Teaching History Globally

  • Princeton University undergraduates work on a narrative map in a Global History Lab course.

  • A student practices a mock oral history interview

  • Students from Kenya, Rwanda, Yemen and Syria in a virtual classroom

Princeton University Global History Lab revolutionizes the teaching of transnational histories.

By Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

Since 2012, Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University, has taught the online, open-access course, “A History of the World,” to learners around the globe.

The course situates the study of global history in a global classroom, encouraging students to learn from and through interactions with peers near and far. Students not only learn by reading and watching lectures, but also by analyzing historical documents and applying their disciplinary and regional knowledge. Among the students are refugee and migrant learners, too often excluded from higher education, in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, which has also made the course an innovative experiment in humanitarian higher education. 

“A History of the World” is one of several courses offered by the Global History Lab (GHL), a collaborative teaching and learning initiative, founded in the Department of History and now housed in the Princeton Institute of International and Regional Studies (PIIRS). GHL uses technology, pedagogical practices and training in oral history methods to educate students about the history of globalization and prepare them to become knowledge producers for a wider world. Although already largely an online initiative, GHL, too, has had to adapt to challenges created by the pandemic.

Meeting students where they are

Through courses taught in conjunction with partner institutions around the world, regular workshops and conferences, and Princeton faculty’s research projects, GHL aims to foster global conversations among academics and learners from diverse backgrounds alike. 

What makes “A History of the World” and its sister course, “History Dialogues,” which provides learners with training in additional historical research methods, unique is multifold, according to Adelman. 

Everyone sees how everything is getting connected. This is especially useful as we’re seeing if a history course can be delivered for everyone, for every region. It’s resonating with everyone, even if the course may seem broad.

Nassim Abi Ghanem, teaching fellow for the 2020-21 Global History Lab

A network of partner institutions offers the course concurrently, meaning students participate in local classrooms as well as the larger global whole. Students use an online platform to watch lectures by Adelman and others and to interact with distant peers; they also meet with local students and faculty for in-person discussions and assignments. 

“A History of the World” includes refugee and non-refugee learners in the same global classroom. GHL is unique not only for its class makeup, but also for its content. 

Nassim Abi Ghanem is a doctoral candidate in international studies at Central European University, one of GHL’s partner institutions, and a GHL teaching fellow for the 2020-21 academic year. Although he is based in Europe, he instructs Syrian refuges in Lebanon, his native country, working closely with Lebanese academics and activists on the ground. His students include not only university-bound students, but also others interested in history or oral history gathering, such as school history teachers and activists. Lebanon has experienced many crises in recent years, all magnified by the pandemic, explains Ghanem, and he is mindful of this as he teaches these various groups. “Everyone who is part of these three groups [who I work with] has shown immense excitement to be part of this,” he says. “Everyone sees how everything is getting connected. This is especially useful as we’re seeing if a history course can be delivered for everyone, for every region. It’s resonating with everyone, even if the course may seem broad.”

COVID-19 has impacted Ghanem’s work to a certain extent: access to the internet is an issue for vulnerable populations, and the pandemic has exacerbated this lack of access. However, funding from GHL has remedied this in part. Ghanem’s travel has also been curtailed; he has not been able to be in the classroom with his students in Lebanon. He has also been unable to meet with his peer fellows around the world. Still, the fellowship has allowed him to grow as an academic and intellectual, as well as a teacher. “It has given me more approaches to my work than just my particular theory or methodology to the questions I’m interested in answering in my academic career,” Ghanem says. “As a teaching fellow, regardless of the pandemic, blended learning and the idea of having lectures videotaped and giving students flexibility, is here to stay. This experience has had a profound impact on the way I teach. We’re creating an accessible education for everyone.”

A new approach

In addition to these networked global history courses, GHL faculty teach an array of regional and thematic undergraduate courses. Princeton graduate students, too, participate in GHL by enrolling in a two-semester sequence of seminars and in the Global History Workshop, a forum that allows graduate students and scholars from institutions in the United States and around the world to share their research. GHL has also co-hosted a number of conferences and dissertation workshops that have allowed for exchanges among faculty and graduate students working in the field of global history. 

Pablo Pryluka is a fourth year Ph.D. student in Princeton’s Department of History and a GHL teaching fellow. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, he is currently based in his home country of Argentina. As a graduate student, he has participated in two Global History Workshops, held in collaboration with Princeton international partners such as Tokyo University and Humboldt University; co-organized a workshop with another history graduate student; and taught Princeton undergraduates enrolled in “History of the World” in New Jersey. This academic year, from his apartment in Buenos Aires, he is now teaching “History of the World” to students at Modern University for Business and Science (MUBS) in Beirut, Lebanon. “This is the first time I’m teaching [this class] outside Princeton to students at another university,” he says. “It’s not easy to teach a global history class; you feel you need to about everything! I’m learning a lot.”

Pryluka had significant teaching experience in Argentina before his time at Princeton, but “this is different,” he says. “It’s a way to think about global history, globally. It helped me rediscover the local to help understand the global. In this field, it’s often just people in the Global North telling stories about the Global South, and that’s one of the limits. But the GHL and its interaction with partner institutions is a completely different approach toward to transnational history.” 

History ahead

In fall 2020, GHL received a $2.4 million multi-year grant from the Open Society University Network (OSUN) to expand its global reach to international students at over twenty institutions and NGOs worldwide. With the grant from OSUN, GHL will now partner with OSUN co-founders The Central European University and Bard College, as well as a wide range of institutions, including universities, think-tanks and research institutions, to deliver GHL teaching and research across higher education institutions worldwide.

Since we began almost a decade ago, this has been an experiment in global learning, one which includes students in remote and precarious parts of the world.

Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and director of the Global History Lab

The launch of OSUN was announced at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2020. OSUN’s aims are to integrate curricula, teaching and research across partner institutions; embed civic engagement into the learning environment; create pathways for underserved communities into higher education; and create an ecosystem of long-term partnerships that will generate innovation and amplify the impact of individual institutions.

“Since we began almost a decade ago, this has been an experiment in global learning, one which includes students in remote and precarious parts of the world,” Adelman says. “This grant enables us to include and sustain many more collaborators and exchanges between them.”