What in the World Is "America and the World"?

Annette C. Palmer and Lawrence A. Peskin, November 2011

When we tell colleagues that we are teaching and writing about "America and the World," they invariably respond, "That is a big topic." They are correct on two counts. First, it is an enormous topic temporally and geographically, covering the entire planet (what is not America and the world?) and spanning from at least 1492 to the present. Second, it is also "big" today in the sense that lots of people seem to be talking and writing about the need for American history and American historians to consider the world beyond what one political celebrity has taken to calling "this exceptional nation."

We hope to address both aspects of this topic's bigness in this essay as we discuss the contours of the field and our efforts to teach it. Some readers may have already decided that the topic is just too big for the classroom. After all, history teachers (ourselves included) have a notoriously difficult time getting up to the present (or sometimes even past World War II) in the standard issue U.S. history and world history surveys. Adding another layer to the ever expanding mass of content may seem completely foolhardy. Nevertheless, our experience has shown us that by differentiating "America and the World" from the standard surveys, it is possible to offer a streamlined and focused approach to this broad topic.

What Is "America and the World"?

America and the World is not just a sexy new term for diplomatic history. Foreign relations (including diplomacy and military actions) are certainly a part of this field, but they are only a portion. Overall, the field focuses on America's interaction with the world in all its guises, ranging (chronologically) from the Columbian encounter to 21st-century globalization. Without a doubt, conquest was an important aspect of the Columbian encounter, but so were trade and the exchange of disease, to name just two nondiplomatic aspects. Similarly, while there are certainly diplomatic and military dimensions to modern globalization (think Afghanistan and NAFTA), elements such as the IMF and the worldwide proliferation of McDonalds and Mickey Mouse are just as notable. Some nondiplomatic topics that have particularly interested scholars of late include the role of race in American foreign policy, the extent and role of foreign investments in America (and of American investments abroad), the spread of agricultural products and technology between America and other places, the spread and impact of epidemics, and the role of tourism by Americans and to America.

Much of this recent interest in America's interaction with the world stems from two important, evolving trends in our profession and in the world at large. The first is the movement to internationalize U.S. history, which reaches back at least to 1999 when the Journal of American History published a special issue with the theme, "transnational perspectives on United States History." Subsequently, the destruction of the World Trade Center and the War on Terror created further interest in the international context of American history among students as well as scholars and the general public. Politicized pronouncements on America's exceptionalism or the need for American humility have continued to spur interest in the problem of understanding America's place in the world.

A second, related trend is the emergence of world history, which in the last decade or so has replaced Western Civilization as the core history survey for general education requirements at colleges and universities throughout the country. Over this time, the professional apparatus for world history (including the World History Association) has gained much greater importance, and the number of scholarly monographs in the field has grown considerably. Simultaneously, interest in diasporic studies of Africans, Chinese, Irish, Jews, and others has further stimulated interest in transnational history. It is likely that these trends will continue over the next decade as newly minted PhDs trained by this large cohort of transnationally oriented historians begin to publish their dissertations and take faculty jobs. At a recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association, for example, roughly a dozen sessions were described as "global" or "transnational."

Teaching America and the World

We teach at a midsize historically black state university in a department that has roughly 70 undergraduate majors and a number of graduate programs. We were early adopters of world history, and every undergraduate in the university is required to take either two semesters of world history or two semesters of U.S. history, preferably in their first or second year. A slight majority of students takes the world history sequence. History majors and some others in the College of Liberal Arts must take both. Additionally, every undergraduate must take a semester-long course in the history of the African Diaspora.

Consequently, our students appear to have an unusually broad exposure to history beyond the boundaries of the United States. However, we have found through our required comprehensive exams as well as anecdotal evidence that despite these course requirements students do not always graduate with the ability to see the bigger picture; instead, they compartmentalize the individual courses they have taken. Our goal in teaching America and the World is to enable upper-level undergraduates to better comprehend American history and to make connections between U.S. history and the other histories they have studied, connections that they had begun to make in their world history classes. We also hoped that this course would attract internationally minded history majors as well as students from related majors such as political science. And it did!

Once we decided to offer this course, we immediately faced our biggest challenge: how to structure it. Not only were we forced to come up against the "bigness" of this field in the intellectual sense, but we also quickly recognized that finding appropriate reading materials would be quite difficult. While a number of universities and textbook authors have sought to "internationalize" the American history survey by adding global themes to the existing structures of the U.S. survey, we rejected that approach because we felt that the U.S. survey was already too heavily laden with layers added over the years of political history, social history, black history, women's history, and cultural history. We hoped to be able to focus primarily on America's relationship with the rest of the world without having to address issues that were internal to American history.

This approach created new challenges. Rather than grafting a few international incidents onto the existing structure of the U.S. survey, we were forced to consider an entirely new sort of course for which there were really no existing models. As historians, we naturally attempted to structure the course chronologically. One of us (Peskin) is an early American historian while the other (Palmer) is a historian of the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, so we knew from the start that we wanted to span the entire period from the initial Euro-American encounter to the present. It quickly became clear to us that if we hewed to this plan we would have to be very selective about what we included. In the end, we decided to focus on three periods that seemed to us to be crucial to understanding America's relation to the world: the colonial plantation era in which the future United States played an important role in the "Atlantic World," the period of overt U.S. Imperialism at the turn-of-the-20th-century, and the recent era of globalization which has sometimes been viewed as a period of Americanization.

That brought us to the second problem: finding reading material. At the time we began this class there were no suitable textbooks for the subject whatsoever. Today that is still a problem but less so than it was. However, having identified specific eras of importance to us, we realized we could then assign monographs specific to those periods. For the first period, given our students' interests in Africa and our concern with situating America within the Atlantic World, we chose to use Randy Sparks, The Two Princes of Calabar: An Atlantic Odyssey (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009) along with portions of Felipe Fernandez Armesto's The Americas: A Hemispheric History (Modern Library, 2006) which allowed students to compare and connect the northern part of the hemisphere with Latin America. As with all the books we chose, we picked these because they were vividly written, easy to read, and relatively broad in their approach. For the second portion of the class we used Frank Ninkovich, The United States and Imperialism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001) a more challenging read, but one that appealed to us because it treated the United States' relations with a number of places in Asia and the Caribbean, frequently employing a cultural lens. Finally, for the portion on globalization we used Walter LaFeber, Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism (WW Norton, 2002), a very readable book about a subject of wide interest to our students. Eventually we also included Ian Tyrell, Transnational Nation (Palgrave McMillan, 2002) a general textbook that did not entirely meet our needs but allowed us to fill in some of the gaps left by our intensive approach to the three periods described above.

We decided to team-teach the class to provide the dual perspectives of an American historian and a world historian. Each of us provided short, weekly, contextual lectures on how the classroom readings fit into the larger pattern of our respective disciplines. We conducted the rest of the course as discussion of the readings. In addition to the weekly readings and classroom participation, students also wrote short summaries of the readings, and took three essay exams (two midterms and one final). Students wrote term papers in which they constructed their own narrative connecting the relations between the United States and at least one other nation or region of their choice. In preparation for writing the paper, we asked students to provide a list of scholarly articles and books detailing connections between their nation/region and the United States. From those sources they composed a paper in which they discussed the nature of that place's relationship to the United States, how and why this relationship changed over time, and how the relationship between this country and America was similar to or different from American relations with other countries discussed in our class. Students chose a broad range of places, particularly focusing on the Caribbean and Africa, but also including a number of European, Asian, and middle-eastern countries.

In the end we found that the course offered new possibilities for students to understand contemporary issues which almost always involve the United States' interaction with some part of the world. As such it fits nicely into our departmental strategy to help our students understand the historical background of contemporary issues and is becoming an important part of our general attempt to modernize our curriculum. We hope that this course and the others we teach will help our students to understand causation, become less ethnocentric, develop some critical thinking skills, and know that what happened in the past can help them to navigate contemporary society.

The Textbook Problem

As noted in the article, finding comprehensive texts proved to be one of the challenges of teaching a course as new and different as this one, particularly at the undergraduate level where students often depend upon more traditional, authoritative texts to gain a broad understanding of basic content. We found the few early efforts to provide such a text to be either too sophisticated for undergraduates, chronologically truncated, or too flatly written to appeal to undergraduates. As a result Peskin undertook to produce his own textbook, co-writing it with Edmund F. Wehrle of Eastern Illinois University, to provide a clearly written overview that could be a stand-alone text for an introductory course or a supplement for a more sophisticated America and the World course or a means to internationalize American history surveys or Americanize world history courses. The text, America and the World: Culture, Commerce, Conflict (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2011) focuses in equal parts (as the title implies) on culture, economics, and more traditional diplomatic/military history. We used pre-publication portions of it in our course last year with much success.

Annette Palmer is associate professor of history and chair of the department of history and geography at Morgan State University. Her publications include World War II in the Caribbean: A Study of Anglo-American Partnership and Rivalry. Lawrence Peskin is associate professor of history, also at Morgan State University. His publications include America and the World: Culture, Commerce, Conflict (see sidebar) and Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816.