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On Decolonization in the Classroom

Matthew Heaton, May 2013

Editor's Note: Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should follow our guidelines. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters' contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to Marian Barber's recent article on teaching histories of decolonization (April 2013) in the hopes that others might find my experience with the subject helpful in their own endeavors.I was a member of the National History Center's Sixth International Seminar on Decolonization in the summer of 2011. In 2012, I introduced an undergraduate research seminar at Virginia Tech titled Ends of Empire in Africa and Asia. Twenty-one students enrolled. The primary tension that quickly developed was the age-old balancing of breadth and depth. On the one hand I wanted to keep the course broadly conceived in order to emphasize geographical and thematic connections, as well as to give students some leeway in choosing topics of personal interest. On the other it was necessary for students to be able to delve into a subject and emerge with a 20-25 page piece of original scholarly research within 15 weeks.

Geographically, students' interests ranged widely, but thematically the availability and quantity of primary source materials and time constraints pushed most students toward a focus on political and diplomatic issues. Despite these logistical constraints, however, we were able to develop significant global connections among the papers. We held a class conference in which students presented their work in five panels. Panelists then collaborated to write abstracts for their panels, emphasizing the connections between their papers. The abstracts and papers were then incorporated and published by Virginia Tech as an edited volume in e-book form. Each student was thus able to delve into an issue that captivated her or him, but they then had to make connections between their specific approaches and those of others in order to pull together the larger "book project." The project is part of a larger experiment Virginia Tech is undertaking to increase student engagement with primary source research. The volume of essays from Ends of Empire is available online.

A number of pedagogical issues with how to approach the teaching of decolonization remain, but my experience with this course has convinced me of the value of treating the subject as a discrete and rewarding field of enquiry.

-Matthew Heaton
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University