Using World History Case Studies in My Mediterranean History Survey

Last month, I described my updated plan for teaching an introductory undergraduate “not-a-western-civ course” called Honors 121. In that post, I mentioned my tentative plan to assign case study presentations as part of the semester’s work. “The objective of that assignment, beyond creating a chance for collaborative work,” I wrote, “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.”

Now I’m further along in the planning process, so I thought I should describe the case study presentation assignment I’m devising.

The Basis

Let me be frank: I’ve never liked group projects. Actually, I loathe them. But as an undergraduate business major, I came to appreciate—grudgingly—some of the transferable skills they can help students develop, and as a humanities major, I noticed what they can do to deepen students’ moral investment in their coursework.

In particular, in the right kinds of courses, group presentations can create a relatively supportive environment for students to practice teaching—which is the very best way to learn.

So here’s what I propose to do. I’m planning to ask students to form groups of three. I consider that a reasonable maximum group size for students living on campus, as all or almost all of mine will be. Each group will be responsible for reviewing one case study selected from David Eaton’s new-ish book World History Through Case Studies: Historical Skills in Practice. The university library has agreed to purchase a copy and place it on reserve. (This aspect of the assignment has the added virtue of getting brand-new undergraduate students to enter the physical library.)

My class is small; about a dozen students are enrolled. So I have selected just four chapters from the book as options, assigning each to an appropriate week around the middle of the semester. Each group will select one (probably through ranked-choice voting) as a basis for their presentation. These case study topics are:

  • “#AncientEgyptMatters” (the Black Athena controversy)
  • “Making Waves” (Bantu migrations)
  • “Whose Key to China?” (Confucianism)
  • “Veiled Meanings” (Islam and gender)

Each group will prepare a presentation lasting around half an hour. I anticipate that the presentations will tend to go long, though.

The Requirements

I plan to ask each group to do the following five things in their case study presentation:

  • Briefly introduce the historical topic (following David Eaton’s lead but also doing some basic research outside the book), providing any necessary definitions and crucial background information
  • Identify one key problem—puzzle, debate, uncertainty, or changing interpretation—for the topic
  • Explore at least two key secondary sources from Eaton’s chapter bibliography or endnotes (making your own examination of these secondary sources) to explain the problem
  • Present the audience with at least one primary source that exemplifies or clarifies the problem
  • Hand out a bibliography that includes all works consulted.

At this point, I don’t plan to ask students to present their own solution to the problem.

The Challenges

Case study presentations in the form I have outlined will require a lot of work. And it will be unfamiliar work—which is, at the end of the day, the reason this assignment is worth doing. So I will need to provide clear, detailed guidance, far in advance of the deadlines. This guidance should include an introduction to basic library research methods, an explanation of how a book may be successfully skimmed or an article successfully read for academic purposes, and a discussion of how to use a secondary source to locate accessible primary sources.

Even with careful advance guidance, this assignment will present problems that students will have to collaborate with each other (and consult with me) to solve. Again, this is why the assignment seems worth doing. The practical problem-solving process will teach skills that can’t be acquired any other way.

A more formidable set of challenges is presented by the pandemic. My campus has a vaccine mandate for students and employees, as well as a mask mandate until further notice. Still, it seems likely that some group presentations will have to be rescheduled due to illness or quarantine. It’s possible that we may end up watching some presentations on Zoom.

I’m willing to be flexible, but I’m worried. To be clear, I would not assign group presentations this semester at all—not a chance—if the class were larger or if these students weren’t expected to live on campus.

As it is, I’m planning this assignment partly as a way to overcome some of the extra distance that the pandemic is likely to put between students and the course, and between students and each other.

The assignment, of course, will evolve between now and the time I explain it to my students. So I’m happy to entertain suggestions about how it may be improved.

Update: Three months later, I describe what actually happened when I tried this in class.