MOOCs as cultural imperialism.

4 12 2012

One of the great strengths of Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC is his effort to give the course a global reach. So far in this class, we’ve visited every continent but Antarctica at one time or another. If you think it’s hard to “cover” everything in a U.S. history survey course, I can only imagine the agony that any World History professor must face picking what facts to teach as they roll through the centuries. These choices will face inevitable sniping from some quarter in a course this large (and I’ve seen that in the course forums). I don’t want to do that, but I do want apply some theory to this general point.

As Jeremy has pointed out in lecture, his content choices are a reflection of his being a Canadian living in the United States teaching world history to a global audience. Since you can’t escape your own skin the impact of his status on those content choices are inevitable. I am not qualified to discuss the choices that Jeremy has made, but I still want to offer a different scenario for purposes of discussion. How would the treatment of modern Asian history look different if this MOOC was being taught out of Korea?

Jeremy has (quite rightly) covered both the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and the invasion of China in 1937. Anyone from Korea, however, would point out that the Japanese took over their country in 1910 and held it until 1945. I don’t remember Jeremy ever mentioning this. If that memory is correct, I don’t blame Jeremy as I suspect that few people in the West ever mentioned this even during that occupation, but I’ll bet you anything that this would come up in any Korean World History MOOC. If the world ever really ends up with only ten universities, I strongly suspect that story will never be told at all.

I’ve previously mentioned the threat that MOOCs pose to political diversity. What about the threat they pose to cultural diversity? Even Jeremy, as globally-minded as he is, teaches in English. That’s certainly good for me as it makes doing my homework easier, but why do I deserve that kind of privilege? The only numbers I’ve ever seen said that 74 percent of MOOC students were from outside the United States. Don’t international students deserve humanities courses that are centered on their own country’s relationship with the rest of the world?

Happily, I’m hardly the first person to think of the cultural ramifications of MOOCs. Here’s Kris Olds:

It is worth discussing how scalable, across national boundaries, the content of each course is. Some courses reflect the production of knowledge about phenomena or issues that are perhaps equally relevant to people in the US and Pakistan, for example. Other content, however, is deeply reflective of variations in state-society-economy relations, as well as the identity and positionality of course professors. Over time this will become even more of a factor as courses other than computer science and physics get posted. Surely, with open-access courses that are designed to reach across global space there should more visible information that flags how appropriate or relevant the content might be to students outside of the nations the course professor(s) are situated in. Of course this is not a simple thing to do but one way or another those working with MOOCs need to grapple with the myriad of challenges associated with teaching students from contexts very different than the ones their regular students are embedded in.

Certainly, physics is physics the whole world round. That is not true about history, however, and I would argue that it shouldn’t be. Perhaps nobody cares because computer science is not necessarily culturally imperialistic and that’s where the money is. If that’s the case, then all of us humanists out there should be very, very afraid.

People pine over dead languages all the time. Will they pine over dead histories?




18 responses

4 12 2012
Dan Allosso

Interesting distinction between computer science and history, but I’m surprised you don’t consider computer science to be culturally imperialistic. But to get back to your point about world surveys, is this a difference of kind or of degree with survey textbooks? Seems to me there’s the same tension between the local and the general — only amped up by the scale and ease of access. But that leaves us in a weird place where we’re actually bemoaning the accessibility of the web? I wonder if people out there in the world aren’t smarter than we give them credit for being. After all, it’s only successful cultural imperialism if they believe it.

4 12 2012
Jonathan Rees


Presumably if you can program you can post your own country’s history in its native language.

I agree that there are advantages to busting into some country’s self-generated narrative. Sticking with Korea, Jeremy mentioned the comfort women whose stories deserves to be told in Japan. However, you don’t have to homogenize world history into a few giant MOOCs in order for that to happen.

4 12 2012
Jonathan Dresner

I don’t know about teaching the MOOC from Asia, but when World History is taught by this Asianist, the takeover of Korea by Japan is foregrounded as an exemplar of 19th/20th century New Imperialism, with China’s sad situation as a secondary example.

Is it idiosyncratic? A little, but it’s very effective at creating a generalized definition of the process that can then be compared to what goes on in Africa, in the American West…..

4 12 2012
Jonathan Dresner

More generally, part of the “savings” of MOOCs and other online pedagogy is the (very, very false) idea that the content, once created, can be replicated without a lot of professorial intervention, and if grading can be automated or farmed out (adjuncts, programs, peers), then the whole thing can run with minimal labor costs.

But look at textbooks: constant revision, competition, the explosion of “supporting materials” and “classroom tools” and “study guides”: MOOCs will not be stable unless the intellectual tradition dies AND the profit-seekers lighten up.

4 12 2012
Music for Deckchairs

I think Dan is right that MOOCs are only making suddenly visible what’s been an issue in survey textbook publishing for many smaller educational economies. We have trouble getting content diversity at the local level in Australia, when the undergraduate publication only justifies a very small number of locally produced textbooks, and the rest often have to build their strategy around localising US content.

What MOOCs do is cut out the role of the localiser — the local educator who can pull together content from more than one textbook, write lectures around it that give locally relevant examples (and this is as true of the cultural dimension of engineering or the local technical and policy frameworks that affect computer science, as it is of history or law).

The upside: Australian students are slightly better prepared for global employment than they might have been otherwise. The downside is obvious.

I’ve been carrying on about cultural imperialism and online content all year on MFD but I feel ambivalent about doing it. In my own field, cinema, the argument that Australians should consume Australian content in movies and TV worries me. It doesn’t always produce good results. But MOOCs have got me thinking that cultural diversity has a strong case, and the risk of protectionism can be addressed if we remain skilfully open.

4 12 2012
Anne Corner

I never cease to be amazed at the number of dangers you can see in MOOCs – not that some of your points aren’t perfectly valid. History is still struggling with incorporating Subaltern Studies. We haven’t gotten around to reconciling different cultural views but I suspect we will. My interest in history is that I want to know everything and history seemed the best way to achieve that. MOOCs are a new tool but the old stuff is still there too. Also I have learned the vast majority of my history outside the University as have others in my family who share the history gene with me.

5 12 2012
Dan Allosso

Incidentally (and pardon the self-promotion), my post on the Historical Society blog today mentions the local history/big history issue in the context of the Kansas Gold Rush.

7 12 2012

Boy, the critique is endless. Actually, Korea does come into the picture quite importantly, Jonathan. Of course world history looks differently from different perspectives. Hasn’t this been one of the meta-themes about understanding what an encounter, conquest or occupation/liberation might mean across the divides?

I think you are confusing two things. One problem is selection; no, we can’t cover it all and the selection says something about the thematics and also the limitations of the very genre of the survey course — that has NOTHING at all to do with MOOCs. Nothing. I have been teaching these kinds of surveys for a quarter century, and it simply inheres with the genre. At best, I think we need to be self-critical and evaluative about the judgments that go into the selection. For my own part, I worry endlessly that my selection biases not against Korea (or Canada — which is almost invisible, not to mention Argentina or the Andes, places I actually DO know something about but resist centering because the challenge to myself as a cosmopolitan is to step outside, as much as I can, my own provincialism), but against considering the sacred-secular penumbra as a thematic for history; that I teach as a secular modernist and select accordingly. This troubles me a great deal.

But this is separate from the course’s failure to acknowledge that perspective matters. I say this over again in the lectures and in the forums: even taking a global view implies a perspective! Claiming universality of my knowledge vs the particularity of student from a specific place, me the de-territorialized multi-lingual cosmo-type speaking from a mobile screen to a student fixed in situ, is exactly what I want to problematize. This is why I mention that I am a Canadian, that I live in a place near New York, that I speak from a place in the world, with a language that my parents bequeathed to me (inter alia, I do go into some of the forum threads to chat in French and Spanish…). This is why the Global Dialogues’ running theme has been what does the world look like from area-specific knowledge that does not presume its oppositional relationship to a nomothetic idyll that we are trying to transcend.

Hope this helps clarify.

7 12 2012
Jonathan Rees

Honestly Jeremy,

This one isn’t really about you at all. I know you have to make them every step of the way the same way I do. I just think it might be nice if people from every country could make those decisions themselves.

PS Multilingual forum threads. That is cool.

7 12 2012
Jonathan Dresner

One of the only downsides to this blog is that I’m never sure if people are talking about me….

Selectivity and perspective absolutely are MOOC issues, for the same reason that media consolidation and textbook publisher mergers are problematic for perspective diversity. If MOOCs become more than a curiousity and public outreach exercise – as many hope they will – they will crowd out hundreds, possibly thousands, of independent voices of classroom instructors. That will mean that the historiographical and pedagogical choices of MOOC instructors will matter that much more, and be subject to increasing scrutiny, critique and criticism, possibly even regulation.

7 12 2012

PS, I have enlisted Anne Corner for one of the global seminars — so it will be interesting to get her impressions and critiques in this blog; sorry Anne, I couldn’t help but “out” you here, since this is where I found you!

7 12 2012
Jonathan Rees

Nice choice. I do plan to watch those and I’m sure she’ll be good.

8 12 2012
Anne Corner

Since I have been specifically asked to comment, here goes. First of all I am very impressed with Jeremy’s ability to stay neutral when discussing very emotional topics like Indian independence or the the Russians in WW2. It is one of the strengths of the course. That said, there is tons of stuff in history that may well be permanently lost. Just try to find out what some of history’s losers thought about the events they lived through. Also our current way of conceiving history is through nation states and nation states are great at constructing fictional histories for themselves. So what history are we preserving? I would also point out that a MOOC does not have to be American. As time goes on why not a MOOC from an Indonesian or Chinese university.

My father was American and my mother was British. I have two histories in my head. The American Revolution looks really different from the other side of the pond. Which one is correct? That is why history is so constantly fascinating to me. The fun of it is trying to figure out what REALLY happened, but of course we can never know.

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