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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
May-June 1998

Date: Fri, 15 May 1998 19:52:36 -0400
From: Steven Davidson <davidsos@southwestern.edu>

In response to Jan Goodwin's comment on survey courses, I would like to add some complications:

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 them.

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 taught.

Steve Davidson
Southwestern University

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."

Message-Id: <199806051508.LAA19452@h-net.msu.edu>
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 (Japan).

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 buy both!)

Get in touch if you would like further info.

Aat Vervoorn
Faculty of Asian Studies
Australian National University

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