Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@h-net.msu.edu>
From: Frank Conlon <conlon@U.WASHINGTON.EDU>
Subject: H-ASIA: How best to teach 'Asian' survey courses?
How best to teach 'Asian' survey courses?
A dialog on H-Asia List
Date: Fri, 15 May 1998 19:52:36 -0400
From: Steven Davidson <email@example.com>
In response to Jan Goodwin's comment on survey courses, I would like to add
Although Prof. Goodwin's strategy of starting with the specific and then
leading the students to the global or comparative, etc. will likely work
quite well for some, for others the specific course might well be the only
history course they ever take. The strategy then does not work.
Another complication is that so many students are hesitant to take a
thematic or more focused course. Given that their H.S. courses will likely
leave most of the world as a blank (my daughter is now graduating from a
H.S. in Texas where world history is a required course and little outside
of Europe is covered--and her teacher has taught her some interesting
history), most themes or focused courses on China or S.E. Asia or Africa are
meaningless and a bit off-putting to them (they never heard of land tenure
or the Ming or a scholar-gentry, and they do not even know that Mao was a
Chinese revolutionary, Confucius lived around 500 BC or Ho is a man's name,
and so on). Most would not select a course with these terms or names in
Where does this leave us? Until high schools better prepare our students
(the students at my college are very good--most in the top 10% of the high
school class and a 1250 SAT average--but they are still not well prepared
in history) we will need to combine some basic introduction to our world
along with pointing the way to theoretically sophisticated approaches,
questions, themes, etc. It is a daunting task. My guess is that there is no
one way to do this. Some combination of survey (we teach a world
civilizations survey here) and thematic, area, and chronological courses
will be needed.
This does not get to the questions of what sort of surveys should be
taught and how? I agree with those who argue that "Asia" is not a coherent
historical organizing term. The global history approach has the most
coherence for a survey. There is a great deal of theoretical discussion on
global history. It has its own legitimacy and topics. At the same time,
a global history course offers some exposure to the histories of non-
Europeans/N. Americans. If students take only this one course,
they will likely not feel so bewildered about the rest of the world's
history. Students have commented that they understand the evening news
better after this course. They might even be more likely to take more
courses on other areas of the world, feeling that they now have some idea
to what the titles of those courses refer.
This only works, of course, if the global history course is well
Ed. note: Earlier posts on this thread appeared on the list from about
May 8 to May 15 and originated in a query from Ed Haynes. The subject
headers were as above or "teaching the 'Asian' survey course."
Date: Fri, 5 Jun 1998 08:08:30 -0700
From: Aat.Vervoorn@anu.edu.au (Aat Vervoorn)
This is a rather late response on this topic, sorry. Sometimes news takes a
while to reach the outlying islands.
I have been teaching a year-long introductory course on Asia for five years
now, under the rubric 'individual and society in contemporary Asia'. 'Asia'
in this case means something like 'everywhere from Iran to Japan', without
claiming to give all countries equal floor space. 'Contemporary' means
something like 'now, but going back to 1945 or thereabouts, and earlier -
eg to the Harappan civilization - if appropriate'. If student enthusiasm is
any guide, then the course is a success. (200 students per year can't all
be wrong?). Educationally it seems to work too.
Like others, I have found that the only way to fit enough in and make the
thing cohere is to take a thematic or issues-focused approach, and then
draw on whatever interesting material relating to Asian countries happens
to be available in English.
The issues I cover are as follows. First, globalisation and reactions
against it (which call I insulation) - this sets up a general pattern; then
a quick trot through basic ideas on how societies function, such as rules,
social contract, reciprocity, law and morality, the concept of culture,
civil society, civil disobedience; and then the four major
religio-cultural-social traditions of Asia (one week each: no messing
around!): Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam. This
general/introductory material is then followed by a consideration of themes
which are important in themselves, useful for understanding contemporary
Asian societies, and interest students: human rights, ethnic/indigenous
minorities, development, population/demographic change, the environment,
family issues (structures, functions, marriage, divorce), changing patterns
of work (including labour migration, child labour),mass media (including
censorship and propaganda), education and the creation/institutionalisation
of knowledge. The year is over before you know it.
I get students to read as much autobiographical material as possible
because they generally find it easier to approach big issues through a life
history than an abstract and boring academic tome. For example, I use
Phoolan Devi's autobiography I, Phoolan Devi, as an introduction to
Hinduism, and show the movie Bandit Queen as well as getting students to
read secondary material on her. (A good topic for exploring the question
'what is history?' too). It is a rather depressing introduction to India,
which worries me a bit, but it can be balanced, say, by using Gandhi's
autobiography (Gandhi gets quite a mention in relation to development and
environmental alternatives anyway). For Buddhism I use the Dalai Lama's
autobiography, for Confucianism House of Confucius (by Kong Demao), and for
Islam Daughter of Persia, by Sattareh Farman Farmaian.
During the last couple of years I have been making use of movies and
documentary videos, and kick myself for not having done it sooner. There
are so many great Asian movies to show. My current program includes
(besides Bandit Queen) To Live (China), Urga (Mongolia/China), The Gate of
Heavenly Peace (China, shown in two sittings rather than one: 3hours 20
minutes is a bit much for one burst), The Ballad of Narayama (Japan), Eat
Drink Man Woman (Taiwan), The White Balloon (Iran), Butterfly and Flowers
(Thailand), The Jar (Iran), and (to wind up the year with a laugh) Tampopo
Finding something that could approximate a textbook has sure been a
problem. For a while I got students to read Murphey's History of Asia for
historical context, but it has little on contemporary Asian societies. So
in the end I decided to write a book on the content of the course myself.
This is called Re Orient: Change in Asian Societies, and was published in
February 1998 by Oxford University Press, Melbourne. It covers everything
mentioned above in 320 pages, and I've tried hard to keep it as easy and
interesting to read, without oversimplifying things. But no jargon, honest.
Anyway, the earliest reviews have been very favourable, so it might be
worth a look.
(By the way, a few days ago I came across an article by Andre Gunder Frank
in which he referred to his forthcoming book, ReORIENT: Global Economy in
the Asian Age, which was to be published by University of California Press
in April 1998. So that may confuse people. Better be on the safe side and
Get in touch if you would like further info.
Faculty of Asian Studies
Australian National University