Publication Date

July 1, 2013

This is part of an online forum on a survey of historians’ research interests by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt. A description of the survey can be found here. More roundtables can be found here.

Upon reading Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt’s “It is a Small World After All: The Wider World in Historians’ Peripheral Vision,” I am not surprised by their conclusion—that we, as historians and departments of history in the US, Canada, and Britain focus overwhelmingly on the Western world. But it is also clear that their conclusions depend greatly on the geographical location, funding status (whether public or private), and size of the departments of history under consideration. Moreover, were we to compare US academic institutions to British universities—with their traditional emphasis on English history—the numbers would be different as well. The reality is that throughout the world every country’s national history enjoys a privileged status in its own teaching institutions (probably at a larger percentage than what Clossey and Guyatt’s survey has shown for the US). If anything, US universities and colleges are more diverse and pay far more attention to the history of other societies than is the case anywhere else in the world.

This, of course, is not to negate that a concentration on traditional areas (US and the Western world) is a serious problem. Such an approach limits the number of nontraditional hires and affects the diversity of our faculties. We love to talk about having a multiethnic faculty, but if recruitment is done mostly in European history or specific branches of American history, the chances are that the pool of applicants will have limited minority representation. In a globally connected world, the history of one specific place is often intertwined with the history of the entire world. Excessive emphasis on one region of the globe diminishes our efforts to write truly comprehensive histories.

It is not enough, however, to point out the problems. How then to address the issue? Most colleges and universities are already doing so. A perfunctory glance at the advertisements for history positions shows the growing popularity of areas often neglected or ignored in most history curricula a few decades ago: world, African, Latin American, Southeast Asian, transnational, or comparative history. The trend is towards a more versatile faculty, capable of teaching and, in some cases, carrying out research in two or three distinct fields. It is unfortunate that such developments coincide with a severe fiscal crisis in our discipline. Online courses, declining full-time equivalents, and the employment of adjuncts adversely impact the opportunities of young scholars who are more open to nontraditional historical fields. At UCLA, we are committed to hire in interconnected fields or, as we call them, “bridge appointments.” This means young scholars who can teach outside their own field and connect their research with that of colleagues in non-US or European areas.

We should ask the question: what is the reason for such emphasis on Western history? I think the main culprit is our deplorable emphasis on national histories. Our curriculum reflects the political realities of 19th-century nation-building. As a result, we often offer graduate and undergraduate courses that are narrowly centered on individual countries or that neglect the premodern world (when comparative views are possible). One or two examples will suffice. I teach courses in late medieval and early modern Spain and on the late Middle Ages at UCLA. In our catalogue, they are listed as part of the medieval and European concentrations. If, in teaching Spain in the period between 1300 and 1640, I ignore the history of France, England, Italy, the Low Countries, Africa, the Americas, the Ottoman Empire, the Renaissance, and, of course, the Reformation, then I am not serving my students or fulfilling my obligations. How can my students understand Spain in this period if all these other topics are not brought into play? The same applies to the late Middle Ages or to any national history we choose to teach.

Clearly, we must change the curriculum and create fields of research and teaching that expand our students’ horizons. We must also train our graduate students to teach in ways that aim for a global understanding of our past. Having taught world history for the first time in fall 2010, I can never teach my “European” courses in the same way. Yes, we must emphasize certain regions of the world that have been sorely neglected. There are ways in which this can be done. In the absence of new teaching positions, we should encourage the AHA and other learned societies to sponsor a number of NEH-like short-term seminars (to be held in conjunction with the annual meeting) aimed at faculty in small colleges and traditional fields. There we may begin the process of generating new courses and teaching methods for areas of the world that are now marginalized. We can follow the Phi Beta Kappa national lecturer model and have specialists in world, African, Asian, and Latin American history give mini-seminars at institutions that do not offer such courses. New technologies may also provide help. I am wary of the MOOCs. They seem to me Trojan horses that may colonize small independent and impoverished institutions. They threaten the future employment of young scholars. Nonetheless, specific and well-designed online courses may allow for the close cooperation between research universities and teaching colleges in developing pedagogical tools for the teaching of those areas in the curriculum now ignored or rarely taught. The California History Social Science Project is presently engaged in a “Sites of Encounter in the Medieval World” project that introduces seventh graders to a global and comparative view. That is how we should teach everywhere.

— is distinguished professor of history and Peter H. Reill Term Chair
in European History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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