How Do We Teach Global History? A Toynbee Prize Conversation

In this new feature for the Toynbee Prize Blog, we’ve invited five academics, representing a variety of institutions around the world, to reflect upon their experiences in designing and delivering courses to undergraduate and graduate students in global history.

What are the current challenges for teaching global history? What materials or techniques have proven effective? What are the pedagogical implications of these approaches? These are just some of the issues we will explore in an open, frank exchange of ideas.

We hope reflecting upon the pedagogy of global history will prove of use to our wider readership as we consider how the subject may be taught going forward.

Process: We’ve asked respondents to answer five broad questions. Once all responses were received, the editor shared the responses amongst the participants, inviting comment and re-appraisal of responses. These further responses were then lightly copy-edited before publication.

Participants:

Dr Qiao Yu (Capital Normal University Beijing)

Dr Philippa Hetherington (University College London)

Dr João Júlio Gomes dos Santos Júnior (Universidade Estadual do Ceará)

Dr Steffen Rimner (Utrecht University)

Sean Phillips (University of Oxford)

SEAN PHILLIPS: Briefly introduce yourself – what and where do you currently teach?

QIAO YU: I am a senior lecturer in the History School at the Capital Normal University (CNU), Beijing. I received my PhD in Environmental History from the History Department at Peking University in 2013. My main research interest concerns the environmental history of the British Empire in the Asia-Pacific and the agricultural history of Australia and modern China. Currently, I teach Modern World History and World Environmental to undergraduates at CNU.

JOÃO JÚLIO GOMES DOS SANTOS JÚNIOR: I am currently Assistant Professor of Brazilian History at the State University of Ceará (Universidade Estadual do Ceará – UECE) in Fortaleza. I did my PhD at the Catholic University in Rio Grande do Sul (Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul – PUCRS) under the supervision of Dr. Jurandir Malerba where I also spent six months at the Freie Universtät Berlin under the supervision of Dr. Stefan Rinke. I have a Masters in History (also from PUCRS) and a graduate degree in History from the Federal University of Santa Maria (Universidade Federal de Santa Maria – UFSM). As a Professor of Brazilian History, I have been teaching History of Portuguese America (mainly referred to in Brazil as “Brazil Colony” or “Brazil I” ) and Contemporary Brazil (Brazil IV) to undergraduates in History. Besides that, I teach introductory courses in Brazilian history (something like “Brazil 101”) to undergraduates studying Geography and Social Service. Normally, I teach three courses each semester.

PHILIPPA HETHERINGTON: I am Lecturer in Modern Eurasian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at University College London. My department is traditionally an ‘area studies’ department – established in 1916 and opened by the first President of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, SSEES has long stood for a regional approach to studying the world. But in recent years, and especially since the collapse of European state socialism in 1989/1991, scholars from my institution and beyond have been rethinking what area studies is, and how we teach ‘region’ in a globally-interconnected world. My own job is a reflection of this rethinking: traditionally scholars in my position would have been hired to teach Russian or Soviet history, but I was hired explicitly to teach Eurasian history – that is, a history of Russia/the Soviet Union that highlights and emphasizes its connections with the broader Eurasian space and indeed its place in the history of empire, nation and globe. Since arriving at SSEES, as well as classic Russian history surveys, I’ve taught on the history of migration and mobility in Eurasia. This year, I also co-developed and co-taught a course with colleagues on ‘1989 and the New Global Revolutions’, which linked the well-known revolutions that ended socialism in Eastern Europe to the global crises represented by that moment, from China to the United States.

STEFFEN RIMNER: I am currently an assistant professor at Utrecht University. The History Department here has a section on the “history of international relations” where I cover B.A. and M.A. courses and tutorials on Asian and global history. Chronologically, we have a focus on the postwar period. The themes I teach range across political, economic, social and cultural dimensions and focus specifically on the roles of transnationalism, memory, international organizations and everything (or almost everything) related to current crises of international security in the Asia Pacific region.

SEAN PHILLIPS: Is global history an established field at your institution? How is it defined?

QIAO YU: The Global History Center was founded in History School of CNU in 2004. So yes, global history is an established field in my institution. In my opinion, it deals with cross-cultures, cross-nations, cross-regions historical phenomena mainly from the perspective of interaction and in the context of China, global history integrates Chinese history into world history, as the term “world history” means the history of foreign countries due to disciplinary conventions established since the founding of PRC. Doing global history in China is to rediscover history of China in a brand new way. Demonstrating its roots, the Global History Center publishes a semi-annual journal, Global History Review. The journal seeks scholarly articles that explore global change. The journal also publishes and translates survey articles and selected book reviews.

PHILIPPA HETHERINGTON: My university goes by the moniker ‘London’s Global University’ although this mostly pertains to the student population (48% of students are international) and staff (in my own department more than 50% of staff are non-UK). But interestingly, global history as a defined field does not have a strong institutional basis within the university. It’s important to emphasise that I am not in the history department, although my understanding from talking to colleagues there (and perusing course offerings) is that global history qua global history is not an noted emphasis. In my own department, we have an understandable focus on Eurasia and Eastern Europe, although as I mentioned we are increasingly framing this for students in global terms. At the same time, certain fields that overlap with global history as it is often understood are strengths at UCL, in particular the history of the British Empire. The very eminent British imperial historian, Catherine Hall, recently retired from our history department.

JOÃO JÚLIO GOMES DOS SANTOS JÚNIOR: Unfortunately, Global History is not an established field either at UECE or in the majority of Brazilians institutions. Global History does not make part of our regular formation (undergraduate), so, when it is discussed, it might appear in topics of optional courses in the theory of history. However, in the past years have been more common to find some courses discussing Global History in the Graduate History Programs. I had myself, for instance, the opportunity to teach Global History courses at the Graduate History Program from the Federal University of Pelotas (UFPel) when I was a postdoctoral fellow there. Nevertheless, in the past two years I have not had the chance to teach to graduates here at the UECE, because we are developing a new Graduate History Program.

STEFFEN RIMNER: Global History is definitely an interest of several colleagues, but I don’t think it has been established as a field yet. This has different reasons than in the US and comparable academic systems where area studies have oftentimes carved up the globe, with the effect that nothing global appears to be left that doesn’t already belong to someone. At my institution, there is a healthy recognition that “global” means more than the extension of “our” relations, meaning, Western European relations in general. But in terms of cultivating global history in a strategic manner beyond individual courses such as my own, I think some work still needs to be done.

SEAN PHILLIPS: What are the greatest obstacles you’ve found in the teaching of global history?

QIAO YU: Firstly, Language is a huge obstacle. I can only read Chinese and English books and periodicals. Since English is not my first language, there is a limitation in terms of the speed and quality of reading. Secondly, the concept of global history is still developing. Keeping on top of the latest debates is particularly demanding. Thirdly, It is quite challenging for the lecturer to incorporate different civilizations and regional patterns into one unified global history and to explain how global history has developed and to describe how global history as a discipline might be developed.

PHILIPPA HETHERINGTON: Perhaps because I work in an area studies department, the first thing that comes to mind is the question of language. In our history classes, even from an early stage, we place an emphasis on close readings of primary sources. By the final year of their degree, undergraduates are reading 100-150 pages of primary sources per week on top of their contextual readings. But for linguistic reasons they often end up focusing on sources that have been produced in English (or are easily accessible in translation). In general, the question of foreign languages is a flashpoint for the tension (pedagogical and intellectual) between depth and breadth in undergraduate and graduate training. It’s something we think about a lot at SSEES – on the one hand we want to provide an education that trains students to think globally and to make connections between Russia and Eastern Europe and the world more broadly. On the other hand, the ability to read and understand certain kinds of sources also requires depth of knowledge about particular regions, and the pursuit of that depth can sometimes seem to militate against breadth (although I would argue that it doesn’t have to).

At the same time, I find it hard to countenance the idea of a global history that is conducted entirely in English. One paradox of the current popularity of ‘global studies’ among undergraduates is the concurrent drop in the popularity of foreign languages. Many students want to be global, but they seem to want to be global in English, which is rather an oxymoron. If I was dictator of the education system (!) I would mandate a foreign language requirement for all BAs in Arts and Humanities in the UK, as they do in the US. Certainly I think we should be able to require a foreign language for degrees in Area or Global Studies. But university administrators, worried about attracting enough student numbers, seem to disagree – it’s a battle we are still fighting.

JOÃO JÚLIO GOMES DOS SANTOS JÚNIOR: Without any doubt, the greatest obstacle is the language. For the most part, Brazilians undergraduates in History (and I would say that even for some professors), English is a huge difficulty. It is almost impossible to work with books or articles in another language (even Spanish can be a problem). Sometimes, even graduate students might have trouble to read articles in English.

Therefore, to teach and discuss Global History one might have to explore a certain number of works already translated to Portuguese in the past few years, but there is much to be done yet. This is why I wrote an article with Monique Goldfeld in Portuguese aiming to introduce Global History to Brazilian academy. Without any false modesty, the article has been broadly well received.

This takes us to another problem. Brazilian historiography is extremely influenced by French historiography. The Annales is still the mainstream and only in the past few decades have we begun to open the field to other historiographies. It might take a few years to have translated to Portuguese the main core works that have been published in recent years about global history.

The final obstacle that I would like to highlight is the access to international database of articles, such as JSTOR. It is quite difficult to find public universities with access to paid platforms like that, so it really is a challenge to stay up-to-date regard the publication of new academic releases. In Brazil, we work with the open access format, so Brazilian articles in History can be quickly and widely spread. When article about Global History are written in Portuguese, the likelihood is that they may well be known quickly.

STEFFEN RIMNER: That’s hard to say. We could distinguish, perhaps, between the supply side and the demand side of communicating knowledge. On the supply side, I believe that individual courses or teaching programs are a good first step to show institutional initiative and intellectual commitment. But beyond that, the courses and programs that exist would benefit the students and the performance of the department much better if global history would also become a firm part of the undergraduate curriculum and, to any extent possible, of high school education. We cannot expect students to start thinking globally (and realize what it means!) as a kind of conversion overnight. If we want to aim higher, I think we need to start lower and earlier. We might need to fashion global history programs in conjunction with inter-cultural programs, international exchanges and language training, pulled together in a strategic vision. Students will then benefit from accumulating global historical knowledge in incremental steps throughout their education.

On the demand side, I have observed that the curiosity that students bring into the classroom can work little miracles beyond purely national knowledge acquisition. I have seen this both in the Netherlands and at Harvard and Columbia where I previously taught. When students have a particular openness to the world, this doesn’t necessarily spring from the ethos or identity of being an elite, but, in my view, from the family backgrounds and the social settings in which students live. And those settings are partly a matter of personal choice.

PHILLIPS: What pedagogical tools have you found particularly useful in the teaching global history?

QIAO YU: I didn’t find a global history textbook that is especially suitable for Chinese students. So, I adopt thematic-comparative teaching. I choose topics from traditional history, like The Opium War, Genghis Khan’s expeditions etc., and rearrange them from the perspective of global history in each course. In doing so it will be easier for the students to break through their traditional way of thinking. At the same time, thematic learning is also helpful for teachers to supplement the latest research developments concerning a certain topic.

STEFFEN RIMNER: Historical movies seem to appeal to students globally, if I may venture into a crude generalization, and they offer plenty of opportunities to interrogate issues of subjectivity, “fiction” versus “fact”, or emotional mobilization. I have also found role-play very useful for having students step into two contrasting perspectives on a political problem (like war). They feel they experience the chasm of two opposed positions – and that is an important lesson. A third “tool” that I find increasingly useful and important in our age is close reading of newspaper articles. One of my assignments asks the students to find the contradictions – of which they are often more than initially expected!

JOÃO JÚLIO GOMES DOS SANTOS JÚNIOR: At the graduate level, I like to work with seminars where students are responsible for presenting the author’s ideas whilst I supplement this material with further reading. I think that dialogue between teachers and students and amongst students themselves prove the best pedagogical model at that level.

I recently had the opportunity to teach Global History in a workshop to undergraduates. The strategies that I used that time were different. First, I presented core ideas/attitudes commonly related to global history, so as to avoid methodological nationalism and Eurocentrism (besides the 4Cs from Diego Holstein: connection, comparison, contextualization and conceptualization). Thereafter, I introduced them to a variety of schools and fields, such as transnational history, world history, big history, histoire croisée, connected history and others. After that, I invited the students to compare Brazilian and American textbooks; how periodization and topics are presented; how the State is, or it is not, a key to understand historical processes; to explore the ways national history is contextualized; the analytical advantages of using large frames and comparisons; and so on. This kind of activity works and can easily be apprehended between groups of undergraduates. In my regular classes about Brazilian History, I have been using the 4Cs at every opportunity.

SEAN PHILLIPS: How would you like to see the teaching of global history progress in the future?

QIAO YU: I hope that more universities and institutions could offer general education courses in global history, which will not only help students understand their own history, but also help them understand the world today and become a responsible global citizen. Establish an effective teaching network, for example to organize online seminars and to share online courses. Strengthening basic language training, laying the foundation for future historical research.

PHILIPPA HETHERINGTON: I think that global studies (including global history) is often perceived as the enemy of, or replacement for, area studies. Whereas once, in the context of the Cold War, universities focused on breaking the world up into distinct areas and studying them in isolation, the idea is that now they focus on global interconnectedness, making the regional model ‘old hat’. However, I think global history has a lot to gain from ongoing discussions within Area Studies about how we balance depth and breadth in our development of knowledge about the world around us. In practice, area studies departments have often been where students have turned to learn about ‘the rest of the world’, acting as they have done as repositories of knowledge about the non-domestic, the non-Anglophone. With this in mind, I’d ask the following questions: how do we build an understanding of the global that is simultaneously rooted in deep knowledge of regional specificity? How do we study networks, connections and flows in ways that do not reify those who moved and that incorporate an understanding of the unmoving and the disconnected? I would like to see these questions foregrounded in our teaching of global history, as I think they open up possibilities for us to marry depth and breadth in our teaching more successfully than we do now.

With that in mind, I’d like to see the development of a vision for teaching global history that draws off and incorporates existing expertise in area studies departments. We have already experimented with this somewhat in my own department with co-teaching between different regional and disciplinary specialisations. But institutional factors often make it hard to team-teach classes across different departments. Even within the University of London system, it is almost impossible to co-teach a class with a staff member from another constituent college of the UofL. In the future, I’d like to be able to teach global history classes with staff members from SOAS, for example (the School of Oriental and African Studies, our neighbours in Bloomsbury). This would open up all sorts of possibilities for training students to think globally in a way that bounces off the deep regional expertise of people with the languages and local knowledge to bring Africa, South-East Asia and Russia into the same classroom. Ideally, this would take place in a way that challenged students’ understandings of the integrity of regional or continental geographic descriptors themselves. Building off regional knowledge to question the very notion of coherent regions (or nations, or empires) – that would be an exciting global history!

JOÃO JÚLIO GOMES DOS SANTOS JÚNIOR: I would like to see Brazilians universities giving introduction courses of world history to all disciplines in first academic year (in Brazil there is not the major and minor system, here you have to apply directly to a course, as History, Medicine or Engineering, for instance, so there is no necessity of history to most part of the courses). It might be a powerful tool to make people think about respect to diversity, human rights and democracy from the cosmopolitan point of view.

It would be great as well to see in Brazil all the disciplines of the undergraduate in History working with global history in “transversal” way. It could be useful to teach that History is not labeled in Regional, National or Foreign History, but it is rather a matter of scale.

STEFFEN RIMNER: Well, I wish global history in teaching and in research a bright future ahead! More to the point, I believe the classic call for “critical thinking”, the numerous reasons why more than one interpretation of anyone’s history has to be taken seriously, the fundamental importance of decoding a text for its internal logic as well as leaps of the argument – these all attain particular urgency in the teaching – and learning! – of history beyond national, political purposes – of which global history is only one project.

Perhaps one word on impediments to “one” global history in the classroom and in the curriculum around the world, if I may? Institutions, it seems to me, differ vastly in terms of agenda-setting and implementation, so it isn’t always clear which pedagogical criteria and societal requirements apply apply across the board, beyond the confines of one university or one nation The priorities for teaching one version of global history vary, after all, by locality. In Western Europe, I feel, the open societies that (still) exist are a valuable social, political and cultural foundation for teaching global history. We might give more thought to where the economics fit in, beyond the dream world of extra funding for specially designed teaching programs. On the whole I am optimistic: Globally, we have numerous great examples of how to internationalize opportunities for the next generation of scholars, for instance at the University of Tokyo.

SEAN PHILLIPS: Anything else you’d like to add?

STEFFEN RIMNER: Thanks for the invitation to contribute to this global conversation!

PHILIPPA HETHERINGTON: Thank you for the invitation to take part in this conversation. Incorporating global, regional, and local histories is an ongoing project of great importance to the field, and it has been very useful to ponder it in this context.

JOÃO JÚLIO GOMES DOS SANTOS JÚNIOR: I hope that my answers could be useful in some way. My first contact with global history was during my doctoral stage at Freie Universität Berlin in 2013. I was very impressed by the large chronological and space scale used by PhD candidates, something difficult to find in Brazil. Since then, I started to improve my readings about global history. After that, I joined an international meeting in Savannah, in USA, organized by the World History Association in 2015. There I could realize the reach of global history and how Brazilian historiography has been apart from those discussions. This is why it makes sense to discuss global history in Brazil, and this is what I have been working on.

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