By Rob Taber
Many colleges split World History into two survey sections. The first spans from the dawn of humanity to around 1500 or 1600. The second half picks up when the first course leaves off and comes to the present. In my World History, Part One course, students finish up the semester by reading chapter thirteen of Jeremy Adelman et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart (W. W. Norton), entitled “Worlds Entangled.” The chapter concludes in 1763. While adding 150-250 years to the already full World History survey may sound preposterous, I have found that extending the course by two units—one on global contact and the beginnings of European colonization from 1450-1650 and one on the “entangled worlds” of the eighteenth century with a particular emphasis on the experiences of enslaved people and the resonating impacts of the encounters—helps my students learn more about the global connections that shaped the emerging modern world. This periodization also provides a better bridge for them from World History Part One to other history courses, including survey courses on US History, African American History, and Latin American History as well as specialized courses on the Age of Revolutions, the Enlightenment, and the history of capitalism.
To be clear, I am not saying every World History class needs to adopt this periodization. Instead, this article lays out the instructional design that went into this choice, including institutional factors, student needs, and my own scholarly preferences.
As History instructors are all-too-aware, “coverage” is impossible even in the most narrowly tailored surveys. Instead, we evaluate what benefits the course can provide to our students and center our learning objectives on what will best serve them, considering overall university and program core learning objectives. As a History faculty member, I want my students to learn how to evaluate primary sources while gaining the context and methodological grounding to be lifelong learners and more capable, engaged citizens. I would also like them to pass World History and take more History classes, preferably at my institution.
Here at Fayetteville State, World History Part One is listed as History 110, so it is often the first History class that our students take at the university level. It is also a “Global Literacy” core class, so I craft the course to help our students read and interpret the world around them. Our students will be largely taking this course online, half of our students are over the age of 25, many are veterans or military-affiliated, many are from rural communities, and we are a regional public Historically Black University focused on improving student access to a college education. Finally, due to the quirks of various program and core requirements here, we teach about three times as many sections of World History Part One as we do of World History Part Two.
I started teaching World History to 1600 in Spring 2019 as a provost-led intervention in the core curriculum and gateway classes that had high rates of students receiving final grades of D or F or withdrawing from the course. Encouraged to innovate, I incorporated adaptive learning software to help students work through background material and to inform me in real time of the challenges they faced in meeting module-level learning objectives. These initial teaching experiences with the World survey were in-person. To further increase student engagement and encourage the analysis and utilization of primary sources, I also had the students do the Threshold of Democracy and the Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor role-playing simulations from Reacting to the Past.
As we followed themes of trade, cross-cultural encounters, and political participation, however, I found the traditional end dates of 1500 or 1600 too dependent on Eurocentric notions of the Renaissance. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and a move to teaching the class online, I embarked on a further redesign. Having previously taught the African American History, American History Part One, and Latin American History surveys, I wanted the class to reach a more natural “hand-off” point to those courses as well as World History Part Two, which traditionally begins in 1500 or 1600 and has a heavy focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dropping the Reacting to the Past units freed up space in the class schedule. Taking the class up through the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 meant I could now introduce my students to Kongolese and Angolan politics, including the lives of Queen Nzinga Mbandi and Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, the rise of colonial extractive economies in Latin America and the Caribbean, the peak of the Atlantic slave trade, the early modern significance of the Ottoman Empire, the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, and the emergence of British colonies along North America’s eastern seaboard.
Any periodization brings certain topics into greater focus. Bringing the class to 1763 highlighted how western European management of Atlantic and Pacific trade systems built on and/or circumvented the Silk Roads and the Indian Ocean trade. It also illuminated the through-lines connecting chattel slavery in the classical Mediterranean and the European embrace of chattelization and racialization as a legal, political, economic, and social strategy in the early modern period. Finally, the Americas were no longer a “world apart” only contacted at the end of the course, but we spent at least some time looking at Native responses to the encounter and the global impacts of the Columbian exchange. Instead of just a brief nod at Taíno contributions to modern English vocabulary, I introduce students to the encomienda system, the complicated life of Malintzin/Malinche, and the way Native nations played the French, English, and Spanish off one another in North America even as they, too, became entangled in the demand for chattelized, enslaved labor.
To further highlight the connections between the eighteenth century and the “pre-modern,” I ask students to read one of the final chapter’s primary sources with the content of a previous chapters in mind. I do this to emphasize to the students that the systems of colonialism, global trade, and chattel slavery that will appear in their next course were not a given, but were constructed, negotiated, resisted, and contingent.
On the curricular level, Atlantic Revolutions here is listed under “Problems in World History” and counts toward our major’s “global” distribution requirement—a fit made stronger when it, too, is a sequel to World History to 1763. As I resume teaching Atlantic Revolutions in the Spring of 2023, I am excited to have multiple students in that class who did the “to 1763” version of World History. Hopefully, they will be less likely to see trans-Atlantic European colonialism as inevitable. Greater contextual knowledge of colonial projects will provide them with a stronger foundation for exploring African and Native contributions to the intellectual history of the Atlantic world and how and why so many states in Americas pursue creole governance.
One practical change that had to occur to end the course in 1763: most World History textbooks end Volume 1 in 1500 or 1600. My home institution adopts core curriculum textbooks at the program level, which are then available to the students through the university’s rental system. I must thank my colleagues for agreeing to switch from Patterns of World History (Oxford) to Worlds Together, Worlds Apart and to adopt the single-volume textbook, which most students opt to use electronically. Staying within the same textbook for World History Part One and Part Two also eases the transition to the next half of the survey, which in my program is almost always taught by a different instructor. One other practical consideration about the inter-program handoff from one World survey to the next: as the only Latin Americanist at Fayetteville State, I want to make sure that the History majors taking these surveys receive an introduction to that region’s transformation and global influence during the early modern period.
Instructors interested in expanding the temporal scope of the World I course but required to use a chronologically-partitioned textbook can benefit from the abundance of online resources available on the global early modern and the emergence of the Atlantic world. For example, my two modules for 1450-1763 include as supplementary material a Dig history podcast episode on Malintzin and her involvement in the Spanish-Mexica war, a segment from PBS’ Africa’s Great Civilizations on Queen Njinga Mbandi and her resistance to Portuguese rule in Angola, an article from The Met about Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita to introduce students to Kongolese Christianity, and an episode of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast featuring Andrés Reséndez on the enslavement of Native Americans. Other example resources include the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database at slavevoyages.org, which has lesson plans, an Aeon long-form piece on the Little Ice Age, and a World History Encyclopedia overview of the global flow of silver from the Spanish-controlled mines in Potosí and Zacatecas.
Short of splitting the World History survey into thirds, I have found that concluding the class in 1763 provides students with more grounding in early modern encounters and colonialism, providing a firmer foundation for further History study. Instructors of US History are generally familiar with the “missing Reconstruction” problem of an 1865 or 1877 split—start in 1491 or 1607 and “cover as you can” to hopefully get to the US Civil War; or discuss the “compromise” of 1877 as a brief prelude to Jim Crow. Taking my class up through the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict over control of the burgeoning colonial order, helps make sure that a similar critical gap does not arise in World History.
Rob Taber is an Associate Professor of History at Fayetteville State University, where he teaches courses in World, Latin American, Atlantic, and African American History. A specialist in colonial and revolutionary Haiti, he is currently writing The Haitian Revolution and the Making of the Modern World (Reaktion Books). He has published articles in The Latin Americanist and History Compass and is co-editor of Free Communities of Color in the Revolutionary Caribbean (Routledge, 2018).