Teaching the Globe

Ilion---metopaBy Elizabeth Hennessy

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.” Apollo had the first global view. At a time of ever-increasing global economic interdependence and environmental crises, adopting Apollo’s gaze seems necessary for getting perspective, especially as we aim to teach students about their place in the world. 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. How instead might we teach global stories from the grounded perspectives we are more comfortable inhabiting?

This was the question my environmental humanities graduate seminar on Space, Nature, and History explored in Fall 2015. Instead of zooming out to understand the globe, we used the tools of spatial theory to examine how the “global” scale is always produced through particular emplaced histories. From this perspective, telling global stories is not about identifying broad patterns, but about tracing the stories—of exploration, scientific inquiry, imperialism, and political economic expansion—through which peoples and places around the world are connected and disconnected. Teaching the globe is about analyzing the politics of who is included in imaginations of a united “global” and how the idea of the global scale is produced. Instead of seeing the space of the globe as a container for human and natural histories, this approach analyzes how space is produced through the meeting up of different socio-natural historical trajectories, to paraphrase the geographer Doreen Massey. Under what circumstances and to what effects do particular histories and issues become global?

This is a question not only of theoretical interest. As university curriculum tilt toward preparing students to be global citizens and funding pressures mean 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 that humanities scholars will have to contend with. To this end, pedagogical training was a core element of the class. Instead of writing term papers, students created this website with resources—essays, book reviews, annotated syllabi, and lesson plans—for teaching the globe through the particular. This essay highlights their contributions.

Description of Site

What could mapping historical conflicts about cotton production or analyzing cartographic representations of the Americas teach students about how to make sense of the globe? These are two of the questions explored in the collection of teaching resources provided in this website. Danya Al-Saleh provides a lesson plan for examining processes of violently uneven development at the foundation of modern capitalism (based on Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton). Killian Harrer offers a syllabus for analyzing how Western understandings of space developed through the experience of the encounter with the New World. As these examples demonstrate, the resources here go beyond seeing 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 capitalist production and colonial exploration produce uneven geographies and shape perspectives on the world. Below are descriptions that highlight the resources of each area of the site:

Essays: Three essays frame what thinking the global through the particular means in different disciplinary traditions. Jeffrey Guarneri asks how spatial theory might shift how historians narrate histories that extend outside the borders of nation-states by emphasizing how the intersection of difference produces space. Emily Hutcheson examines the presumption that scientific knowledge is universally valid knowledge, drawing on geographies of science to understand claims of universality as scalar claims to authority. 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.

Annotated Syllabi: Students designed and annotated sample syllabi that approach global interconnections and disconnections from a variety of perspectives. In keeping with their diverse disciplinary fields, they designed syllabi for courses in art history, geography, history, communication studies, history of science, and literature. Several of these classes trace things as they circulate around the globe—from commodities to indigenous media to the communication networks that are today among the most ubiquitous forms of global connection. Others, such as Alex Kris’s syllabus on the literature of human rights, examine concepts that shape ways of being in the world and expose the rough edges of assumed universality. Other syllabi focus on maps, art, islands, and disasters to examine representations of the world that help us to understand our place in it. Syllabi by Anthony Medrano and Royce Novak shift the traditional terrestrial focus of world history to the oceans and wetlands, respectively, to show how watery landscapes shift experiences of being in the world.

Book reviews: For each of these syllabi, students reviewed one key text with an eye toward using it to teach a global class. For example, Daniel Grant’s review shows how Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor helps us to 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. Lauren Ayers shows how comparisons of commodity histories complicate too-neat narratives about world economic systems, assumed relationships between supply and demand, and presumed relationships of Latin American regional economic dependence through the edited collection From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Michael Feinberg uses Neil MacGregor’s popular History of the World in 100 Objects as the basis for analyzing how art objects as represent particular moments of global history—and make histories of their own as they circulate through world.

Lesson plans: Based on their book reviews, students designed lesson plans using the principles of active, student-centered learning. For example, Nick Lally teaches students how their smartphones connect them as a “node in a vast global network” by geolocating IP addresses. For a class on the history of the idea of the commons, Elsa Noterman designed an activity based on Peter Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto in which students interpret the Magna Carta as a primary text—complete with a glossary translating medieval English. To supplement her review of Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart’s edited volume on Global Indigenous Media, Jackie Land designed an activity in which students play, and analyze, the video game Never Alone.

The Big Picture

The aim of these resources is not to take a god’s view of global history, but to crawl much closer to the ground. Rather than adopt what Donna Haraway called the “view from nowhere,” we stayed close to the actors—human, nonhuman, and other—that have long been at the center of the stories humanities scholars craft. We used spatial theory to apply our methodologies and theoretical insights to the question of how these actors produce space. Doing so shows that the “global” is a contingent, contradictory, and political production.

Yet the work here goes beyond the stale scalar assumption that divides the world into the local and the global. This is a way of seeing the world, or a “geographical imaginary” in which the local is often the site of the particular and the political, the grounds for resistance to processes of capitalism, imperialism, climate change that too often appear in “global” stories as nebulous boogeymen. This binary logic limits our understanding of hegemonic processes and large-scale environmental changes by failing to see them as emplaced, contingent productions with particular grounded histories. It also shortchanges the agency of localities by defining them in opposition to ungraspable totalities. Theoretically, this approach can too easily reach the dead end of a discourse of “glocality.” That the “global is always local somewhere” is a crucial epistemological understanding, to be sure. It helps us to unveil the unevenness of a supposedly “flat” world of neoliberal globalization and, by locating boogeymen in tangible histories, opens the grounds of politics and the possibilities for change considerably.

But what else can we say about the geography of the globe? As the resources provided here show, a critical question to be asking as we approach world history is how do certain “locals” become global? Through what processes, translations, and slights of hand is the “global” produced? This is not a new question, but it is one we need to continue returning to with new theoretical and empirical insights to teach our students to see the globe with critical eyes.

Comments are closed.