Teaching Tuesday: Non-Linear World History

I’ll admit from the start that this is not a very well considered idea. In the fall, I’m teaching a new class, which is probably ill-advised during the Time of COVIDs. Also, I’m teaching a class that I’m manifestly unqualified to teach: the first half of World History, which I believe is World History until 1500. 

Finally, I think I really want to do something unorthodox with the class.

I want to teach the course in such a way that de-emphasizes the standard narrative and interpretative practices that tend to frame how we approach the past. As many scholars have shown, our interest in linear history, causality, and chronology tend to privilege European and Mediterranean approaches to the past (e.g. narratives that are often regarded as “Western”). These, naturally, tend to privilege European and Mediterranean perspectives on the “World” and support problematic approaches to the past that emphasize colonialism, progress, and culminate in modern, democratic, capitalism.

Instead, I’d like to emphasize things, experiences, flows, and critical views of temporality and chronology.

This is all just back of the napkin stuff at present, but I’ll keep writing because, you know, it’s what I do.

The first step is that I want to pull together as many open educational resources as possible for World History prior to 1500.

Introduction: Time

The first module will be a critique of linear time and the notion of progress and ask students to think critically about how they understand time (both on a micro and macro level) and to explore how other people think about time. This is partly inspired by Braudel’s view of multiple temporalities.

The learning goal is to get a bit of separation between their idea of history, the past, and time. 

The Environment

This module will start by asking students to think a bit about Lake Agassiz and its role in global climate. We can just as easily talk of thinks like El Niño or the Holocene Climate Optimum. Students will look for evidence of climate, resources, and other environmental situations (from the land bridge to volcanic eruptions, the Early Byzantine or 12th Century Seismic Paroxysm, or seasonal flooding). 

The learning goal will be to understand a range of environmental situations as co-constitutive of historical events, institutions, and relationships. 

Energy

This section owes itself to Manual De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History with its emphasis on flows and energy. Getting students to think critically about what constitutes energy in a society and to find examples of energy in the resources provided. 

The learning goal is for students to understand more broadly resource extraction regimes on a global scale and to reflect on this diversity.

Love

This is where things will get a bit more challenging. My hope is that students feel comfortable enough with exploring the abstract idea of energy across different societies that they can take this method and apply it to the equally abstract concept of love.

The learning goals for this chapter to push students to realize that concepts like love offer avenues for legitimate historical analysis. 

Violence 

The final module in the course is perhaps the most tradition. It will focus on incidents of violence in the past and consider how violence shaped the organization of society in ways that are not limited to the emergence of  state. By taking the notion that abstract concepts like energy and love can provide lenses to understand the past, the hope is students can find new ways to think about violence. 

After some conversations on social media, there were some other concepts that I could easily imagine including in the course. Below are just a few on my scratch pad:

Place
The Other
Belief
Gender
Sex
Death
Fun

The course will have weekly quizzes which mostly ensure students engage with material between classes and begin to think about the subject of each module before they come into class on a given week. 

The course will also require two individual papers that reflect on the way in which nonlinear approaches to the past open new ways of thinking about human society. One will be due at the midterm and the other at the final. We will set aside time in class for groups to prepare outlines for the paper, but individuals will have to write their own papers.

The main graded work will be group oriented and focus on four group assignments. At the start of the class, the students will be given four ways to approach reporting on their topics:

1. Texts. This will involve a 1000 word essay that presents a particular text that is significant for a particular topic. This will involve offering some historical context for the text and demonstrating clearly how it relates to the module.

2. Objects. This will involve identifying 5 objects from a museum and writing a 200 word analysis of each object that relates it to the module.

3. Events. This involves identifying 5 events from the past and writing a 200 word analysis of each event that relates it to the module.

4. Individuals. This involves identifying 5 individuals from the past and writing a 200 word analysis of how these individuals related to the module.

Most of the work for each module will take place over three days in the classroom where students will prepare their group reports, outline individual essays, and prepare brief presentations to share with their fellow students.