Women in Asia and Africa: An Interdisciplinary History-Based Readings Course

By Dunn, Joe | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Women in Asia and Africa: An Interdisciplinary History-Based Readings Course


Dunn, Joe, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


My teaching is grounded in an international perspective and in student-centered active pedagogy. The goal is for students to assume responsibility for their own learning, and I use student peer modeling as a means to achieve that objective. I am convinced that the best learning environment provides students the opportunity to read extensively, to write about what they read, and to talk about their reading and written commentary. Most of my courses employ this pedagogy. (1) I have selected one course to describe how the process works. "Women in Asian and African Cultures" might be my favorite offering of all the myriad of courses that I teach, and it is one of the most highly rated among my students.

When I designed the course initially, I thought that focusing on women's role in world history and the impact of their respective cultures upon them was an appealing and "catchy" means of dealing with some major events and movements in the recent and contemporary past. This approach seemed particularly appropriate for the women's college environment in which I work. But what might have begun as "gimmick" to teach traditional historical events shifted rapidly to an emphasis on differing cultures, as seen through women's lives and eyes. The methodology now is truly multidisciplinary. Most of the readings are first-person accounts, but subjects are also addressed through the disciplines of history, political science, sociology, anthropology, literature, religion, and journalism, which allow students to appreciate various disciplinary and methodological perspectives.

Moreover, I no longer perceive the course primarily for women but one equally relevant for both genders, and I teach the course as often in our coed graduate programs as I do at the all-women undergraduate level. Excepting some minor structural differences between a daytime course for undergraduates and a one-night-per-week offering for the graduate-level teacher education program, the course, including approach, readings, and results, is the same. My comments in this essay, however, will focus more on the undergraduate offering.

The class reads and discusses a common book on selected cultures each week and in most weeks also views and discusses a film. The daytime course meets twice a week, usually Monday and Wednesday, in ninety-minute sessions. Monday is devoted to the book of the week and Wednesday to the film. Prior to the weekly discussions, students write approximately a two-page, single-spaced analysis and reaction to the book in their personal journals. Immediately following the class discussion, the participants write a one-page, single-spaced response, describing the impact of the discussions and their new understandings of the book and topic. These responses are usually the most interesting entries in their journals. Although we have some standard core ideas to consider weekly, the journal entries and the post-discussion responses are free-flowing personal reactions.

The heart of the course is the discussion. I use experienced students, senior-level majors in the department who have taken my courses, to be peer role models demonstrating how to proceed. For the graduate course, I engage undergraduate students who have already taken the course. I always have several students who volunteer to assist either because they enjoy the experience or they consider it valuable preparation and credentials for graduate school. Those who have done this kind of thing before know how to read a book analytically, what to look for, what to focus on, and what questions to ask about the book or film. They demonstrate how to articulate their thoughts, concerns, and perspectives to novice students. During the first weeks, I distribute the best journal entries for the class to read. Every year I am amazed by the quality of the discussion, how quickly first-time students begin to emulate their more experienced peers, and how much the younger students desire to become like their role models.

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