Is Global History Suitable for Undergraduates?

world mapMarc-William Palen
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Last week, I came across two provocative blog posts, at The Junto and the Imperial and Global History Network (IGHN), on teaching global history that got me thinking reflectively about my own recent experiences of approaching American and British imperial history from a global historical perspective. The big takeaways from both pieces seem to be: 1) teaching global history is a challenge not just for students but for teachers; and 2) that the net positive from teaching history from a global vantage point at the graduate level far outweighs said challenges. However, The Junto’s Jonathan Wilson concludes by quite explicitly questioning whether global historical approaches are in fact suitable for the first-year undergraduate classroom.

To start things off, Gemma Norman’s post at IGHN outlines some fruitful experiences on the receiving end. Norman has just completed multiple graduate level global history courses that made

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. . . . 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.

Wilson at The Junto remains more critical following his first time teaching global history to undergraduates:

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.

For Wilson ‘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.’

He concludes with a double dose of optimism and pessimism:

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.

Now I certainly agree with his call for a greater grounding in global approaches within graduate history training. Where we differ, however, is about whether or not global history courses are also suitable for first-year undergraduate surveys.

Over the past couple years, I experienced the challenge (and the pleasure) of teaching first-year undergraduate courses, one on America and the World (up to the First World War), and the other on the rise and fall of the British Empire (c. 1776-1946). Although not without imperfections, in both I utilized a global historical approach – and avoided leaving my students with little more than an ‘endless parade’ of names, dates, and battles.

Admittedly, I do recall having similar problems to those outlined by Wilson from my days as a high school student taking world history courses, with teachers using textbooks that aimed to cover just about everything without much depth, thereby leaving students with little but a limited understanding that lots of important things happened somewhere at some point in time — a problem that no doubt persists in some global history surveys and textbooks today.

Building from these experiences, however, and from having gone through a PhD program with a strong grounding in the history of imperialism and globalization, the key takeaway for me was to avoid teaching global history like I was taught world history, and to avoid using standard survey textbooks (Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, for instance, worked quite well for exploring the leaps, bounds, and limitations of modern globalization).

Instead, I set both global history courses thematically, within a clearly delineated timeline. Focusing on the modern era, I first tied the courses to particular ideas that lay at the root of substantial political and ideological conflict throughout much of the globe. Indeed, so many of American and British global interactions have surrounded, or even been sparked by, politico-ideological battles over slavery and freedom (of people, taxation, and trade); nationalism and internationalism; or capitalism and socialism, to name but a few.

By approaching global history thematically, in both cases primarily as a global conflict of ideas, I (so far at least) managed to keep the material from becoming unwieldy. And by focusing on particular ideological conflicts that have appeared again and again throughout the longue duree of modern global history, the students time and again were able to encounter familiar thematic ideas even as they moved into potentially unfamiliar geographical, historiographical, or chronological terrain. The students were able to take away a deeper understanding of some of the great debates that dominated the modern world, as well as an introduction into how these debates took place across the globe owing in large part to the processes of modern globalization (increasing global integration and interconnectivity).

Screenshot of “Wind and ocean currents of the Atlantic basins” (Emory University)
Among others, Emory University has an excellent teaching resource, Voyages, on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

To return to another of Wilson’s points of criticism, I would also suggest that within this framework there exists multiple ways of keeping one’s protagonists, even in an undergraduate global history survey. For example, in the case of an early American history course, a local voice from within what would become a global slave system could be given through the narrative of an African’s experiences from freedom to slavery, as in, say, Vincent Carretta’s work on Olaudah Equiano.[1] Such a localized approach could also work when following the black loyalist diaspora during and after the American Revolution, borrowing from Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles. Or Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh similarly could provide a female, protagonist-driven history of the global eighteenth century.

Regarding my first-year course on the rise and fall of the modern British Empire, I had my students begin by grappling with the rise of Free Trade England in the mid-nineteenth century. They first had to come to terms with the seemingly local conflicts over class, slavery, industrialization, and political economy that brought about this significant development in British history — a development that made free trade the orthodox ideology of the island nation for decades to come.[2] The students then had a local setting (take your pick of protagonists from among Chartists, aristocrats, the Anti-Corn-Law League, and suffragists) as a starting-off point to delve into the decidedly global political, racial, economic, and ideological conflict — from the often violent “opening” of east Asian markets, to the protracted politico-ideological battles between the Australian colonies of New South Wales and Victoria, to the global construction of the racial idea of Anglo-Saxonism — wrought by the expansion of British free trade and imperialism throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a period that increasingly felt the pleasures, aches, and pains of modern globalization: from the wonders of global communications and transportation, to the problems of racism, nativism, and migration, to the horrors of global war.

This is not to suggest that I’ve ‘figured it out’ when it comes to teaching global history to the uninitiated undergraduate. Far from it. For instance, I readily admit that I could still do a better job of incorporating gender into both courses. But I would also note that the first-year students took to the ‘global’ with great alacrity, nor were they in the least bit put off by the long temporal and geographical trajectory of the courses.

As I continue to hone my global history courses, I will build upon these initial forays into teaching the global through the local and the ideological, and I will continue to incorporate fresh thematic approaches to the process. (Doubtless some will work better than others.) The publication of an ever growing number of accessible global histories, both from above and below, are making this ongoing experiment all the more feasible for undergraduate and graduate classrooms alike.


[1] Vincent Carretta, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (2003); Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (2004).

[2] See, for example, A. C. Howe, Free Trade and Liberal England (1997); and F. Trentmann, Free Trade Nation (2008).

13 thoughts on “Is Global History Suitable for Undergraduates?

  1. This is a very interesting post and raises a lot of good points to me. What I can further add about my own experience with global history is that I see many undergraduate students already choosing their own narrow specialism from the start of their courses. They find out what they are interested in and good at and build all of their optional units, independent research and thesis around that and by doing so lose the opportunity to explore more history more broadly.

    This can make it hard for such a student to grasp global history at postgraduate level as it’s pulling them out of a comfort zone they have created for themselves. Every student and scholar has a regional and/or temporal specialism and applying global history to that is key. However I observe that when postgraduates enter a survey course they are often uncomfortable with getting out of their own niche and very often say ‘I’ve never covered [Ancient China] before so I don’t know what I’m talking about.’

    I’m not saying I have all the answers either, however I definitely think an encouragement of students to investigate broadly before settling on their own specialism could contribute to keeping a flexible mentality among students which in turn helps them to see the bigger pictures and process and this come to terms with global history a little easier.

      1. I am in complete agreement with you on this. We live in an increasingly globalized world and this needs to be reflected in our courses and teaching of history at all levels.

    1. It is not only students who need to be pulled out of their comfort zones through engagement with a world/global history course. Too many faculty members are hyper-specialized in 19th & 20th century sub-fields. I have seen many cringe at the idea of teaching the “since 1500” survey and simply refuse to engage in the “pre-1500” aspect of the survey because they go too far outside of their regional and temporal comfort zones.

      Any reason we can come up with regarding why it is good for students to be taken out of their comfort zone applies to faculty as well. Personally, not only have I become a better historian through teaching the pre-1500 world history section for the last 15 years, but I have developed new historical interests in the process. And, yes, my research field is early 20th century.

  2. I very much agree with Gemma about pulling students out of their “comfort zone.” In fact, we use this phrase often around the department. Our students are VERY provincial and they not only need to have their horizons raised in order to prepare them for future employment, which for almost all will be out-of-state in a much more cosmopolitan environment.

    I’ve been teaching the first half of WH since I created the first-year sequence about 15 years ago. We break at 1750 instead of the usual 1450, and after many experiments, we’ve concluded that the only way to present WH is to put aside the notion of an introductory survey covering everything (an impossible task) and focus instead on a set of themes. This has worked very well. For example I had several AP WH students in the class I just completed and their response was interesting. They had dutifully memorized a large body of “fact” in their AP classes, but wrote that they had only “understood” what was happening from the first-year course. As one wrote (I paraphrase), what they had learned in HS was a string of dates, places, and people, but what they took away from the university course was an explanation of how this all worked and how everything fit together. To my mind, this is why we teach WH at the entry level.

    1. A lot of the TA’s in our department have noticed that first years do find a problem with writing arguments as they are very ingrained with memorizing information and regurgitating it on demand. I remember having to learn how to do history again when I started as an undergraduate, I remember thinking ‘I’m supposed to have an opinion? Wait! I can disagree with the textbook? But the person who write the book wrote the book! They must be right!’

      Also there is a tendency among some students to gravitate towards the subjects in history they studied in secondary school as they think they know the subject and so will do well in it as well as it being less work on them. These are obviously larger issues with the UK education system in general, and I do not want to get into the Gove debate!

  3. This is a very interesting post. Based on a number of years of teaching both western civilization and later global history survey courses, I am quite skeptical about the success of freshman (especially with poor high school exposure to non-US history topics) taking global history. I believe they need to begin to “think historically” and grapple with the evolution of smaller and maybe more cohesive chunks of history before they are truly able to evaluate all of the linkages of global societies and cultures from ancient times to the present. For students who barely know western history to begin to deal with Chinese or Indian cultures all in one course is so overwhelming that I wonder if it endangers creating a love or respect for history, especially for the non-history major (and discourage them from signing up for more history courses as electives). On the other hand, I have found that if connections can be made in a freshman western civ survey between western and non-western civilizations in little chunks from ancient times to the present, I have been more successful. But then a student leaves with a lot of generalizations and does not grapple with some subjects with the kind of depth I would like.

  4. I have a very different take on global history courses. Or perhaps two different takes. At the theoretical level, I don’t quite understand why global history should be more complex/overwhelming than (say) western civ or a national history. With a different scale you concentrate on different themes (perhaps migration or spread of religions) so it’s not just a compilation of regional histories. This ought to make it quite comprehensible to students. As an ex geologist, I’ve always thought of global history as on a par with global tectonic theory, a national history more with the stratigraphy of a particular country.

    At the practical level, perhaps because I was at the University of Hawaii for many years, I found that many students who felt no connection whatever to western civ or US history were thrilled with a global history that gave their families’ past in China, Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Okinawa, Puerto Rico, or the Azores some significance in history.

    1. Dear Rachel, Thank you for your perspective on this. I wonder if perhaps the greatest challenge is in deciding upon the most apt theme or themes that at once bridges the local with the global, engages with the students, and ultimately leaves them with a greater understanding of the process of globalization upon history. One criticism mentioned in the Junto piece, for instance, is the difficulty in providing suitable protagonists when undertaking this sort of approach, although, as I suggest, it is not an insurmountable difficulty.

  5. Many thanks for this interesting blog, as well as for all the subsequent comments. Here are some pointers.

    1. Global history cannot be ignored in this increasingly inter-connected world, and the sooner first year undergrads are reminded of this the better.

    2. Many of you are right that when teaching global and imperial history, the structure of teaching sessions have to be as ‘tight’ as possible. Granted, this is necessarily impressionistic. Which brings us to the third point.

    3. All teaching is necessarily impressionistic. You cannot cover all the details / depth in one or two hours. This is as much the case for global history as it is in well-studied topics (certainly for first years) as say Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The key is to provide guidance for additional reading outside of class.

    4. This is not to deny that global history can be challenging for first year students. But when it clicks with them, they really like it. Students say:’Now I understand it’.

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