Locating Our Settler Selves in World History

Course: Premodern World History: HIST 12800 

Department: History 

Institution: Hiram College 

Instructor: Merose Hwang 

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: First Year, General Education 

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: iPad Pro Tablets, online textbooks, Moodle LMS, Zoom recordings, YouTube, PowerPoint. 

Author Bio: Merose Hwang received their Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto. They are an Associate Professor of History at Hiram College. They have held positions as a research fellow at the Institute for Korean Studies, Yonsei University and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Sogang University, in Seoul, South Korea. Their research interests lie in modern East Asian social, cultural and gender history, with a particular focus on Cold War genocides and spiritual community restoration. They are a three-time recipient of the Korea Foundation Fellowship and a three-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Social Justice in 2020 

The Black Lives Matter protests in the middle of the pandemic of 2020 compelled many in the education sector to reflect on how our institutions should handle widescale demands for social justice. Hiram College asked faculty and staff to “respond to racism and to promote greater equity, belonging and inclusivity in our classrooms.” To act on this call, a group of faculty participated in a 6-week reading circle on Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Antiracist. We held deep conversations, shared other resources on anti-racist teaching strategies, tools, and practices, brainstormed with students, faculty, and staff on actionable next steps, and gave the administration a list of recommendations for structural changes. While systemic injustices were generally acknowledged, I wondered what real-world impact our initiatives would have at our institution? 

Then, I fell into a rabbit hole. One resource that a colleague referred me to was a New England Education Assessment Network webinar series on “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Assessment.” While attending one of these webinars, I discovered a “medicine wheel framework,” based on indigenous ways of knowing. Marcella LaFever’s indigenous assessment model opened up a world of possibilities beyond Bloom’s model for outcomes and assessment. This particular discovery also showed me that systemic forms of oppression cannot be resolved without questioning the problem of white settler colonialism

Locating Myself 

I began to question my role as a teacher: could I design a course of genuine collaboration between my students and I to co-teach with foundations of compassion, connection, and contemplation? At a time when we feel extremely isolated and disconnected, can I build a portal for us to locate our shared humanity? This evolved to asking questions about the history of settler colonialism, putting me on a path to find my own settler history, colonialist privilege, and healing journey. I began to recall that I once had the privilege of learning from the lands of many First Nations ranging from the Nisenan and Ohlone on the West Coast of Turtle Island to Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee towards the east, to the Pueblo, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne in between. I received graduate school training from my ancestral homeland on the Korean peninsula and from neighboring lands and waters in Asia. I noticed that the more western colonial education I received, the better I got at ignoring the inability to communicate with my people and that I was crafting myself to become the exotic sex/race object that Americans loved to see. I began to see how far I had strayed from my early teachers. 

To understand my own charge, I had to unlearn so many fictions like “postcolonial scholars help people,” “successful migrants are landowners,” “color-blindness is possible,” and “acting white will erase my color,” etc. I facilitated learning circles on some of these issues and began my own healing journey by unlearning who I thought I was, both by asking to reconnect with my settler community and by coming to terms with my own privilege as an uninvited guest on Turtle Island. Because my school had already invited us to take risks, I gathered the courage to propose we investigate and acknowledge the land that we occupy at Hiram College. 

Learning to Unlearn 

I gained some crucial tools to take on my settler journey from Dr. Clelia Rodriguez’s Seeds for Change online collaborative teachers and from communities like the Decolonization and Questions of Justice in the University from the University of Calgary. With help from these pedagogy circles, I started to break down my assumptions about my syllabi, binaries, grades, assessments, and the transactional nature of colonially-based education. 

Drawing on these resources and others, I propose some challenging ideas and questions below for educators to consider:  

  1. Syllabi are inherently colonialist in their content, models, language, structure and contractual function! Examine your syllabus to figure out which colonial pillars you can unhinge. Who are the majority experts and canons on your reading list? If they are white, male colonizers, must they be your main teachers? Perhaps mostly white, male experts exist in your field because the system favors white patriarchy, but if you are open to other discoveries and you dig deep, you will find diverse experts and elders (by the way, our search engines are also colonialist). 
  1. The binaries, deadlines, and grades we reinforce may be colonialist and be destructive for learners! That has never been more apparent than during this pandemic as students increasingly require neuro-divergent support, steadily drop out like flies, and retention rates alarm our budgets. Explore ways around our structures of domination. Consider bridges instead of binaries as models of analysis. Which deadlines can you live without? Can you offer alternative grades? While our external accrediting agencies will not soon disappear, you can reimagine what assessment should be. The more you collaborate on expectations, the more meaning you may find in the process. If you recognize your students as individual and collaborative learners, how can you embrace this in your activities and assessments?  

Ancestral Story Kit 

My fall 2021 term “World History: 1000-1800 (HIST 12800)” course became the first site for my decolonization experiment. While this course originally covered areas outside of Western Europe and North America, I considered ways to broaden this history, to bring in BIPOC scholarship and to help my students find their ancestral journey to Turtle Island. Diving deeper into our settler maps, I imagined the palimpsests of our modern landscapes, indigenous people who respect native seeds as their ancestors (unacknowledged, for example, in the native species studied at Hiram’s Field Station), and the indigenous presence of the land that we occupy. I toyed with alternate units of analysis, starting our first readings around indigenous concepts of time, space, and considered cosmic beginnings before human beginnings.  

I attempted to weave in indigenous knowledge systems as foundational principles for student assessment. I opened our first day of class by sharing a newly researched Land Acknowledgment and by discussing the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather teachings of truth, humility, respect, love, honesty, courage, and wisdom. I replaced traditional in-class tests with “self-reflections,” changed direction from “discussion leader” activities to asking students to gift the circle with “two juicy quotes” from the reading?, created an “authentic-self project” in place of presentations and gave an optional “creative term project” to replace the traditional term paper. 

The questions that drove my Land Acknowledgment research were used to create an “Ancestral Story Kit.” In this design, I pondered the following questions: 

  • Where are we in the narratives that define world history?  
  • At what point do we start reconceptualizing history to create knowledge that liberates?  
  • How do we get there?  
  • Where do we depart from?  
  • Why is this urgent work? 

Midway through the term, I introduced the Kit as a means for students to imagine their ancestral pasts. Students were asked to tackle theoretical and practical notions of ancestry, myth, testimony, exile, migration, archive, geography, technology, and modernity as we worked to define and redefine our present settler locations on Turtle Island. The Kit compelled my students to find answers from their elders, to discover their global ancestry, and to imagine historical texts in alternative ways. 

Students turned to their communities, spoke to their elders, and asked difficult questions from their families. Some shared that they had discovered indigenous ancestors who were hidden in their family tree. Others bravely enunciated how their enslaved ancestors were torn from their kin and homelands. Much class time was spent with students working together on geographical ancestral homeland clusters. Students were asked to role-play their ancient ancestors, to retell their origin/creation stories, to describe their farming technologies, to detail the landscapes they manipulated, to share their food ceremonies and cultures, to explain how they must have survived plagues and wars, etc. In other words, students were pushed to experiment with the long, eventful journey that may have led to where they are today. This class was as much about possibilities and plausibility as it was about historical thinking and factual integration. 


I intended this course to guide us towards other ways of learning that have been historically denied and erased. In course evaluations, several students commented that they appreciated being allowed “to make personal connections” to the material with one saying that “the project we did for the final really let me learn about my heritage.” On the structure of the class, one student praised: 

I am extremely thankful that I took this class my first semester at Hiram. It allowed me to grow in the area of [sic] connecting what I have learned to myself and my peers. The environment in this class also allowed me to voice my opinion and get better at class discussions and seminars. I feel like a well-rounded and open-minded individual after taking this class. I am excited to continue connecting what I have learned in my classes to other classes! 

While this course was generally a positive experience, some self-identified, black and indigenous heritage students struggled emotionally and logistically with this exercise more than students who could readily trace back through their European or Asian ancestry. I believe this was as much a condition of the state of the world history field as it was evidence of trans-generational, racialized trauma (slavery, colonization, and genocide). I shoulder the responsibility to find more resources on First Nations and African-American history, to advocate for underrepresented methods and scholar(ship) in world history. 

Two self-identified students with learning disabilities privately voiced their struggles to me. One of these students asked me to walk through my instructions after nearly every class. The structure of this course involved extensive teamwork, collaborative feedback, creative expression, and experimentation with texts. Students who have designed success strategies to satisfy standard assignments and expectations might have been challenged and unable to easily adjust to this unfamiliar course structure. For students who may have already been struggling with effective ways to navigate emotional intelligence, even the foundational Grandfathers’ Teachings in truth, humility, respect, love, honesty, courage, and wisdom may have felt daunting and frustrating. In the next iteration of this course, I will be equipped with new artifacts and sample outcomes to help illustrate our activities and goals more concretely. I am eager to draw from the resources that my colleagues are running on “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) and mental health in the classroom. Finally, in the academic year 2022-23, we will be engaged in other new DEI initiatives that promise to create more allied presence on campus.  

When I reflect on that course, I remember students having great compassion and contemplation. Collectively, they were thinking differently about the land. Through that process, we discovered that we all shared a common experience of ancestral migration. As much as I feared that some students might boast European colonialist exceptionalism, I was rather inspired by how several practiced making radical connections (a form of radical love). We found ourselves reflected in the narratives that define world history. We learned that we are the unlikely survivors of major global crises that existed centuries before us and that under the current global crisis, we are also ancestors in the making. Experiencing history in this way helped us plug into our shared humanity. 

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