Teaching Asia, Fall 2014

Wow, I forgot to write a syllabus post!

There is something of a tradition here at the Frog of posting our syllabai and asking for advice about how to teach a particular class. Although it is too late to get any help for Fall 2014, I figured I would post these and see if anyone had anything to say.

This Fall I am teaching History of East Asia, Modern Japan, and, for what it is worth, a couple sections of the intro methods course for History majors.

As in the past, History of East Asia is sort of a history class and sort of a culture class. These ultra-broad surveys are always hard to teach, since students come in expecting to learn about the timeless culture of Asia, while I am trying to teach them about change over time. I try to fix this by talking about both the period I am looking at and placing it in a broader East Asian context. Thus the Shang is both a dynasty and ancestor worship and ideas about family. Fukuzawa Yukichi and Liang Qichao both need to be stuffed into “The world of the reformers.”

As always, a big part of the class for me is the books. When I was an undergrad Dr. Rosen explained to me that he assumed that all his students would forget his name, the name of the building the classes were in, all the essay topics they wrote on, but that they would remember every real book they actually read for the rest of their lives. This is still how I approach picking out books and designing classes.

This time I used Exemplary Women of Early China 1 as the first real book they read. I have really struggled to find an early text that they can deal with, and have usually tried Zhuangzi (too weird) Songs (poems, yuck!) I will do a post in a bit on how this worked out. Tale of the Heike is sort of a standard for me (Japan, fits right in the middle, cheap). Tiny Insect is new, and I will do a post about this…when I get around to it.

Once thing that has changed both classes is that I am no longer giving exams, as such. This is a change that has been coming for a while. I have always hated multiple choice exams, and only gave in to the dark side in the Freshman survey classes a few years ago. I have usually given take-home exams for the essays, since their handwriting is much better when they print things out rather than write in a blue-book. More importantly, they write better essays when they can actually look at sources, and I at least hope they learn more. This time rather than doing a take-home mid-term in 206 I am going to have them try their hands at some take-home essays at various points in the semester. We will see how this goes.

I am also not assigning a textbook for either of these.2 This was a harder decision, but I have generally found that the only way to get our students to read a textbook is to give frequent quizzes on it. If you don’t, the signs of textbook reading (which I would define as a student mentioning something that was in the text that I did not specifically reference in class) drop to almost nothing. So I figured that if I was going to use written assignments/ class discussions to get people to read, it should be something better than a textbook.

The Japan class follows my recent pattern of trying to push classes away from the lecture-exam model as much as I can. The plan was that the class would end up being centred around discussing various articles and book chapters they had read. I am not sure how well this worked out, but at least for the immediate future I plan to keep plugging on this model.

Any suggestions/comments?

  1. Kinney, Anne Behnke. Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang. Columbia University Press, 2014. 

  2. Well, the Japan class has Goto-Jones, Christopher S. Modern Japan a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. I wish there were more Asia books in this series.  


  1. I’m actually not teaching an Asia-specific course in the Spring, which is weird. I’m doing my World since 1500, and I’m doing a graduate seminar in “Recent Trends in World History” which is heavy on interesting books I really want to read myself…. Prasenjit Duara’s “Sovereignty and Authenticity” is the only Asia-specific book, but I’m really looking forward to getting into Germany-based China historian Jürgen Osterhammel’s “The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century.” That’s going to bend the minds of my US-heavy students a bit.

  2. Oh, and I’ve been moving in the direction of take-home tests and short essay assignments for years. I do more or less the same thing in my online courses, which works reasonably well, sometimes.

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