Publication Date

October 1, 2011

In an area studies curriculum focusing on contemporary society and politics, the history survey course's function is usually to supply first year students with a basic set of historical facts essential for understanding present issues. This is undoubtedly a crucial goal of any history course. Leaving it at that, however, misses a vital and in many cases the only opportunity to nourish students' interest in and understanding of a country's or region's history for its own sake. Drawing on my experience with a survey course on Japanese history, I will discuss some teaching ideas that aim at integrated learning of historical facts and historical thinking skills for history survey courses in area studies programs. As students engage with 20th-century history in a lot of other courses as well, examples are taken from classes on earlier periods.

The First Class

It is a common phrase that the first class sets the stage for the entire course. If that is true, it means we have to convey to students right from the start that the course will not just be about learning historical "facts" but also historical thinking. In many area studies programs, students will have little previous knowledge about the area's history. To aid students in building a structure in which they can integrate the course content, the first class will therefore have to provide a general outline and periodization. Luckily, periodization also lends itself to an exercise in thinking about what historians do. I use most of the first class letting students read and discuss a short chapter on periodization from an introductory volume on historical theory. I provide some guiding questions such as "Why do historians think about periods? Which criteria do they employ? What is problematic about periodization?" Then I have them discuss their results in pairs and with the whole group. Typically the group discussion brings out the important issues and raises students' awareness that "doing" history is a complex task which involves not just finding facts but also taking a perspective and making judgments. When telling students (or showing them through different reading assignments on the same topic or period) how and why historians differ in their evaluation of particular historical events and processes in subsequent classes, I can come back to this discussion.

CSI Archaeology

The second class, which is the first historical survey class, is in a way the most challenging because prehistory and antiquity are so remote chronologically and from students' experience. I usually open the class by asking if anyone brings any interest in prehistory and archaeology, and usually there is no positive reaction. Here, too, some hands-on practice in historical—or in this case archaeological—thinking is of great value. I tell students to think of archaeologists as a kind of Crime Scene Investigators of the distant past. Then I hand out a worksheet that prompts them to take a guess at what archaeologists inferred about life in prehistoric Japan from a range of artifacts such as adogū clay figurine with deliberately severed limbs or atsubo bellied jar in comparison to earlier wide-mouthed hachi vases. The exercise helps to bring out a lot of creative thinking (even if sometimes off the mark) and students learn to appreciate the difficulty of archaeological research.

In the case of Japan there is one topic in prehistory that has figured prominently in historical and public debate since the late 19th century: the question of the origins of the inhabitants of the Japanese islands. Here, too, the CSI approach can be effective: On the worksheet students are asked to think about how disciplines such as linguistics and geology contributed to the investigation of the problem. It is also useful as a showcase for the sociocultural context of historical inquiry. Most students are surprised to find out that arguments about the common descent of Japanese and Koreans or Japanese and the Ainu of the northern Japanese islands served as a justification for Japan's imperialist expansion and colonial assimilation policies in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Basic Concepts

When there are just three or four classes for all of premodern history, comprehensive coverage—whatever one might understand by that—is out of question. Reserving precious class time for practicing historical thinking seems even less feasible under these circumstances. A solution that has worked well for me is arranged around the idea of "basic concepts"—that is, concepts that are indispensable when discussing a given historical topic or period. If possible, concepts should also be in general usage so that in discussions students can build on their own conceptions and opinions. When writing the course syllabus, I start by pairing up concepts with class topics: The Japanese middle ages with feudalism, the "opening" of Japan by American gunboat diplomacy in 1853 with globalization, the nation building processes of the early Meiji period (1868–1890) with nation/nationalism and Meiji economy with capitalism. Then I select short introductory chapters and articles that present some key elements or definitions of how the concept is used and fundamental points of discussion or dissent among historians.

In the first class, I assign the texts to volunteering students and ask each of them to prepare a short presentation. I ask the students listening to their fellow students' presentations to keep in mind such questions as: What follows from understanding the development of the Meiji state in terms of national consciousness and nationalism? Which institutional policies brought about a nation state in Japan and through which nation building programs did the Meiji government try to instill national consciousness? How did grassroots nationalism inform Meiji (foreign) politics? Where in Meiji history do we find arguments for or against the author's hypothesis that war is central to nation building. I try to be explicit about the problem of coverage so students know beforehand that course reading assignments are for general orientation and not everything they read will be covered in class. This allows me to employ the basic concepts in class to focus students' attention on a particular perspective of looking at a period and walk them through the consequences that follow from taking that perspective.

Five Cs exercise

To the surprise of some first year students who expect the survey course to be a classical lecture, I spend one complete class on a group work exercise in what Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke called the five Cs of historical thinking (Change over Time, Context, Causality, Contingency and Complexity).1 I choose a period of large-scale change for this exercise. For Japanese history, the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration of 1868 are well-suited. They mark the end of the feudal sociopolitical order and seclusion policy of the Tokugawa and the begin of the modern period that saw Japan build a capitalist nation state and adopt Western-style imperialist approach to foreign affairs in merely two or three decades.

In preparation for the class, I have students mail me three statements, questions or comments that show some engagement with the reading assignments and two or three keywords on what they believe were important factors that brought about the Meiji Restoration. I go through the mails and arrange their keywords in groups such as 'foreign politics factors', 'domestic politics factors', 'economic factors' or 'social factors'. In class, I have students group up and pick a set of factors. Every group gets a printout of the corresponding keywords and a supplementary paper they can use in addition to lecture notes and reading assignments. Groups have 20 minutes to go through their set of factors. Then all groups try in turn to convince the others why their set of factors is most important to explain the Meiji Restoration.

When all groups are done, we move to an open discussion. Once the debate dies down, I throw in some stimulating statements and questions selected from the students' mails—for example, "Why was Japan's reaction to the onslaught of the Western powers so different from China's?" In the final segment of the class, I point out to the students that they just discussed the Meiji Restoration the way historians do. If the exercise works well, they have compared the state of affairs before and after the restoration (change over time), weighed the importance of different factors (causality), asked hypothetical questions to think about the impact of events (context), reflected on actors' historical options (contingency) and realized the complicated interrelatedness of events (complexity).

Reading Notes

A final exercise I would like to present here is a one- to two-page writing assignment that might be called reading notes with a twist. The twist lies in that students are not supposed to write a summary or resume of a text but to show how they grapple with a historical period or phenomenon through the reading of a text. For this writing assignment to be effective, it is important that students clearly understand the twist. I deal out a rubric together with the text that says full marks can be obtained when “your reading note demonstrates that you reflected on your reading and thinking process because you qualify, evaluate, and/or engage with questions, difficulties or points of criticism you had, and with pieces of information that were new or interesting to you when reading the text”.

It seems best to give this task to students after they had the chance to deal with a period or historical phenomenon in some detail (that is, after two or three classes on a period) so that they have something meaningful to say. I have employed this exercise very successfully to get students to take a step from memorizing facts toward finding a well-founded point of view on history.


There will always be students who just want to get through with the mandatory history course to get to the "interesting parts" of the discipline. But in my courses there have also always been some who told me or wrote on a feedback form that they regret there is only one history course. Comments like these reaffirm my hope that exercises in historical thinking such as the ones presented here are not futile and that it is possible to get students to think about and even like history in spite of limited curricular weight.

is Research Fellow at the Institute of East Asian Studies, Free University Berlin, Germany. He is member of the DFG (German Research Council) funded research project "Actors of cultural globalization, 1860–1930" and currently writing his PhD thesis on "Chinese knowledge in Meiji Japan".


1. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does it Mean to Think Historically”, Perspectives 45:1 (January 2007), online

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