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Global Visions: Rethinking the Globe and How We Teach It

In a chariot drawn by four white horses, Apollo pulled the sun across the sky each morning. As he did, he enjoyed the view of the gods: the earth from above. Apollo’s eye, writes geographer Denis Cosgrove, “pulls diverse life on earth into a vision of unity.”1 Apollo had the first global view. At a time of ever-increasing economic interdependence and global environmental crises, adopting Apollo’s gaze seems necessary for getting perspective. But for humanities scholars trained to attend to the particularities of life rather than to craft planet-sweeping narratives, Apollo’s eye is an uncomfortable place from which to view the world. It can even be, as Donna Haraway has argued, a “god-trick” of “seeing everything from nowhere.”2 How instead might we tell, and teach, global stories from the grounded perspectives we are more comfortable inhabiting?

This was the question that my environmental humanities graduate seminar, entitled “Space, Nature, and History,” explored in Fall 2015. The course combined theoretical and pedagogical training on how to “teach the globe.” We read spatial theory to understand the “global” as a space produced through particular emplaced histories and then focused on how to apply this theoretical understanding to teach global-scale classes.3 Instead of writing term papers, graduate students created a website, TeachingtheGlobe.net, with resources for “teaching the globe” through the particular, including essays, book reviews, annotated syllabi, and lesson plans.4 We designed the site both to serve as a public resource and to help prepare graduate students for future careers teaching in increasingly global contexts. As university curricula tilt toward preparing students to be global citizens, and as funding pressures mean that scholars are often asked to teach courses like global history that fall outside the regions and periods of their expertise, how to teach the globe is a practical issue of concern to many humanities scholars.

TeachingtheGlobe.net homepage screenshot.

TeachingtheGlobe.net homepage screenshot.

The theoretical approach we took begins from the understanding that global space is a historical product rather than a planetary scale that is assumed as the starting place for analysis. We developed resources for understanding the global scale as a contingent, contradictory, and political production shaped by connected histories of exploration and imperialism, uneven political economic development, scientific inquiry, and environmental change, to name a just a few examples. From this perspective, doing global history is about tracing the stories through which peoples and places around the world are connected and disconnected. It is about asking under what circumstances and to what effects particular histories, issues, and things become global.

The site’s teaching resources provide a variety of illustrations of this approach, ranging from histories of cotton trade to computing networks and from the idea of human rights to environmental disasters, as outlined below. The different kinds of elements—annotated syllabi, book reviews, lesson plans, and essays—afford different insights designed to complement each other. The sample syllabi approach global interconnections and disconnections from a variety of perspectives. In keeping with diverse fields represented in this interdisciplinary seminar, graduate students designed and annotated syllabi for courses in art history, geography, history, communication studies, history of science, and literature. Each syllabus places specific case studies within broader contexts to allow for comparative analysis. For each of these syllabi, the graduate students reviewed one key text with an eye toward using it to teach a global class. These book reviews take a deep dive into particular issues. They are also the basis for lesson plans that translate core concepts and case studies into student-centered activities to facilitate classroom learning. Finally, the site features three broader essays that scope outward to consider what thinking the global through the particular means in different disciplinary traditions.

Site Content: Frames for Teaching the Global

The resources on the site illustrate four different frameworks for thinking through, and teaching, the global. These include the global as flows that encircle the planet; as ideas of universality; as particular places that draw together actors from around the world; and as a way of understanding space and scale. The site’s contributions thus go beyond framing the global as the opposite of the local or the sum of its many parts. Instead, they provide tools for understanding how processes such as colonial exploration and capitalist development produce uneven geographies and shape how we view the world. Global histories are often framed to highlight such broad processes through narratives that provide analytical continuity across time and space. The resources here aim to hold on to the helpful structure such narratives provide while also highlighting the disjunctures and fragmentations that shape these processes at particular times and in particular places.

1) The global as flows that circulate around the world

The Eastern Telegraph Co.: System and its general connections. Chart of submarine telegraph cable routes, showing the global reach of telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century. Image courtesy of A.B.C. Telegraphic Code 5th Edition, via Atlantic-cable (Wikimedia Commons).

The Eastern Telegraph Co.: System and its general connections. Chart of submarine telegraph cable routes, showing the global reach of telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century. Image courtesy of A.B.C. Telegraphic Code 5th Edition, via Atlantic-cable (Wikimedia Commons).

Several of the resources trace things as they circulate around the globe—from commodities to art objects to the communication networks that are today among the most ubiquitous forms of global connection. Tracing these flows counters narratives arguing that globalization flattens the earth, by instead highlighting why certain places become connected while others become, or remain, disconnected. This approach also demonstrates how, even as things connect multiple places, they change from place to place depending on local social, political, and environmental contexts.

For example, Nick Lally developed a syllabus on the history of global computing networks. Based on a review of Armand Mattelart’s Networking the Globe, his lesson plan teaches students how their smartphones connect them as a “node in a vast global network” by geo-locating IP addresses. Another set of resources, compiled by Danya Al-Saleh, examines the history of cotton as a lens for analyzing the global economies in the early modern period. Her lesson plan, based on Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, examines processes of violently uneven development at the foundation of modern capitalism that linked British capitalists with colonial India, the slave trade, and Caribbean plantation economies. Lauren Ayers also examines commodity networks, comparing the histories of different products—from silver to Coca-Cola—to complicate too-neat narratives about world economic systems and assumed relationships between supply and demand. Michael Feinberg uses Neil MacGregor’s popular History of the World in 100 Objects as the basis for analyzing how art objects represent particular moments of global history—and make histories of their own as they circulate through world.

2) The global as the construction of universality

This “artificial sphere” illustrates one way that scientific ideas imagine a global projection. The image here is an archived illustration titled “Various elements of our geographic framework including the equator, tropics, polar circles, and ecliptic,” an Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan, NOS, NGS from the Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection.

This “artificial sphere” illustrates one way that scientific ideas imagine a global projection. The image here is an archived illustration titled “Various elements of our geographic framework including the equator, tropics, polar circles, and ecliptic,” an Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan, NOS, NGS from the Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection.

A second theme involves examining the global through the construction of universality. Alex Kris’s syllabus on the literature of human rights is one example from a set of resources that examine concepts that shape ways of being in the world and expose the rough edges of assumed universality. Often we take for granted the idea of human rights, scientific knowledge, or common property as universally applicable across time and space. But often these terms apply unevenly to different people and places, and can hide more than they reveal. For example, a set of resources on Indigenous identity and media examines peoples who have often been excluded from universal understandings of humanity. Jackie Land’s syllabus uses Indigenous media to examine issues of representation and cultural identity. Her lesson plan uses an educational video game—Never Alone—to have students analyze Indigenous communication strategies.

This group of resources also examines the universality of knowledge. Emily Hutcheson’s essay, Making Global Knowledge, examines the presumption that scientific knowledge is universally valid, drawing on geographies of science to understand claims of universality as scalar claims to authority. Her lesson plan focuses on the role of islands as microcosms in environmental science—pared down spaces taken to represent universal patterns of nature. Indeed, in environmentalist thought, the planet is often framed as a global island—a shared common space. Elsa Noterman’s syllabus investigates the political history of the idea of the commons, examining the work this idea has done in shaping management of shared resources. To complement the syllabus, she reviewed Peter Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto and used it as the basis for an activity in which students interpret the Magna Carta as a primary text—complete with a glossary translating medieval English.

3) The global as a confluence of flows in particular places

Instead of seeing the space of the globe as a container for human and natural histories, a third way into understanding the global relies on analyses of how space is produced through the meeting up of different historical flows and processes in particular places.5 The global is always local somewhere—but where exactly, and how is it that certain places seem to draw together more threads of global travel than others? This set of materials examines how, why, and to what effect particular places and landscapes become global.

Postcard of a colonial development project in French Indonesia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Postcard of a colonial development project in French Indonesia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For example, Royce Novak’s lesson plan asks students to analyze canals as infrastructures at the intersection of colonial state power, international trade, and local politics by interpreting a collection of postcards of colonial development projects in French Indochina. This lesson draws from David Biggs’s book Quagmire, and is part of a syllabus on the political and environmental history of wetlands around the world. Shifting to Latin America, Kilian Harrer presents a lesson plan focused on the French failure to build a canal across Panama. His exercise asks students to apply their knowledge of Caribbean disease environments—gleaned from J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires—to predict the end of a documentary recounting the experience. Why did the French fail to make this a global place, and how did the United States later succeed? Finally, in an essay on the geography of the discipline of History, Jeffrey Guarneri asks how the global shapes nation-states—the places that have been the traditional frame for historiography. He explores how spatial theory might shift how historians narrate histories that extend outside the borders of nation-states, using histories of Japanese empire to emphasize how the intersection of difference produces space.

4) The global as the construction of spaces and scales

“A Global Map of Human Impacts to Marine Ecosystems.” Source: B.S. Halpern (T. Hengl; D. Groll).

“A Global Map of Human Impacts to Marine Ecosystems.” Source: B.S. Halpern (T. Hengl; D. Groll).

A fourth approach to the globe focuses on the production of space and scale. How are our spatial frames for understanding the world constructed, and what political work do they do? Danya Al-Saleh analyzes the history of geographers’ traditional approach to teaching global histories through courses on World Regional Geography, asking how globalism pushes us to rethink regions as a spatial frame for understanding the world. Kilian Harrer offers a syllabus for analyzing how Western understandings of space developed through the experience of the encounter with the New World. A syllabus by Anthony Medrano shifts the traditional terrestrial focus of world history to the oceans, exploring how understandings of ocean space have evolved through histories of exploration, whaling, and scientific inquiry. Finally, Daniel Grant’s book review shows how Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor helps us think about the specific geographies and temporalities of environmental disasters that are often framed as global in scale—such as those tied together under the all-encompassing concept of the Anthropocene.

The Big Picture

Together, these four broad frames for understanding the global permit us not to take a god’s view of global history, but instead to work much closer to the ground. Rather than adopt what Donna Haraway called the “view from nowhere,” we stayed close to the actors—human and nonhuman—that have long been at the center of the stories humanities scholars craft. A grounded approach, though, does not mean that our view or relevance is limited. Instead of looking down from above, we shifted the orientation of our methodologies to ask how these actors produce global spaces. This approach shows why certain products and ideas travel around the world while others do not. It examines how universal concepts are constructed and what work they do in the world. It helps us understand why certain places are sites of global connections and why other places and peoples are disconnected from global flows.

The global, then, is not a single, unified planetary space or scale of analysis. It is, instead, contingent, fragmentary, and shaped through the intersection of multiple intertwined histories. Examining what the global means from different perspectives—whether European exploration, post-war human rights, or the interconnectedness of telecommunications networks—shows that what it means to be global changes dramatically with different views. Teaching the globe, then, is about helping students understand these changes.

Teaching global history is not about crafting a vision of unity, but about unveiling what such visions can conceal. It is about teaching students how to analyze who is, and is not, included in imaginations of a united global. Several critical questions emerge if we approach world history at the ground level. How do certain locals become global? Through what processes, translations, and slights of hand is the global produced? What effects do global frameworks have on our world? These are not entirely new questions, but rather perspectives through which to understand the world that may produce new theoretical and empirical insights. Helping our students to answer these questions, and to see the globe with critical eyes long after they leave our classrooms, requires creative and engaging teaching methods. To this end, I, and the other authors of the site, hope that this provisional collection of resources will be useful for other teachers theoretically, empirically, and pedagogically. We encourage you to download the materials (look for PDFs at the bottom of syllabi and lesson plan pages), tweak them, and let us know how they work for you.

Featured Image: A 17th-century map of the world by Carel Allard. Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Elizabeth Hennessy is Assistant Professor of World Environmental History in the Nelson Institute and History Department. A geographer by training, she is currently writing a book entitled On the Backs of Tortoises: The Past and Future of Evolution in the Galápagos Islands. WebsiteContact.

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  1. Denis Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), xi. 

  2. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective,” Feminist Studies 14 (1988): 581. 

  3. For more on our approach, see our syllabus here. 

  4. Because teaching global classes almost always means teaching outside of your content area, we relied on Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009, as a guide. Aimed to help new teachers avoid the anxiety-producing trap of endlessly preparing to teach new material, Huston’s book offers many strategies for managing teaching work loads, including how to design courses around specific learning objectives and activities to engage students in thinking critically in class. 

  5. This approach is broadly based on the work of geographer Doreen Massey. See her For Space (London: SAGE, 2005). 

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