The Trouble with Global: Early Thoughts from an Early Americanist

mapofthenewworld-debryThis week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.

Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.

After teaching a global history survey … I still pretty much think exactly that.[1]

I ran into all the expected problems, but I’ve come to think the most important difficulty of the global history survey is about protagonists. Every remotely coherent history course, whether we consciously build it that way or not, is a narrative. Every narrative, whether explicitly or not, has protagonists who drive the plot and determine what subplots are relevant. No matter how hard we try, a modern global history survey is going to be about how (more or less) European empires, led by (more or less) white and male individuals and aided by (more or less) modern science and business methods, (more or less) successfully created the world we live in.

For most students, whether this story is told from a liberal, conservative, or leftist perspective will hardly matter. Demonizing empires or capitalists doesn’t make them look any less important.[2] The crucial features of the story are embedded in the structure of the course, the same way that a narrative about American national progress is embedded in survey lectures on (for example) the horrors of southern slavery.

In a U.S. history course, though, I can devote whole weeks to the stories of slaves and other people who lived their lives out of the national-progressive stream. In a global history course, such people are just going to be anonymous grist in the mill of planetary progress.

But there’s good news too, and this is where I’m going to steer my ship of discontent back around to early America.

Teaching a global history survey has been excellent for me. It provides ways of thinking, languages of cause and effect, correctives to the implicit (or explicit) nationalism of my entire field. I feel far more comfortable talking about, say, the British East India Company as an operation that actually had something to do with India, or Manifest Destiny as a phenomenon related to the Risorgimento, or the Spanish conquest of the Americas as an aftershock of the fall of Constantinople, or the Stono Rebellion as a moment in West African history, or New France as something ultimately related to the Jesuit mission in China (by way of the port of Malacca). I’ve found it much easier to conceptualize the Atlantic as something other than a euphemism for the British Empire.

So after a semester of teaching modern global history, what I really wish is that this course—or rather, a seminar on the same topic—had been part of my graduate training in United States history. In fact, if I ever have substantial influence over a program of study, I think it’s one of the goals I’ll pursue first. I would make modern global history a capstone course for the history major and a regular component in graduate coursework.

But for first-year or out-of-major undergraduates? So far, I’d much rather start them off on the history of a town than of a planet.


[1] I know several people who strongly disagree, and I think it likely that they’ve found ways to make their modern global courses work well. I mean my generalizations as generalizations. I’m basing them partly on the hunch that most professors teaching global history in the United States are like me in having never actually been trained in global history as such.

[2] This generalization in particular depends on the students’ level of background knowledge at the beginning of the course. The better-prepared a student is, the more likely it is that her professor can use the survey to complicate her picture of how the world works. Even so, I’m not sure we can do much more than to make the course protagonists into antiheroes. They’re still in charge of the plot.

16 responses

  1. While I think I already know the answer, is there any tenable way to present your individual takeaways to your students so that the history becomes a bit more alive? The idea that early modern Atlantic history truly is global history is powerful, if only it can be presented in such a manner that it is persuasive (and consumable by undergraduates).

    • If I understand the question properly, I’d answer with a qualified yes. The usual rules of teaching an interesting history course apply: I try to find intriguing primary sources that illustrate important ideas and problems, and I try to set up basic scholarly questions for my students to investigate each week. But I’ve faced two difficulties.

      First, in many cases, I really don’t know what primary sources are available. So I’ve relied heavily on pre-packaged document readers, and especially on the short primary sources included in my chosen survey text. These don’t always cater to my strengths and emphases or to the backgrounds of my students, and it takes a great deal of time to do the research necessary to find alternatives. Also, these documents often aren’t packaged in a way that sets up the kinds of dilemmas I like my students to discuss.

      Second, at least in this initial run, I’ve found it very difficult to make the primary source discussions build on each other. My students see a stream of mostly decontextualized fragments from different parts of the world. These fragments don’t even follow each other in a single global timeline, since we have to circle around topically so much. So in some ways, our primary source discussions actually seem to encourage exactly what I think any good history course should discourage, which is uncontextual thinking about stories and artifacts.

      • Thank you for your detailed response and insights. I can now see the pedagogical limitations more clearly than before. Still, it’s a shame that such an interesting topic is so often stifled by its position as an undergraduate survey.

  2. I think part of the problem is that global history is so massive that it can only really be approached through a lens (whether it be a commodity, locality etc). Usually these studies are big enough to write an entire book on their own. To make a course out of this is therefore very difficult, as it is really just a series of case studies kept together by the thread of its global focus, which is reality, only to say that it is history

    • I think you’re right. One of my chief concerns is that the modern global survey, as most textbooks present it, is really a history of either capitalism or imperialism (or both). That’s the implied location from which we’re viewing all these different local stories. And the next time I teach the course, I think, I’m going to foreground that as much as possible—perhaps to the extent of unofficially changing the title of the course to something like “The History of Modern Globalization.” If I could really make the course my own, and could somehow afford to invest that much time (as I simply cannot now), I would narrow the focus further—using something like the history of shipping as a scarlet thread in a series of stories about different places.

      But even in such a case, I suspect, I’d still probably be telling a lot of different local political and cultural stories badly rather than telling a story about global economics well. That is, unless I dropped all pretense at making this a non-eurocentric story about different cultures and civilizations.

  3. To state the obvious, part of the problem I think is in the tension between the whole idea of survey courses versus historical inquiry as practiced by historians. We ask questions, and do research to find answers. But survey courses are usually conceived as everything important about geography x during period y. The world since 1500? Your complaint is justified.

    I’ve taught a global history course once myself, without being trained in it, and incidentally on three weeks’ notice. My own solution was to tackle several secondary sources that approached global history from different perspectives, to show how it could be useful in explaining history since 1500. Best solution? No. But I felt I’d given my students some ideas about history (and historians) and some glimpse at how the world has changed.

    • That sounds like a good approach. How much did you find yourself engaged in providing background information from beyond your secondary sources? In other words, I suppose, did you have a traditional survey lecture-readings format, or did you organize it more like a seminar? And if a seminar, how did you deal with students’ unfamiliarity with specific topics and concepts?

      • Had to go back to my old notes to recall this. The course had under twenty students, so I ran it as a hybrid: prepare a lecture, but spontaneously alter to accommodate student interest or bafflement. And there was a considerable amount of the latter. My students were used to typical textbooks, which only one text resembled in structure. It took some time to get used to the idea of doing history to get answers to questions; I tried to get them to write essays along the same lines in their exams. And, as you suspected, I had to spend a fair amount of time filling out what they didn’t know.
        Probably the oddest advantage I had in teaching the course is that I hadn’t read two of the three main books myself prior to taking on the course. So I had the opportunity to read them with my students’ needs in mind.

  4. Why not focus on a theme? Global history is a thing at my university but the courses are always focused on a particular idea or topic such piracy, slavery, agriculture, etc. It makes what could be an unwieldy frame manageable.

    • I think that’s a good idea, but I suspect it requires more advance preparation than I was able to devote to the course. (I was originally supposed to teach something else instead.) When I teach global history again (assuming that will happen), I’ll have a better sense of the flow of the entire course, and hopefully will be able to arrange it around a theme I can carry through the whole semester. I’m not sure that will take care of the protagonist problem, though.

      • It might help, though. Building it around a series of case studies related to theme would allow you to pick protagonists as well. Linda Colley’s Elizabeth Marsh is often hailed as a really good example of world history and highlights the massive changes that occurred in the 18th C through the life of a single individual. If you were careful about the protagonists you chose you could give the students a sense of global history without sacrificing some of the benefits of more narrowly defined course.

  5. Pingback: Is Global History Suitable for Undergraduates? | Imperial & Global Forum

  6. Antoinette Burton’s A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2012. xiii + 154 pp. might help.

    The World HIstory Association and their Bulletin and the E-Journal World History Connected might help. As would World History for Us All: – although the lessons are created mostly by high school teachers for high school teachers most I would believe are easily adaptable.

    Good luck!

  7. Also, I would recommend the Coursera world history courses by Jeremy Adelman and Philip Zelikow. These would be good examples to use for teaching (lecture).


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