Assessments from a Backwards Approach

This seminar has raised many pedagogical questions over the course of the semester.  It has challenged us to think in new and different ways in terms of planning and implementing a World History class.  Part of that process involves considering how one can effectively assess students using backward design.  In a history course, it seems almost impossible to get away from the standard multiple choice, short answer, and essay tests or assignments.  But, we must ask ourselves if these forms of assessment actually indicate understanding or if they simply indicate the students’ abilities to memorize, spit out information for a test, an then forget it afterwards.  

 

I believe the students have a great deal of agency in the learning process and it is difficult to combat a general sense of empathy that I have felt from most students during my experiences teaching or as a teaching assistant.  Most students don’t feel that history is relevant to their lives.  I think a way to assess understanding and to help mitigate the lack of interest in the subject on the part of many students just taking the class to fulfill a general education requirement lies in tying history to the present.  One way in which to due this is through allowing students to utilize Web 2.0 resources or even make a website if they prefer.  There are a myriad of sources that students can use.  To indicate their understanding of history, students could make a wiki, keep a blog, make and post a video on YouTube, create a Prezi presentation, have a Facebook page for a historical figure, create a screencast over a certain topic or utilize other technological resources that they enjoy using to demonstrate understanding.

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Europe and the People Without History

In Europe and the People Without History, Eric R. Wolf drew on both history and political economy to understand systems of power exercised over social labor.  He aims to point out that the peoples conquered by ostensibly progressive Europeans were not without their own rich, valid histories.  Using a Marxian influence, Wolf seeks to examine how integration into the capitalist economy impacted nations or peoples that had previously not been integrated into the system of capitalism.  He asserts that these interactions and exchanges had affects whether positive or detrimental on those people being forced into industrial capitalism, but it is not an absolute fact that these peoples were necessarily negatively impacted by the relationship.  In fact, interconnectedness has been an important part of history even prior to the advent of capitalism and even before “contact” was made in the New World in 1492. 

Wolf is quick to point out the flaws in logic that dictates history is teleological and is unfolding to some great end, ostensibly modern western society.  He asserts that western society does not stand alone and could not be as ostensibly progressive and advanced as it is without the interdependent relationship it has on peripheral entities.  Also, viewing history as leading up to some grand finale takes away the importance of historical actors and events in their own time.  This view makes it seem as if history has been unfolding for no other reason than to lead us to the modern Promised Land.  It also fails to address that things could have gone a different way.

The goal of the work is to understand the world if we were to look at it as a whole rather than selectively focusing on specifically Europe or even taken an anthropological approach and studying micro societies.  But at the same time, cultures cannot be viewed as “integrated totalities” in which each part contributes equally to the whole.  Processes took place that helped the world to become more integrated by about 1400 and ultimately united the Old World with the New World.  These processes included initial contact between Europe and the indigenous populations in the Americas, the expansion that followed, the exchange of goods, ideas, and diseases that resulted, the slave trade, the development of capitalism and the rise of imperialism primarily in Asia and Africa that was aimed at forcing weaker powers to give up their valuable raw materials to be turned into finished industrial goods.  The peripheral nations would then serve as markets, too.

This is an exceptional work for use in a World History course.  It spans a broad period of time, from about 1400 to the 20th century.  It covers a myriad of topics from the “discovery” of the Americas to the advent and implementation of capitalism and subsequent imperialism.  It also emphasizes the aforementioned tendency to look at history as being teleological, or unfolding to some end.  More simply put, it makes history clear that history is not linear and simply consists of cause and effect relationships.  History is more than this and historians need to get beyond examining the past simply as an explanation for the present.  We tend to view things as leading up to modern nation states, but geographical entities and peoples were not always arranged in that fashion and it was not inevitable that they would be. 

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History as Commodity: Silver, Cocaine, and Corn…

Over the past several weeks, we have examined history as a myriad of metaphors.   Through the books From Silver to Cocaine and Maize and Grace, we view history as commodity.  The concept of commodities helps us to view the world as an interlinked, globalized entity.  History as commodity could be an ideal anchor point for a World History class.  Most second half sections of World History start around 1500 due to Christopher Columbus’s  “discovery” of the New World in 1492.  Columbus and other explorers of the time were inspired and encouraged to take to the seas to learn navigational skills, develop nautical technologies, and travel to distant lands primarily because they were seeking certain goods such as spices and silks from the East Indies.  The settlement and exploitation of the New World and the expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade also revolve around commodities.  These are just a couple of examples.  If one views history as being progressive and propelled forward, then examining the role of commodities in history would be a good place to start in a World History course.

                The authors of a series of compiled essays, From Silver to Cocaine, seek to delineate the globalization of the world as having happened long before many contemporary scholars acknowledged such a trend.  They also emphasize that globalization is much more complex than is traditionally understood and thus a transnational; commodities based approach is the most efficient way to study   the phenomenon.  Latin America was a key geographical player in the process of globalization due to the discovery of products there that became highly prized by outside regions.  Some of these products included silver, sugar, tobacco, rubber, bananas and even cocaine.  The work emphasizes the importance of Latin American goods on the world market and also highlights the agency of Latin American participants in the process of trading on the global free market. 

                In Maize and Grace:  Africa’s Encouter with a New World Crop 1500-2000, James C. McCann depicts the importance of the corn crop in Africa.  The plant is highly prized over other native crops due to the relatively short time span it takes to grow and be made ready for consumption.   We typically think of exchanges with African in terms of westerners buying slaves to bring to the New World to cultivate land.  However, not much is often discussed about the reverse flow of goods to Africa in what is called the Columbian Exchange.  Though the African continent lost close to twenty million souls in the Atlantic Slave Trade, they did gain the corn or maize crop which proved to be very vital to the existence of native Africans.  The book traces the evolution of the importance of maize in Africa and seeks to delineate whether the introduction of maize into Africa was a blessing from the West or rather Africans attempt to provide sustenance for themselves amidst a very bad global situation that placed them in a position of victimization. 

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History and Myth.

Historians often deal with myth and fabrications of history.  In his work Seven Myths of The Spanish Conquest, Matthew Restall seeks to dispel myths regarding the Spanish endeavors to take over the New World and its inhabitants.  In the book, Restall deals with seven myths.  The first is that the Spanish conquerors were able to accomplish their lofty task because they were exceptionally great men. The second myth is that the king’s army perpetrated the invasion and conquering of the New World.  The third myth is that Spanish conquerors facilitated this process on their own when in fact African slaves and indigenous allies played a crucial role in the conquests. The fourth myth involves the fact that contrary to Spanish assertions, the conquests were not complete. The fifth myth relates the Spanish and the indigenous peoples’ ability or inability to communicate with each other.  The six myth involves theories about the indigenous populations before, during, and after conquest.  The seventh myth pertains to the implied inferiority and barbarism of the native peoples in contrast with the aspects of civilization cultivated by the Spanish conquerors.

The book was published in 2003 by Oxford University Press.  I am uncertain if the author and printers were behind the times in publishing this book that supposedly debunked highly regarded myths or if I just happened to have had exceptional teachers as an undergraduate and in my Master’s program at Georgia Southern University.  I learned that disease ravished the native populations long before Cortes, Pizarro, and their counterparts ever made it to the new world and when the conquerors came they brought with them more disease that helped them to overcome huge populations.  I also learned that the conquistadores were privately funded entrepreneurs who had to gain permission from the crown to embark upon their journeys, but were not soldiers in the king’s army.  I knew of Dona Marina and assumed there were other interpreters who helped facilitate communication.  I was aware that the Spanish used native allies to help facilitate their conquest.  Many native allies were only too happy to overthrow the Aztecs and the Incas because of their vicious empire building, draconian punishments for prisoners of war, and even human ritual sacrifice.  I was taught myself and I instilled in my own students that the natives were not inferior or barbaric.  They simply had a different way of doing things than Europeans.  This was perfectly valid and obviously worked for them as both the Aztecs and Inca in particular built huge empires that spanned a large amount of territory.

I was excited at the prospect of reading a book that would debunk myths about Spanish colonization.  I was disappointed in the outcome. I felt that the book was simplistic and geared more towards a popular audience.  I certainly hope that professional historians do not continue to believe these myths.  One would think they would have been debunked and jettisoned as actual history decades ago.  I do have to give Restall credit for explaining how these myths developed.  He also helped to shed light on the ways in which factual inaccuracies become part of the historical record.  Ultimately, the book was accessible and an interesting read.

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History is… Cause and Effect

I taught the World History survey at Georgia Southern University for three and a half years.  My course began around 1450 and ended around the Cold War.  My primary objective in teaching the subject was to illustrate to my students the connections between the past and the present.  I encouraged them to watch the news and appreciate the relationship between what they were learning about in my class and modern day occurrences.  In 2008, I encouraged my students to vote in the presidential election.  I even invited the College Republicans and the Young Democrats to come into my class to give presentations and to answer questions. 

I recognize the myriad ways one can view history.  I also see that most people taking history surveys are not history majors.  They often have had horrible experiences with the subject due to the fact that a sports coach is designated with teaching the subject as a side job.  I felt that my goal was not to inundate them with names and dates.  I view history as storytelling.  I told stories and delineated the ways in which the “discovery” of America led to longer life spans which in turn led to a population increase.  There were now more people and also more food options due to trade between the new and old worlds.  More people coupled with a division of labor gave people more time to question religion and the world around them.  This helped to engender the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, etc. and ultimately led to modern times.  I also emphasized the interactions between cultures and the fact that societies were not inferior just because they did not embrace the western paradigm of culture.  This is an oversimplified version of the story I attempted to tell.

I don’t view history as being teleological and I understand the problems with painting history as if it unfolded in a certain way to produce a certain outcome.  I tried to refrain from that approach.  But, I felt that I needed to make history pertinent to my students’ lives.  I needed to show why the present is because of how the past was.    

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Metaphors We Live By…

We ostensibly construct our realities according to objectivism and subjectivism.  Objectivism focuses on truth and factual knowledge (226.)  The idea presupposes the existence of absolute truths.  Subjectivism focuses on the awareness that meaning is always relevant to a specific person based on his or her past experiences, values, feelings, intuitive insights, etc (227.)

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson posit that we actually interact with the world and others through metaphors in what they refer to as the experientialist perspective.   According to this perspective, truth is not absolute.  It depends on understanding which comes from interacting and functioning in the world (230.)   It seems like a compromise between the objective and subjective points of view.

The theory of language delineated by Lakoff and Johnson is easily observable in every day situations once one is made aware the importance of metaphors in our daily lives.  They give an example of argument is war and then proceed to list examples of how we verbally characterize an argument as though we actually were in combat.  Common phrases that are indicative of this example are:  “I’ve never won an argument” or “He’ll wipe you out.”

Metaphors are generally perceived as a stylistic flourish in language to make writing prettier and less mundane.  Common wisdom generally holds that a metaphor stands for something else.  However, Metaphors indicates that we experience and express literal actions with metaphors and these metaphors construct our understanding.  This argument posited is a very interesting one.  However, I was left with a feeling of, “ok, that’s fascinating, but how does it affect me and the way in which I teach?”

 

 

 

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History 511 Blog

Welcome to my blog for History 511.

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