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Book Review


Burton, Antoinette. A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2012. xiii + 154 pp.


     Antoinette Burton's A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles is focused on improving the design of world history teaching, specifically the college world history syllabus. What follows will be a positive review, but first the major criticism. For a work focused on strategies to build a better syllabus, it contains no syllabus: "I have fallen short of my entire History 100 syllabus" (119). This should have been a fatal flaw, but the strengths of the work make up for this odd omission. And now the minor criticisms: Burton also does not provide the reader lecture outlines or class outlines although much of the text is centered around discussions of these topics! So what has she given us that makes up for this? A second guide, and first for the college survey, on how-to teach the new world history course.1

     The Primer is broken into three sections – Laying Foundations, Devising Strategies, and Teaching Technologies. The second and third sections build on the foundations section. Although one can pick up the book anywhere and dip your toe in by reading a few pages or a chapter, the work does benefit from a start to finish reading with frequent flips forward and back. The book is self-referenced; for example: "(see chapter 7, Empire as a Teaching Tool)." This helps, but not as much as page numbers.

     In the first section, "Laying Foundations," Burton argues that four things should be part of every survey class. She begins with a recommendation for a thorough discussion of periodization. This chapter shows how the seminal years of 1492 or 1500 should be expanded beyond a lecture of Columbus and its impact to include snapshots from around the world, a more global view. Burton also explains why she starts with 1300 instead of the more conventional 1500. "Connectivity," the second foundation, shows that there is no center and no dichotomy of east versus west for most of history, rather there is reciprocity between the local and the global. In chapter 3, Burton makes a strong case for including women, gender and sexuality, and one of her specialties – the use of the body into the survey (Burton was co-editor with Tony Ballantyne of Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History). Burton correctly states that no textbook does enough in this regard; it is up to the teacher to fill this void. The last principle for Burton is world history from below. This chapter focuses on bringing the often vague "bottom" to flesh and blood life through the use of autobiography such as using Tra Ba Bunh's Red Earth: A Vietnamese Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation to show "the ways workers shape the global flow of goods and the world economic system"(56).

     The middle section of the book, "Devising Strategies," extends the Foundations section by showing how to apply gender, history from below, and connectivity to events such as 1492 and Versailles 1919, which she calls genealogy (read: the back story or long history of events), and empire. The empire chapter contains a useful comparison between Suleiman the Magnificent's and Louis XIV's courts and empires.

     The last section, "Teaching Technologies," evaluates knowledge delivery systems. Her chapter "Teaching Digital Natives" shares a few tech tools and sites, but makes the case for "in-person classroom pedagogy." This chapter was not the strongest, the chapters that followed were better. A useful and replicable practice was having students check sources in Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History and Isabel Hull's Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany for veracity and bias. She finishes with a chapter on testing which should serve as a useful guide any new professor on how to make examinations more pedagogically sound.

     What stands out in the Primer is Burton's use of sources and her willingness to change her syllabus based on new scholarship. Most of the sources she discusses date from after 2000. The Primer recommends itself as an annotated bibliography.2 A better title might have been What I Read and How It Changed the World History Course I Teach. Burton's extended discussion of how she uses a source like Erez Manela's The Wilsonian Movement: Self Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism to broaden the meaning of Versailles 1919 will have readers moving it to the top of their reading lists. So will her shorter asides on works as various as James Sweet's Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 of Khushwant Singh's novel Train to Pakistan. This is the greatest strength of the Primer. What emerges from the work is a portrait of a reflective historian. Burton has created her own course, built on her own specialties in the British Empire and the body.She is thus a knowledgeable and opinionated guide.

     Burton's text, unsurprisingly, will be found most useful by professors in Burton's exact situation—professors in charge of leading large survey classes who can adopt her practices as well as select from a buffet of content. It will also be useful to history departments that teach the second half of the survey. Individuals would benefit, to be sure, from a close reading, but departments even more so, especially if combined with a works such as Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do and Ross Dunn's The New World History: A Teacher's Companion to create a discussion around how their department can "catalyze critical thinking about what kind of world histories we want to think with, learn from, and recreate as we go" (9). High school teachers should not ignore the work either, but will have to do more heavy lifting than college professors to extract appropriate lesson plans. Therefore, it is a work that should be read and discussed by all serious practitioners.

Jeremy Greene teaches freshmen world history and WHAP at Chelmsford High School, Chelmsford, MA, where he is also the International Relations advisor. He can be reached



1 The first guide to my knowledge was created by three members of the Loomis Chafee High School history department. Robert Andrian, Lou Ratte, and Mark Williams, Exploring World History: Ideas for Teachers (Portsmouth, NH: Heineman, 2001).

2 For my own benefit I created an Amazon Listmania for the Primer here:



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