Student Handbook for Fall 2020 – MO3055 The History of History in East Asia

Inspired by Alan’s syllabus blogging for his History of East Asia class, I thought I would contribute my own new fall offering. Teaching in Scotland at my own university we have “student handbooks” instead of syllabi, and “modules” instead of classes, and a twenty point “marking” scale instead of US style letter grades. In our school of history we don’t have any introductory classes on East Asia but when students enter the third and fourth “honours” year of their undergraduate “masters” degree (someone told me the US uses the “Scottish” four year model instead of the English three years for university), each semester they may take two specialised seminars (in my case usually 5-15 students). In the fourth year they take a year long “special” module usually heavy in primary sources, and an honours project or dissertation in the spring.

We don’t have much in the way of modules on the world east of India, but I have been building up a rotation of a few modules over the past few years, including ones on the history of Japanese Empire, China’s Revolutions, Rethinking the World from East Asia, and a “special” year long module on The City in East and Southeast Asia. The last module I’d like to add to the rotation (at least for a few years) is risky for me, as it has a very long chronological stretch that moves well beyond my comfort area. I feel most comfortable in the 20th century, but wanted students to have the option to have a module on East Asia that takes on a theme across a broader range of periods: The History of History in East Asia.

This new historiography module will get its first test this fall semester and although the reading list is off to the library, I’m already thinking about ways to restructure it in future years. One disadvantage we have in our honours modules is that we have only ten weeks of class (in fall – due to “independent learning week” mid-semester; eleven weeks in spring) and only two hours of in-class time each week for the seminars. Though the students are expected to spend 15-20 hours a week on each of their two modules and the workload is very intense we have to boil down our modules to a relatively small number of topics. The resulting module I’ve designed thus has massive gaping holes in terms coverage. Avoiding an attempt to be exhaustive in chronological or geographical terms, I added some thematic weeks. However, I wish I had weeks to focus on some aspect of pre-20th century Korean historiography, for example, or the many possible topics in Japanese and Chinese imperial historiography after the period covered by the initial few weeks. I also would like to do more, not less thematic topics, taking a suggestion from James A. Benn, for example, to have a week on historiography in the form of visual sources.

In terms of structure and approach, I have been gradually settling on a standard format for all my honours modules: 100% coursework (no examinations), a series of public facing pseudonymous blog entries reflecting on assigned readings (see our City in East and Southeast Asia blog and Rethinking the World blog), an essay proposal with annotated bibliography, plus a research essay of 5,000 words. After I switched from examinations to only coursework, I noticed that seminar preparation dropped somewhat. To address this problem, I broke the 200-250 pages or so of weekly reading into two, split between common “required” and (equally required) “elective” readings. The latter category of readings are split between several categories and each student chooses one. The students must share a weekly outline of this elective reading and be prepared to be called on in seminar as the resident “expert” on that particular text. So far I have found that this works relatively well.

I welcome corrections, suggestions for improvements in the reading, or ideas for ditching some topic and replacing it with another! In future years, since I don’t need to submit any examination questions early in the semester to our internal and external exam question moderators, I may consider offering students a core of, say six required topics, and then allow them, in Week 1, to choose the remaining four from a larger set. But for now…baby steps.

As I was preparing this module I put together this Bibliography of works on East Asian Historiography, now posted up and maintained here at Frog in a Well as I update this module in future years.



  1. Heroes and Heroism in China was never taught. It turned into Samurai and Gongfu Heroes: Masculinity in East Asia, which is mostly a film class.

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