Photo courtesy of Darryl Flaherty | Illustration by Jeffrey C Chase
June 21, 2022
Editor’s Note: Freshmen, prospective students (and some of their parents) wonder and worry about how they’ll make the academic transition from high school to college. In a series of stories, UDaily speaks to University of Delaware professors who teach courses commonly taken by freshmen on campus. The series features professors teaching biology, writing, economics, calculus, political science and sociology, and these stories can be read on the How I Teach website. In this story, Professor Darryl Flaherty explains his approach to teaching world history.
At the beginning of the semester, University of Delaware history professor Darryl Flaherty gives students in his world history course an ungraded quiz to test their understanding and sense of the world. One of the questions: What percentage of the world lives on less than $10 a day?
He said most students were surprised by the answer: 66%. But the point of the quiz isn’t to get all, or even most, of the answers right.
“Exercise is not so much about whether you did it right or wrong. I really want to try in my classes to get students to stop thinking that way, stop trying to tick the box that you got the right answer,” he said. “Rather, I try to make them think and question and see the bigger picture. I think many students have not been asked to look at the world and question their understanding of the past and their connection to the world we live in today.”
The introductory course is officially called World History Since 1400 (HIST104), but even asking when exactly “modern history” begins is a question Flaherty asks his students. When asked what defines “modern,” many students instinctively reach into their pockets, pull out their phones, and say, “This is modern — the ability to answer every question in my pocket,” Flaherty said. In other words, technology makes things modern.
Flaherty then asks his students: If technology is what defines modernity, then where did the technologies come from – Flaherty cites the compass, waterproof fans on ships, and printing with movable type as some examples – that began to create a connected world? The answer: China.
But Flaherty counters that technology is not the determining factor, so he offers students another idea, namely that merit, or an individual’s ability to contribute to society, is the hallmark of the modern world. This idea that an individual’s worth should be measured by standards of politeness (defined by Confucius well before what has come to be called the modern era, Flaherty notes) took shape in Song dynasty China.
So that’s where the course begins. But, just as important, where does it end?
“Where do we start the story? Let’s start with Columbus in 1492, which is another conventional way of thinking about the beginning of the so-called Age of Exploration. But if you start there, you’re saying that modernity begins with Europe,” Flaherty said. “And then of course, where do we end the story? If we end it now, then we will also see the nature of the newly emerging China again. If we stretch the time span, the picture looks very different than if we start with Columbus and end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example. So I encourage them to think about such questions.”
A key element of teaching is getting students to question the meaning and purpose of history, which Flaherty says is the added value of a college-level history course. HIST 104 is open to all – no one is expected to have ever studied world history, or any kind of history at all. But many of the students who have studied history have only studied “names and dates” of the past, where they simply have to master the chronology.
“The skill that many students master in high school is the ability to summarize. In other words, they’re given a narration and then they’re asked to give that narration back to the instructor, and that’s an important skill and a skill appropriate to the level,” he said. “In an introductory course at the university, the focus shifts more to the question of how and why. My sense of history is that it tells stories about the past that have meaning in the present.”
Lectures and lots of reading are to be expected in any history class, but the lectures are very interactive. During the weekly discussion segments, Flaherty offers guided questions, but it’s the students who drive the discussion.
For a beginner’s course, it’s not an easy class – but a worthwhile one.
“I don’t think he’s a simple professor. He really challenges his students,” said Emma Knapp, a first-year international relations major who took the course in fall 2021, her first semester on campus. “It was one of my toughest courses, but I also learned more from this course than any other. So if you’re a student like me – you love to learn and you love to go beyond the reading and communicate frequently with the professor – then this course is definitely a really good course.”
The subject of world history is broad and vast; It would be impossible to cover every world event spanning over 600 years within the confines of a 14 week course. In this way, Flaherty encourages his students to dig deeper into their own concerns or interests.
During the semester, Flaherty lets his students work on a project of their choice. Working either individually or in small groups, students can take any question or concern they have about the story and then develop it through any medium. Many students choose to write a thesis, but making a video or even creating an artwork is also an option. Flaherty had students write a thesis on Japanese mathematics, research the world history of physical therapy, and even critique the documentary “Babies,” which contrasts child-rearing in four different cultures.
Flaherty intentionally makes the assignment as open as possible.
“Students are programmed to be prompted, and I want them to prompt themselves,” Flaherty said. “Some students are frustrated by this. They’re going to come to me and say, “You’re talking about XYZ, and I’m interested in Q, and you don’t talk about Q very much.” The Q — the student’s interest — I can facilitate that. I’m a historian, so whatever your Q is, I’ll help you get there, but you have to ask.”
Creating a learning community is Flaherty’s teaching philosophy.
“One model of learning is that students are empty vessels that I fill. This is not my model. I don’t see people as empty vessels,” he said. “I see that everyone has interests and enthusiasms, and world history allows me to open the door for them to explore and develop something they are interested or concerned about, and then connect that to the broader history of humanity .”
Aidan McGinnis, a first-year political science student, was surprised at how much he got out of the class.
“If you think of Gen-Ed classes, I think for a lot of us it’s kind of a box that needs to be checked,” McGinnis said. “In the first semester I have to take history, mathematics and natural sciences. I check the box and then I can do the things that matter – the things I want and the things that will develop me for the job I want. But for me, it wasn’t something I expected, it was something I was really excited about taking this “Check the Box” course and actually being able to take something from it and apply it to my future career apply. Professor Flaherty made sure everyone took something away from the course to make them feel that this course is not a check-the-box course but is truly essential to their success in their field.”
Our world is global in ways that many people experience every day but don’t think about critically, but much of our history remains national, Flaherty said. Whether it’s news about Ukraine, the pandemic, or the effects of climate change, we all live globally, and Flaherty wants his students to think critically about the global world we live in.
“We all understand that we live in a global world, but when we think about the mental structures we bring into our daily lives, they usually focus on our immediate communities, and then more broadly, when we think critically, usually this is done through the lens of national experience,” he said. “So I think it’s important to try to develop a world lens, and world history is key to that.”
Support for study success
The University of Delaware equips all Blue Hens with the skills and strategies they need to be successful.
UD students of all majors are encouraged to take advantage of a range of peer tutoring services as well as comprehensive skills-building resources offered by the Office of Academic Enrichment (OAE). Most services are available for free. To learn more, visit the OAE website. Students can also use the Blue Hen SUCCESS platform to connect with their academic advisor or access additional resources on Advising Central.
For the UD educator community, the Center for Teaching and Assessing Learning (CTAL) offers programs, workshops and confidential consultations to support educators in developing and achieving their pedagogical goals. UD teachers at any stage in their careers are invited to explore online and contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
How I Teach – Series
That how i teach Website offers a collection of the stories of this series.