Designing a Course on the Roots of the Modern World

Amid the general disruption, a university has hired me to teach my first fully online history course this autumn: an introductory-level undergraduate survey called Roots of the Modern World. This is a course I’ve taught once before, about three years ago, in a traditional face-to-face setting. I will be redesigning it mostly from scratch.

As usual, the opportunity to design a course is very exciting. But this course presents some special conceptual challenges.

Coverage and Framing

First, this course sits uneasily between two topics or approaches. Roots of the Modern World, apparently, was meant to replace an old-fashioned western civilization survey with something more global. Indeed, the course fulfills the “global studies” requirement in the university’s current liberal arts core. Yet its framing remains unmistakably Eurocentric. Here is the current short description in the university catalogue:

[Roots of the Modern World] studies the pivotal events and achievements of humankind, stressing the period from the Enlightenment to World War I and relating them to life in contemporary times.

Even allowing that both the Enlightenment and World War I were landmarks for all of “humankind,” a history course that they bookend is always going to be a mostly European event, no matter how hard I try to make it otherwise.

Indeed, an existing syllabus I’ve been given as a reference guide defines Roots of the Modern World as covering “Europe and European colonies” between 1750 and 1914. As it has actually been taught in this department, this is not a world history course at all.

To be sure, by 1914, the vast majority of the world’s land surface had been claimed by European empires. But there’s a difference between examining that fact, however intensively, and framing the entire course within it. This gives me a problem to puzzle over.

The other great conceptual difficulty, especially for an online course, is related: There are almost no appropriate survey textbooks in English, for either world history or European history, designed specifically to cover that time period. (A textbook I used last time, James Carter’s and Richard Warren’s Forging the Modern World: A History, is a case in point. Only five, or perhaps six, of the thirteen chapters are relevant. That was indeed a problem for me last time.)

Now, many college history instructors are skeptical about the value of traditional survey textbooks. I understand their reasons. But in introductory-level undergraduate courses, there are things I have been able consistently to accomplish with a good textbook, in terms of both course structure and content coverage, that are much more difficult to accomplish without one. And in an online course, structure and written content will be much more important than they usually are.

I believe I have already found an acceptable solution this semester: a western civilization survey textbook, available for a relatively modest price from one of my favorite publishing houses, from which I can assign about ten out of twenty chapters. The course will be fourteen weeks long, so ten chapters should be sufficient to provide most of the basic weekly course structure, with room for special topics and projects.

Despite its western focus, this textbook seems to do a good job situating Europe and the United States in the larger world, and I’m confident it would not waste my students’ money, either on its own terms or relative to the other options availableeven though we would be using only half of it. The book also comes bundled with a suite of online tools, including a large portfolio of primary sources, that I should be able to use to good effect as part of the online course architecture. (For now, however, I prefer not to identify the book because I’m still reviewing it.)

Academic Objectives

As part of the university curriculum, apparently, Roots of the Modern World is meant to achieve three standard top-level student learning outcomes:

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • Intellectual and practical skills: inquiry and analysis
  • Intellectual and practical skills: written communication

To me, those outcomes seem standard for any undergraduate history course. I don’t think they’ll have any special bearing on my plans—although this course, being online, may stress written communication more than it otherwise would.

Historical Objectives

In addition to those top-level outcomes, Roots of the Modern World is supposed to achieve several specific learning outcomes for the department. As adapted slightly in my words, students are meant to learn how to:

  • Analyze historical facts and interpretations by studying primary sources
  • Analyze political, geographic, economic, social, cultural, religious, and intellectual institutions, structures, and outcomes across a range of geographical locations and cultures
  • Identify the causes and consequences of major political, economic, and cultural developments in Europe and European colonies between 1750 and 1914
  • Recognize major ideological and cultural divisions in Europe and European colonies between 1750 and 1914
  • Analyze and recognize the results of cross-cultural contact between 1750 and 1914

This list, too, looks straightforward for a modern European history course, notwithstanding the difficulties I have already named. (Though let’s get real: “1914” is clearly going to mean 1918, right?)

Possible Informal Objectives

Now comes the part where I consider the course from the standpoint of my own larger educational, analytic, and humane commitments. What should a course like this accomplish?

To identify these informal goals, I should bear in mind that Roots of the Modern World is a crucial gateway into undergraduate historical study at this university. This fall, it has more sections than any other history course. And I expect about half of my students to be in their very first term of college.

With that in mind, here are some goals I might set for this course. (I’ve cribbed two of them from a previous post on course design.)

  • Students will learn to appreciate history as a process of both investigation and imagination, with the object of attaining better factual knowledge as well as better understanding, rather than as a body of existing or closed knowledge.
  • Students will learn different modes of reading historical texts, developing their ability to study primary, secondary, and tertiary (textbook) sources in appropriate ways. (New college students, especially, often struggle to approach different kinds of books with different goals in mind.)
  • Students will gain historical perspective on epidemics as well as other transnational human calamities, with a focus not on worst-case scenarios but rather on factors that have promoted resilience, generosity, and recovery in past communities.
  • Students will examine the nation-state as a contingent human construction, growing in their awareness that nationalism, as a distinctly modern phenomenon, has structured many different aspects of modern life.
  • Students likewise will examine western Europe’s rise to world domination, together with its 20th-century aftermath, as a historical anomaly rather than a natural feature of the world.
  • Students will gain insight into the roots of World War II, the Cold War, and the liberal world order, which will allow them to question some of the simplistic U.S.-focused narratives promoted in American popular culture.
  • Students will become more comfortable taking intellectual risks, resisting the notion that a university education can be reduced to a set of grades or professional competencies.

Special Considerations

Every aspect of this course needs to be weighed according to how well it is likely to work in an asynchronous online format. That means every feature that I consider indispensable to a face-to-face course may need to be translated into a completely different form.

I do not assume, for example, that a video recording of a lecture accomplishes any of the same things as an interactive face-to-face lecture, that an online discussion board accomplishes the same things as a face-to-face discussion, or that an online quiz or test is the same sort of assessment as an in-person quiz or test. For me, these are open questions I’m going to spend a lot of time thinking about this summer.

In a more mundane way, online teaching means that I need to make sure all required sources are readily available online. Even though physical books can be shipped through the mail, I plan to assign only books that are available natively in both physical and electronic form, to give students maximum flexibility for taking the course.

Given the present pandemic and incipient global economic depression, and given that students may not have direct access to the university library, it is also even more important than usual for any required resources to be affordable. This is tricky because affordability is relative, and I don’t assume that high-quality books, or other tools of a high-quality education, are going to be free. However, there are ways to contain costs.

(Also, in my view, affordability is as much about making sure students are actually going to need all assigned sources as it is about those sources’ nominal costs.)

Most importantly, designing an online course means thinking very carefully about how to cultivate the real human relationships that sustain education in the humanities. Without human connection, a history course is a completely lifeless thing, especially for students who have no pre-existing interest. It is not optional.

Addressing these special considerations may deserve a full post of its own at some future time.


Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, 1766, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.