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An Innovative Pedagogical Device!
on February 18, 2007
Each semester, history instructors must select the required reading materials for the next semester's classes. A conscientious teacher might drown in the many options. There are always new titles to fill the captive demand for required purchases. Increasingly, these options come with new bells, whistles, digitized archival collections, and promises of the latest breaking scholarship. That text over there provides a web based bibliography, this one a helpful and hyperlinked timeline. Over here we have a "pedagogical media system" interfacing with the lecture through PowerPoint slides, and boasting a Pod Cast library for additional streaming course content.
Tending to be an easy "mark" for these techno enhancements, I strive to find new ways to cram more content into any history unit. Yet I have been begging any press that would listen for one simple innovation--a textbook. Unlike most available textbooks though, this one would be interesting. It would lead students toward better study habits, shepherd them into more recent ways of thinking about history, and it would show--by example--how to cite their sources in a scholarly manner. I usually suggest that the press find an author who actually teaches undergraduate students.
Robert B. Marks' _Origins of the Modern World_ answers my pleas. So before I get into the text of the textbook, please indulge this instructor's very quick applause for several important features. First, the book is printed in a clear type intended to be read without a magnifying glass. Second, it uses the same citation style most historians require students to use in term papers. So the smart young student in the Che tee shirt will not be pointing out that the textbook fits the syllabus description of plagiarism. Third, the helpful, web based "Study Guide" is not password protected. Even the students who bought used textbooks (and who does not when they are available?) will have fair access. And the reasonable list price of $21.95 means more students will actually purchase the book. Thank you Rowman & Littlefield!
But these are just the beginning of the reasons to assign this book.
Recent scholars have become less comfortable with narrations of world history written as European (and European-American) interactions with everyone else. (The term "everyone else" here is intended to include most of the people alive at any given time.) Recognizing this, most textbook authors have made symbolic nods toward some of the recent findings of our most innovative global and ecological historians. Too often, however, the typical undergraduate textbook is still arranged around the traditional verses in the "Rise of the West" epic: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Holy Rome, Imperial Nation State, Colonization, and "Western Industrialized Democracy." While this format allows a teacher to end the course on a high note, a patriotic gush just before the evaluation forms are handed around, global history is not the same as the history of American foreign relations. The author of this book reconizes this. Further, recent characterizations of history as interesting but irrelevant stories from the long-gone past do not explain to a nineteen-year-old why the subject is important enough to think about today. The vilification of "presentism" is a serious malpractice of history, which has perhaps more to offer than any field in explaining why things turned out as they have.
But Marks' Origins of the Modern World offers an updated synthesis of recent Global, Ecological, Economic, and Demographic history. A professor teaching undergraduate students, Marks narrates without jargon and he avoids obfuscating tangents into overly theoretical interpretations. The preface opens with the events of September 11, 2001, and his introduction presents a balanced view of the "G7" domination of global trade and international finance. So the question, "why should I--a college student in the twenty-first century--care to read any of this," hovers just above the text in each chapter. After a coherent introduction of about twenty pages, each of the following six chapters gets slightly longer and a bit more focused on finer strata of historical experience. So the book has been designed both to improve a conscientious student's study skills, and to blend nicely into a chronologically presented lecture.
The Origins of the Modern World aims at the undergraduate student in a world history survey course. But any teacher who has struggled with the question, "when did American Civilization begin?" will see other applications. Inexpensive enough to consider as a supplemental reading requirement in a traditional Atlantic History class or even for an American History survey, this well designed textbook will orient students toward broader awareness, both historically and within their own world. And this is exactly what history should do.