A Modular World History (un) Survey
This is the introductory material from the syllabus developed by Steve Harris and Trevor Getz for a lower division introductory course in (Modern/1500-Present) World History. Following this excerpt are some comments about the concepts behind this course offering.
History 115: Modern World History
Olaudah Equiano, Rabindranath Tagore, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ho Chi Minh. Some kind of weird world history might strive to connect these four people together – a kind of connection that will happen in this class, maybe.
Is that what a ‘world history survey course’ is all about?
We encounter history – attempts to interpret the past – in our daily lives an awful lot.
If your mother or your BFF/buddy asked you what happened at school today, you might well tell them two different stories based on (recent) historical events. This is sorta what professional historians do. We interpret the past, just like you do. But over the years we have developed some tools and strategies that help us to achieve two particular goals in interpreting the past:
- we strive to be accurate, making our interpretations authentic to the past as it happened
- we strive to be meaningful, making our interpretations relevant to the society we serve.
Most introductory college history courses aren’t focused on teach you how to do this kind of work yourselves. Ours is. Most introductory courses, especially world history courses, are “surveys.’’ A course called “Modern World History” typically skims over the last 500-700 years, trying to ‘touch all the bases’ in terms of geography, periods, and themes. This course won’t.
Instead, we will explore the nature of history, using selected events, developments, personalities, and trends from around the world to help you develop your skills in analysis, organization, communication, and historical consciousness.
This course is, at several levels, a first attempt at building a new kind of world history course:
- Instead of spending the entire semester in a comprehensive (and superficial) survey, we will try to tell a story – really two stories – of the past 500 years really quickly in the first two weeks.
- Then, we will closely examine four situations (one from the 18C, three from the 20C) that will illuminate some key issues, perspectives, and means of understanding history. Each of these modules is distinct in style, framing, and purpose, and each is focused on some of the skills you might need to construct narratives of the past that are accurate and meaningful.
- In the course of these modules, we will highlight some of the key issues in the development of the modern world:
- the nature of power (at both a national and a personal level),
- the growth of knowledge, science, and information, and
- the nature of what it is to be human.
- I will spend a fair amount of time arguing (in a friendly, professional way of course) with you and with other historians (via their published work). After all, history (once we get the facts straight) is about trying to make sense of the past and the interesting part is sorting through the many ways to understand and interpret the past.
- I want you to argue, too (also in a considerate, professional way). Each of your assignments will call upon you to stake out an interpretation of a document, event, or pattern and argue why yours is a sensible and useful interpretation. In particular, our final module will place you in the debates of history as diplomats, journalists, and public representatives wrestling with what to do in the human rights crisis in Rwanda in 1994, using a historically-embedded, live-action, role-playing game.
As a general education course, History 115 is intended to teach you to teach you to think like a social scientist. This includes understanding the methods of enquiry and analysis of history or another social science, evaluating information from a variety of sources and making an argument, appreciating human diversity, identifying ethical issues related to research and its application, situating local issues or systems in global context, and articulating why this all matters to your life. This course is designed to meet these requirements!
As part of the History Major, this course is designed to help you to “think like a historian” in terms of conducting a bit of research, analyzing evidence, and communicating what you have learned. This course should also help you achieve these worthwhile goals (note that they overlap with the general education outcomes above.
You should also learn some content through this course: some broad narratives about the global past 1500-present, and a number of important case studies that can serve as evidence to help you to critically assess these narratives using the skills you have acquired throughout the semester.
Class Summary Schedule
|Date||Topic (# of classes)|
|Aug. 25||Introduction to the Course (1)|
|Aug. 27 -Sept. 10||Module 1: World History Overview (5)|
|Sept. 15||Lecture:/Discussion: The Pre-modern World (1)|
|Sept. 17 – Sept. 24||Module 2: Olaudah Equiano (3)|
|Sept. 29 –Oct. 15||Module 3: 1905 (6)|
|Oct. 20||Lecture/Discussion: The 20th Century (1)|
|Oct. 22 – Oct. 29||Module 4: Questioning Decolonization (4)|
|Nov. 3 – Dec. 8||Module 5: Human Rights, Diplomacy, and Rwanda, 1994 (8)|
|Dec. 10||Lecture/Discussion: Conclusion to the Course (1)|
Some Comments on the Syllabus and the Course:
The course is built out of five modules, two of which (“1905” and “Decolonization”) are available in the H/21 roster and a third (“World History Overview”) is currently in in peer review. A fourth module (“Olaudah Equiano”) is available on-line through Oxford University Press and the fifth (Human Rights, Diplomacy, and Rwanda”) is a historically-embedded, live-action, role-playing game, available as part of the “Reacting to the Past’ pedagogy.
The modules are punctuated with four lecture/discussions to help students understand the nature of the course and to contextualize the modules. Following the first module, from a subject matter perspective, while the course unfolds chronologically, it is principally thematic: focusing on issues of interconnection/globalization and power. Thus, while there are thematic connections between the modules, and students should be able to draw upon the earlier material later in the course, the theory of the course is not a history of race/power or human rights or forms of empire. Instead, our purpose is to use these developments, events, people, and phenomena as vehicles for developing students’ critical thinking and communications skills, connecting them to historical moments, and engaging them with an awareness of historical similarities and differences.
The initial “World History Overview” module takes a “big history” perspective, covering everything (at a very high level) in just 5 class sessions. It is intended as a booster shot for undergraduates who haven’t taken any history since high school, and makes a gesture at contextualizing what follows. It also provides a bridge for those instructors who, out of belief or compliance with university or state requirements, want to ensure some degree of “coverage.”
The other four modules are self-contained and do not directly cross-reference each other.
- “Olaudah Equiano/Gustavas Vassa: African or African American?” – explores the nature of identity in the context of race and a two cultures in the late 18C.
- “1905” — explores five sets of developments during 1905 as a basis of understanding modernity and globalization.
- “Questioning Decolonization” — examines the separation of African and Asian colonies from European empires in the middle of the 20C and their legacy today.
- “Human Rights, Diplomacy, and Rwanda, 1994” – A live-action, role-playing game set in the UN debates about global power, human rights, public perceptions, and genocide.
Each module includes a range of exercises/assignments/assessments; but, since there is no necessary connection between modules, there is no built in “laddering” across the course. Each instructor can adapt these components to construct a laddering or other emphasis in student work.