Structuring the World History Survey: A First Timer Confesses

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  • Mary Jane Maxwell
    Washington State University
    Pullman, Washington

In May 2004 I received my Ph.D. in World History from Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. In August I began teaching my first World History survey class. I was supposed to be an expert in world history. According to my numerous application and recommendation letters for world history positions, I was "specifically trained to teach" the survey course. Yet as I sat down last summer to write the "World Civilization to 1500" course syllabus, I felt as overwhelmed as nearly everybody else in my position for the very first time. How would I teach all this material in fifteen weeks?

All historians are trained never to "cover" material in the classroom just for the sake of coverage. For world historians, however, this is an especially difficult challenge considering the breadth of material—thousands of years of global history—we are typically expected to convey to students during a semester. I began to structure the class with several broadly conceived goals. First, I vowed not to overwhelm the students in a deluge of unrelated facts. Rather, I hoped to aim for analytical depth at the expense of feverish coverage. Had I not persuasively argued this point in my comprehensive exams, citing veteran world historians such as Michael Adas and Philip Curtin? So, armed with the knowledge of the virtue of comparative and thematic approaches versus a litany of encyclopedic data, I set about constructing a single overarching theme. This class would focus on religion, I decided, since my own training in world history at WSU emphasized a concentration in a particular theme (mine was religion) as well as a region. My research on cross-cultural conversion in the pre-modern era worked well for most of the globe, especially Eurasia—now I just needed to incorporate the Americas, Oceania, and most of Africa into the narrative. My grand scheme aimed to present a coherent world history narrative grounded in a distinct yet comprehensive theme from which students would consider all other topics such as trade, art, music, politics, migration, environment, and war. My lecture topics, readings, and assignments would all hinge on the theme of religion, yet would inevitability incorporate other aspects of early societies. And the best part of my idea, unlike so many others that I have conceived, is that so far it's an astonishing success.

Students like to discuss religion. I discovered this right away in our first class discussion comparing Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Hindu creation stories. To my great surprise, many students never realized that such similarities, the cataclysmic flood in this case, could exist in several different religions. I use class discussions and comparisons to illustrate the influence and extent of cross-cultural encounters. Discussion in my class only occurs about once a week following lectures that introduce new topics. I make sure that all my lectures are abundantly illustrated with visuals on PowerPoint. Here at Washington State University I am, after all, in an enormous auditorium with state-of-the art technology, a big screen, and over one hundred restless freshmen! Moreover, I have traveled much of the globe and I use my own photos to personalize my lectures in an attempt to make history charismatic and accessible to students. For example, my illustrations of the Egyptian environment (vast, empty desert in contrast to the rich Nile River Valley) served to explain the origin of mummification, worship of river gods, and the construction of colossal limestone monuments, including the temple of Karnak in Luxor. I explain how the environment, especially climate, has preserved the relics of many ancient cultures, yet rapidly destroyed others in sub-tropical regions. Just like the children's book Where's Waldo, my students are always on the lookout for my daughter, Claire, who has been spotted in my slides climbing up Scythian burial mounds in southern Russia and enjoying a meal with nomadic desert Bedouins.

I begin each lecture on the environment and geography of early complex societies, and then work through the basic features of each religion. I attempt to build each lecture on the previous one, always asking questions such as, "the Chinese are not unique in venerating their ancestors—what other society practices this custom? Why is this important?" Students recall ancestor worship in African religions and this generally prompts a brief discussion. We also examine the relationship between religion and political authority. Students compare the Shang rulers' use of ancestor worship to sanction their leadership to the Mayan kings who relied on bloodletting rituals. Later we might compare the Mandate of Heaven to the idea of Divine Monarchy as we examine the heirs of Alexander the Great in the Hellenistic and Roman empires. My lecture on the Pax Romana and the silk roads features the spread of the religions previously introduced: Christianity, mystery religions, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism. As merchants and missionaries interacted and co-mingled, so did their religious beliefs. For example, I ask students to explain: how did the silk roads encourage the development of Manichaeism? I ask: how did the mystery religions influence Christianity? And for everything that I leave out of the lecture, I expect students to have read about it in their textbook.

Most world history textbooks to 1500 C.E. devote a generous amount of time to religion. The textbook I use, Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler's Traditions and Encounters, Volume I to 1500, 3rd edition (McGraw-Hill), shapes the chronological framework of the course. There are four sections in the textbook, and I administer four corresponding exams. We begin with "The Early Complex Societies, 3500 to 500 B.C.E." and focus on how religion shapes societies, and end with "An Age of Cross-Cultural Interaction 1000 to 1500 C.E." and concentrate on the relationship between religion and war, conquest and conversion. In between we focus on how religion influenced art, architecture, and music as well as the relationship between religion and trade. Because I do not use a reader, I make copious handouts that correspond to the text chapters in order to stimulate in-class discussions. In my future classes, students will be able to access and print the course supplemental readings in a link on a yet-to-come course web page (this is my first year teaching!). I assign three books besides the text: Siddhartha, Alchemy of Happiness (medieval Islamic mysticism), and the short text from Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love (medieval Christian mysticism). These readings permit students to explore three religions in depth. Students are required to write three short essays on the books to fulfill in part my second goal in the course: constructing and defending a thesis. I distribute the essay questions weeks in advance (see assignment links below), and using lecture notes and the Bentley text for evidence my students write the essay in class. This eliminates the problem of plagiarism when using such a popular book. With Julian of Norwich, however, students turn in a take-home essay that compares the similarities of mysticism in Indian thought, Islam, and Christianity.

Comparisons do not end with the fundamentals of religious tenets. We also explore the impact of religion on art, architecture, and music in part three of the text, "The Postclassical Era, 500-1000 C.E." In this section, I make abundant use of my personal collection of Russian icons and images of Eastern Orthodox churches throughout Russia, Turkey, and eastern Europe. We compare the dome of Hagia Sopia in Istanbul to the kaleidoscope of colorful onion domes atop St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. How did one influence the other? I examine this question in a lecture that traces the political and cultural development of Kievan Rus' and its relationship to Byzantium. As Buddhism came over the silk roads to China, new art and architecture took shape as revealed in the cave temples of Dunhuang. While the Buddhists depicted the lives of the Buddha and the boddhisattvas in temple paintings, the Christians, in a similar fashion, depicted the lives of the saints and the life of Christ on icons. At the same time, the Igbo in Africa built mbari shrines depicting their gods. We compare these images in class and discuss their formation and the impact of cross-cultural encounters in their development. Orthodox Christians drew spiritual sustenance from their religious icons, yet Muslims refrained from depicting images in their mosques. Why? As we examine Christian and Islamic doctrine on this subject (as well as its influence on Byzantine iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries) we explore Islamic art and architecture as it expressed itself in arabesques, calligraphy, and geometric patterns. Another lecture compares medieval Christian and Islamic music. I had the opportunity to watch "whirling dervishes" perform in Istanbul and I show a film clip of this extraordinary sufi dance and explain the spiritual underpinnings of Sufi music, poetry, and dance. A few good art and music history books, some recordings from the library, and several hours on Google Images makes for beautifully illustrated lectures that explore the relationship between art, music, architecture, and religion over time and space.

Thus far my students have learned about the formation and fundamentals of various world religions over time, they have demonstrated a substantial degree of analytical depth and understanding through assignments asking for comparisons among these religions, and the class in general has maintained a unity and coherency through use of a common theme. But what about everything we left out? I, too, fret unless the majority of the material in the textbook is addressed. This concern is alleviated through my unusual method of structuring exams. I experimented with the take-home exam that attempted to "cover everything" in one very, very long essay. I tried to "cram it all in" in a one-hour in-class exam composed of identifications, short answers, and an essay to boot. Both methods yielded superficial results. I now combine both techniques and by doing so I have eliminated the stress of the "one hour write as fast as you can" exam as well as a long regurgitation of the textbook in the "big question take-home essay." Instead, students prepare a four page take-home essay on a narrow topic drawn from lecture material. They use the text and the handouts as evidence to support their thesis (see links to study guides below). On the day it is due, they take an in-class exam composed of a map quiz and answer three or four identifications (from a choice of six) that are drawn from the thirty or so listed in their study guide. The identifications are drawn from the textbook and include the portions of the class that I failed to discuss. Voilà—depth and breadth.

I will continue, naturally, to rewrite my lectures, essays, and exam questions each semester. I will research topics and regions that are still unfamiliar. But there is one thing that I do not anticipate changing anytime soon and that is my original vision for the world history survey class. My initial two goals, i.e. sticking to a common theme and teaching students to construct and defend a thesis, prevented me from crushing my students in an onslaught of unrelated facts from one part of the globe on Monday to another region on Wednesday and to yet another on Friday. Moreover, I am teaching my strength in the field of world history, rather than attempting to learn it all in one year (generally known as the keeping one chapter ahead of the class method.) I would like to think that students leave my class with an understanding of patterns and processes in world history that serve to link societies rather than isolate them. My thematic approach allows students to perceive and understand historical topics as events that occur on a global scale rather than as isolated circumstances. Sufis, yogis, saints, shamans, priests, and diviners are important conduits that connected societies across time and place. And as we dissect each religion's distinctness, we tend to discover and emphasize their common practices and beliefs. It is my hope, ultimately, that my perspective on teaching the world history survey through the lens of a single theme will foster in my students a sense of shared humanity. This powerful concept is what attracted me to world history years ago, and I hope never to forget its compelling appeal.

This article was originally presented in World History Connected, volume 2, issue 2. The online journal World History Connected is partially supported by the College Board and published in association with the History Cooperative. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reproduced here with permission.

Mary Jane Maxwell received her Ph.D. in world history at Washington State University in 2004. She is currently teaching for the General Education and History Departments at WSU.