"Sites of Encounters and Cultural Production": An AHA Initiative for an Action Thematique

Teofilo F. Ruiz, December 2007

Borrowing from the French model of the Action Thématique Programmée, the Research and Teaching Divisions of the AHA are initiating a wide-ranging, long-term project that will gather many U.S. and international scholars and institutions around the broad topic of "Sites of Encounters and Cultural Production." Unlike the typical Action Thématique, this project will focus not only on research but on museums and K–16 schools as well.

What do we seek to achieve?

Sites of Encounters and Cultural Production seeks to look at those places—in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific world—and times where different cultures came into contact—from the early encounters between Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthals to more recent contacts between metropoles and colonies and from encounters in antiquity to the contemporary cultural interactions in cyberspace. By exploring from a broad, comparative perspective, in a variety of geographical and chronological contexts, the myriad encounters of peoples and cultures, we seek to examine how these encounters work and what cultural artifacts and products they generate.

We plan to organize these efforts by: (a) examining a variety of geographical and chronological contexts where different peoples and cultures met; (b) deploying a global comparative perspective from which to examine how these encounters worked; (c) creating working partnerships with public institutions (museums, for example) and elementary and secondary public schools; (d) testing new methodological tools; and (e) reshaping world history as an epistemology.

That is, we are proposing a long-term, collective research project that would attempt to address the totality of history, in the manner pioneered by Fernand Braudel. Because a global approach requires collaborative work, we propose creating large teams of researchers and scholarly centers working together on common problems from their own geographical and chronological strengths.

Why are we launching such a project?

There are three main motivations for our project. First, we wish to provide links between different levels of K–16 education, especially with regard to world history. World history now enjoys a robust presence in some K–12 public school systems, thanks to new curricula and approaches developed over the past few years. We wish to initiate a vigorous dialogue with K–12 teachers, borrow from their curricular developments, and provide them with scholarly and pedagogical support.

World history courses are playing a much larger role in university curricula as well. Unfortunately, most of the historians teaching world history courses have not been trained as world historians. So their approach tends to be merely comparative, with little attention given to specific history subfields, such as the role of the environment, culture, and science in the presentation and discussion of global topics. We need, therefore, to address the manner in which world history is taught at the undergraduate and graduate level and to provide some guidelines and standards for the development of world history as an integral part of new ways of knowing in the 21st century.

We live in an increasingly global society. Today at any school, college, university, or other academic institution in the United States, England, France, Italy, Spain, and other western European nations, students—K–12 students, undergraduates, and graduate students alike—come from many parts of the world. The assumption that we teach history to students who share a so-called western tradition and commonly held values began to be seriously challenged at least three decades ago. Basic beliefs, such as the idea that our students have a firm acquaintance with classical culture, Christianity, or the Bible (so crucial to our own understanding of the West) or that we all share the same taste in architectural forms, literature, or music can no longer be taken for granted. So we must make an effort to provide our students and readers with histories and pedagogical narratives that are not presented from one specific cultural perspective.

Second, we wish to transmit methodological and pedagogical developments in world history to the general public. Through a series of interconnected museum exhibits—an important component of our proposal—we hope to bring some of these issues to the population at large and to foster new ways of seeing self and community as parts of a wider and interconnected world.

For example, in the Los Angeles area (where many of those involved in the project live and work), one may envision rotating exhibits at the Autry, Clark, Getty, and Huntington museums and research centers. These exhibits can explore the first contacts between European and native people in the region, as well as the cultural artifacts created in the wake of these encounters by the assimilation, mixing, borrowing, and adaptation that occurred among different groups. Similar exhibits could be organized about migration, globalization, and other such issues. Scholarly conferences, K–12 students' field trips, and K–16 lesson plans and curriculum can be integrated into these exhibits.

Third, through the development of new curricula for K–16, we also wish to make contributions to the discipline of history (and to the place of history within the K–12 social studies curriculum), and to urge historians, in this complex and confused methodological moment, to think about, and collaborate in, new projects that may reinvigorate the study and teaching of history.

Among the most significant historiographical breakthroughs of the last two decades, women's history, world history, and cultural history have played important roles in the renewal of our discipline and moving forward a diversity of research agendas. This project offers the opportunity to bring together these and other methodological advances and, by linking them, to provide new possibilities for advancing historical research.

The project's focus on encounters and cultural production will provide world history with the dynamics that it has lacked until now. It will allow for a global and broad chronological comparative cultural perspective that holds the promise for new methodological contributions to our discipline. We thus seek to move the discipline forward and to have a role in shaping historical writing and teaching over the next decade.

Our plans for the future

What are the practical steps that we are taking toward our goals for the project? We are currently assembling a core group of scholars and research centers that, together with the Teaching and Research Divisions of the American Historical Association, will initiate, supervise, and support—over the next five to seven years—broad-range research and teaching on sites of encounters and cultural production (below, see the list of the current members of the advisory board).

Currently the planning for this project is based in the Los Angeles area, which is an important crossroads of global culture, has a plethora of research institutions and centers, numerous scholarly resources, distinguished scholars, and links to a large and heterogeneous public school system. The region therefore seems the ideal place to launch such a long-term research project. The Los Angeles basin may be paired with other school systems throughout the country, such as, for example, the New York state school system where other members of our core group are presently located.

Indeed, there are a large number of scholars with links to K–12 schools and programs in southern California who, by themselves, can make this project viable, but because the enterprise necessarily has a national and international character, we plan to expand the core advisory group. Thus, once we have defined the topic further and shaped our long-term research project with a wider geographical and chronological scope, we propose to increase the number of associates. We will, accordingly, invite scholars from other parts of the United States and abroad to represent, and to bring to the project, a wide spectrum of areas and chronological periods.

Another important step we propose to take is to establish links with other research units throughout the country and engage K–12 teachers (first in California and New York and then throughout the country), junior faculty, and graduate students into our enterprise. Since we seek to have an important pedagogical component to this project and to see our work have an impact on the teaching of history at all levels (from K–16 to graduate programs), special attention will be paid to the transmission and adoption of the project outcomes to a wide spectrum of institutions and educational levels. Our initial core group will, therefore, include teachers from different levels in the K–12 system and with the experience and commitment to the integrated curriculum we wish to create.

As we develop our project, we will strive to ensure that we do not overlap or be in competition with programs that are already opening new paths in the direction outlined above and making most valuable contributions. Our hope is to coordinate with these existing efforts, particularly projects that are making a substantive use of new technologies, such as the World History for Us All project (worldhistoryforusall.sdsu.edu) and the Golden Web project, which is now in development (www.goldenweb.org).

We will also try to integrate the research and teaching projects with national efforts to develop curricular material for high schools and history standards throughout the country, such as the programs of the National Council for History Education, the History-Geography Project in California, and with other local initiatives. Part of our proposal will involve summer institutes for high school teachers, continuous exchange of ideas throughout the year, and building a strong working relation between the AHA's Teaching Division and community colleges.

One of our first priorities is to secure funding to support our research project over the next five to seven years. We are planning, therefore, to prepare a series of funding proposals that would address different aspects of this program. As currently envisioned, this will consist of a series of interlocking but autonomous funding proposals for:

(1) K–16 cooperation, curriculum development, interaction between K–12 and college teachers;

(2) rotating museum exhibits in the Los Angeles area that will incorporate pedagogical aspects and also inform the general public on some of these global issues and cultural production across ethnic and religious boundaries; and

(3) scholarly meetings, publications (which can also be tied in to museum exhibits), and international encounters.

We propose to publicize the project and the related calls for papers and other contributions in the publications of the AHA. Needless to say, these publications and a web site dedicated to the project will also serve as channels for widely disseminating the findings from the various research projects undertaken for this action thématique.

Going forward, as the project evolves, we plan to organize panels at international conferences to share in the project's findings. Ideally, these gatherings will include a balanced mix of junior and senior scholars, K–12 teachers, and U.S. and foreign historians.

As a first step, we have sponsored a session at the AHA annual meeting in January 2008 (on Saturday, January 5, at 9 a.m.). We hope you will join us at the session to share your thoughts and ideas about how we might develop this project.

We also invite members to send their thoughts and suggestions about this project to Robert B. Townsend, the AHA's assistant director for research and publications, or by mail to the AHA headquarters office at 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889.

—Teofilo Ruiz, professor of history at UCLA, is the AHA's vice president for research. This article was developed from a much larger draft proposal prepared with the considerable advice and assistance of the project's advisory board detailed in the sidebar.

Sites of Encounters and Cultural Production

Project Advisory Board

Stephen Aron (UCLA and Autry Museum); Gayle Brunelle (CSU at Fullerton); Stanley Burstein (CSU at Los Angeles); Ross Dunn (San Diego State Univ.); Paul H. Freedman (Yale University); Nicole Gilbertson (California History-Social Science Project and Univ. of California at Irvine); Deborah Harkness (USC); Karen Halttunen (USC and vice president, AHA Teaching Division); Randolph Head (Univ. of California at Riverside); Lynn Hunt (UCLA); David Igler (Univ. of California at Irvine); Margaret Jacob (UCLA); Timothy Keirn (CSU at Long Beach); Peter Mancall (USC and Early Modern Studies Institute USC-Huntington); Ronald Mellor (UCLA and California History and Social Sciences Project); Wijnand Minjhardt (Univ. of Utrecht); Gary Nash (UCLA and NCHS); Amanda H. Podany (CSU at Pomona, and California History and Social Sciences Project); Kenneth Pomeranz (Univ. of California at Irvine); Peter Reill (UCLA and Clark Library); Roy Ritchie (Huntington Library and Museum); Teofilo F. Ruiz (UCLA and vice president, AHA Research Division); Virginia Scharff (Univ. of New Mexico and Autry Museum); Dan Smail (Harvard Univ.); Sanjay Subrahmanyam (UCLA and director of the Center for India and South Asia); Richard Von Glahn (UCLA); Michael Wallace (Chatham School District, N.Y.); Sam Wineburg (Stanford Univ.); R. Bin Wong (UCLA and Asia Institute); Katja Zelljadt (Getty Research Institute); as well as the members of the AHA's Research and Teaching divisions.