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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." *<leibo@cnsvax.albany.edu>
Subject: H-ASIA: Premodern Asia: a teaching post-mortem

From: Naomi Standen *<nstanden@staff.uwsuper.edu>
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 *<nstanden@staff.uwsuper.edu>

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.


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 requirement.

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 with it.


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 debates.

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 the course.

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 structure:


Q: How did the earliest Asian rulers justify their claims to rulership? [Covered Han Confucianism, SEAsian kingship based on "prowess", early trade routes]


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]


Q: How did the societies of East and Southeast Asia handle new ideas after c. 1200?

[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: http://staff.uwsuper.edu/HOMEPAGE/NSTANDEN/hist219.htm

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 again).

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 really well).

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 premodern SEA.

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.

Naomi Standen
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" <kellerc@marietta.edu>

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 expectations.

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 suggestions.


Charles A. Keller, Asst. Prof.
Dept. of History, and Coordinator for Asian Studies
Marietta College
Marietta, OH 45750

Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 13:07:31 -0500
From: Steven Davidson <davidsos@southwestern.edu>

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 teaching.

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).

Steve Davidson
Southwestern University

Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 13:09:55 -0500
From: mchale <mchale@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu>

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 readings? No.

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 students.

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."

Shawn McHale
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 end.

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 <jennifer.jay@ualberta.ca>

Hi, Naomi:

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 works 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

Jennifer W. Jay
Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB. T6G 2H4 CANADA
Phone: 403-492-0852
Fax: 403-492-9125
Email: Jennifer.Jay@ualberta.ca

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