“The World and the West”: Developing a New Honors Program Course

Peter Staudenmaier is assistant professor of modern German history at Marquette University

Since Fall semester 2013, a group of History Department faculty have been working together to create a new course for Marquette’s Honors program, a course that we expect to become a regular part of the department’s offerings in the following years. The new Honors course will be loosely coordinated with an existing course on ethics in the Philosophy department, and a central feature will be examining the historical development of moral frameworks and ethical debates across a variety of cultures and eras.

Creating a course like this from scratch presented a series of intriguing challenges and offered an opportunity to re-define some of the directions history teaching might take in a university like ours. Those of us involved from the early stages of the process – Laura Matthew, Lezlie Knox, Kristen Foster, and myself – worked with suggestions from our department chair, Jim Marten, and had wide latitude in shaping the initial contours of the course. One of our first decisions was to change the provisional title: rather than “The West and the World,” we chose to name the course “The World and the West” as a way to signal a reversal in traditional Eurocentric historical perspectives.

The make-up of our informal group helped shape these choices; our areas of specialization include colonial Latin America, the early US, medieval and modern Europe, with significant research on race, gender, colonialism and conquest. Coming to collective decisions involved a lot of discussion and reflection about the limits and potentials of our individual viewpoints on studying and teaching history. Over the course of several weeks we solicited extensive commentary from the other faculty in the History department in order to produce a model that could be widely shared. Our goal was to design a course outline that would be coherent enough to provide prospective students and instructors with a concrete sense of the new course offering while remaining flexible enough to be adapted by particular professors according to their own expertise and interests.

As our course proposal works its way through various Marquette committees, we are still refining the details and gradually turning an innovative idea into a full-fledged course. Kristen Foster and I will be the first to teach it next semester: two different versions of a common vision. We will undoubtedly do a fair bit of fine-tuning along the way.

Readers of “Historians@Work” have an opportunity to participate in developing the course as well, by responding to this blog post with your ideas, recommendations, comments and questions. Given the chance to explore the challenging subject of ethics in history across the globe, what places, times, or people would you like to discuss? Which aspects of this multifaceted theme seem most compelling to learn about?

In my experience, the process of fashioning this new history course, through an open and collective dialogue among specialists in different fields, has been an exemplary instance of scholarly collegiality. I am looking forward to bringing our work to fruition in the classroom.

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