Two Millennia in Four Months: Scott Levi on Taming the Central Asian History Survey Course

One of my aims here on Bactriana is to fuel a dialogue not only about Central Asian historical scholarship, but teaching as well. I reached out to Scott Levi at the Ohio State University for an initial foray into this topic because his research has endeavored to place Central Asia within the broader dialogue of world history. Infusing intimidating proper nouns like “Qarakitai” and “Maturidi” with thematic historical significance in an introductory survey course is no simple task, but one for which Levi is especially well-suited.

Unlike many other subfields in history – particularly European and American studies – there is no set curriculum for a Central Asian history course.  Even the very conceptions of such courses vary dramatically between instructors.  With what century to begin the course?  When does the story end?  What is Central Asia, exactly?  Are there any reliable textbooks out there?  What about accessible primary sources?

In order to get at some of these issues, our conversation focused on Levi’s “gateway course” to Central Asian history: “Islamic Central Asia From the Arab Conquests to Russian Colonization.”  The class demands no prerequisites other than an interest in the topic on the part of the students.  Although Levi designed the course to suit his own interests and competencies, it was inspired by a course initially designed by Kemal Karpat at the University of Wisconsin-Madison titled “Central Asia – from Ghengis Khan to Stalin.”

Challenge #1: Chronology.  Central Asian history courses are unusual in that they routinely cover a vast swath of history. Glancing through some of the old syllabi available on CESWW, many courses start in prehistory – dealing with theoretical literature on steppe -sedentary interaction – and follow through all the way to the twentieth century. Such a broad swath of time is unimaginable in American or French history courses,  which generally concentrate on one or two centuries in much greater detail.

Levi argues that the longue durée approach to Central Asia survey courses can actually be a strength: “American history courses, for instance, are so developed that it seems like there is nearly a cookie cutter design.  What I like about Central Asian history is that there is a lot of room for flexibility and creativity.  I also teach a more advanced course on the Mongol Empire, which is still so much broader than any French history class.  Even that more focused class is essentially Eurasian history over five hundred years.”

Despite the fact that millennia-spanning Central Asia survey courses have become something of a norm, different instructors bound their syllabi at different points.  Levi’s course focuses in particular on two thematic changes: the Islamization and Turkcification of the region.  In order to emphasize those topics, the course begins with the rise of Islam (while devoting significant class time to pre-Islamic religions like Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, for instance, as well as pre-Turkic steppe-sedentary dynamics) and concludes with colonialism.  “The Great Game is the ideal point to conclude the course because then students can go on to take more specialized classes, such as modern Russian or Chinese history, or another course I teach about Afghanistan from the eighteenth century to today,” remarked Levi.

Challenge #2: Geographic Scope.  There was no such term as “Central Asia” in the eighth century, so how does one conceptualize a course using an inherently modern geographic category?  Levi’s approach is to concentrate the course on that which is closest to his heart, describing his class as “Bukhara-centric.”  He explicitly contextualizes this approach by historicizing terms such as Turkestan, Transoxiana, Mawarannahr, for students.  “That said, we frequently end up discussing developments in China, the Middle East, India, Russia, and Tibet.  What I don’t do in this survey is try to establish a cohesive political narrative by geographical zones.  To do so I think would be to seriously disorient my students.”

Levi emphasizes the importance of allowing the region’s history to organically dictate the focus.  At times Russia becomes more important, while in earlier periods the history pulls the discussion to the history of Islam in the Arabian peninsula.  Levi elaborated on this point: “In one of my experiences teaching back as a graduate student, one of my Muslim students challenged my approach to the course, arguing that there is only one Islam, so how could I speak of ‘Central Asian Islam?’  I took that as an opportunity to develop a strand of my course which demonstrates ways that Islamic practices across the Islamic world can in fact be quite different and reflective of local culture.”

Challenge #3: Textbooks.  Introductory courses suffer from the lack of a single accessible textbook covering the massive scale demanded by Central Asian survey classes.  Levi has settled on Peter Golden’s Central Asia in World History in tandem with Svat Soucek’s A History of Inner Asia.  David Christian’s book (A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia) was also a contender and Levi considers it good scholarship, but the chronology didn’t fit his course.  For the introductory “framing” articles, he deploys Sinor’s “Rediscovering Central Asia” and Adshead’s “World History and Central Asia.”

He also requires students to have on hand a copy of Rafis Abazov’s The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Central Asia, which is affordable and essential as a resource for his students, who are often entirely unfamiliar with the region’s geography.

Levi’s course emphasizes primary sources.  While developing this course, Levi found that Central Asian history courses suffered from a lack of primary source readings translated into English and framed in historical context.  In partnership with Ron Sela, Levi took it upon himself to fill this lacuna, which resulted in an edited volume he now uses for his course: Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Historical Sources (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

“The anthology of primary sources that Ron and I compiled and published was specifically designed to go with this course.  For people interested in teaching a course on Central Asian history who might not themselves be specialized in the field there were no pedagogical resources available.  We hoped that having better pedagogical resources might prompt scholars of Indian, Russian, or Ottoman history to teach a course on Central Asia.” Levi also noted that his students have responded very positively to the anthology, in particular to the introductions that he and Sela wrote for each reading to help structure their analysis of the text, as well as the bibliographic references which direct them to the full versions of the readings for use in research assignments.  Levi added: “We’re really happy with how this volume came out, but one question remains: who is going to do the second volume?  Who is going to cover the Great Game forward?  It really should be done by someone who specializes in modern Central Asia.”

Challenge #4: Pedagogy.  Central Asian survey courses face unique teaching challenges associated with the region’s relative obscurity in the popular imagination.  For instance, a greater proportion of enrolled students are primarily engaged in other academic interests and pursuits.  “I get three different types of students:  Some students take the class because it sounds interesting – it is a lark to fulfill distribution requirements.  Other students have a peripheral interest in the region stemming from the study of a neighboring region or even their family heritage.  And a lot of the students I get are history majors who are looking at this course as an interesting way to approach a historical subject, even if their main focus might be, say, European or American history.”

Levi’s solution is to treat the course first and foremost as a history course where students are challenged to develop the same skills they develop in other classes within the discipline.  Students work with primary sources, interrogate them for biases, analyze the ways that historians have interpreted these same sources as they assembled their own narratives, and develop their writing skills.

Compounding the challenge of students generally having less familiarity with the region’s history and being less likely to remain engaged long-term, much of the literature on Central Asia is either specialized and intractable to outsiders, or very general and of poor quality.  “A good deal of Central Asian history is inaccessible, and that’s a problem.  In order to understand that scholarship you will already have to have spent several years studying the region’s history.  I think this is one of the reasons the field is as small as it is.  I also think there is great demand for people who can be both well-trained historians and also present their ideas in ways that are accessible beyond our small community of specialists,” commented Levi.

There is no panacea for this hurdle, but Levi strives in his own work to begin to bridge this gap.  (For instance, Levi’s article “Turk and Tajik in Central Asian History” was written with the non-specialist in mind and is included in his syllabus.)  The results of his attention to course-design speak for themselves: Levi’s course is extremely popular, regularly attaining enrollment levels of 60-75 students.  His more advanced Mongol empire course is equally popular.

Scott Levi will be spending the next academic year on sabbatical, working on his new research project about the Khoqand Khanate.  Until we check back in with him here on Bactriana, you can find some of his preliminary results in article form: Scott Levi, “The Ferghana Valley at the Crossroads of World History: The Rise of Khoqand, 1709-1822,” Journal of Global History 2, no. 02 (2007): 213–232. He also hopes to spend some of his sabbatical time updating the syllabus discussed in this article.