Episode 33 – The Dawn Watchers

Dave and Matt have read Maya Jassanoff’s new book on the life and times of Joseph Conrad, The Dawn Watch.  We discuss Conrad’s life, and the limits of his vision in the turbulent world of the late 19th-century.  This is a story that has remarkable parallels to our own moment in history: a world of transnational corporations, terrorism, immigration, and disruptive technological change.  Plus, why our world is more similar to the lead up to the First World War than you think!

For History teachers with students who have read Conrad’s works for a literature course or an English class, we weigh the benefits and drawbacks of using Conrad in a history classroom.

Tune in for a tales of Polish nationalism, depression, race, and empire!  Stay to find out why old Józef really, really hates those darn steamships.  



Maya Jasanoff – The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World

Chinua Achebe – “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” and Things Fall Apart

Allan B. Calhamer – Diplomacy

Greg Grandin – The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World


Episode 32 – We, Too, Are History

On today’s episode, Matt interviews one of his former students, Valeria Alvarado, an immigrant rights activist and an undergraduate History major.  Val co-founded “We, Too, Are America,” an online platform dedicated to fighting the current administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.  The two discuss the undergraduate History experience, navigating the seminar as a woman of color, dealing with tokenism in the classroom, and the importance of understanding colonialism.

Matt: Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed 

Val: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond 

We, Too, Are America: https://www.wetooareamerica.org

Episode 31 – Scientific Racism

How do you teach the evolution of race and racism in world history?  From the post-classical era to the Enlightenment and industrial era, Matt and Dave explore the historical construction of race.  How did ideas of race evolve in a world-historical context and how was this social construct then used to justify hierarchies?   Tune in to find out.

St. Maurice’s statue at the Magdeburg Cathedral


Dave – Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully

Matt – The Mismeasure of Man (Revised & Expanded) by Stephen Jay Gould


Episode 30 – Conference Hype!

In today’s episode, I talk Great Lakes History Conference as we reach the one-week-to-go mark! With me is Andrew Peterson, a visiting assistant professor at GVSU, and we talk about his panel on “Rethinking the World History Survey.” We chat about his career arc, how to orient a world history survey around the environment, exchange networks, and energy regimes, how to solve problems related to periodization, and why the X-Files monster episodes are redeemable (they are!). The full presentation is planned for October 21 at 3:15pm, and he will be joined by Craig Benjamin (GVSU), Whitney Dirks-Schuster (GVSU), Leah Gregory (SDSU), and Alex Holowicki (Maui College). For more information on other panels and presentations please visit the conference website. Recommendations are:

Andrew – Collingham, A Taste of War

Dave – Pauketat, Cahokia (and Homefront + Paradise Lost from Deep Space Nine)

Listen on Google Play Music 

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Episode 29 – Herero Heroes

In this episode Matt and I look at controversies over historical statues around the world, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. I describe my visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, how I stumbled upon a Place de la Force Publique in Kinshasa, and then go in depth (over a couple beers!) discussing how the Herero Genocide was remembered in public spaces. Monuments to the Herero dead, the Schutztruppe rider, Eugen Fischer‘s skull experiments, and Namibia’s Heroes Acre are all discussed, as is the vicious counterinsurgency war that led to the genocide. A great BBC documentary and an article by Reinhart Kössler are key sources on the subject. The extermination order and an image of Herero survivors after crossing the Kalahari can be found here and here. Recommendations are:

Matt – Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant; Frederickson, Racism: A Short History; Andrews, Afro-Latin America; Manning, The African Diaspora

Dave – Gewald, Herero Heroes (HT for the episode title!)

Listen on Google Play Music 

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Episode 28 – Remembering Virginia Boyd

Today, Matt and I talk about the ongoing controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments in the United States and the importance of public history to our discipline. Matt recently made the case for the removal of the statue in Houston named “The Spirit of the Confederacy.” We argue that we make choices in terms of how we remember the past, and that celebrating those who resisted slavery, like Virginia Boyd, is a more appropriate use of public space. Matt’s speech, the letter from Virginia Boyd to her slave master in 1853, the Washington Post call to action for medievalists, Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, an article on the German military myth that they were not involved in the Holocaust, and even links to the book written by Judge Norman G. Kittrell (who gave a speech at the unveiling of the statue) are all available online. Those who wish to contribute to the Gofundme’s for a Houston student injured in Charlottesville, those arrested in Durham, or the family of Heather Heyer can follow the links here. Our next episode will look in more depth at other examples from world history that can help contextualize the current situation in the US. Recommendations are:

Matt – Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves

Dave – Atieno-Odhiambo and Lonsdale (eds), Mau Mau and Nationhood

Listen on Google Play Music


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Episode 27 – Absolute 90s

In this episode, Matt and I sit down over some fine 90s music (and a PC Pils from Founders for the Big Pitcher!) to discuss an important article published after the end of the Cold War; Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad vs McWorld.” In it, Barber describes two futures – one marked by the violent forms of ethno-nationalism he terms jihad, and the other by the globalist consumerism of McWorld. The twist is that he argues neither of these futures is good for democracy. We debate the coherence of capitalism, war profiteering, the value of local democracy, and the merits of Terminator 2, Hackers, Jurassic Park, and Independence Day (the celebrations Matt mentions are here). Recommendations are:

Dave – Mitchell, Carbon Democracy

Matt – Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa

Listen on Google Play Music  

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Special Mini Episode – Great Lakes History Conference!

For the first time ever, this podcast is part of a conference! And in this special mini episode, my conference co-coordinator (Mike Huner) and I discuss this years Great Lakes History Conference in Grand Rapids, MI. Hosted by the Grand Valley State University History Department, this conference has been going for 40 years, and the theme this year is research in action – specifically, how historical research makes its way into the public sphere, either through teaching, the media, or political engagement. The plan is to include panels of interest to both high school and university instructors, and there will also be a number of workshops focused on pedagogy (including a day-long session on Reacting to the Past!). We are also proud to welcome our keynote speaker, Michelle Moyd from Indiana University – Bloomington. She published Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa in 2014, and more recently featured in The Guardian writing about languages of resistance.  Her lecture is entitled “Radical Potentials: World War I as Global South War,” and she will also be leading a discussion on the work of filmmaker Raoul Peck. All podcast listeners are welcome to attend, and registration is FREE! The call for papers has detailed info on how to submit a paper/panel (due July 15), and detailed conference info can be found on the podcast website.

Listen on Google Play Music 

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Great Lakes History Conference – Oct 20-21

As some of you know, this year I will be coordinating (with Mike Huner) the Great Lakes History Conference. This conference is hosted by the Grand Valley State University History Department, and this year the theme is how historical research and the public intersect. The hope is to get historians thinking about reaching new audiences both inside and outside the classroom, and we are pretty darn proud of our poster!

We hope to have 10-15 sessions running October 21 and 22, along with a keynote address on the global WWI by Dr. Michelle Moyd, an associate professor of history at Indiana University – Bloomington.  The site is GVSU’s Eberhard Center in Grand Rapids, MI, and the surrounding area is beautiful to visit during late fall (recently named to Outside Magazines best towns ever list)! For those interested in submitting an abstract, they are due July 15 and you can find the call for papers here. And for anyone interested in attending to learn more about how historical research reaches classrooms or the public, please note that this conference has no registration fees! I will be sure to pass on information about registration once it opens, and until then, contact info can be found in the call for papers or through the form at the bottom of this post. Have a great summer, and hopefully I’ll see some podcast listeners at the Great Lakes History Conference in October!


Episode 26 – Germ Warfare

Matt and I have been together in Utah for the AP World History reading, and today we managed to find some time in the evening to talk about environmental history and its place in the study of the Age of Revolutions. Key sources are Mosquito Empires and Pox Americana as we look at how differential immunity played a crucial role in the fate of the Haitian and American Revolutions respectively. We also discuss ways to give disease an important place in events without giving in to environmental determinism, a discussion that was well lubricated by whiskey from High West Distillery. A source for Kwame Nkrumah’s suggested mosquito statue in Accra can be found here. Recommendations are:

Matt – Miller, An Environmental History of Latin America

Dave – Dubois, Avengers of the New World


Listen on Google Play Music

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Episode 25b – Global Goulash

In our second interview with a professor teaching food history, Matt and Andrew discuss how to teach a World History course through food.  Come for the pedagogical insights, stay for the singing canned corn.


Andrew Behrendt’s Syllabus and pörkölt recipe:


 Listen on Google Play Music

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Episode 25a – Food and World History with Lauren Janes

In this episode, I sit down with Lauren Janes, an assistant professor at Hope College in Holland, MI. We discuss her recently published book, her new project on using food case studies to illuminate key themes in world history (potatoes = Columbian Exchange, sugar = Trans-Atlantic slave trade, curry = imperialism, maize = US food aid and Green Revolution), the use of food in world history surveys, and her upper level seminar entitled “A Modern History of Global Food.” We discuss maize and GMOs in Zambia,  Mann’s writing on potatoes, the history of curry, tete de négre (a French dessert created in the late 19th century that you can read about here), the awesomeness of Sidney Mintz, the Algerian wine industry, refrigeration (using Freidburg’s book) and how to make our classes less depressing as we reach the 19th and 20th century. Recommendations are:

Lauren – Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors

Dave – Hamilton, Trucking Country


 Listen on Google Play Music

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Episode 24 – Just Tacos

In today’s episode, Matt and I discuss two books that connect food and world history – Planet Taco by Jeffrey Pilcher and Just Food by James McWilliams. Along the way we mention John Wick, Seafalltaco kits, a hilarious new Old El Paso commercial (and check out this older gem!), Primanti sandwiches, life cycle assessments, Bt crops, and lots of restaurants (Tako in Pittsburgh and Donkey Taqueria and Taqueria San Jose in Grand Rapids). Recommendations are:

Matt – Rick Bayless, Mexico: One Plate at a Time

Dave – Pho Anh Trang in Grand Rapids


Get it on Stitcher


Episode 23 – The Food Part 1

In this episode, Matt and I start a three-part arc on food and world history. We discuss how to teach sugar (using Sidney Mintz and Eric Williams) and milk (using this article on the Leche Project), before moving on to kumis and nomadic peoples as well as the role of salt and tobacco smuggling in the French Revolution. We conclude by recommending two books on food and world history that we will be discussing in our next episode:

Matt – Pilcher, Planet Taco

Dave – McWilliams, Just Food


Get It on Stitcher

Episode 22 – The Politics of World History

This mini-episode was originally recorded in May 2016 with Tammy Shreiner and was intended to be part of a series of “short cuts” discussing world history resources online. My contribution was an article by Michael Lind about the future of American politics, and how some of the divisions he described seemed quite similar to those I have encountered in the field of world history (and history more broadly). One caveat: this is not intended as a polished piece of scholarly work, but as a reflection on some of the “big pitcher” ideas that shape us as world historians!


Dave – Bender, A Nation among Nations

Tammy – Guarneri, America in the World


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Episode 21 – Comfy Genes

In this episode, Dave and his favorite certified genetic counselor, Katey Mayberry, take a look at the genetic evidence for the settlement of the Americas. The first article, by Rasmussen et al in Nature, deals with the controversial origins of Kennewick Man/the Ancient One, a skeleton found in Washington State and dating back at least 8400 years. The second article, written by Llamas et al in Science Advances, deals more generally with the early migrations into the Americas. Over a couple Canadian beers, we talk about Y-DNA, mtDNA, haplotypes, TMRCA, single-nucleotide polymorphism, and high posterior density with varying levels of success! Follow along at home as I try to make sense of the charts on p.4 of Llamas et al!  This is a highly specialized field, but as Katey makes clear, if used carefully it can be extremely useful to world historians of all types. Recommendations are:

Katey – Genetics Home Reference

Dave – Dillehay, The Settlement of the Americas


Get It on Stitcher

Episode 20 – #FreeBillStrickland

For our 20th episode we bring in Bill Strickland from East Grand Rapids High School to discuss the upcoming changes to the AP world history exam. The acronyms come fast and furious as we go through the SAQs, DBQs, and LEQs and discuss a variety of teaching strategies. We also discuss the infamous “Western penetration” DBQ, Dungeons and Dragons, mapping the Roman Empire, and AP training videos. Recommendations are:

Dave – AHA Digital History Reviews by John Rosinbum

Bill – HistoryHaven.com by John Henderson

Matt – The Economic Role of Women in World History, 600-1914 by Linda Black


Get It on Stitcher


Episode 19 – Bloodlands: Beyond Thunderdome

In Episode 4, I mentioned I used the book Bloodlands by Timothy (not Zack) Snyder when teaching WWII in my world history survey. Our guest Andrew Behrendt was underwhelmed with that choice. Today, Andrew and I enter the Thunderdome and strap into our bungee harnesses as we debate whether this book is useful for world historians. Needless to say, there is some bad blood as he grabs a chainsaw (claiming Snyder poorly defines his geographical space!), I swing a hammer (suggesting that Snyder’s top-down approach may be a necessary corrective to the historiographical turn towards local understandings of violence!), and Matt frantically tries to blow his bosun’s whistle (Snyder’s synthesis does not contain an explicit argument!). Yeah, this one gets nerdy, so nerdy Stathis Kalyvas gets name checked. There are even two Simpson’s references in here! Recommendations are:

Andrew – Prusin, The Lands Between; Collingham, The Taste of War

Dave – Gross, Neighbors; Gross, Fear

Matt – Von Ryan’s Express (1965); Lazare, “Timothy Snyder’s Lies”


Get It on Stitcher


Episode 18 – The WHAppening

No, it’s not an M. Night Shyamalan film, it’s our recap of the World History Association Annual Meeting in Gent, Belgium. We talk Bancroft Prizes (the very nsfw Onion article is here!), podcast stats, a great paper on mapping by Alex Zukas, the Ottoman History Podcast, and why everyone should be a WHA member. After this we do a “Big Pitcher” – Matt is on point with a Belgian Piraat while I lazily grab a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. We discuss my forthcoming course on the history of globalization, and Matt gets theoretical with his suggestions for the syllabus, including Osterhammel, Chase-Dunn and Lerro, and Bayly. My personal favorite book on globalization in the ancient world is by Jennings. Recommendations are:

Matt – Cline, 1177 BC

Dave – Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity


Get It on Stitcher


I’ll be presenting at the World History Association at their annual meeting in Ghent (July 2-5). The paper will deal with the relationship between podcasting and world history, and why I think the two are uniquely well suited to one another. Message me if you are attending and maybe we can meet up for some delicious Belgian beer! I’ll try to post conference updates as well. Cheers!

Day 6: The best DBQ?

My revised version of the 2009 legacy DBQ: 2009 Revised DBQ

In my opinion, and the opinion of the chief reader, this was one of the best DBQs that the College Board has put together.  According to the scoring commentary,

“Unlike the pattern of most recent DBQs, these documents could not be simply “jigsawed” into categories of response. Many of the nine documents (most notably 3, 4, 6, and 7) had internal evidence that demonstrated multiple African responses. Given the richness and diversity of the sources, students could use individual documents in a variety of ways to represent different African responses to European imperialism.”

I kept all of the documents with this internal evidence that provides obvious opportunities to demonstrate complexity.  I ended up cutting documents 2 and 9 from the legacy DBQ.  This seemed to leave most of the common groupings intact.

The prompt has been modified from the original “actions and reactions” to the more general “responses,” and from the “European Scramble for Africa” to “European imperialism during the last nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”  The idea of the “Scramble” seems like something that students will have to provide in their own writing on the broader historical context of the DBQ.


Let me know what you think of this revision!

DBQ Day 5: Five Rings to Rule Them All

It’s Olympic time!  2008 Revised DBQ

With the summer games this year in Rio, our students should have at least some idea of the modern Olympic movement in the back of the minds.  The 2008 legacy DBQ has 10 documents and plenty of visuals, so creating a new DBQ was only a matter of trimming.  I briefly considered adding this picture of London’s Olympic mascots as a visual document…
creepy mascot

…but then decided the AP exam already gives students enough nightmares.

Thinking more broadly, the old annotated rubrics put together by Angela “The Mad WHAPchatter” Lee and Bill “Free Billy” Strickland presented in this article on World History Connected were essential to my students learning how to write the essay.   Students found the four-sided analysis organizer particularly helpful, especially on early essays.

annotated document

What might be on the four sides of an updated organizer for the new exam?

DBQ Day 4: A Song of Salt and Iron

A comparative DBQ!  The 2007 exam asking students to analyze Roman and Han attitudes toward technology is an outlier in our corpus of legacy exams.  First, the official grading guidelines never require students to compare any similarities and differences between attitudes in the two empires, effectively making this two separate mini-DBQs.  Second, the documents are not in chronological order, but are instead broken into “Han Documents” and “Roman Documents.”  Everything is so compartmentalized that, honestly, students may be better off watching Dragon Blade with Jackie Chan and John Cusack!  At least that movie has some China-Rome interactions!

dragon blade

2007 Revised DBQ

Our example DBQ in the new course guidelines tips the College Board’s hand in that these types of essays are now going to ask for a specific comparison between two places (not to mention broader global contextualization for some of the high-bar points).  I’ve modified the prompt accordingly and removed documents to get us down to six text sources.  For our visual source, I was troubled as to how to find a map, chart, graph, or object that would express “attitude” towards technology.  There are a lot of medieval or Song or Ming depictions and recreations of Roman or Han technological inventions.  However, considering that students will likely have not encounter these periods (and the baggage they bring) when we give them this exam for practice, I decided against this.  Even though I think that crazy seismograph invented in the Han is beyond cool.

In the end, I went with a modern picture of Roman road.  While this doesn’t show an explicit attitude, students are going to have to connect attitudes with imperial planning, construction and labor, and engineering that can be gleaned from the picture and their own knowledge of world history.  Or, you could just have them watch Dragon Blade.  Until tomorrow!

DBQ 3: Mattwell’s Silver Hammer

For today’s revised DBQ (the 2006 exam on the global silver trade), I wanted to think a little more about how to prepare students to analyze context, both the smaller context of each individual source and the larger historical context of the whole essay.  Back before the changes, I think this was the essay that both I and my students really learned how to teach or write DBQs, all thanks to Angela Lee and Bill Strickland’s excellent annotated rubric for this exam.

Update: Here is the revised revised 2006 DBQ, based on your feedback! 2006 Revised DBQv2

Old draft: 2006 Revised DBQ (Working Draft)

Teaching Context: Teacher Resources

What can get you ready to plunge down the silver rabbit hole?  I’ve got a few suggested reading, some long and some short, to get you started.  

Andre Gunder Frank, an economic historian who helped create the “dependency theory” of global economics and leading thinker of the world-systems school, wrote a provocative and quite good book on the early modern world economy.  In ReOrient (heh, I see what you did there Andre), Frank argues that East (and South) Asia had always been the center of gravity of the world economy.  And in fact, these regions remained the center throughout the early modern era.  The age of exploration and the first imperial age can be told as a story of backwards Europeans “hitching” a “third-class seat” onto the powerful Chinese economic locomotive.  How did they pay?  Silver.  Africa’s role gets a short shrift, but, overall, ReOrient is brilliant survey of the mechanics and dynamics of global trade up to about 1750.  ReOrient is popular enough that you can find it at most good public libraries.  Be warned, it’s 350+ pages!

Frank, Andre Gunder. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998

Frank draws upon a pair of articles (both quick and easy reads) by two economists, Denis O. Flynn and Arturo Giraldez, that argue that the first truly global economy was forged out of silver.  Their first article in the JWH tracks these flows in an accessible paper.  In fact, I (and I believe many others) would reccomend using this article with students.  This could be even more useful since the new multiple-choice section is likely to have arguments by historians.  Their follow-up piece shows the varying bimetallic ratios across the globe and identifies two main periods to the silver trade.  The first, dominated by silver from Potosi, ended with the general crisis (Dutch independence, Thirty Years War, Qing conquest of the Ming, etc) of the mid-seventeenth century.  The second, dominated by the Zacatecas mine in New Spain, ended with Latin American independence and the rise of opium exports to China.  

Flynn, Dennis O., and Arturo Giraldez. 1995a. “Born with a ‘Silver Spoon’: The Origin of World Trade.” Journal of World History 6, no. 2 (Fall): 201­22.

———. 2002., “Cycles of Silver: Global Economic Unity through the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Journal of World History 13, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 391–427.

In looking for the global significance of all this American (and Japanese!) silver, it’s often easy to forget the local and regional consequences of the silver trade.  Carlos Marichal’s chapter in From Silver to Cocaine does a great job of tracking the circulation of silver pesos within Iberian America.  

“The Spanish-American Peso” in From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Ed. by Topik S, Marichal C, Frank ZL.  Durham, N.C: Duke University Press; 2006.

Zooming in even closer, I would also recommend Jane Mangan’s chapter in Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America.  The chapter examines the flexible and contested roles of indigenous and mestizo women in the markets of Potosi.  

Jane E. Mangan“A Market of Identities: Women, Trade, and Ethnic Identities in Colonial Potosi”  in Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America ed. by Andrew B. Fisher and Matthew D. O’Hara. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

What about the Pacific?  Matt Matsuda’s Pacific World examines this period with a focus on Oceania, Southeast Asia, and Japan.  Encounters between Pacific Islanders and the Spanish, the VOC and Javanese traders, and the Dutch and Japanese, can all be traced, in part, to links forged by the silver trade.  Each chapter, I would recommend 5, 6, and 7 for this topic, is short and might even be appropriate for students.  

Matsuda, Matt K. Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures. Cambridge;New York;: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

*Bonus recommendation: 1492 by Charles Mann, has some great and engaging writing on Spanish Manilla and the effects of the Columbian exchange in China.  

Teaching Context: Student Lessons

What about for our students?  The biggest change, as I see it, to the new DBQ, is that the essay is on something that students are expected to know a good deal about.  There are already a good deal of resources on the the global silver trade.  Personally, I would recommend that students read a section from their textbook on global trade (chapter 14 from Strayer’s Ways of the World is quite good) and perhaps an additional secondary source, such as a short chapter from Pomeranz (may he live long and prosper) and Topik’s popular The World that Trade Created.

Students should also get some practice (since this is definitely going to be taught first semester) analyzing these documents in the context of what they just learned.  Part 15 of Bridging World History just can’t be beat here.  They’ve got a short video on the silver trade and its consequences, along with some activities analyzing some great primary sources.

Bridging World History, Unit 15 “Global Commodities:” http://www.learner.org/courses/worldhistory/unit_main_15.html

Document Activity: http://www.learner.org/courses/worldhistory/support/activities_15.pdf

*East Asia for Educators also has some short readings on the silver trade: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/chinawh/web/s5/s5_4.html

Checklist: What terms/concepts should students know before they write this DBQ?

  • Ming Single Whip System
  • Ming-Qing Transition
  • The Magellanic Exchange
  • Manilla
  • Tokugawa Japan
  • Spanish Colonial Labor and Race Structures
  • Mid-Seventeenth Century European (or Global) Crisis
  • Mughal India and European trade in the Indian Ocean
  • “Arbitrage” Trade

Adding Visual Documents to the DBQ


1616-de-bry-potosiI like this woodcut of the miners in Potosi, but the information given is too much in-line with the Spanish source on the same.  I do love how similar this sixteenth century visual is to La Capilla del Hombre in Quito, Ecuador.  

ming_moneyMaybe some Ming paper money.  But the only person I know who would translate this for me was not returning my texts. Damn!

1888_México_8_Reals_Trade_Coin_SilverWikipedia delivers!  Unfortunately, these are from the nineteenth century.

jacques-le-moyne-pack-train-of-llamas-laden-with-silver-from-potosi-mines-of-peru-by-theodore-de-bry-1528-98_a-g-1342321-8880731I love llamas.  This woodcut (a De Bry, I think) is based off of a drawing (now lost) by a Frenchmen.  I love that we have an American domesticated pack animal, Andeans, and Spaniards all in one shot!  


I settled on an embroidered wedding coverlet I found on the Met’s website.  Many of the above readings discuss the availability of Chinese silks and Porcelains in Spanish America.  The coverlet shows the meeting of European fashion, household handicrafts, mexican cloth, Chinese silk, and traditional Aztec and Central American dyes!  Boom!  I think this document shows both an economic and social consequence (rich/middle class folks in European dress with access to Chinese goods, evolving art and tastes, and the role these goods (paid for with Zacatecas silver) played in the household).

Finally, the new DBQs seems to have a lot of charts and tables.  I put together a chart from Garner and Tepaske’s data on Latin American silver production.  I think it clearly shows the two “phases” of American production.  Students might guess as to what the cause/consequences of the drop in the mid-seventeenth century or as to the shift to Mexican sources had for the both the Spanish, Americans, and East Asians.  

Poll: Who will make the cut?

You may have already noticed I have 8 documents, not the required 7, in the file posted.  The original essay had 8, with ZERO visual documents.  I felt like original documents 1 and 5 were the weakest and most repetitive.  But if we want visual sources, we need to get rid of one more!  So here is a quick poll?  Which of the remaining documents should get the ax?  And why? Thanks again for your help and feedback! I’ll post a trimmed-down version after the poll and feedback comes in.  

Link to the poll (AP WH teachers only!)

Update: Thanks for the feedback!  I removed both the de Mercado document from the original, and replaced the colcha (which would be great document analysis practice) and added the de Bry engraving of the llama pack-train!

*One more thing!  If you think the final document should be in a different format, such as, a single graph with two lines or a chart by decade and by viceroyalty, this is something I can make!

DSC00062Having to spend a summer at the Sevilla archive ain’t all bad!


DBQ Day 2: The DBQuickening

The 2005 Legacy DBQ: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/_ap05_frq_world_histo_45487.pdf

My revised 2005 DBQ: 2005 Revised DBQ v2


This essay is a doozy.  The Legacy DBQ from 2005 is 6 documents, all from the political-leadership class, all men, and all folks from the Southwest and South Asia.  My goals in modifying the documents are: (1) add a visual source (chart/art/map) to bring it up to the new guidelines, (2) add documents that have obvious ways to do “sourcing” using the AP course outline, and (3) expand the temporal and thematic scope so that students can conduct the synthesis portion of the new rubric.  

I settled on a propaganda poster from Nasser’s early days as a visual source.  Not only does this add a document from right after independence/the end of British occupation (a context that the students should know), it also adds a type of source that students have some practice with.  I was tempted to go with a photo but decided against it since we have some photos in other legacies I’ve revised so far and we have an example that posters will be used from our second example DBQ.  

nasser poster Time to turn the page!

I have a hunch that one new trend will be more documents from “famous” people and organizations.  By this I mean, the new DBQs seem more likely to include sources from or to well-known historical figures or organizations.  Unlike the legacy DBQs, I’m guessing in the future students will be more likely to recognize something from the “source” line in the documents from a key concept or an illustrative example from the AP framework.  In the Russia/Japan example, we have a letter to Tsar Nicholas 2.  In the Gender/Communism example, we have a speech by Fidel.  Maybe I’m overthinking this, but a quick glance at my wall covered in yarn, old DBQs, and every third letter of the past 15 years of reports from the chief reader suggests there is conspiracy, err…connection.  And so, I put in two famous-ish folks: the O.G.W. (the Original Gray Wolf) Ataturk and a poster from Nasser’s government.  Students should recognize one of the two.

p23-Ataturk The O.G.W. “The Original Gray Wolf”

The original six documents have the following temporal spread: 1900, 1907, 1912, 1938, 1935, 1985.  And geographically: India, Egypt, India, Egypt, Algeria, Algeria.  The new DBQs are supposed to tie into lots of Key Concepts (the example lists 9!).  I don’t think this legacy quite makes the cut.  I saw three possible ways to expand the thematic scope.  First, go old, back to period V’s colonialism, resistance, and early nationalism.  Second, go new, and add more post-independence documents.  Third, go global, and add documents from SE Asia, and SS Africa (and then decide to stick with countries with a large muslim population or not).  After much consideration, I went with the easiest option.  It is almost always faster to find some documents from the very recent past.  Perhaps, the third (the global) option is more in line with the gender/communism example, but I think that would require almost rewriting the DBQ from the ground up (saving only 1-3 documents from the legacy).  

The Docs

A couple documents didn’t make the cut.  

Document 2, is out, replaced by a similar promotion of Nationalism by Ataturk.  I made this change (1) allow students to make the connection to both the First WW and to the Ottoman empire.  This allows for the inclusion of like 5 more KC in this essay.  Ataturk’s modernization programs or the Ottoman’s role in WWI are two great outside contexts to bring in.  The risk of some deadly, deadly MISREADS (Turks are Arabs, Turkey is part of the Pan-Arabism, Turkey was directly controlled by European empires) is worth the opportunities for sourcing/context afforded here. We also have a slightly later document (post-WWI) and this might encourage students to write about the pre-WWI context of Doc1’s India, especially if they learned about the role of WWI in galvanizing the Indian Independence movement.

Document 3, another pre-WWI, seemed the least useful.  It can fit with a moderate “grouping,” but we aren’t really doing those anymore and we already have several other documents that express compromise or moderation in some form.  The downside is, now we only have one Indian document.  I add a much more recent document (1988) from Hamas, issued during the first intifada.  

The bonus new document is the previously mentioned poster.  Special thanks to my friend Zaid Al-Momen for the translation.  I am a little worried about having the source presented this way with the English at the bottom.  Is this something the CB does?  

zaid Our local cat loves Zaid.

Alright, time to take a step back and survey our times and spaces.  We have: 1900, 1927, 1935, 1938, 1950s, 1985, 1988.  I switched the position of the ‘35 and ‘38 documents that the legacy DBQ inexplicable had out of chronological order.  Spatially, we have: India, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Egypt, Algeria, Palestine.  We’ve lost our clear 2/2/2 spread, but, again, since we don’t have grouping as a point, I think this is okay.  

The KCs

What KC does this essay hit upon?  Can we get up to NINE?!
6.2.I, 6.2.II, 6.2.III, 6.2.IV (maybe?), 6.2.V, 6.3.I, 6.3.I, 6.3.III

6.3.II is an  iffy one.  I considered adding a document on OPEC, on the Egypt-Syria unification, the Arab League, or on the Anti-Aligned movement.  However, given that most of the documents get down to several of the sub-points of the KCs and given that period 5 has four major topics and so the example DBQ can get to 9 of those KC more easily.  I am concerned that this doesn’t touch upon KC 6.1 at all, but so it goes.

Okay, let’s say you taught every single illustrative example given in the AP curriculum.  Students would have the following to draw upon:

Period 5

  • Tanzimat movement
  • Muhammad Ali’s econ. projects
  • British strenghen control over India
  • French settlers in Algeria
  • Independence from the Ottomans in the Balkans
  • Indian Revolt of 1857
  • The Lebanese merchant diaspora

Period 6

  • Negotiated Independence of India
  • India/Pakistan Partition
  • Violent Independence in Algeria
  • Jinnah in India
  • Pan-Arabism
  • Migration of Algerians to France
  • Armenians in Turkey, Genocide during/after WWI
  • Al-Qaeda
  • Nasser’s econ policies
  • Right of women to vote in Morocco (1963)
  • Islamic renewal movements in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

What about synthesis?  This is a mondo opportunity (see all the examples above) to make comparisons to back to period 5.  There is also plenty of work to do in the 20th century beyond the ME & SA to the rest of the former colonial world.  Student might also make note of a comparison to the Global War on Terror, to the Arab Spring/Election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or to the resurgence of Turkish nationalism/Turkey-EU negotiations.  Can we cross the disciplines?  Connections to government/political science are obvious.  And it’s more difficult, but a connection to economics (Doc 4) is possible.  By theme? This is a hard Theme 3 SB essay, but students should see the strongest connections are to Theme 2 CUL and Theme 5 SOC.


First, let’s dump the historical context section from the legacy DBQ.  Students are now responsible for this.  

My first thought was something like this:
Question 1a: Using the documents and your knowledge of world history, analyze at least two relationships among nationalism, religion, and state-building in Middle East and South Asia during the twentieth-century.

But as David Dues and some other great teachers pointed out, the new DBQs can have both COMP and CCOT style prompts.

Question 1b: Using the documents and your knowledge of world history, analyze the changing strategies of resistance and governance in the Middle East and South Asia during the twentieth-century.

Question 1c: Using the documents and your knowledge of world history, analyze the changing conceptions of nationalism and religion in the Middle East and South Asia during the twentieth-century.

1c is adaptation of last year’s Euro prompt, but I think that overall 1b fits best with the state-building theme.  


Matt revisits his trauma at Archivo General de Indias and various other moldy libraries in order to brave the 2006 Silver Trade DBQ.

P1020243 I swear I didn’t rip this.  

Episode 17 – The New DB-Cool

After a week in Salt Lake City grading the AP World History exams, Matt and I take a quick look at the changes coming to the document-based question (DBQ). Based on the powerpoint released at the PD event there, we discuss the most significant departures from the old DBQ, which include eliminating points for grouping, point-of-view, and expanded core. As the title suggests, we are big fans of the new DBQ! It reduces the number of documents, requires outside knowledge from the AP curriculum, and asks students to contextualize their arguments in a more meaningful way. We also manage to include references to hockey riots (police were on top of this!), running outside Salt Lake City (Dave recommends this trail), and an article by @smoothkobra (found here). Recommendations are:

Matt – Revised DBQs (2004 Revised DBQ 2003 Revised DBQ as pdfs, 2004 Revised DBQ 2003 Revised DBQ as word documents)

Dave – Frankopan, The Silk Roads


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Episode 16 – An Interview with Niklas Frykman

In this episode, Matt and I chat with Niklas Frykman about the Age of Revolutions! We start by discussing life on an 18th century ship (including a mention of the Diligent by Robert Harms), impressment, cosmopolitan sailors, and why Master and Commander might not qualify as a documentary. We then shift our focus to the Age of Revolutions as a unit in world history, and why it should begin with slave revolts in the Caribbean (like Tacky’s Revolt in Jamaica in 1760) and Pontiac’s War in the American colonies rather than the Enlightenment. Finally, Niklas’ research, including the mutiny on the Hermione and the 1797 Spithead mutinies, takes center stage as we debate what motivates mutineers (for a different perspective, see the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast on the Batavia), and whether life at sea creates a novel sense of community among sailors. Recommendations are:

Dave – McNeill, Mosquito Empires

Niklas – Serna, “Every Revolution is a War for Independence” from The French Revolution in Global Perspective  and Zappia, “Revolutions in the Grass” from Environmental History.

Matt – Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion


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Episode 15 – The Vikings

In this episode Matt and I discuss the Vikings with Jack Bouchard, a returning guest and graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. As we drink three delicious beers, we discuss the question I asked the students in my survey class – were the Vikings unusually violent? We look at how their image changes dramatically after WWII, with less focus on their military talent and more on their meticulous grooming. We also discuss their impact on the English language, their presence in pop culture (Valhalla Rising and The Thirteenth Warrior and Vikings), our favorite Vikings (including GVSU’s Charles Johnson!), the sport of knattleikr, the Reykjavik Police Department Instagram account, and ways to teach Ibn Fadlan. Key sources addressing the Vikings’ violence relative to their contemporaries are Winroth, The Age of the Vikings and Bisson, Tormented Voices. Recommendations are:

Matt – Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony

Dave – Somerville and McDonald, The Vikings and Their Age

Jack – Fitzhugh and Ward, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga and Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome


Get It on Stitcher

Google Play Coming Soon!

Episode 14 – An Interview with Molly Warsh

In this episode, Matt and I talk to Molly Warsh, an assistant professor in the history department at Pitt and associate director at the World History Center there. We talk about her research on the pearl industry, the future of world history research, pirates (including my personal favorite) and her global piracy class (the syllabus is here), the differences between introductory and upper-level world history courses, and the gendered dynamics of class discussions. Recommendations are:

Dave – Robins, Mercury, Mining, and Empire

Matt – Mintz, Sweetness and Power (NOT Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves)

Molly – James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

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Episode 13 – “Texting in Class” Review of Strayer

In this episode, Matt and I debut a new segment in this podcast called “Texting in Class.” During this segment we review a popular world history textbook and provide some insights into its strengths and weaknesses. We start with one of Matt’s favorites, Robert Strayer’s Ways of the World. After a brief discussion of the format and its suitability to the new AP world history curriculum, we give glowing praise to its use of visual sources (some dealing with representations of Buddha can be found here) as well as its chapters on nomadic peoples and European imperialism. In the second half of the episode we debate the merits and challenges with narrative-heavy textbooks, before examining his analysis of the origins of the global economy and the Bantu migrations. Recommendations are:

Matt – Hamalainen, The Comanche Empire

Dave – Vansina, Paths in the Rainforest


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Episode 12 – A Review of Civilization: The West and the Rest

In this episode, Matt and I discuss Niall Ferguson’s controversial bestseller Civilization: The West and the Rest with his grad school colleague Jack Bouchard. It is safe to say that none of us are huge fans of the “six killer apps” that Ferguson believes account for the supremacy of the “West,” particularly due to his heavy reliance on 19th century scholarship like this. Citing more recent work like R. Bin Wong’s China Transformed and Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, we suggest ways to challenge Ferguson’s popular narrative and teach a more complex explanation for the “rise of the West.” Recommendations are:

Matt – Rosenthal and Bin Wong, Before and Beyond Divergence

Jack – Pomeranz, The Great Divergence

Dave – Fallows, China Airborne

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Episode 11 – An Interview with Tamara Shreiner

In this episode I interview Tammy Shreiner, an assistant professor of social studies education at Grand Valley State University. She describes her work on the “World History For Us All” project, a collaborative endeavor between K-12 teachers and university professors – the unit on the history of living rooms can be found here. We also discuss her doctoral research on how high school students think about history, the impact of state standards on secondary-level world history, and the importance of data literacy for historians. For those interested my ugly Christmas sweatshirt looked exactly like this. Book recommendations are:

Dave – Jerven, Poor Numbers

Tammy – Maier and Imazeki, The Data Game

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Episode 10 – The Transition from High School to University

In this episode Matt and I discuss how teachers can prepare students for the transition from high school to university. We are joined by three of our close friends from the AP World History reading to help us with this subject; Eric Jones (associate professor of Southeast Asian studies at Northern Illinois University), Jennifer Sweatman (assistant professor of history at Washington and Jefferson College), and Jennifer Beck (AP World History teacher at Loyalsock Township High School). Together we discuss the AP reading, university-level expectations, possible reading and writing assignments, and our most inspiring history teachers. We also choose one book or album if stranded on a desert island, with Dave and Jenn S opting for classic literature, Jenn B fending off the hunger pains, and Matt and Eric bringing rather divergent musical options. Recommendations are:

Eric – Toer, This Earth of Mankind

Jenn S – Feraoun, Journal: 1955-62

Dave – Lee, The Ugly Renaissance

Matt – Ferrar, Freedom’s Mirror

Jenn B – Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

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Episode 9 – An Interview with Eric Jones

In this episode, Matt and I discuss the place of Southeast Asia in world history with Eric Jones, an associate professor of history as well as assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. During our interview, he talks about how he fell in love with the region and key aspects of its history, including the role of women like Sitie in pre-colonial trading organizations, the birth of the Dutch East India Company, colonial forms of exploitation in Java, the spread of Islam into the region, and the local significance of WWII and the Vietnam War. His recently published book Wives, Slaves, and Concubines: A History of the Female Underclass in Dutch Asia is available on Amazon and speaks to several of the examples listed above. He also mentions other teaching resources including Bradley’s Imagining Vietnam and America. Finally, special thanks go out to him for creating the music you hear on this podcast and the special live version of the theme used at the beginning of this podcast – his band is called Buffalo Jump and if you live in the Chicagoland area, you should totally check them out! Book recommendations are as follows:

Dave – Keys, Catastrophe

Matt – Wang, White Lotus Rebels

Eric – Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed


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Episode 8b – An Interview with Craig Benjamin

This episode is the second part (first part is here) of an interview with leading “big-historian” Craig Benjamin. Over a couple of Fosters we discuss big-history critics, first-year courses, world history textbooks (including his own), the AP reading, and the World History Association (WHA). My book recommendation is an edited volume on teaching big history at the Dominican University of California:

Dave – Teaching Big History

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Episode 8a – An Interview with Craig Benjamin

In this episode I speak with Craig Benjamin on his career as a world historian. He describes his graduate work at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and his fateful meeting with David Christian that led him to become an important proponent of big history. We then discuss how university students respond to the big history “creation-myth” and how to manage the classroom while debating controversial subjects. Episode 8b will be posted shortly, and it includes the second half of this interview. I forgot to ask Craig for a book recommendation during the interview, but I will make amends below;

Dave – Christian, Brown, and Benjamin, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything


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Episode 7 – A Presentation on African Topics in World History

Due to a busy holiday travel schedule, Matt and I were unable to record a new podcast for early December. Instead, we are offering bonus content! In October I presented at the Great Lakes History Conference in Allendale, MI on five African topics for world history instructors. These topics were designed to link with the Michigan social studies curriculum which divides world history into several main time periods. Elementary social studies instructors deal with the pre-1500 period, and I suggest the Indian Ocean coast as an ideal topic. At the high school level, I use the trans-Atlantic slave trade to explore the First Global Age, the life of Sara Baartman to examine the dark side of Global Revolutions (1700-1914), and the Cold War in the Congo as well as soccer in Africa to explore 20th Century and Contemporary Global Issues. This presentation is also available in its entirety on Youtube courtesy of the Michigan Council for History Education, where you can watch the other presenters on my panel (Dr. Michael Huner and Dr. David Zwart, both from Grand Valley State University) as well as the questions from the audience. While there is no specific recommendation section to this episode, each of the following books explores one of my topics in depth – Mugane, The Story of SwahiliWalvin, The Zong; Crais and Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus; Nzongola-Ntalaja, Patrice Lumumba; Alegi, African Soccerscapes

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Episode 6 – Assessment

In this episode, Matt and I discuss how we evaluate our performance in the classroom over a round of Shiner Bock beer. We reminisce about our favorite lectures during our undergrad days, me at a small liberal arts college in central Ontario with sports teams called the Excalibur, and Matt at a small liberal arts college in Houston with an endowment roughly equal to the GDP of Bhutan or Bermuda. We then debate how we can make lectures interesting, use student feedback, and assess our own performance as an instructor. Recommended books are:

Dave – Simon, Behmand, and Burke, Teaching Big History

Matt – Tovani, Do I Really Have To Teach Reading?

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Teaching the Swahili Coast

Map of Swahili Coast

Getting Started

From about 1000-1500 CE, the Swahili coast was one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. Located along the Indian Ocean between Somalia and northern Mozambique, the region was home to dozens of small city-states which vied for control over lucrative trade routes between the African interior and the Middle East, India, and China. Ibn Battuta, a famous global traveler, visited Kilwa in 1331 and wrote that it was “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.”1 For world history instructors, the Swahili coast is a fascinating early example of global connections.

Textbook publisher have done an excellent job of describing these connections. Patterns of World History uses a detailed map to illustrate the trading links, but in the text focuses on the spread of dissident forms of Islam to the Swahili coast. This helps integrate this part of the world into the textbook’s overall framework of “religious civilizations.” Traditions and Encounters places greater emphasis on economics. An excerpt from Ibn Battuta describes how hospitality lubricated the wheels of commerce, and an image of a 15th century piece of Chinese porcelain found in Dar es Salaam provides a concrete example of the extent of the Indian Ocean trade. Panorama touches briefly on the significance of the Swahili language and its incorporation of Persian and Arabic loanwords, while Worlds Together Worlds Apart is the only textbook to mention Madagascar. The northern part of the island likely experienced the arrival of migrants from both the East African coast and the islands of Indonesia during the first millennium CE, and is described as one of the most multicultural places on earth at that time. It has far less to say about the rest of the Swahili coast, however.


A dhow along the East African coast. Source: Wikipedia

My Original Lesson Plan

Thanks to my specialist background, I had access to a different source than a generic world history textbook. In this case, a generic African history textbook! Africa in World History is written by two specialists on Islam, and Erik Gilbert is a historian who has extensively studied seaborne trade along the East African coast. Their chapter on “East Africa and the Advent of Islam”2 thus became the basis for my first class on the subject. Gilbert’s background led him to emphasize environmental factors in the origins of the Swahili. He feels the coastal city-states would not have emerged without the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. These winds blow out of the northeast from November to April, and then transition to the southwest from May to October. This makes rapid downwind sailing possible from the Middle East and India to the Swahili coast in as little three weeks, but makes a return voyage impossible until the winds have shifted. This led many merchants to take rooms in Swahili towns while waiting for the winds to shift, and some even married into local families. Cultural exchange was greatly intensified by the monsoon winds.

My class then learned about the arrival of Islam, which we can date to 780 CE thanks to Horton’s excavation of a small mosque in Shanga. I described the importance of export commodities like ivory, gold and slaves, and following Gilbert and Reynolds included a brief description of how chattel slavery in the Middle East came to an abrupt end after the Zanj Rebellion in the 9th century. This would have reduced trade along the coast to an extent, but the discovery of gold in Great Zimbabwe created a significant boom after 1000 CE. I explored the depth of these global connections through a segment entitled “The Shanga Lion” on p.125 of Africa in World History. The students reading this excerpt learned about a small statue found in Shanga. It was made of copper from China, depicts an African lion, uses Indian artistic styles, and likely functioned as a weight for measuring currency. This segment does an excellent job conveying just how cosmopolitan the Swahili coast was, but sadly no image accompanies the excerpt. The class then finished with a description of Kilwa, focusing on the spectacular architecture of the Husuni Kubwa palace as well as the Great Mosque. From the beginning I enjoyed teaching this class, and I think students got a great deal out of it. Few knew that any place on earth, let alone sub-Saharan Africa, was so “global” during this early time period.

Zanzibar Stone Town today

Zanzibar Stone Town. Source: Wikipedia


The Specialist Literature

Much of the specialist literature on the region debates how much Swahili culture is borrowed from the wider Islamic world and how much is indigenous. This debate was extremely heated in the mid-20th century, when nationalist scholars challenged older imperial narratives that described the Swahili as Arab colonists. This was important at the time, but it led to an opposite overreaction which tended to minimize any borrowed cultural elements. Scholars and textbooks are now in general agreement that the Swahili borrowed extensively from Africans, Indians, and Arabs alike.3

The more vibrant debate today surrounds the significance of Islam. World history textbooks often seek to explain the rapid expansion of the Islamic world, but it is very interesting that the faith rarely spread more than a few miles from the Swahili coast before 1500. While Islam is a global religion, it did not necessarily sweep away the faiths of people living inland. Dave Bresnahan’s research on Swahili linguistics suggests an alternative past – kusoma, for example, means “to read” today, but its original Bantu root likely meant “to stutter.” Muslims were not held in awe, even though they brought powerful new technologies like writing with them.4

This topic became a challenge when I started trying to teach more historical skills. Classes about trade can become a list of items changing hands, and that is rarely interesting. Fortunately, there is another debate on the Swahili coast that may be more intriguing to students. This involves the ongoing efforts to integrate archaeological, linguistic, and even genetic data into the historical record.5  In a region where historians have only a fragmentary written record, how do we know what we know?

I find this a fascinating entry point to studying the Swahili coast. What can linguistics tell us about the origins of the Swahili? How do we know that Islam arrived in Shanga in 780 CE? How can we piece together the relationships between the urban centers and hinterlands? How do we reconstruct daily life in the towns during this time period? All of these are questions that help students learn how history is made, and give them a better understanding of how historians use evidence. The following exercises are meant to foster this approach while teaching the Swahili coast.

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Exercise on the Swahili Language – Assign the chapter “A Grand Smorgasbord of Borrowings and Adaptations” from Mugane, The Story of Swahili. Have the students read this chapter while keeping an eye out for several key words; these could include mabati and mayai (from original Bantu languages), maziwa and ngonzi (borrowed from Cushitic speakers), rangi and kufuli (borrowed from Hindi), duka and dirisha (borrowed from Persian), chai and kanisa (borrowed from multiple languages), madaftari and dawa (borrowed from Arabic), and bendera and gereza (borrowed from Portuguese). In class, have the students discuss what historians can take from these examples of linguistic borrowing. What do they tell us about the history of the Swahili? What might be some challenges historians face in using this kind of evidence? Be sure to emphasize how languages often borrow new words for things or ideas that they do not have themselves.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence, Historical Significance

Global Themes = Cultural Contact

Image of the Shanga Lion Retouched

Exercise on the Shanga Lion – Divide the class into groups of two. Give one person a drawing of the Shanga lion (pictured above) and give the other Gilbert and Reynolds’ analysis of it. Have the student with the image of the Shanga lion act as an archaeologist discovering the item for the first time. Ask them to come up with a list of questions about the lion, which they can then ask their partner. After getting a response, have the first student come up with a meaning for the Shanga lion. The students should be given a chance to compare their ideas with those of the experts, with a focus placed on how experts come up educated guesses but how these are far from certainties.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence

Global Themes = Making History, Cultural Contact

Exercise on the city of Kilwa – Divide the class into groups of 4 or 5 and give each group access to the key written sources on the Swahili coast. These could include Ibn Battuta’s account, an excerpt from Gilbert and Reynolds6 that summarizes the Arabic history of Kilwa, and one of the Portuguese sources from the 1500s.7 Ask the students to analyze these documents as a group and create a picture of life in the city of Kilwa. Once the students are done ask them what they know a lot about from the written sources. Make sure you point out how little these sources tell us about the day to day life of people living in the city. Then give each group a copy of MacGregor’s “Kilwa Pot Sherds” and an excerpt from Fleisher and Wynne-Jones’ article on “Finding Meaning in Swahili Spatial Practices.” This article includes a full report on a recent excavation at Songo Mnara, a small town located adjacent to Kilwa. Have each group finish their report using these new sources. Conclude by asking the class how archaeologists improve our understanding of the past.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence

Global Themes = Making History

Kilwa Pot Sherds

Kilwa Pot Sherds. Source: British Museum


  1. Erik Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds, Africa in World History, 2ed (New York: Pearson, 2008), 132
  2. Gilbert and Reynolds, Africa in World History, 117-135
  3. Nicely addressed by Mapunda in MacGregor, “Kilwa Pot Sherds,” from A History of the World in 100 Objects, (New York: Viking, 2010), 389
  4. Dave Bresnahan, “To Read, To Write, To Ridicule: Knowledge and expression in early Swahili history, c.1000-1500 CE,” presented at Early Maritime Cultures on the East African Coast, Madison WI, October 23-24, 2015
  5. Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices,” African Archaeological Review (2012) 29: 171-207
  6. Gilbert and Reynolds, Africa in World History, 130-131
  7. A good option is Duarte Barbosa’s account, taken from McKay et al, Understanding World Societies, 1ed, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2012), 504-505

Episode 5 – Easter Island

This episode expands on our Easter Island subject guide, and critiques how most textbooks deal with its history. This remote locale is famous for its mysterious moai, the massive stone heads which have become iconic for the hubris of its inhabitants. Flenley and Bahn, along with Jared Diamond, suggest the island was deforested in order to build these statues, leading to starvation and cannibalism. However, Hunt and Lipo argue that the island was deforested by a far less intimidating creature, and present a much more hopeful narrative from Easter Island’s past. Recommended books are:

Dave – Kirch, On the Road of the Winds

Matt – Matsuda, Pacific Worlds

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More Conferencing!

For those of you in the Madison area, I will be attending two conferences there this weekend. The first is the Costume Society of America Midwest Symposium, where I will be assisting my wife as she presents on the All-American Girl’s Baseball League! And the second is “Early Maritime Cultures on the East African Coast,” hosted by the famous African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Stop by and say hi if you’re around!

Episode 4 – An Interview with Andrew Behrendt

In this episode Matt and I do our first-ever interview with Andrew Behrendt, a University of Pittsburgh grad student and soon-to-be-minted PhD in Eastern European history. We discuss the transition from area studies to world history, the Fordham University History Sourcebooks including the response of Pope Nicholas I to the Bulgar Khan, possible world history topics drawn from Eastern Europe, the refugee crisis in Hungary (including a summary video and the Hungarian Spectrum blog) and how the edge of the steppes is a little like New Jersey. Our recommendations include two (well, maybe just one!) classics of Eastern European cinema.

Andrew – Wajda, Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Dave – Appelbaum, Iron Curtain

Matt – Annaud, Enemy at the Gates (2001) – link goes to scene discussed in podcast

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Presenting at the Great Lakes History Conference

For those of you in the Grand Rapids area, I (Dave) will be part of a panel discussing world history at the Great Lakes History Conference – the subject is Africa and Latin America in Michigan’s world history curriculum. We will be out at the Kirkhof Center on GVSU’s Allendale Campus. Our panel is at 10:15 am on Saturday but lots of other events going on Friday as well; a full schedule is here. Feel free to stop by and say hi!

Teaching Easter Island

Map of Easter Island Source: Google Maps

  • Author’s note: This is the second of a series of subject guides aimed at world history instructors. We have recorded a podcast on the subject which will be available in a few weeks.

Getting Started

Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) is located 2,250 miles from Chile and over 1,300 miles from the nearest Polynesian settlement. A mere 14 miles across at its widest point, Easter Island is a speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean. And yet, when Europeans first arrived on its shores they encountered a complex society which had not only survived but flourished, as evidenced by the massive monolithic heads (moai) dotting its shores. How had island been settled? How had they managed to build the moai without modern tools?

The moai of Easter Island Source: Wikipedia

The moai of Easter Island
Source: Wikipedia

World history textbooks approach Easter Island in a variety of different ways. Patterns of World History includes a full page on Thor Heyerdahl, a famous Norwegian archaeologist who sought to prove that Easter Island was settled from Peru.1 In 1947 he sailed across the Pacific from South America to Polynesia in a balsa-wood raft called Kon-Tiki, demonstrating that such voyages were possible. Voyages in World History focuses on the navigational techniques of the Polynesians, and suggests they were able to reach South America. They also mention the moai, but note that construction ceased around 1600 CE, when an environmental crisis triggered by deforestation led to widespread conflict. Traditions and Encounters provides a more detailed account of this collapse, suggesting that rapid population growth from 1100-1500 led to the exhaustion of the island’s resources. The results were social divisions, violence, and eventually cannibalism. This narrative has become part of the big history curriculum, which includes Easter Island under the subtitle “overconsumption.” While the textbooks are careful to acknowledge the skill of Polynesian navigators, Easter Island is generally treated as a cautionary tale of environmental collapse.

My Original Lesson Plan

Reed Chart from Marshall Islands Source: Library of Congress

Reed Chart from Marshall Islands
Source: Library of Congress

I taught Easter Island in my earliest HST 101 course. While prepping for the course I became fascinated by the navigational skills of the Polynesians. Their double outrigger canoes could travel 100-150 miles each day, carry 18,000 pounds of cargo, and relied on the stars for navigation. I briefly mentioned Easter Island as the furthest eastern extent of Polynesian exploration. Several years later, I added a “Reed Chart from the Marshall Islands” from the Patterns of World History source book to show students how aware Polynesian navigators were of things like prevailing winds and ocean currents. I made a point of calling the Polynesians “bad-ass” for their exploratory voyages into the unknown, but I left it at that and moved on to more pressing topics like the Babylonians and Mycenaeans which I covered in the same lecture.

The Specialist Literature

I began to delve into the specialist literature on the Polynesians while putting together a summer reading list. After pulling a number of African history books from the chapter bibliographies of an early edition of Worlds Together Worlds Apart, I decided to include a few other monographs. One of these was Patrick Kirch’s On the Road of the Winds. This fascinating overview of the archaeological and linguistic evidence on the early Polynesians piqued my interest in the subject, especially a map of the “arcs of exploration.” The map made it into my powerpoint, and it led me to include the “Against the Grain” text on Heyerdahl in my newest version of HST 101. Easter Island thus became the focal point for an entire 50 minute class.

Map of Polynesian Exploration Source: Kirch, On the Road of the Winds

Map of Polynesian Exploration
Source: Kirch, On the Road of the Winds

Although Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage receives most of the attention, he energetically sought to prove that Easter Island had been home to South Americans who brought plants and artistic traditions with them. He even argued that Polynesians may have been captured and brought to Easter Island to work for these South American lords (now called Hanau Eepe or “long ears”). According to Heyerdahl, the Polynesian “short-ears” (Hanau Momoko) rebelled and massacred their overlords at the battle of the Poike ditch in the 17th century. No convincing evidence for these events has emerged, and Kirch dismissed Heyerdahl as someone who “was never taken seriously by scholars…”2 But Heyerdahl forced researchers to question some of their assumptions about the settlement of Easter Island. This led to Flenley and Bahn’s The Enigmas of Easter Island, which was explicitly written to counter Heyerdahl as well as the more unconventional thinking of Erich von Däniken. Flenley and Bahn sought to balance an appreciation for the ingenuity of the Polynesians with a more sobering account of environmental destruction. They used a combination of pollen records and radiocarbon dating to show Easter Island was settled around 400 CE by a small Polynesian population which lived in harmony with the environment for several centuries. Around 1100 the moai were constructed and the population expanded. Gradually the forests that covered the island were stripped bare, leading to complete ecological collapse by 1650.

Ahu Tongariki Source: Wikipedia

Ahu Tongariki
Source: Wikipedia

Flenley and Bahn’s major contribution was to contend that Easter Island was “a microcosm, a miniature model of the planet Earth.”3 This bleak insight was taken further by Jared Diamond. In his book Collapse, he suggested that the massive labor required to build the moai was the cause of Easter Island’s environmental crisis. Like Flenley and Bahn, he placed the blame squarely on the Polynesian inhabitants, asking “what did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”4 To Diamond, Easter Island was a society that refused to make the cultural changes needed to preserve its resources. The parallels to the modern world, he writes, are “chillingly obvious.”

This grim picture, however, has not gone unchallenged. Flenley and Bahn published the original edition of their book in 1992, and a great deal of research had taken place since then. It is summarized in Hunt and Lipo’s The Statues That Walked. They use new radiocarbon dating to demonstrate Easter Island was settled hundreds of years later than originally assumed, likely around 1200 CE.5 Errors also persist with regards to the cause of deforestation, which was far more likely to have been caused by a massive influx of Polynesian rats (rattus exulans) eating palm nuts than human activity.6 Hunt and Lipo painstakingly describe the numerous ways the island’s inhabitants adapted to survive as the forests shrunk, including protected gardens (manavai) and lithic mulching which enabled a small population of about 3,000 people to survive.7 Even the violence triggered by the ecological crisis remains elusive – the archaeological record contains no purpose-built weapons prior to the arrival of Europeans, only the all-purpose obsidian “flakes” call mata’a. While these are certainly sharp, they are also asymmetric, heavy, and far better at cutting and scraping fibrous plants than killing other human beings.8 Hunt and Lipo paint a very different picture of Easter Island. If it truly is a metaphor for planet Earth, they suggest the people living there possess a remarkable capacity for cooperation, ingenuity, and survival.

Hunt and Lipo contend that the “collapse” Diamond describes took place after Europeans reached the region. They argue that a desire for Western goods began to replace worship of the ancestors, that sexual encounters with Europeans started an epidemic of venereal diseases, and that the rumors of cannibalism were used by Christian missionaries to demonize the islanders ‘heathen’ past. Ranchers who brought in thousands of sheep and forced the Polynesians to work for them completed the devastation of the environment.9 In effect, Hunt and Lipo suggest that Diamond, Flenley, and Bahn are guilty of blaming the victims of Western imperialism for its consequences. This is a crucial insight, but sadly it has not found its way into the majority of world history classrooms.

Anakena Beach Source: Wikipedia

Anakena Beach
Source: Wikipedia

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Contrasting Arguments – Have half of the class read Diamond’s “Twilight at Easter” and the other half read Hunt and Lipo’s “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of ‘Ecocide’ on Rapa Nui” as homework. The first group should provide a summary of Diamond’s argument, and identify the key pieces of evidence he uses to make his case. The second group should examine how Hunt and Lipo critique Diamond’s argument. The focus should be on how arguments are constructed and whether Hunt and Lipo make a convincing case that Diamond’s interpretation is wrong.

Historical Skill = Assessing Progress and Decline

Global Theme = Environmental History, Making History

Creative Thinking – Have the students get into small groups and read Lizzie Wade’s article on the origins of sweet potatoes. Ask them what Polynesian navigators would have needed to know in order to reach South America. The idea is to get the students thinking about winds, currents, stars, sea birds, and ocean swells. Let them be creative – the goal is to give them an appreciation for how resourceful and brave these explorers were.

Historical Skill = Historical Empathy

Global Themes = Exploration

Hoa Hakananai'a Source: British Museum

Hoa Hakananai’a
Source: British Museum

Hoa Hakananai’a – Have the class read MacGregor’s “Hoa Hakananai’a” or listen to it as a podcast. They should be asked what this statue reveals about the history of Easter Island. The students will note that the island was settled from 700-900 CE, that the small population constructed numerous statues without the aid of modern tools, and that this statue-building ended around 1600 due to a major ecological crisis. They should also note that this ecological change was etched into the statue in the form of carved Birdman figures, which were placed on the statue after it was moved to a new location. This could be used as the starting point for a larger discussion on the ecological changes which took place on Easter Island. Have the students use their laptops/smartphones/textbooks to learn what they can about the ecological crisis. If they discover that the Easter Islanders are held responsible, introduce them to Hunt and Lipo’s explanation which focuses on the role of Polynesian rats as well as the ingenious forms of cultivation created by Easter Islanders. Also, be sure to draw the student’s attention to the very end of MacGregor’s chapter, which briefly describes the arrival of the HMS Topaze in 1868. Make sure the students learn about the arrival of Europeans after 1722, who spread disease, destroyed the remaining indigenous flora and fauna, and engaged in blackbirding (slave raiding).

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence, Establishing Significance

Global Themes = World Religions, Imperialism

Doves vs Hawks – This exercise is based on chapter 6 (pp.93-107) from The Statues That Walked. Make cards for each student with equal numbers marked “hawk” or “dove.” The student should keep this card hidden. With a pen and pencil, they should walk around the room and encounter other students – each encounter is worth 10 points that represent the benefits of cooperation. If a “dove” meets a “dove” both gain 5 points and move on. If a “hawk” meets a “dove” the “hawk” intimidates the latter and gains all 10 points. But if a “hawk” meets a “hawk,” a fight happens. Using rock/paper/scissors or a flipped coin, the “hawks” determine the winner. He or she gains the full 10 points. However, as a cost of combat, the loser suffers injuries that result in a net -30 points. After a limited number of encounters (around 10 or 15) call an end to the game and have each side total up their points. It is likely that the majority of the top scores will belong to doves as opposed to hawks. The idea is to encourage the students to look beyond the Hobbesian scenario outlined by Diamond and think more about the benefits of long-term cooperation.

Historical Skills = Historical Empathy

Global Theme = Violence


  1. von Sivers et al, Patterns of World History, 2ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 146
  2. Patrick Kirch, On the Road of the Winds, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 238
  3. John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, 2ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 201
  4. Jared Diamond, Collapse, (New York: Penguin, 2011), 117
  5. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues That Walked, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 22-23
  6. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 27
  7. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 53
  8. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 98
  9. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 147-175

Episode 3 – Content vs Skills in World History

In this episode Matt and I debate whether to prioritize content or skills in the world history classroom. We also reference Lendol Calder’s famous “Uncoverage” article from 2006 while discussing a possible ‘signature pedagogy’ for world historians. Book recommendations are:

Dave – Levesque, Thinking Historically

Matt – MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects

Get it on Stitcher

Teaching the Tang Dynasty


Tang Dynasty Map

Map of the Tang Dynasty c.700

Image Source: Wikipedia

  • Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of subject guides aimed at world history instructors. These will start with a look at what popular textbooks have to say on the subject and describe a past lesson plan we have used in the classroom. The guide will then examine more specialized writing and offer some exercises aimed at “unpacking the textbook” or making the topic more engaging.

Getting Started

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) receives a great deal of attention in world history textbooks. Its “cosmopolitan culture”  is the main reason for this focus.1 However, there are significant disagreements over what aspects of this dynasty are most significant. Patterns of World History uses the Tang Dynasty as the first Chinese example of what it calls an “overtly religious civilization,” defined as a world region whose states are united by a shared monotheistic or monist faith.2 For this reason they look at connections between the Tang and the wider Buddhist world, primarily via the Silk Road. Traditions and Encounters focuses more on economic changes within China itself, primarily the impact of the Grand Canal (built earlier under the Sui), fast-ripening Champa rice, the equal-field system, and the growth of new industries. However, they start the chapter with a section on Xuanzang’s remarkable journey to India (from 629 to 645) to gather Buddhist relics and scriptures, an approach mirrored in Voyages in World History. Voyages in World History as well as Traditions and Encounters have excellent sections on changes to Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty, particularly the growth of the indigenous Pure Land and Chan forms. Voyages in World History also includes a document comparing the original Sanskrit story of Maudgalyayana with the translated Chinese form.

I would argue the best account of the Tang comes from Worlds Together Worlds Apart. It combines an excellent socio-economic summary with detailed looks at the exam system, Empress Wu, and the eventual resistance to Buddhism inspired by essayists like Han Yu. Worlds Together Worlds Apart suggests that the revised exam system, open to people from all backgrounds, ushered in a more egalitarian social order. It also states that Wuzong’s persecutions of Buddhism in 845 ultimately enabled the “triumph of homegrown ideologies (Confucianism and Daoism) over universalizing religion (Buddhism).”3

My Original Lesson Plan

I taught this subject during my first year as an assistant professor, and I was completely overwhelmed. Having neglected to prepare a formal lecture, I divided the class into groups and gave each a list of key terms. They were instructed to find them in “Chapter 10: New Empires and Common Cultures” of Worlds Together Worlds Apart, identify their significance, and then present these key terms to the rest of the class. Three of the eight total key terms dealt with the Tang Dynasty, and they were “The Battle of Talas River,” “Empress Wu,” and “Han Yu.” These key terms were accompanied by a question that the group had to answer as well – for Empress Wu this question read “Why did Empress Wu make civil examinations so crucial to career advancement? What impact did this have on China?” and for Han Yu I asked “Why is Han Yu significant to the history of the late Tang Dynasty?” That was it. These classes were always fun to teach, since I could spend my time circulating between the groups and responding to questions. The lesson also encouraged the students to rapidly analyze secondary sources and explain the historical significance of particular people or events, a useful historical skill. However, the class was entirely dependent on the textbook, and given my lack of knowledge of East Asian history prior to the 19th century, I could add little to what my students were reading. I understood that the Tang Dynasty was important, but I knew very little about what was happening beneath the surface.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda

Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built c.709 in Chang’an

Image Source: Wikipedia

The Specialist Literature

To get a better sense of the scholarly debates on the Tang Dynasty, I read China’s Cosmopolitan Empire by M.E. Lewis. This book is part of a series focused on imperial China, and reinforces the textbooks on a number of crucial points. First, he confirms that Empress Wu, as the first female Chinese ruler to rule in her own name, is badly misrepresented by the Confucian historians of the period. Second, he argues that Tang China was part of a larger Sinicized world linked by both a non-alphabetic script and Mahayana Buddhism. And third, he notes that Buddhism became an integral part of Chinese spirituality at this time, even among people who may not have seen themselves as Buddhists. As the title of the book indicates, he supports the general portrayal of the Tang as a thoroughly global and cosmopolitan society.

However, he diverged from the textbook accounts on several key points. Lewis contends that “the examination system cannot account for the decline of the great families in the Tang…” which is a significant departure from the textbooks cited above.4 He also demonstrates in real terms what Buddhism meant to ordinary people and how they reshaped (or indigenized) the religion. Like Voyages in World History and Traditions and Encounters, he argues the Chan and Pure Land schools “represented a new willingness to discover Buddhism’s truths and ultimate ends in personal experiences…rather than in the textual legacy of an alien land.”5 However, Lewis accompanies this with a detailed account of The Scripture on the Ten Kings, a set of rituals which developed during the Tang. These incorporated Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian elements into a form of purgatory where the souls of the deceased are judged before being reborn.6 The final aspect of the Tang Dynasty that Lewis analyzes more effectively than the textbooks is the architecture of the imperial capitals Chang’an and Luoyang. Lewis includes numerous maps to provide a real sense of what life in the city would have been like, the most impressive of which is a map of major religious establishments of Chang’an which places Buddhist, Daoist, Zoroastrian, and Nestorian Christian sites all across the city.7

Other scholars have addressed the artistic contributions of the Tang Dynasty. MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects contains a chapter on figurines from the tomb of a Tang-era official named Liu Tingxun. He uses these to demonstrate how materials and trade wealth from all around the world reached China along the Silk Road, but he also mentions Chinese conceptions of an underworld where bureaucrats would present a “case” for the deceased to supernatural judges. This can be linked to The Scriptures on the Ten Kings and religious changes set in motion by the arrival of Buddhism along the Silk Road.

A final aspect of the Tang Dynasty of interest to world historians is the controversial rise to power of Wu Zetian.8 There is general agreement between Lewis and the textbooks that despite the hatred evident in many Tang-era sources, she was a capable and fair ruler.9 However, an additional source which reveals the continuing ambiguity of her legacy in China is Dash’s article for the Smithsonian Magazine. He notes that her tomb, erected during her life, contains a giant stone memorial upon which she expected a magnificent epitaph to be carved. However, after her death it was left blank, and remains so today. As with many powerful women, it is a struggle for historians to find the real person underneath the layers of hostility in the sources.

Empress Wu

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705)

Image Source: Wikipedia

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Exercise on Chang’an and Luoyang – Divide the students into small groups and then give each group a set of seven maps from Lewis.10 Ask the students what these maps can tell us about the Tang Dynasty, and then give them some time to discuss possible answers. They will likely mention the numerous and diverse religious institutions, the highly restricted market areas, the grid pattern in Chang’an, and the waterways bisecting Luoyang. Use these answers as a starting point for a brief lecture on the origins of Chang’an, the Sui construction of the Grand Canal, the establishment of the Tang, the growth of long-distance trade (with other parts of China as well as along the Silk Road), and the presence of an effective administration (which was able to force people to live in walled neighborhoods within the city itself).

Historical Skill11 = Evaluating Evidence

Global Theme = The Significance of Architecture

Lewis Map Chang'an

Map of major religious establishments of Chang’an

Image Source: Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, 93

The Tang Tomb Figures and Buddhism – Have the class discuss their homework, which is episode 55 of A History of the World in 100 Objects (available as a podcast). They should be asked to determine what the tomb figures tell them about the Tang Dynasty. They will likely mention the influence of the Silk Road and the great wealth on display, but may not pick up on the theme of the underworld. Use this to start a brief lecture about the arrival of Buddhism in China, including a description of Xuanzang’s journey to Nalanda to obtain original Sanskrit Buddhist texts for translation. However, note that the closing of the Silk Road in the later Tang as well as the encounter of Buddhism with other Chinese forms of spirituality (especially Confucian rituals and Daoism) led to unique patterns of spiritual development. In order to demonstrate this religious syncretism, explain how the underworld was a combination of Buddhist ideas of rebirth with Chinese ideas of judging the deceased, and how these were combined in new ways in The Scripture on the Ten Kings

Historical Skill = Identifying Continuity and Change

Global Theme = World Religions

Tang Tomb Figures

Tang Tomb Figures, c.728 AD

Image Source: British Museum

The Tang Tomb Figures and the Examination System

Note the presence of bureaucrats among the tomb figures, and explain that Tang China had a far more sophisticated system of administration than anywhere else on earth. After describing the selection process via exams, provide the students with a brief primary source describing (in humorous terms!) the stresses of the exam system.12 Ask the students whether they think impartial, standardized exams enable social mobility. Using the textbook, they will probably say that they do, but be sure to caution them that Lewis and other scholars feel the impact of these exams was minimal. primarily because the best prep schools only accepted the children of high-ranking officials, papers were not presented anonymously, students often had powerful patrons who lobbied for them, and the most important section of the exam was lyrical poetry (an art-form extremely popular among the Tang elite). It might be possible to use this section to start a discussion on how well standardized tests like the SAT and ACT encourage social mobility.

Historical Skill = Establishing Significance, Historical Empathy

Global Theme = Class Conflict

The Rise of Wu Zetian – Mention Empress Wu greatly expanded the exam system, primarily because she was reviled by most Confucian scholars as both a powerful woman and a major Buddhist patron – have them read Dash’s article in class and ask them to work in groups to write the missing epitaph on her tomb. Be sure to limit them to a relatively small word count so they have to think hard about what to include, and finish with a discussion of ways historians can try to piece together a representative account when the sources are so obviously biased.

Historical Skill = Evaluating Evidence, Assessing Progress and Decline

Global Theme = Gender and Society

Empress Wu Tomb

The “Uncharactered Stele” at the Qianlong Mausoleum, built to honor Wu Zetian

Image Source: Wikipedia


  1. Tignor et al, Worlds Together Worlds Apart, 3ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 340
  2. von Sivers et al, Patterns of World History, 2ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 352
  3. Tignor et al, WTWA 3ed, 348
  4. M.E. Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009), 202
  5. Lewis, China’s, 223
  6. Lewis, China’s, 191-194
  7. Lewis, China’s, 86-101
  8. Dora Shu-Fang Dien, Empress Wu Zetian in Fiction and in History, (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2003) covers this issue in great detail.
  9. Lewis, China’s, 35-38
  10. Lewis, China’s, 87, 89, 93, 96, 98, 99, 100
  11. These skills are based on Stephane Levesque, Thinking Historically, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and include evidence, continuity and change, progress and decline, historical empathy, and significance. These will be described in further depth in a future post.
  12. Tignor et al, WTWA, 3ed, 393 has an excellent example that I have used in several versions of my HST 101 class.  It reads “In the Southern Court they posted the list. (The Southern Court was where the Board of Rites ran the administration and accepted documents. All prescribed forms together with stipulations for each degree category were posted here.) The wall for hanging the list was by the eastern wall of the Southern Court. In a separate building a screen was erected which stood over ten feet tall, and it was surrounded with a fence. Before dawn they took the list from the Northern Court to the Southern Court where it was hung for display. In the sixth year of Yuanhe (AD 811) a student at the University, Guo Dongli, broke through the thorn hedge. (The thorn hedge was below the fence. There was another outside the main gate of the Southern Court.) He then ripped up the ornamental list (wenbang). It was because of this that afterwards they often came out of the gateway of the Department (of State Affairs) with a mock list. The real list was displayed a little later.” Other examples can be found in Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, ed. P.B. Ebrey, (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 128-131.

Episode 2 – A Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel

In this episode Matt and I discuss Jared Diamond’s extremely popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel. We examine criticisms of Diamond’s research, and offer suggestions as to how it can be used in the classroom. Recommended books are:

Dave – Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Matt – Mann, 1491; Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance

Get it on Stitcher

Episode 1 – Designing a World History Survey

In this episode Matt and I discuss our first experiences teaching world history, focusing on the mistakes we made and what we do differently now. Recommended books are:

Dave – Burton, A Primer for Teaching World History

Matt – McNeill and McNeill, The Human Web

Get it on Stitcher