Date: Fri, 18 Dec 1998 07:09:33 -0500
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture *<H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: "Leibo, Steven A." *<email@example.com>
Subject: H-ASIA: Premodern Asia: a teaching post-mortem
From: Naomi Standen *<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: History of premodern Asia: a post-mortem (Teaching Asia surveys)
History of premodern Asia: a post-mortem (Teaching Asia surveys)
A dialog from H-Asia list
18 December 1998
From: Naomi Standen *<email@example.com>
I offer this as a further contribution to the discussion I started last
summer about the problems of teaching Asia survey classes. I welcome
comments, suggestions, criticisms, and above all, notes from anyone else
who wishes to share their experiences with similar courses.
HISTORY OF PREMODERN ASIA: A POST-MORTEM
I have just completed my second semester of teaching, which included
teaching for the second time a survey of premodern Asia. In two times out I
have had the most frustrating time with this class. I am at a small,
midwestern, public, liberal arts college, with students who have mostly
been no further than Minneapolis, and for whom this is a) their first
experience of anything "non-western" and b) often their only experience of
anything non-western as they are only taking the class to fulfill a Gen Ed
Although I have taught it completely differently each time, I am finding
that I lose a lot of the class (about half this time - ouch! I have only a
normal drop-rate for my other classes) and that among those that stick it
out the understanding of the issues is by no means always what I would hope
for. I don't know what the answers are, but share this as what I hope will
be a springboard for further discussion and exchange of ideas. I already
have a number of ideas for what I will do for next fall's class, but I
think I have a long way to go with this course before I'm remotely happy
The first time I taught the class as chiefly a comparison between China and
Japan, with a little bit of Southeast Asia thrown in. We used Shirokauer's
textbook, _As I crossed a bridge of dreams_, Levathes's _When China ruled
the seas_ and Spence's _The question of Hu_, along with some selections
from SarDesai's SEA textbook and some reserve readings. The class was
lecture-heavy, although we also had student presentations and a couple of
Clearly something had to change, both to expand the scope of the class, and
to make it more interactive. With help, suggestions and encouragement from
a faculty development seminar on SEA I completely redesigned the course and
tried 2 new things, one pedagogical and one related to content.
First, I used an absolute minimum of lectures, instead setting brief (1-2
paragraph answers) assignments on set readings - one of these was due
almost every class, and then we spent most of the class period discussing
the assignment and related questions first in small groups and then with
the whole class. The only lecture-type material was a brief introduction by
me in each class to the reading for the next class. I also dumped the
student presentations, but scheduled in a debate on each main section of
Second, I expanded coverage, but still restricted it to East and Southeast
Asia. Most of the East Asia material was actually on China, with just a
brief excursion into Heian Buddhism. Furthermore, the course was entitled
"Trade, Power and Beliefs in East and Southeast Asia" and was divided into
three sections, each with an overarching question to give some kind of
I. IDEAS AS THE BASIS FOR STATES (BEGINNINGS TO 600)
Q: How did the earliest Asian rulers justify their claims to rulership?
[Covered Han Confucianism, SEAsian kingship based on "prowess", early trade
II. BUDDHISM AND ASIAN STATES, c. 600-1200
Q: What made Buddhism so attractive to Asian rulers before 1200?
[Covered origins and spread of Buddhism, Buddhism in Tang China (Wu
Zetian), Liao, Heian Japan, Pagan, and Sailendra Java]
III. NEW WAVES: ISLAM AND NEO-CONFUCIANISM, c. 1200-1650
Q: How did the societies of East and Southeast Asia handle new ideas after
[Covered neo-Confucianism, Islam in China, Java, and Malacca, growth of the
spice trade, Ming trade, the building of the Great Wall]
Obviously this leaves out a very great deal, but I made a deliberate
trade-off in order to get a little more depth on what we did cover. Anyone
who wants the whole syllabus can find it at:
Shirokauer became optional, and I dumped _Hu_ because we stopped earlier.
In their places I set a slew of articles. This created the first main
problem. I picked the readings in something of a hurry (big mistake!) and
found on closer inspection that several of them were way above the level of
most of the students (eg. Hall's _Maritime trade_ is NOT written for an
undergraduate audience - and I set two chapters from it. Not going to do
That, combined with a quantity of reading far in excess of what seems to be
expected in high school and even in some other college courses, was a big
element, I am sure, in chasing away students. The problem of difficult
readings seems to be much greater for SEA, though this may be something of
a reflection of my lesser familiarity with the work on that region.
Anyway, the upshot was that I was left with a hardcore of about 16 students
(out of 32), many of whom were clearly finding the course less than
inspiring, although they did sometimes come alive and get interested. I
spent much of the semester hating the course and feeling like I was just
sitting it out. With 3 other new courses to teach, the major surgery that
was clearly required was simply beyond my energy levels. The debates which
were the highlight of my other lower-division history class were lacklustre
affairs in the Asia class, with students unable to make coherent arguments,
not understanding the assignment, and generally feeling overwhelmed, I
think. (Last time we had a couple of debates in the Asia class that went
Strangely, this last section on neo-Confucianism and Islam was the one I
was most worried about, because it seemed to lack overall structure, but it
is the one that students seem to have found most interesting - quite
possibly because the readings were a lot more comprehensible, or just that
the region and ideas were now more familiar. The students who did make it
to the end seem to have got something out of it, if only as fellow
survivors in adversity....
Next time I will clearly have to find some more appropriate readings. I am
also going to teach the course with three sessions a week instead of two -
the longer sessions are too long for this kind of course. I am also
probably going to have to reinsert a bit more structured lecture-type
material to tie the readings together better. I also need more visual
material, and more structure to assignments like preparation for papers and
debates. I had a lot of freshmen in class, and learning how to be at
college was still an issue for a lot of them.
Obviously I have no wish to dumb down the course, but at the same time I
don't want to scare off students who might otherwise get something out of
it. I'm not supposed to be putting them off Asia for life! The balance was
definitely not right this semester - it was simply too demanding for most,
especially if they were freshmen Gen Ed students.
Things that seem to be lacking: a textbook that covers both East and
Southeast Asia before the modern period, and undergraduate-level writing on
So whaddya think? Am I making major mistakes? Bringing problems upon my own
head? Will I learn eventually not to attempt too much?
All comments gratefully received.
Assistant Professor of Asian History
Department of History, Politics and Society
University of Wisconsin-Superior
Belknap & Catlin, PO Box 2000
Superior, WI 54880-4500
Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 13:08:33 -0500
From: "Charles A. Keller" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Naomi's situation sounds all too familiar to me; as I'm also just
completing my second attempt at a Traditional Asian survey that is part of
a two-semester sequence.
I teach at a smaller, private college, but other than that all the
challenges and problems appear quite similar. I have my students begin by
"finding" Asia on a map quiz which also symbolizes their knowledge of the
subject. Given this starting point, I feel I achieve some modicum of
success with the students, although I will admit I have lowered my
This fall my enrollment was 20, and I lost one along the way. My format
is heavily lecture oriented, with periodic small-group and class
discussions over reserve readings. The students also have to read two
"non-text book" selections and write 1000 word essays on each. I am
collecting visuals as I go along, over-head transparencies, incense
sticks, "god money," slides, videos, anything.
The first year, I tried to cover South, Southeast, and East Asia to about
the 16th century, too much. This time, I eliminated SEA, the area I am
weakest in myself, and focused on India, China, and Japan. My approach
centers completely on the goal of helping the students understand
(something about) "traditional" Asian societies in these three countries.
The overarching themes are simply: religions, family, communalism, social
structures and position of women within these, and political/economic
power. The readings this fall were: Murphey, _History of Asia_;
Markandaya, _Nectar in a Sieve_; Spence, _Death of Woman Wang_; and
reserve selections from Nelson and Peebles, _Classics of Eastern Thought_.
Compared to my own background, this does indeed seem to be "dummy-downed,"
but the students that are in my classes appear to have their hands full
when asked to actually READ and UNDERSTAND anything. I plan to keep
making major revisions in this class, with the goal of increasing the
students' understanding of traditional Asia, especially the complexity
and sophistication of these societies. This of course is contra the
students' desire to have everything "simplified" or "easy" in accordance
with the "sound-bite" world they inhabit. In that, I agree with Naomi,
this is indeed a difficult challenge, and with her, also ask for help and
Charles A. Keller, Asst. Prof.
Dept. of History, and Coordinator for Asian Studies
Marietta, OH 45750
Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 13:07:31 -0500
From: Steven Davidson <email@example.com>
I hope Prof. Standen's post-mortem is appreciated by others as much as it
is appreciated by me. In this age of self-promotion it is truly refreshing
to see an honest, yet non-patronizing, statement about the challenges of
I would suggest a few things for consideration:
1) It is difficult to teach our survey courses. We try to accomplish many
things for a diverse set of students. Most of our students have no
knowledge of our subject. Some have a very confused and value-laden
misunderstanding. We are trying to introduce the field of history, distant
cultures, analytic thinking, writing skills, etc. This is not to say we
should not be doing all of this, but only that it is truly a challenge. We
need to remind each other that even when students don't appreciate this, it
is a commendable task, and can lead to self-doubts. Colleagiality is
important at these times.
2) In my 20 odd (!) years of working with survey courses on China and
Japan, and in my role as department chair watching faculty in Latin
American and African history struggle with their analogous concerns, the
main conclusion I have arrived at is that it will always be a challenge.
The course will never teach itself. We need to be up for every class. There
are always choices of selection and approach which require that we choose
the least of several problematic alternates.
3) After trying to teach some combined courses on China and Japan several
times (because others told me I had to do this), I decided that I had
enough of students confusing Chinese cities, individuals and words with
Japanese ones. I also started teaching World Civilizations some years ago.
I think that there is a justification for World Civilizations in a way that
there is not for combining China, Japan, and SEA. This has been discussed
on this list some time ago. World Civ. has several theoretical
justifications for both comparative history and for macro-history
(including topics in climate, disease, trade, etc.) that justifies and
indeed requires a global perspective. Combining several "Asian"
civilizations together in one course not only does not have this
justification, but lacks good pedagogical sense. It does not meet our
students' needs. It confuses as much as it uncovers. I teach one course,
Chinese Civilization, and another Japanese civilization, and find that the
courses were much easier to organize and teach. In addition I teach World
Civilizations which brings in the world.
4) The last point I will suggest here is that, especially for introductory
courses, if we cannot discuss an article or chapter in class with the
students it should not be assigned. Unless the students are especially
bright and/or have had excellent high school instructors they do not know
how to read these articles. That is one of our purposes--to guide them.
Also, I always find it revealing (and this is found more often I think in a
small department like mine where faculty in different fields interact
often) that colleagues in other fields cannot make much sense out of
primary sources, including literature, from which we get our kicks, nor do
they immediately appreciate major articles or even topics in our fields.
Why should we expect our students to be more attracted to them and more
understanding of them without working through them together and without our
justifying to them the material's worth--which requires that we discuss the
things in class. To remind ourselves of this, we should all ask a colleague
in a field of history we have not studied to provide a primary source, or
even an analytical article out of context, for us to analyze. Try it! For
one thing, it does not necessarily appear to be very important or
worthwhile at first glance.
Furthermore, when we assign things that we don't cover, we are either
giving the message to students in introductory courses that we just assign
a bunch of things and they can pick and choose those they feel like
reading (if we also do not test them on it), or they feel we are setting
them up to not do well (if we do test them on it).
My point in making these comments is to join with Prof. Standen is sharing
some self-reflections. I think Prof. Standen might be over critical of her
course. Students often drop a course for a variety of reasons. It sounds to
me her students could not be in the hands of a professor who is more
interested in them and who has a broader command of her field(s).
Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 13:09:55 -0500
From: mchale <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first of all, I want to thank Naomi Standen a great deal for posting her
post-mortem of her course on pre-modern SE and E Asia. It was self-critical
and honest, and it is wonderful to see that. Too much of the time, when we
see acounts of courses taught, the instructors tone down the difficulties that
they encountered and the problems with the course.
I can't say much right now -- I have to go home and cook for one -- but a
few words. first of all, Ms. Standen is right on target about the material on
premodern SE Asia. It tends to be at a relatively high level of difficulty to
begin with. One just doesn't have a wide range of materials to choose from
when constructing a course for average American students (who don't read a
great deal to boot.) so is Ms. Standen to blame for choosing inaccessible
Furthermore, it simply is difficult to cover SE Asian history: it is one of
the most diverse places on the globe and this diversity can seem confusing to
I would suggest, nonetheless, using Tony Reid's SOUTHEAST ASIA IN THE AGE
OF COMMERCE. That work are much more accessible to a broad audience and shed
light on premodern history (well, the 15th century on). You can also learn
about penis implants in the process (covered in the book), but that is, I
guess, another story. . . .
I have used the Schirokauer book. Found it heavy going for students and
would not use it again except as background reading.
In any event, thanks for your "post-mortem."
Assistant Professor of History and Internaitonal Affairs
George Washington University
Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 14:14:33 -0500
From: Steven Leibo <leibos@Sage.EDU>
Like many of us, I have taught Asian Civilization for many years and
taught it with many different organizational structures. The goals of the
course are to cover Asia very broadly, including not only East Asia but
South Asia, Southeast Asia and Southwest Asia. Over the years I have
broken up the course by doing the early part in the first semester and the
more recent part in the second semester as well as trying to integrate the
material in other ways. I have for example taught East Asia as a group
or by national states.
In the end the way that works best for me sounds sort of
elementary but actually turns out to be more sophisticated. What I do is
for the fall teach
China: Ancient to Modern then give a test
Japan: Ancient to Modern then give a test
Korea: Ancient to modern then give a test
each time since there is repetition but also the possibility
of teaching at a more sophisticated since they already know a lot.
The final is on modern East Asia and it is comparative.
I do something similar with the second semester
Southwest Asia: Ancient to Modern
Southeast Asia: Ancient to Modern
Southeast Asia: Ancient to modern
each section is followed by a test and then the comparative final at the
overall some might think this sounds like high school but
in practice it seems to end up with a more sophisticated understanding and
the students don't get confused as often.
Steven A. Leibo, Sage/Suny/H-ASIA
Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 16:40:57 -0500
From: Jennifer Jay <email@example.com>
I've been teaching world history and Asian survey courses for over
a decade. In the past five years we have restructured the Asian survey to
become East Asian civilization surveys that include Vietnam and Korea in the
pre-modern course, which stops at around 1500.
When I teach this course,which is actually my favorite, I focus on
thematic issues and common
denominators and practical information that students can relate to. These
include cultural formulation, interaction, transmission of Confucianism and
Buddhism, state formation in each of the four civilizations we cover,
position of women, etc. We also deal with
everyday life themes such as the appearance of surnames (first names last
and last names
first rules). At first I also did not like teaching the course, but what
for me now is my growing interest in the
region as a
cultural and political zone in premodern times. For instance, my interest in
the region in the 7th century bring in topics such as personalities and
missions from Japan, Korea and Tibet to Chang'an.
Jennifer W. Jay
Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB. T6G 2H4 CANADA