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A Conversation with Heather Streets

Tom Laichas


Figure 1


     From WHC's editorial offices at Washington State University, Heather Streets has shepherded this journal from its inception. After five years as co-editor, Heather is moving on as the journal moves to a new home at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She spoke recently with WHC's Tom Laichas about scholarship, teaching and editing.

     After earning her Ph.D. at Duke University in 1998, Heather came to WSU at Pullman, teaching the undergraduate world civilizations survey. She has written extensively on the British Empire, most notably Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2005), Heather has also edited Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler's Global Encounters: A Brief Global History, the condensed version of the McGraw-Hill text, and is Britain and British Empire editor for the Encyclopedia of the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2008). She also serves on the World History Association's Executive Council.


Tom LAICHAS: How did you get interested in history?

Heather STREETS: That's a really good question… I always knew I was going to be in academia – that was my father's life, and that was a world that I loved. I thought, though, that it would be science.

LAICHAS: Your dad was a science professor?

STREETS: No. He is an economist, but his life was academia. We grew up doing academic stuff, going all over the world. I just never had any doubt what I was going to do. But I switched from science to history because I had a terrific history teacher when I was [at Duke].

LAICHAS: He taught British history…?

STREETS: No – American.

LAICHAS: What made him such a great professor?

STREETS: God, he just really excited all of us. He made us think about debates and interpretation and why history mattered right now.

LAICHAS: So you got your BA in American History?

STREETS: I did. I did my honors thesis on women and the Civil War.

LAICHAS: How did you move into British and Imperial history?

STREETS: I applied to grad schools in American history. I got into a few different places, but Duke offered me the most money, so I went to Duke.

Once I got into the grad program, I became interested in Scottish immigration into North Carolina. But I increasingly became more interested in why the Scots had come.

LAICHAS: You have Scottish relatives?

STREETS: Yeah. My family is all Scottish. And they make a big deal out of it, which always was odd to me. So I was sort of an anthropologist in my family, looking at them wearing kilts and thinking, "what in the world is going on?"

So I began to study Scottish history in the context of British history. The more I did that, the more it took me into the Empire. And suddenly one day I had an "aha!" moment, when I was looking at some material on Punjabi Sikhs, and the ways that they were peripheralized and centralized at the same time within the British Empire.

LAICHAS: Can you talk about that?

STREETS: As a result of being increasingly drawn into the British orbit, the [Scottish] Highlands in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the Punjab in the mid-19th century faced big economic changes. Britain increasingly recruited their men into the military, and talked about them in a way that preserved this old-timey nature of their society – the "warrior past" and the "noble savage".

LAICHAS: Was this "warrior past" a tradition invented by the British, or did it speak to something authentic?

STREETS: It was both. It definitely had something to do with a real past, both in the Highlands and in the Punjab, particularly among the Khalsa warriors of the Sikh tradition and the people who actually came from the Highlands. It had its roots in history, but the British used that to their advantage when recruiting into the army. By the early 19th century, the Highlands were pretty much depopulated, but [the British] recalled this glorious warrior past in order to recruit into these regiments. In the Punjab, particularly after the first half of the 19th century, the British started creating more Sikhs by encouraging the conversion ritual. Sikhism is a religion, it's not an ethnic group. So [the British] encouraged Hindus to convert to Sikhism. So – it's both.

LAICHAS: Your dissertation became the basis for Martial Races?


LAICHAS: Is Washington State your first job out of college?

STREETS: It is. I got it after I'd written only one and a half chapters of my dissertation.

LAICHAS: The envy of job applicants everywhere! Where are WSU students from?

STREETS: Mostly from the Seattle-Tacoma area.

LAICHAS: WSU is in Pullman, near the Idaho border, so…

STREETS: It is. It is small and rural, but the population of Washington State is concentrated on the west side of the Cascades, and so most of the students come from over there.

LAICHAS: What kind of skills do you see? What do they need?

STREETS: I think the students are terrific. I think that they are pretty similar to other students in state universities around the nation. The things that are lacking don't have anything to do with intelligence. But I am certainly aware that public high schools – which is where they're almost all from – do not do a good job teaching writing and, often, do not do a good job teaching skills of critical thinking.

LAICHAS: How does that awareness affect the way you do your job?

STREETS: Especially when I'm teaching the freshman survey, in addition to actually teaching it like a world historian would, I'm doing a couple of different things. One is getting them used to the discipline of college. A lot of college students at big state universities can get away with not going to class very often, getting C's and D's, and sort of squeaking by. I don't really want that for my students – I don't want it at all. I want them to be engaged in the class. So I require attendance. I tell them that they don't have to take my class if that's not what they want to do. If they do want to take my class, then this is what required, if only because I don't think it's fair for the other students who come all the time to get the same grade as someone who never comes except to take the exam.

LAICHAS: What do you do when students don't show up – how is that counted in their grades?

STREETS: They get a couple of absences over the course of the semester, no questions asked. After that, each absence is ten points off of their attendance grade, which is usually about 20-25% of their total grade.

LAICHAS: Did you go directly into teaching world history there?

STREETS: Any new hire at Washington State was required to teach one course in world history a year, because we have a huge World Civ program.

LAICHAS: How long has that been around?

STREETS: Since 1993.

LAICHAS: So whatever growing pains there were in the transition from Western Civ to World Civ…

STREETS: We were all done with that. World Civ, at least at the undergrad level, was well-entrenched by the time I got there. I simply accepted it as one of my responsibilities, though I did not identify myself as a world historian by any means.

LAICHAS: Did you teach the first or second half?

STREETS: Only the second half, from 1500.

LAICHAS: How did you teach it?

STREETS: (Laughing) I taught it the way my colleagues taught it! I mean, basically I got there and I said "oh my god, what books do you use? what do you do?" I used the civilizational model, which seemed to be what everyone else was doing. You know: here's China, here's India… I did talk a little about connections. Actually, I think British Empire historians are pretty well-positioned to think about world history, because they do look at connections, certainly within the British Empire, which of course was pretty big. So it's not like I ignored connections, but I really didn't have a very sophisticated understanding of how to teach world history. It was kind of Western Civilization writ large.

LAICHAS: How has that changed over the last ten years?

STREETS: Oh my goodness – it's completely different now. I don't do anything like I used to do. I used to teach civilizations, but I had to cram everything in. I found that I was lecturing all the time, going on and on and on about different things: one thing this week, another the next week. I became really dissatisfied with that. My students didn't seem to mind it too much, but I was personally dissatisfied with it. The more I got into world history, the more I realized that [the area studies model] wasn't living up to the goals of world history pedagogically.

So now I teach more thematically.

LAICHAS: And how does that work?

STREETS: Well, I teach that course two days a week, Tuesday and Thursday. One day I give a lecture on context, and the other day we do an "activity," for lack of a better word.

For the lecture, I now use the short version of Traditions and Encounters I helped author. But the lecture doesn't really come from the textbook. It's really about connections. Every lecture is about some sort of global connection.

LAICHAS: Are you teaching the course this semester?


LAICHAS: So give us an example.

STREETS: If we were looking at the biggest stories globally in the interwar period, for example, we'd look at the Depression. We talk about the Depression as a global phenomenon. So we look at how the collapse of the economy in the United States and Europe resounded all over the world. The rise of colonial nationalism is another one of the big stories; another is the rise of militarism in its various forms – in Japan as well as in Europe.

LAICHAS: So that's the lecture. What do the Thursday activities look like?

STREETS: On Thursdays I try to bring in a discussion on either much deeper philosophical questions brought up by the lectures or on primary sources.

LAICHAS: How many students are in the class?


LAICHAS: I can see how a lecture would work with 85 students, but how do you manage a discussion?

STREETS: You wouldn't think you'd be able to have discussions with that large a group. But if you start out asking their opinions and letting them talk from that very first day of the semester, then they're just used to it. And even though there's tons of them in the class, you have these terrific discussions.

Students have to take this course. So at the beginning of the semester, we start out with a discussion about whether or not they ought to be taking this course. I tell them it doesn't matter [for their grade] what they say, so we have a pretty honest discussion.

LAICHAS: How many students end up participating in an average discussion?

STREETS: I would say probably about 25.

LAICHAS: Is discussion part of the evaluation? Is there a discussion grade?

STREETS: No. There's no pressure at all.

LAICHAS: I want to turn for a moment to World History Connected. You've put a lot of energy into building the journal up from scratch. What did you discover about editing that you didn't know when you walked into this?

STREETS: Right now, a good portion of my life is editing. I have the journal. I did the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World, which has just come out, and I did the brief version of Traditions and Encounters. I did [the accompanying text] for "Bridging World History." I'm working now with fifteen graduate students, and am constantly editing their work. And of course, I grade undergrad papers.

I'm a very picky writer now. I feel that I can identify good writing very fast.

LAICHAS: What does good writing look like?

STREETS: Oh, it's clear and it's not any work to read.

LAICHAS: Do you have any suggestions for people who want to write for the journal?

STREETS: Read Your Work Again Before Submitting! (laughs). And if you can't do it, ask somebody else to do it for you!

LAICHAS: What are your best moments as editor?

STREETS: Just the joy when you find somebody who knows all the rules, who writes beautifully, and who has a conceptual framework that makes you go, "oh my god – that worked so well!"

LAICHAS: Let's say you've got an article that really ought to be published, an essay that's otherwise terrific, but the writing isn't clear. What's your process for editing?

STREETS: I read the whole piece first, for the sense of it. Then I go back and read each sentence for the sense of it, and try to modify the writing in a way that will be easier for other readers without losing the author's intent. Now, content may be very complex. But [readers shouldn't] have to work very hard to get through the writing, to understand what an author is saying.

LAICHAS: Tell me about your work on Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History.

STREETS: Well, basically, Jerry and Herb wrote the whole thing, and I simply shortened it. I cut it by half. I had personal reasons for wanting to do it: I wanted a shorter textbook, because I wanted to assign other sources – which is exactly what I did the first time I assigned the book.

It was also very important to have a brief textbook that didn't jump around, to have clear transitions. Jerry and Herb write beautifully, so that wasn't an issue at all, but when you shorten something, it's important to keep the writing beautiful and flowing.

LAICHAS: What process did you use when distinguishing what to cut from what to keep?

STREETS: I would read each chapter several times. Then I would sort of ruminate on it a while and think to myself, all right, what are the really important things we need to get in that chapter? Then I'd write them down. Then I'd [use the list] to go back and edit based the chapter

LAICHAS: You had to cut Traditions and Encounters by half. Did you regret having to drop any of the content you cut?

STREETS: No. I believe we included the most important things. Also, I don't worry about complete coverage. I worry about getting students to see connections. I realize that we just can't cover everything. [My students] know my refrain: "People spend their whole lives studying this subject. And we're going to talk about it in an hour!"

LAICHAS: So: what's next?

STREETS: I am working on four different books right now! Well, I'm editing a couple and I'm writing a couple. I'm co-authoring a textbook on imperialism as a global phenomenon with [San Francisco State University professor] Trevor Getz. I am working on my next monograph, which looks at connections between French Indochina, British Malaysia, and the Dutch East Indies…

LAICHAS: I know you recently interviewed [Võ Nguyên] Giáp [commander of the Vietnam People's Army in wars against France and the United States] – was it for this project?


LAICHAS: And the other volumes?

STREETS: I am editing a series of volumes with Ken Curtis and Tim Keirn [of California State University, Long Beach] which approach world history from a completely thematic point of view. And I am editing a collection that looks at commodities.

LAICHAS: So you're reading through the entire collection of books that have come out in the last ten years on corn, tomatoes, tobacco…all the books subtitled "the crop that changed the world"?

STREETS: Yes. I think they all read pretty well. And you can make a good case for each one. But you have all these books on one or two commodities, and there's nothing to really bring them all together. I think it's really fascinating.

LAICHAS: Have you touched on commodities in your world history class?

STREETS: Yeah. In the week we talk about late nineteenth century imperialism, on the activity day, we have an activity on drugs and world history. I look specifically at opium and alcohol, and have them watch a movie clip from The Pacific Century series and read a section from Topik and Pomeranz.

LAICHAS: Thanks, Heather. We're going to miss you at the journal. We wish you all the best!



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