Grading Learning

When I was taking classes towards my undergraduate major, I was forced into education courses which, for the most part, were utterly useless. They taught us high ideals, unrealistic conceptual frameworks, “student-friendly” assignments, and how to use technology that is most unavailable to most high schools. Thus, the concept of backward design is not new to me, nor should it be new to anyone. In short, backward design is creating assessments and assignments by defining the goals of the course from the outset, before any other thought is given towards textbooks, etc. Ultimately, the real problem with assessment is the formulation of stated course goals and objectives.

First, the only two forms of assessment I’ve seen used in survey courses are exams (multiple choice and short answer/essay) and essays. Of course, there seems to be agreement that part of our “calling” is to produce better writers. While I, in spirit, agree with that sentiment, we have become part-time English professors. I find myself marking grammar, spelling and punctuation errors more than reading for content. Though these errors need to be corrected, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve become outdated in that sense. Sure, better writers mean better students and “citizens,” but is it really producing students who are better educated in the field of history?

I am not suggesting getting rid of the essay, but rather, we should try to get students to write better “arguments” using more “analysis” rather than summarizing and perfecting their grammar. Even so, there is a huge problem with that as well: How do you ask the right questions to guide the students to producing more analytical writing? Instead of taking off points for bad grammar (though it should be stressed that it still needs to be readable), we should be focusing our efforts at producing argumentative students.

As for assessing content knowledge, again it is more important to have students learn rather than regurgitate information. Instead of asking students to write all you know about “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” we should ask more specific questions, such as: How was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a turning point in the French Revolution? It is not asking when was it written, nor is it asking who wrote it. Still, there are issues with this method, as all are aware.

Even though I have opinions on this matter, assessment is not a strong part of my limited capacities, and it is something I must work to improve. Also, I have difficulty defining my objectives for the course. I am not an innovator, but I certainly would appreciate someone who has a brand new method of assessment that works for the history survey course. In the end, I will add my own variations of familiar forms of assessment until I or someone else discovers a way to quantify “learning.”

The Famine of Politics

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis shows how deadly the combination of nature, politics and capitalism can be, especially in regard to imperial agendas. Though he details and acknowledges the effects of El Niño on the areas that experienced these droughts, he explains that it was not the lack of food that caused famine, but rather, the colonial, political and economic environment that created the conditions where at least 30 million individuals perished. According to Davis, “Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system,’ but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures (p.9).” Therefore, the world market forces, and the forced participation by colonial overlords, caused grain to be shipped away from the drought stricken areas where it was needed most. He seems to argue that it was the lack of agricultural jobs available, as a result of the famine, that caused widespread famine and death rather than lack of food. Furthermore, he shows that there was enough food available to at least drastically alleviate the famines.

Davis argues that the incorporation of these colonial peoples into the world market destroyed the cultural practices and structures that evolved to combat the droughts that those areas (India, China, Egypt, etc.) were accustomed to seeing occasionally. These systems of local stores and regional transfers of food stuffs lessened the impact of drought and famine on local populations. However, colonial governments determined to set up capitalist agricultural systems that grew food for a global market rather than a local market. Thus, workers depended on wages to buy the food they were growing. Therefore, local problems, such as drought, affected the price of grain in places all the way around the world. Eventually the richest regions/nations could always afford the higher prices, while the poorest regions/nations starved. Basically colonized regions were producing food as commodities rather than subsistence, and any surpluses were bought up by the global market rather than stored in local famine relief centers.

Though he only alludes to it, Davis provides a grim picture of how globalization can negatively affect areas highly vulnerable to dramatic climactic events. It is during these famines of the late nineteenth century that the global market becomes just that, global. Modern Americans ought to be very familiar with global demand affecting gas prices. Ultimately, this book has an interesting mix of economics, politics, and environmental history. He spans multiple fields in his effort to paint a picture of the downfalls of political and economic imperialism. Though he does not give the environment enough credit (or agency for those who prefer that word) for producing the famines, he is effective at proving the global market forces had more to do with starvation than the actual droughts.

As with the other books, Davis is proposing and using an approach that is highly controversial, but appears to be workable. He forces the reader to rethink his or her established beliefs they might have about western imperialism. Davis paints a gruesome picture of these famines, but while doing so, he shows how cultures from around the world come into contact with one another. Furthermore, he is able to include a significant chunk of the world’s surface thanks to the scale of his study. Even better, he argues that global markets, individuals, political entities, colonizers, colonized, cultures, economics, and environment all had a role to play in the dramatic and deadly periods of famine. Perhaps this might be a way of incorporating massive scale into a world history course, by interweaving stories of events that had global implications and players. In any case, Davis has given us an excellent example of world history as an effective field of study.

Mapping Empires and National Identities

To be frank, I have often forgotten the importance of maps and borders when planning a course or writing a paper. It appears that this is a grave mistake. Mapping, according to Matthew Edney and Thongchai Winichakul, has been and continues to be an important tool that empires and nations use to define the extent of their power and influence. Though they wrote their books prior to the recent creation of Southern Sudan, both arguments can be applied to the long story that is the independence of Southern Sudan.

First, Edney’s Mapping an Empire examines the history and technologies of mapping in British India, providing a picture of how cartography is used to delineate, maintain and extend imperial influence on a newly subjugated region. In many ways this is an example of scientific history and, more specifically, the history of the scientific revolution as a byproduct of the Enlightenment.  As the British East India Trading Company moved deeper in India, they needed to map and draw the boundaries of their influence. As a result, teams of surveyors created thousands of documents, collected, copied and then sent to Britain, that Edney uses to tell the story of surveyor generals and the beginnings of a British India. Ultimately, his greatest contribution to the historiography is the fusion of science and history in providing a new approach to imperial and cartographic studies. Most importantly, he argues that mapping was not just used to demarcate the extent of empires, but rather, it is another tool that is used to actually create empires.

But on the other hand, Winichakul examines the creation of a modern Thailand through the development of its borders. In the same vein as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Siam Mapped details the growth of Thai nationalism in conjunction with the solidifying of Siam’s geographical limits. Put succinctly, Winichakul argues that the conditions were just right for the creation of a modern Thailand through the use of borders. Here he explains that we can see the nation as a geographical and political entity. Basically, Thailand, because of its borders and unique political situations, became a geo-body. Historians tend to view Thailand in terms of regional or global trends, such as the Cold War and China as a world power. Furthermore, Winichakul consistently shows how the concept of the “other” significantly influenced the development of a Thai identity and nationalism. In Siam Mapped therefore, he argues that a nation can be built from the creation of a geographical entity or geo-body. Once the national boundary is established, then the individuals within the boundary can create an identity based on the characteristics of their geographical borders and based on whom or what they are not. Much like Linda Colley’s Britons, this work shows how borders provide direction in determining the identity and characteristic of an individual within a larger nation as opposed to those who are not within those borders.

In teaching survey courses for world history and especially western civilization courses, these two books have provided a useful theme to tie multiple regions, eras and events into a consolidated course. Though I personally prefer the economic approach, I undoubtedly would include concepts like mapping and the “other” into narratives where it fits perfectly. For example, how could anyone discuss the lead up to both World Wars without mentioning the dramatic rise of nationalism and the Race for Africa? Both topics are ripe with cartographic references and easy to explain in terms of the creation of national identities and empires. A better example is the story of Southern Sudan’s independence. It is a story of how imperialism created borders where none had existed incorporating too many ethnicities that ultimately fought for supremacy. In the end, borders were used to define Southern Sudan, creating a national identity. Here both Edney and Winichakul provide tools to understand this event. However, this approach would not work as well in the first half of world history surveys. Still whether one embraces or disdains this theme, explaining the modern period without mentioning a map would be tantamount to hypocrisy. In some ways since 1400, world history is ultimately a story of how the earth was redrawn.

Teaching Undergraduates Skills?!? Psh!

During our seminar last week, we never really answered the question, what skills are we supposed to teach students in a history class? Well, here is my (hopefully) concise recommendations for the skills we ought to be developing in students who are forced (at gunpoint apparently) to take our survey courses.

First and foremost, we must instill and develop analytical skills. Though students hate the infamous paper, it is perhaps the best tool we have to promote historical analysis. Unfortunately, many professors fail to package (or sell) the papers as means to an end. Rather, students see the analytical essay as the end. We ought to sell the essay as a tool to practice analytical thought that can be profitable and useful later in most if not all professions, not just history.

Second and apparently a popular subject in our seminar’s discussions, our lectures, assignments and assessments should promote the students’ understanding of human interaction in world history. Why not embrace the present, globalized world as a theme that ties world history together and makes it relevant to the individual student? If we can make our content relevant, then students will digest more, though still not all, of the information we so shamelessly shove down the throats of mostly unwilling students.

Third, world history instructors should take great care to foster understanding and acceptance of the myriad cultures, polities, societies, religions, languages and commodities that define and have helped to shape this world. Though this seems like a tall order, I am not suggesting we teach everything about everyone every time, but rather, we ought to provide examples of the variety of the human experience that promote tolerance.

Lastly, we ought to provide instruction and practice for students to not just learn a little bit about the wide, wide world. Instead, we need to give them the research and reading skills that will allow them to find the information on their own, since there is no way in hell we can teach them everything about world history. In the end, we ought to have provided the students the ability to find, analyze and digest the information without the help of the instructor.

Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but just examples by which we can build upon. Thoughts?

The Manning Proposal

In an attempt to describe the state of the field of world history, Patrick Manning explains the development of world history as a separate realm of research, study and education. Quite obviously, he is aware of the audience for Navigating World History. By targeting academics, professors, high school teachers and general history buffs, he draws a large picture on an even larger canvas that does little more than provide an outline of world historiography.

He states five distinct objectives that are each discussed in detail in each part: 1) defining world history in terms of current trends, 2) expansion of world history, 3) summarize the state of world history, 4) develop structures for logical analysis of research, 5) and offer guidelines for curriculum design. But perhaps more important, he weaves five separate but related themes throughout the book. First, world historians can provide understanding of the field through “navigational” techniques, and secondly, multiple patterns have emerged from the development of world history as a distinct field. Thirdly and unfortunately, teachers must teach a subject that covers too much content in too little time, making Manning’s attempt at summarizing and offering a guide on constructing a world history course all the more difficult. Theme four is his emphasis on Africa as a central focus because of the continent’s centrality in the connections that defines world history and its move away from a dominance focused history. As he writes, “historians should go beyond dominance to focus on interaction, (ix)” which he does well to support throughout the book – his strongest argument. Lastly, and one he repeats, is that world history struggles to fund its attempts at becoming a legitimate and well-defined professional field.

Rather than examine every detail, there are a couple of points that Manning makes that seem to resonate louder than others he makes. For one, in chapter six, he makes it clear that the study of interaction is much more important than the older and, he believes, outdated dominance focused histories and curriculums of the past. He argues that world history has always been about the interaction between peoples even if they define themselves in contrast to “others.” Though occasionally there are violent interactions, violence between groups or individuals are still interactions. However, he provides an example of the weakness of the dominance focused studies by comparing the Mongolian empire with the bubonic plague. Basically, he contends that, though the Mongols established a very large political empire, the bubonic plague wiped away all political entities that sought to control the world, making dominance a more impossible dream (111). Here, he is at once confusing and wrong. If interaction is what we want to study, then how is the Mongolians search for dominance not more important than the Black Plague? Did not the plague inhibit interaction while the Mongols enhanced it? If he is so much concerned with keeping interaction as the main focus, how is empire building a subject to avoid?

Lastly, Manning is right when he argues that global studies are a product of a globalized economy and political sphere. Since global studies provide a fresh approach to world history, he contends historians should embrace more interdisciplinary and inclusive approaches, but says little in how to do so. Ultimately, he fails to provide guidance in how to construct a curriculum that resolves the problems he details in the preface. However, his main weakness is his constant complaining about the lack of resources that world historians have at their disposal. He sounds like a Baptist pastor preaching about tithing every single week. Instead of offering options and alternatives to more funding and resources, Manning offers little that apprentice historians (such as we fine folks) can use to overcome these obstacles.

May We Blog All the Days of Our Lives

Though while technically being forced to create this blog, I am reluctantly optimistic that this will better educate me in the art of blog. According to nearly every definition of the terms, I am technologically illiterate. Yet, I hope that at least my humble words will find an audience worthy (really, willing will do) to peruse my thoughts, reactions and errors in judgment.

I suppose an introduction is in order:

My name is Jeremy Land (my last name is really that simple, yet most people fail to spell it correctly – no explanation). I am currently a graduate student in the history department at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. I am considered a PhD student but at times I feel I am undeserving of the title. Still, borderline poverty aside, my ultimate goal is obtain the title “Dr. Land” and force undergrads to call me that until I hit a mid-life crisis where I believe it makes me sound old and decrepit. I completed both my bachelor and master degrees at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. If you haven’t heard of it, you haven’t watched college football since 2006.

My main area of research is the role of economics in colonial America (mostly British America that is) and the American Revolution. I truly believe focusing on economics is the best way to cut through the complexity of the human experience and find common ground that everyone everywhere share.

Ultimately, my goal is to find my way into a tenured position at a university that is highly respected. If someone, anyone, ever happens across this post and wonders, “Hey, my department could use a guy like that,” then please contact me… My mind IS for sale.