thinking world history

In the Spring semester I’ll be teaching a graduate seminar called, “Teaching World History.” In my department, we have essentially four caucuses for the purposes of of graduate teaching: US History, Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Modern Europe, and World, the last being a catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit in the US or Europe. I kid you not that we (the ‘non-US, non-Europers’) used to be called The Exotics. We grant PhDs mostly to people who research modern Germany, the Medieval Period (backed by our NEH-Funded MARCO Institute), and US History. Faculty outside those specialties teach content seminars to help certify our students to teach World History regardless of their first and second fields. Thus, ‘Teaching World History’ is a central course for that process. It’s also the one time in our program that students have the chance to concentrate on pedagogical issues for college teaching.

There is a bit of irony in my teaching this particular class, as I haven’t taught world history in a really long time. And it wasn’t to college students when I did. (I was a history teacher at Enloe High School in Raleigh, NC in the mid-1990s.) But, I agreed to do the seminar for two reasons—

  1. I’ve been rather critical of the notion that the World Survey is a useful course because it is so damn ungainly. The narrative choices that one must make in order to teach the history of The World, either before or after 1500, border on the absurd. So, it’s a challenge to conceive of this course in a way that will prepare our students to do something useful with, or be able to say something useful about it in a job interview.
  2. As I said, it’s the one chance to teach about teaching. This is a challenge too. I know that for much of my career I have taught reflexively, out of the synapse habits formed from sitting in classrooms on one side or another of the lectern essentially since 1977. I’ve been working on reversing some of those synapses of late. I need to think more intentionally about the whole process of course design and implementation. It’s fun to do that with graduate students.

Still, that leaves me with the initial task of designing this class. What I’ve decided is that I want the class to be as much lab as traditional seminar. I want the students to do all of the practical tasks of building and implementing a class. Maybe I can recruit some undergrads to come complain during their office hours, or something. :) It is, of course, impossible to read for any kind of coverage. But, in addition to the lab aspect of the class, we will be reading monographs as well.

What I’ve decided on is to use a somewhat playful notion of metaphor to organize our approach to narrating ‘world’ history. Not only are there endless narratives that one could construct, there are endless methods to organize those narratives. I hope it will be useful to conceive of these methods as metaphors. We’re going to read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and then in successive weeks treat world history through a series of metaphorical statements. I should note that I’m only covering modern world history (ie, from 1500 forward), so the myths are directed towards that period.

Metaphors I’ve settled on, for now:

  • World History is Transition
  • World History is State Thinking
  • World History is Myth
  • World History is Commodity
  • World History is Representation
  • World History is Space
  • World History is Information

Using these seven metaphors, we’ll look at different organizing principles for constructing a World History survey. I’m excited by some of the books we’ll read to spark conversation around these themes— Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, Matthew Edney, Mapping an Empire, James Glecik, The Information, James McCann, Maize and Grace, Ken Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, James Scott, Seeing Like a State, Topik, Frank, and Marichal, From Silver to Cocaine, Wilson and Stewart, Global Indigenous Media, Thongchakul Winichakul, Siam Mapped, and a few others.

I haven’t, though, settled on the practicum side. What do you wish you knew before teaching your first class from start to finish? What do you wish you’d unlearned from assistantships, or known to consider beforehand?


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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One comment on “thinking world history
  1. […] world history. Thinking through what that class will look like prompted two recent posts, on conceiving the class and soliciting your feedback on what you wished you’d known before stepping into the college […]

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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