Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
As described in the Syllabus, the course seeks to sketch the deep linkages between East Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia by offering both a chronological and topical overview. The course highlights the spread of religion (Islam, Buddhism), the rise of colonialism, importance of nationalism and third-worldist movements, and consequences of diasporic communities. Each week, Professor Laffan presents both a chronological and regional exploration of the above concepts, with precepts seeking to connect these seemingly disparate topics and ideas. The main goal of the course is to survey the ocean communities (e.g. Mecca, Zanzibar, Calicut, Ceylon, etc.) and their prevalent role in an increasingly diverse, interconnected, and commercial world.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
Lectures: Professor Laffan uses the lectures to contextualize and explore topics that are framed quite differently in traditional history classes. Instead of providing a land-based exploration of the key players in the course, Professor Laffan describes each disparate region and connects it to the Indian Ocean. Not too subtly, Professor Laffan also uses frequent question marks and wordplay in titles of his lectures to illustrate key points about the day's theme and how an exploration via the Ocean piques much more unique questions (i.e., "Anglo-Indian or Indo-Anglican Colonialism?"). In my opinion, this adds complexity to the course, but also allows us to engage fully with the material presented. Professor Laffan is also probably one of the most engaging and interactive professors with whom I have had the privilege of taking a course. However, be aware that the course can be a bit disorienting in the first couple of weeks until you find your bearing (Professor Laffan also does not post his PowerPoints, so attend all lectures; they are also engaging and fun).
Precepts: Precepts are handled and organize really well, and serve as concrete methods of improving the connection between various topics and regions (as previously mentioned, the main connection between each region was faith, power or the Indian Ocean itself). Assigned readings ranged from time-period narratives ("Memoirs of an Arabian Princess") to more recent journal articles about the period ("International Dimensions of the 1965-68 Violence in Indonesia"). Just remember that much of these articles and readings will help you inform your understanding of the Indian Ocean arena, and remember to draw on the themes that recur throughout the course.
Lecture/Precept Preparation: While you are responsible for readings for both lecture and precept, only the precept readings will be fully discussed (although lecture readings are referenced in lectures and discussed briefly in precept), although your Tuesday Lecture readings will form the basis of weekly response papers. It is critical that you read the materials assigned and be ready to discuss them in precept. While not all preceptors utilized the format, my preceptor also required each of us students to serve as "preceptors" and lead the discussion on the themes of the week. Take notes for both precepts and lecture, although a large bulk of the course will make sense only after completing the readings and synthesizing the material.
Learning For and From Assignments
The weekly schedule looks as follows:
Tuesday: Lecture (Reading Response due); Thursday (Lecture; Precept)
On a weekly basis, be ready to read 100-150 pages. A few were challenging reads (due to their dense, academic analysis of historical events), but I found them to be quite interesting. Each week, you will have a response paper (1 page, front and back) that succinctly analyzes and interprets an aspect of the Indian Ocean at a particular point in time. Because you have different dimensions, it is very important to be able to compartmentalize and organize information, and be able to do so in your writing too. This probably was the most difficult and taxing part of the course (so spend time on it, even though it is 1 page), and I found that my best response papers were the ones that not only synthesized and contrasted the viewpoints of the reading, but also to place them to orientation with either previous readings or a broader theme (e.g. The Hajj).
Utilize your syllabus as a way to understand where you are in the Indian Ocean story, and be sure to keep track of important players (in most cases, these will be littoral communities, city-states, or Empires) as they have a tendency to reappear. Create a study guide that captures not only the important faiths, but also important powers (for example, instead of focusing on the muslim Mughal Empire as a standalone entity, be ready to discuss and understand how their story connected with (1) the Indian Ocean, (2) with other Powers across the Indian Ocean, and (3) interacted with other faiths, on shore and overseas). This is probably the best way to distill the material, and synthesize lecture, precept and the readings.
I also helped to organize study groups both in our precept and with some of my fellow classmates from other precepts before our on-demand midterm exam and the take-home final. This might be another great way to grapple with the material, as many of your classmates might have also developed different insights and underlying connections.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
Be excited and pumped to take this course, regardless of class year or background! It becomes clear why this course is so well reviewed. The biggest challenge is orienting yourself to the format of the course, which is unique in the way it is taught (being ocean-centric as opposed to land-centric), which can be a negative until you get it right. Be ready to participate both in precept and in lecture (for example, on the first day of class, Professor Laffan asked teams of students to go to the blackboard and draw our interpretation of what constituted the Indian Ocean arena!) Also, be ready for a horizon-expanding, engaging experience in a high-quality course! Professor Laffan also tries to get to know the people in his lecture as much as possible, and occasionally jokes around with the auditors in class. I could not more highly recommend this course. It was a highlight of my sophomore year.