I was drawn to world history as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota where I had the great fortune of working with Professor Edward L. Farmer, an early innovator in the realm of comparative approaches to studying and teaching world history. I am forever indebted to Ted for his willingness to work with me as I engaged with China’s modern history and studied pedagogical approaches to world history. If it had only been possible for me to spend another ten years doing coursework and research, I might have really made some headway. But this was not in the cards, I had a plan to finish an M.L.S. (Master of Liberal Studies) and an M.A. in History—then exit to begin a teaching career in Minnesota’s community college system. Fate seemed to smile upon me, as I was hired after my first interview at Inver Hills Community College. World history on my transcripts and in my cover letter helped to seal the deal, as they were aware of the trend already underway in 1999 toward world history courses. I was tasked with developing and teaching the World I, World II, and Contemporary World courses to replace the Western Civilizations surveys and a course on World War II. Thus, my grad school studies with Professor Farmer began to bear fruit from the very beginning of my teaching career.
My academic experiences were very different from those of Professor Farmer. Whereas he developed a focus as an undergraduate on modern China, I worked through a degree in International Relations (now Global Studies) with an emphasis on inter-state diplomacy. At the time, US-Soviet relations were still stealing many of the headlines as the Cold War heated up, then cooled, and finally ended. My senior thesis was an argument for the devolution of NATO, as the Soviet threat to Western Europe (the raison d’être of the alliance) diminished precipitously. I saw the United States misspending about $100 billion a year (in 1980s dollars) on defending its European allies, all of whom could well afford to defend themselves. NATO has not devolved, it has indeed grown, but I continue to believe that my argument was sound. At any rate, after living for a while in France and Morocco, I realized that I needed to return to the US, confront the beast that seemed to block the path to my future, and go to graduate school. To make this long story shorter, I started my research on the historical causes of war with a focus on World War I and then the Cold War. My analysis began in Europe among the great powers in the decades leading up to “The Great War,” as it was called at the time. But I soon awoke to the fact that I really wanted to better understand the potential great power conflict that seemed to loom in the future, that between the United States and China. It was this shift in research interests that led me to study modern Chinese history, which led me to Professor Farmer’s classroom, and ultimately—to world history pedagogy and comparative case studies.
Before I address the merits of Professor Farmer’s comparative case studies approach to teaching world history, I would like to clarify what teaching history in a small department at a community college really entails. I recall my sincere trepidation during my first semester in the classroom. I was assigned a four-credit US I survey, a couple of sections of Western Civ II, and a World War II topics course. I had decent working knowledge of Europe in this period and WWII, but I had never taken a course in American history. Thankfully, I had worked as a TA under a professor at the university who was an Americanist with expertise in the colonial period. This turned out to help very little in preparing a four-hour evening class, from scratch, each week. I remember how I literally bounced off from the walls of my office with stress each afternoon as I watched the clock tick down to the start of class. I had to learn the material, largely, while I taught it. I am happy to report that I never felt this level of anxiety again, but each semester brought a fresh round of new and unfamiliar preps: from a cross-cultural history of family course to a course on medieval Europe, from a survey of the ancient and pre-modern world to the history of Minnesota. I could go on, but I suspect you get my point.
Community college instruction can be a lot like the old adage—“jack of all trades and master of none.” To be fair, there are an increasing number of Ph. D’s teaching at this level—so there are clearly an increasing number of instructors with mastery in one particular historical area. I don’t necessarily see how this helps them to navigate the diverse and varied sea of preps that I have described above, though I agree that a doctorate can’t hurt. Last semester, fall 2010, offers a fine example of my average schedule. I taught a section of Minnesota history (online), two sections of the US II survey (one online and one on campus), a section of a Vietnam War topics course and a section of World History I (on campus). I know very well that we are all busy, in the community colleges, the four year colleges, and the universities. I simply want to stress the challenges of teaching outside of one’s comfort zone—a regular occurrence throughout my career. Professor Farmer refers to the reluctance that many historians share when contemplating a world history course. As he explains it, “Always there is the need to make broad generalizations based on slender reading and the knowledge that one is skating on thin ice.” Having skated on a lot of thin ice, community college instructors like me do not shy away from world history for fear of falling through. That said, there are probably five or ten sections of Western Civilizations courses for every one section of world history on offer across the nation. Perhaps Professor Farmer’s commentary on the attraction among proponents of the Western Civilizations survey to a constructed and cohesive narrative, albeit “an imaginary,” continues to hold true.
With regards to best practices and Professor Farmer’s comparative case studies approach, I agree that it has its clear merits. It is quite logical to conclude that the history of the world, in any given period, is far too vast to condense into a universally recognized narrative. He makes some very poignant comments about “the Western Civ enterprise” and the emergence of scholars interested in exploring approaches to world history:
The Western Civ enterprise was animated by the celebration of a subjective cultural identity, an imaginary. World history, as a research field, has responded to the problem of cultural identity by veering toward material history. One can tell the story of humankind by talking about technologies, contact, trade, crops, disease, in ways that crossed borders and spanned continents. But this leads to a rather thin gruel. Material and economic analysis cannot tell us all we want to know.
World history surveys that attempt to cover it all are likely to end in what is often referred to as historical inquiry at its worst. This truly would be a “thin gruel” and echo Arnold Toynbee’s lament of history, poorly done, as “one damn thing after another.” When treading on the thin ice outside of one’s area of specialized knowledge, this sort of folly is something that one can easily fall into. But there are a number of other ways in which to proceed. I am not the first to recognize that Professor Farmer’s case studies approach offers a very insightful way to manage this fray, while at the same time leaving the decisions on which cases to compare and study open to each individual instructor. It is important to note, however, that the current array of world history texts on offer are all survey oriented. Case studies oriented world history courses would benefit greatly from case studies oriented texts. It would be wonderful to see this sort of approach to world history texts evolve as an alternative in the near future—they do not exist, to my knowledge, at present. I hope and trust that Professor Farmer will be hard at work in this quest for a viable world history narrative, while continuing to advocate for a comparative, case studies framework, in his “retirement” years.
For the time being, it would seem that most World I and World II courses offered around the country will remain “survey” in nature. If this is the case, then an effort at beefing up the potentially “thin gruel” of the world history survey is in order. I have been experimenting in this realm between survey course and case studies approach from the start of my teaching career. I have never sought to teach comprehensive courses, that is to say I have never tried to cover it all, but I have selected my overall coverage from that provided by the textbook. I have found it entirely possible to teach a broad, and yet themed, world history course. I will comment here on my approach to the World History II survey, where I have created a hybrid of a survey course with an added case studies emphasis. I have chosen to use The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History as a text for my courses. I like the organizational approach, the writing, the narrative, and the themes used by Richard Bulliet and his co-authors. Any number of other world history texts would do the job quite well—selecting the best text for one’s course often comes down to a very personal choice. I like to assign a good number of response papers throughout the semester based upon carefully selected questions that address many of the central historical issues of this period. They provide the opportunity for students to explore the ideas, events, actors, and experiences that went into the creation of the modern world. Here it is entirely possible to avoid coverage that ends up being “an inch deep and a mile wide” and realize a meaningful survey of modern world history. The historical subject matter in this period is rich, to say the least, with big themes such as: revolutions in thought, science, industry, and politics; European expansion and the creation of a truly global system; a transformation of the environment; vast human migrations, both free and unfree; modernizing versus traditional societies; and the evolution of gender roles. To this general, survey coverage, I then add my comparative case studies to add depth and texture.
I admit that this is not at all what Professor Farmer has in mind and respect his call for a much narrower, tightly focused course. I believe, however, that my experiences with the world survey will mirror those of a great number of others like me and I hope the dialogue here is helpful. It should also be noted that many others are likely already using their own version of the survey, case studies hybrid. As for me, I was introduced to Jonathon Spence’s little, dense, gem— The Death of Woman Wang, through Professor Ann Waltner’s course on early modern China at the University of Minnesota. It offers a short work of social history that leads the reader through an extremely tumultuous period in China’s history during the seventeenth century. The focus for Spence is on ordinary life at this time for the men and women of China. His goal was to recover their history, but, as he puts it, “It is always hard to conjure up from the past the lives of the poor and the forgotten.” His work of historical recreation is both a challenging and rewarding read for students. Spence allows me to get at the Chinese experience in this period: Confucianism, patriarchy, gender roles, tradition, change, resistance to change, a realm for spirits, and the misery of life when the “middle kingdom” was in a period of revolutionary change. But I needed another book to capture the experience of another part of the forgotten world, and I came across Chinua Achebe’s incredible historical novel—Things Fall Apart. This book provides power on every page as it explains the social and cultural structure of the Ibo people in West Africa during the onset of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa.” This is the history, albeit—through historical fiction, of one of the peoples of Nigeria before there was such a thing as “Nigeria.” Achebe provides the framework for an understanding of the West African experience in this period: polytheism, animism, patriarchy, gender roles, tradition, change, and resistance to change. These two works, so very different in every respect, have actually proven to be a potent comparative combination. Opportunities for comparative analysis between the two peoples and their traditions have proven quite rewarding, and both works take students from the macro level of grand events and elites to the micro level of ordinary human experiences in the past. These are but two examples of books that can provide a fruitful focus for comparative case studies within the world II survey course. There are surely countless volumes of other books that would serve this purpose very well.
In conclusion, I applaud Professor Farmer’s determination to continue to explore this important realm of comparative case studies in world history as he transitions from his forty-three year role as university professor to spend much more time in his role as world history theoretician. I find a sense of solace in his recognition that there might, in fact, be a narrative structure that underlies the whole of world history, after all. In his words, “As I indicated above, my solution has been to stick with structured comparisons at the case study level, abandoning any effort at comprehensive coverage. But as I have gone down this road I have come to feel that it should be possible to create some kind of narrative structure or framework for thinking about the entirety of human experience.” World history is a fertile and evolving field and will remain so for a long time to come. I look forward to Professor Farmer’s (Ted’s) work in this field in the years ahead and the continuing dialogue regarding best practices in world history pedagogy.
(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 3, Fall 2011.