Revisiting My Honors Not-a-Western-Civ Course

This fall, I’m scheduled to teach Honors 121 again at La Salle University. More than two years ago, I described some of my planning process for that course. The outcome was excellent, if I say so myself. It may have been the most fun I’ve ever had teaching.

Now I’m in the late stages of revising my syllabus (PDF) for another attempt.

This time, one big thing has changed: The honors program is now explicitly trying to avoid thinking of Honors 121 as a western civilization course. What it is instead … is an interesting question.

As you may recall, the distinctive feature of Honors 121 is that it’s part of a “triple” of linked history, philosophy, and literature courses during an honors student’s first year in college. This means every student in my course this fall will also take Honors 111 (literature) and Honors 131 (philosophy) with the same cohort of fifteen or so fellow students. These fall courses will cover topics up to the end of the medieval or perhaps the beginning of the early modern era. This spring, the journey will continue in courses that cover the modern age the same way.

Students will also participate in cultural “lab” excursions around Philadelphia, such as group visits to museums, art galleries, and theater performances—although obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically curtailed these events.

In many ways, this program design is excellent. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for new college students—an experience I would have given anything to have when I was in their position.

Here’s the problem: In discussions this summer, we have determined that the honors faculty would very much like to diversify the honors triple and make it less Eurocentric. (This is partly a result of recent student activism; it also reflects conversations that have happened among the faculty for many years.)

The history instructors, in particular, have expressed a desire to see our sections of the triple become a survey of world cultures; all of us have experience teaching global history surveys, and we think we could adapt easily. However, as a practical matter, it seems clear that the literature and philosophy courses in the triple will have to continue focusing mostly on western topics for now.

This presents the historians this year with a conundrum.

On one hand, we have a clear mandate to use Honors 121 to diversify the triple’s coverage. It’s up to the history instructors to provide much wider context than the other courses can provide. On the other hand, if our course diverges too much from the literature and philosophy courses, we risk confusing students, compounding their workload, and losing the thematic coherence that makes the honors triple such an exciting construct.

From what I have seen, each of this year’s history instructors is trying to manage this dilemma in a slightly different way. Considering the time constraints, however, nobody is turning their section of Honors 121 into an actual world history survey—although that option remains on the table for next year.

For coverage, I’m opting for Mediterranean Deluxe: de-emphasizing western Europe while highlighting the breadth of commercial and imperial relationships that connected the classical Greco-Roman world with North Africa, East Africa, Persia, China, and cultures in other places. This was already my approach before, really. But this semester, I’m trying to make the course’s breadth more explicit and more insistent.

Here’s how I explain this approach in language from the current draft of the syllabus:

During this first semester, we will focus on the premodern Mediterranean world and various civilizations and cultures along its trade routes. You can think of this as part of the deep backstory of your own “western”-style university education. Studying in Philadelphia in 2021, you are part of a scholarly conversation that stretches across thousands of years and thousands of miles.

Now, that’s all fine, perhaps, but what does this look like in practice? Well, let me explain what I’m keeping from last time I taught the course, and let me explain what I’m adding.

First, I’m keeping my main survey textbook. And I’m afraid there’s just no way around the title. We’ll be using The West: A New History, by Anthony Grafton and David Bell. I’m not embarrassed to say that I loved this book. It brings a freshness and a sense of criticism and intellectual adventure to a seemingly old-fashioned topic. Importantly, however, there are only eleven chapters in the first volume. That gives us room in the semester to add material.

The other book I’m keeping from the previous version of the course is Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. It has the same virtues as the main textbook; it turns ancient Rome into a puzzle to explore. I plan to use SPQR as the basis for an assignment that will help train students to take apart a secondary source, examining how it draws conclusions using evidence.

I’m also asking each student to choose a third book from a list of options. This is mostly new. Each book in my list is a primary source (or set of primary sources) related to long-distance travel in the medieval era:

These books will be the basis for an assignment asking students to engage in a close reading of a primary source. (As with SPQR, I plan to assign substantial portions of each chosen book but not necessarily the entire text.) In addition to training students in the use of primary sources, this exercise is meant to force our course to reflect perspectives on medieval cultures besides those of European men.

And there’s one more thing I want to do, though I’m still working out the details.

I want to ask all my students to complete one group project. They’ll form teams of three to examine a few case studies in world history, delivering case presentations in class at appropriate points in the semester. I’m hoping to use chapters from David Eaton’s 2019 book World History Through Case Studies: Historical Skills in Practice as a basis for this assignment, although I’m still evaluating its fitness for this purpose.

The objective of that assignment, beyond creating a chance for collaborative work, is to get students themselves to expand our course beyond the usual boundaries of the west—while also helping them conceptualize history as an ongoing conversation among scholars.

These three fall assignments—a group case presentation, a primary source analysis, and a secondary source analysis—should put students in a strong position at the beginning of the spring semester, when I will ask them to begin working on an original research project as we talk about modern history.

It’s going to be a lot of work. But based on what I saw in this course before, I’m confident that first-year students can handle it, as long as the assignments are designed carefully.


Image: Detail from Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, ca. 1666-1668, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Public domain. The woman in costume has often been identified as a representation of Clio, the muse of history.

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