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?