa or Southeast Asia. Unlike in the earlier chapters, then, in the later chapters it was left to the instructor and recitation leaders to emphasize how empires and decolonization movements promoted cross-cultural exchange. 34
     The challenge of highlighting long-distance connections is also illustrated by a comparison of the maps available in both the textbook and the companion cd-rom. The "Networks of Communication and Exchange" chapter (6) includes an "Asian Trade and Communication Routes" map that illustrates the major overland and sea transportation routes which linked the Mediterranean and Pacific ends of Eurasia.25 Although discussions of the eighteenth and nineteenth - century Atlantic cast this ocean basin as a central conduit for the circulation of revolutionary political and technological ideas, Part Six of the textbook ("Revolutions Reshape the Atlantic World, 1750-1870") and the companion section of the cd-rom do not contain any maps which show the entire Atlantic Ocean Basin. For example, chapter nineteen ("Revolutionary Changes in the Atlantic World") includes two maps: "Napoleon's Europe" and "Latin America by 1830," while the companion cd-rom includes a map of the U.S. Revolutionary War.26 While these regional maps help students to examine individual political revolutions, they do not visually reinforce the textbook's argument that revolution was an Atlantic-wide trend, nor do they help students trace and connect the successive political developments from England in 1688 to the British North American Colonies in 1776, then to France and Haiti in 1789, and subsequently to Central and South America in the years between 1810 and 1830. 35
    A similar challenge arose when asking students to debate the notion of 'World' Wars I and II. Although the textbook includes maps depicting "The First World War in Europe," "Territorial Changes in the Middle East After World War I," "World War II in Europe and North Africa," and "World War II in Asia and the Pacific," it was often difficult for students to think about these two wars in a truly global sense when presented only with a series of regional snapshots.27 To compensate, we re-purposed a map from the companion cd-rom entitled "The Great Powers and the Colonial Possessions in 1913," which showed the Americas, Africa, Eurasia and Australia together.28 Since the role of industrialized transportation and communication networks and the political, social and economic ties forged by European empires in the late nineteenth - early twentieth centuries were 'globalizing' forces for these wars, the color-coded depictions of European, American, and Japanese colonial possessions and the illustration of major shipping routes which are on the map served to highlight the long-distance connections integral to these wars. 36
   
Conclusion: The Quantity and Quality of World History Our Students Can Learn  
    Occasionally, World History instructors get to experience an "Aha!" moment with their students. Our moment came in week thirteen of our fourteen - week course. Having spent previous weeks discussing the expansion of the Atlantic Plantation Complex, the Industrial Revolutions, and the 'New' Imperialism, we began to critically discuss the definition of globalization provided in The Earth and its Peoples. Projected in the front of the room on a PowerPoint slide, we examined it as a class:

The economic, political, and cultural integration and interaction of all parts of the world brought about by increasing trade, travel, and technology.29

37
     After briefly reviewing how the topics of the past few weeks had broadened our geographical reach so that we were now talking about 'all parts of the world,' we had intended to ask students—based on their five thousand years and five continent view of World History—what they thought of this definition. But before we could ask the question, one of our students raised his hand. 38
     "What about Mansa Musa?" he said. Recalling the long-distance economic and cultural connections across sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula illustrated by Mansa Musa's hajj and his free-flowing gifts of Malian gold, the concept of globalization seemed, to him, to also apply to pre-nineteenth-century world history. Recitation discussions of al- 'Umari's "Pathway of Vision in the Realms of the Metropolises" in the Global Passages reader, and the experience of constructing their own interpretations of how such a migration promoted cross-cultural interaction had helped him establish a framework for evaluating the textbook's definition of globalization. 39
     What about Mansa Musa? In the discussion that flowed from this question, students were able to articulate the ways in which Mansa Musa's pilgrimage built upon and reinforced the long-distance processes of migration, trade, and religious conversion that structured African and Arabian cross-cultural exchanges. Just as important, this understanding led them to look critically at the ways in which the textbook's definition of globalization tied "integration and interaction" to "all the world." On our syllabus, and throughout the course, we had assured them that the study of world history did not have to involve the study of the entire world at once, but could instead focus on long - distance and long - term processes which bring communities into contact with each other. The longer-term perspective on cross-cultural interaction they had developed in the course allowed them to consider regional, trans-continental, trans-imperial and trans-oceanic precursors to globalization. 40
     We chose to adopt a thematic structure for our World History survey because of two contrasting external requirements: (1) cover as much of the span of human history as possible (2) within fourteen weeks. Although we would have liked more "Networks of Communication and Exchange"-style chapters throughout The Earth and Its Peoples, it did provide students with a clear and engaging overview of the peoples, places, and time periods we wanted to use as case studies within our larger thematic discussions of cross-cultural interaction, migration, trade, warfare, empire and conversions. However, one particular irony did strike us in evaluating our use of this textbook. Though we went into the course ready to impose our own thematic agenda, the themes of "Technology and the Environment" and "Diversity and Dominance" used by The Earth and Its Peoples did not significantly compete with or undermine our attempts to do so. This suggests to us that the strength of the text is its flexibility—it own themes can either be emphasized or left out of lectures and discussions. Although we are still grappling with the challenges of omissions and information overload, The Earth and Its Peoples seems to have made it possible for our students to gain the regional details they needed follow the long-distance and long-term world historical processes emphasized by our themes.30 Similarly, the travel narratives within the two volumes of Global Passages gave students a series of concrete eyewitness insights into the dynamics of cross-cultural interaction. More specifically, by following the experiences of the individuals within these readers, students began to develop a better sense 'how the world works,' and to identify the processes that make cross-cultural interaction possible. 41
Biographical Note: Tiffany Trimmer is a Ph.D. student at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, where she teaches World history, U.S. history, and European history. Her dissertation, "Unfortunate Travelers Everywhere Wish to Commiserate: Hamburg, San Francisco, Singapore and the Transoceanic Migration System, 1840-1940" will be completed in the summer of 2006. Willeke Sandler and Brendan Wilson are second-year Master's students in the Public History program at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts.  

Notes

1 Sincere thanks to Deborah Smith Johnston and Jeremy Neill for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. We also want to acknowledge the encouragement and support provided by Patrick Manning, Laura Frader, and Chris Harris here at Northeastern as we launched the inaugural version of this course. Most importantly, we thank the students in the Fall 2005 Introduction to World History course for taking this thematic 'leap of faith' with us; and for their patience and good humor throughout the course.

2"On-line Course Descriptions", Northeastern University Registrar, https://nuapps1.neu.edu/applications/cdr.nsf. In practice, the specific coverage is often determined by the training of the primary instructor and choice of required readings. For example, the instructor's level of familiarity with archeological developments tends to shape the decision to begin earlier (migrations of homo sapiens) or later (Neolithic Revolutions). Choice of required readings is also a factor. Our textbook, Bulliet et al, The Earth and its Peoples, Brief 3rd edition, begins with the transition to settled agricultural communities ca 8000 — 1500 BCE.

3 Composed of a primary instructor (who designs the course structure and delivers two weekly lectures) and two masters-level graduate students (who lead recitation sections and have primary responsibility for grading).

4 On a survey form administered to our 78 students during the first week of recitations (September 7-12, 2005), roughly 38% of our students responded that they had never taken a World History course before. 18% of our students had taken a World History Class two years prior; 22% three years prior; 18% five years prior; 1% between five and ten years prior; (remaining 4% no answer). Of those surveyed, approximately 72% were freshman, 7% sophomores, 11% middlers or juniors, 10% seniors.

5 For a critical review of the use of themes in teaching World History, see Deborah Smith Johnston, Rethinking World History: Conceptual Frameworks for the World History Survey. PhD Dissertation, Northeastern University, 2002, and Steve Gosch, "Cross-Cultural Trade as a Framework for Teaching World History: Concepts and Applications," in Ross E. Dunn, ed., The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), 427- 433.

8 Rethinking World History: Conceptual Frameworks for the World History Survey, Chapter Five, 501.

9 Richard W. Bulliet, Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Steven W. Hirsch, Lyman L. Johnson, and David Northrup. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History. Brief Third Edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006). Roger Schlesinger, Fritz Blackwell, Kathryn Meyer, and Mary Watrous-Schlesinger, eds. Global Passages: Sources in World History. Volumes 1 and 2. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).

10 See Tanya Brown, "Bloom's Taxonomy and Critical Thinking," in Joe L. Kincheloe and Danny Weil, eds. Critical Thinking and Learning: An Encyclopedia for Parents and Teachers (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004), 77-82.

11 Bentley outlines several fundamental questions one must ask when investigating cross-cultural encounters, including what conditions brought the groups together, how they found "understandable terms and concepts" through which to communicate ideas and values, and either why cross-cultural conversion was accepted or how it was resisted. Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 6-20. For additional definitions of cross-cultural interaction, see Richard W. Brislin, Cross-Cultural Encounters: Face-to-Face Interaction (New York: Pergamon Press, 1981) and Peter N. Stearns, Cultures in Motion: Mapping Key Contacts and Their Imprints in World History. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). See also Jerry H. Bentley, "Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History," The American Historical Review 101:3 (June 1996), 749-770, and Patrick Manning, "The Problem of Interactions in World History," The American Historical Review 101:3 (June 1996), 771-782.

12Documents included the Coffin Text Spell 1130 and the Shabaka Stone, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Genesis 1-2, The Huarochir═ Manuscript, Oral Traditions from the Bambara, the Wapangwa, and the Fang, The Rig Veda, Fragments from China, in Global Passages, 3-28.

13 "Preface", xxi.

14 "Preface", xxi.

15 Chapter 13, "The Latin West, 1200-1500" (although understandably included to provide background context for later European expansion) feels comparatively out of place in this section of the text. It does a good job of describing parallel trends within Europe, but doesn't stress interregional connections in the same way as the surrounding chapters.

16 Part Five, "The Globe Encompassed, 1500 - 1800"; Part Six, "Revolutions Reshape the World, 1750 - 1870"; Part Seven, "Global Dominance and Diversity, 1850 - 1949"; Part Eight, "The Perils and Promises of a Global Community, 1945 to the Present."

17 "Preface", xxi.

18 Bulliet et al, 288, 308, 726.

19 Schlesinger et al, viii.

20 Global Passages volume I: 113 - 116, 246 - 251; volume II 79 - 81, 227 - 231.

21 Global Passages volume II: 265 - 268.

22 Global Passages volume II: 273 - 279. We also examined Mansa Musa's prominent appearance in the Catalan Atlas illustration featured in chapter twelve of The Earth and Its Peoples. See "Tropical Asia and Africa, 1200 — 1500," 303.

23 For suggestions on incorporating gender into World History, see Sharon Cohen, "Teaching Gender in the World History Classroom," World History Connected 3:1 (2005); Sarah Shaver Hughes and Brady Hughes, Women in World History, Volumes 1 and 2 (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1995); and "Part Nine: Gender in World History" in Ross E. Dunn, ed., The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), 441-479.

24 Bulliet et al, 150-152.

25 Bulliet et al, 158.

26 Bulliet et al, 470 and 474; cd-rom, chapter 19.

27 Bulliet et al, 600, 611, 632, 636.

28 Chapter 24.

29 Bulliet et al, Glossary, G-7; see also 722-732.

30 As this article goes to publication we have not yet received the results of course evaluations which would give us a clearer impression of what our students actually thought of The Earth and Its Peoples and Global Passages.

 

 
Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.


Terms and Conditions of Use