‘The fundamental interconnectedness of all things.’: The Benefits of Global History Courses

In addition to providing advice on research proposals, fieldwork, and pursuing a career in academia, one of the Network’s objectives is to offer guidance to early career researchers on teaching. As teaching fellows or new lecturers, early career researchers will often have heavy teaching loads and designing new modules or teaching unfamiliar topics for the first time can often be a daunting prospect. In this post Gemma Norman, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, compares two global histories courses she’s been involved with and discusses what made them such a success.    

As a postgraduate student, with an interest in pushing and testing the often Eurocentric boundaries of traditional mainstream curricula I have taken the opportunity to study global history whenever possible. To date, these opportunities have included: auditing the core units for a new MA Global History course at the University of Birmingham convened by Dr Sadiah Qureshi and enrolling on the ‘A History of the World Since 1300’ course, which is an established Princeton University course made available via Coursera and led by Professor Jeremy Adelman.

Both of these courses are led by extremely competent and talented academics. What struck me in particular was the academics’ willingness to engage with a wider history that was not necessarily part of their niche specialisms in order to not only expand the intellectual horizons of their students but also their own. Additionally anyone who sets themselves the task of creating and delivering a global or world history course is worthy of admiration! It is this challenge of constructing and delivering a global history course that I wish to discuss, with a particular focus on content and timetabling, resources and facilitation.

The content and timetabling of a global history course are closely related issues. What should be included in a global history course to make it truly global? At what point in history should a global history course start and end? And how can a global history course be designed to fit within the time constraints of an academic year?

In order to address these questions, Dr Qureshi, when designing the MA Global History course at the University of Birmingham, produced content for two 11 week semesters with two core units:  ‘Global Histories: Comparisons and Connections’ and ‘The Making of the World: Themes in Global History’. The first semester was an introductory survey that followed a largely chronological pattern, beginning with a session on Ancient Empires and concluding with a session on Decolonization and Globalization in the Contemporary World. Semester two took a more thematic approach with sessions designed around particular methodologies and concepts such as Periodization, which students could then apply to the global context gained from semester one.

Dr Qureshi's MA in Global History course was divided into parts. During the first semester students were provided with a broad, chronological sweep of global history and the second semester focused on particular themes or concepts.

Dr Qureshi’s MA in Global History course was divided into parts. During the first semester students were provided with a broad, chronological sweep of global history and the second semester focused on particular themes or concepts.

For the ‘History of the World Since 1300’ course at Princeton University, Professor Adelman delivered the online course at the same time he was delivering it to students at Princeton in the Autumn term of 2013. The course was 12 weeks long with two lectures per week and was largely chronological in structure with an integration of themes and methodologies throughout. By choosing to commence his syllabus in 1300 Professor Adelman utilized the Afro-Eurasian sphere, which refers to the diverse cultural interactions of the globe’s largest landmass, and is a very good example of a pre-modern global moment and its use in the teaching of world history is supported by several scholars.[i] This is partly due to the hyphenated nature of the name which can be said to capture the intercontinental nature of trade and exchange at that moment in history. By using the Afro-Eurasian sphere as a framing device to begin teaching the history of globalisation it introduces the students to the idea of systems of connectedness, which is a key concept in global history.

Additionally the spread of the Black Death in the early 1300s shows these connected systems in action while at the same time providing a real world example of diffusion, another key pattern of globalisation. It is also worth noting at this point that both courses began with an opening session concerning the definition and explanation of global history, thus making both courses accessible to students from all historical fields. Each of these approaches had their own strengths. For example, Professor Adelman’s use of the Afro-Eurasian sphere really got students to hit the ground running with an example of globalisation. The MA Global history at the University of Birmingham also opened with an example of globalisation with the session on Ancient Empires that facilitated a comparative study of Ancient Rome and Ancient China encouraging students to investigate the parallels between the two civilisations. Both of these approaches were effective in placing theories of globalisation into a real historical context, while also showing that globalisation as a process has been a constant throughout human history and is not simply a modern phenomenon. In terms of timetabling, the courses differ greatly as Professor Adelman had only one semester of teaching in which to fit his content but the MA in Global History course at the University of Birmingham had more time to cover the subject. This did not compromise the value of the courses as I did not feel that the Princeton University course was too dense but rather kept moving at a good pace to keep students engaged. In the same way Dr Qureshi’s timetable kept the subject fresh and interesting while at the same time allowing students to come to terms with the ideas and theories behind the history of globalisation.

'Ch'onha Chungguk, Map of the Thirty Provinces of China and the World, front (c. 1800)'

‘Ch’onha Chungguk, Map of the Thirty Provinces of China and the World, front (c. 1800)’

In terms of resources I wish to draw attention not only to the recommended readings for both courses but also the staffing of the sessions. The University of Birmingham has recently renewed its commitment to ‘going global’ and as a result the history department now contains a wide range of regional and temporal specialists many of whom have a broader interest in global history. Drawing upon this pool of expertise each session of the MA was led by a subject specialist with readings divided into the essential and extended optional texts. The range of these readings also contributed to the overall philosophy of thinking outside the traditional boundaries. For example, one reading assigned for a session on Connecting Seas was the exhibition catalogue for a shipwreck carrying trade goods and this helped to integrate material culture into the study of globalisation. The extended reading for this session included Janet Abu-Lughod’s work Before European Hegemony which presented the idea of ‘pockets’ of globalisation that gradually became more integrated and connected as globalisation progressed.[ii] There was also the integration of online lectures from university channels on Youtube and contemporary news stories which helped to give the history of globalisation contemporary resonance.

The digital resources for Professor Adelman’s online course were vast. From the two weekly video lectures to the discussion forums, blogs written by Princeton students, videos of global dialogues with visiting scholars to Princeton and, finally, the textbook written especially for the course, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition) (Vol. 2). Lectures were designed to tie-in to certain chapters of the textbook but also came with downloadable PDFs covering key events and figures mentioned in each lecture. It is my opinion that in order to be effective, readings for a global history course are a question of quality over quantity. This is because global or world history is less about learning a new subject area of history and more about learning a new way of viewing history as a whole, whatever the temporal or regional specialisation of the individual. Once these new methodologies have been learnt they can be applied to any area of historical study.

As a student I found the delivery of both courses engaging, effective and suitable to their respective media. The MA Global History at the University of Birmingham was delivered via a two hour weekly seminar for both semesters. Each session being led by a subject specialist did result in student exposure to a variety of teaching styles which was an advantage with each session leader knowing best how to deliver their content. Dr Qureshi attended all seminar sessions, including those she was not leading herself, complimenting and contributing to the other teaching styles on the course. Her interactions with other session leaders also served to show that teaching global history is always a collaborative effort, whether that is between staff and students or teaching colleagues.

The role of subject or area specialists in the delivery of a global history course cannot be underestimated. The first requirement to deliver any such course is a thorough grounding in the particular geographic areas or case studies that will help to explain or test the theories and methodologies relating to global history. Additionally, courses that decide to take a chronological approach require at the very least the input of subject specialists in the selecting and crafting of the readings for each area. Many of the subject specialists involved in the MA Global History were involved in areas of research that leant themselves to globalisation, such as historians of empires, as well as historians who worked on the cultural and intellectual histories teaching the movement of ideas and practices and how such ideas and practices influenced and were influenced by each other.

Professor Alderman used 'global moments', specific  episodes or case studies in history to help illustrate broader global processes.

Professor Alderman used ‘global moments’, specific episodes or case studies in history to help illustrate broader global processes.

Professor Adelman made a great use of what I would call ‘global moments’, citing an example of globalisation from a particular period in history and de-constructing it to show the components of globalisation. An example of this would be his analysis of the mining activities in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan with the raw materials being extracted to be moved and traded elsewhere. As a teaching tool this was effective because by picking up an idea, person or movement at either the historical root or destination the student observed globalisation as a process. Moreover, while Professor Adelman delivered two weekly lectures himself he was supported by colleagues behind the cameras who were often drawn into discussions by his seemingly infectious and uncontrollable need to teach and communicate with people!

In conclusion I found both of these courses enjoying, rewarding and above all educational despite the differences between them they both achieve their objectives in delivering thought provoking content. Neither of course is a complete ‘all you need to know about world history’, such a thing is not possible, but both programmes serve to inspire students to study history as part of larger global processes.

[i] Antoinette Burton, A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles,(London, 2012) p. 15.

[ii] J. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony; the World System AD 1250-1350, (New York, 1991).

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