HIST 104F: Cultures in Contact – a Q&A with Joy Dixon

 [W]e will spend a lot of time working through traces of the past together – old maps, poems, stories, images, newspaper clippings, census data – to see what kinds of answers that they can give us, and what kinds of connections we can make.

Joy Dixon researches the history of religion in Britain, as well as the history of gender, sexuality, and the body, the history of empire, and of the social and human sciences. She is currently finishing a book on the impact of the new sciences of sexuality on religion and religious experience in modern Britain. Dixon will be teaching HIST 104F: Cultures in Contact in the upcoming academic year. I spoke to her to discover what her course is about, and why students should be interested in this topic.

What is your course about?

It’s really about encounters between cultures as a major factor in historical change. We live in a globalized world where there are so many different connections being made and re-made between different cultures and regions of the world. That is often talked about as though it is a new phenomenon but of course cultures have been encountering each other – sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently – for centuries. At the same time, cultures have never been internally coherent – they are internally divided in many ways and always changing. This course traces the dynamics of those processes of encounter and change over the past 1000 years or so, looking at the ways that we can use these case studies to understand how cultural encounters have shaped the course of history over that period. By focusing on case studies it gives us a chance to uncover all sorts of connections and patterns that might not be visible otherwise. And it allows us to see how individual people created their own meanings and their own understandings of the world out of the materials that their culture gives them.

Joy Dixon

What will students take away from this course?

One of the things I emphasize in the course is what it means to “do history.” What kinds of sources do we have available? What kinds of questions have historians asked? What questions still need asking? Whose voices are we hearing? Whose voices are we not hearing, and why? So we will spend a lot of time working through traces of the past together – old maps, poems, stories, images, newspaper clippings, census data – to see what kinds of answers that they can give us and what kinds of connections we can make. And we will also look closely at the ways historians write about these questions – what frameworks do they choose and why? What kind of evidence do they have? How do they develop their arguments? So students will learn historical and analytical skills that they can take into other courses and that will help them to make more historical sense of things they encounter in our own time as well.


How is the workload distributed? What should students expect in terms of assignments and reading?

The course is divided into 8 modules, and in each module there is some background reading from an online text-book that includes some interactive quizzes and activities to make sure students understand the material. And there will be some written and recorded commentary from me that is posted on the course site. Then we will be looking at a selection of material together – sometimes selections from writing by historians, sometimes sources produced at the time of the events we are studying – and working together to understand and analyze them. There are lots of choices about how to participate – in online discussions on Canvas, through live discussions online using video/ audio conferencing, and using UBC’s Collaborative Learning Annotation System, which lets us work together on images, documents, and video clips even though we have to be physically apart at the moment. In addition to the marks for participation which can come from any combination of the things I just listed, there will be 3 short papers and a final take-home open book exam. I’m also working on some groups activities that I hope will give the students a sense of community in the course.

What aspect of the course- a specific lecture, an assignment, a guest lecturer, a film, a certain topic, etc- are you most excited for your students to experience?

The parts of the course that I find the most exciting are the ones where we have an opportunity to work through the original documents and data together. Whether that is a medieval map or the Slave Voyages Database or the 1911 BC census data – figuring out what questions to ask, whose perspectives we are seeing (and how we might uncover other perspectives), how we can use the material we have – however partial, fragmentary, or contradictory it is – helps us understand something new about the world that produced it. Working alongside students as they start to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions from the material is the best part of teaching for me.

Give us a cool or weird fact about this historical topic.

In one of the early modules we will be working with an early version of a world map, from around 1300. It’s the largest medieval world map we know to exist and it’s been digitized at full size so we can zoom in to see all of the details (including a unicorn labelled “Monoceros”). It’s an incredibly detailed map with hundreds of fascinating images that must have taken an enormous amount of incredibly fine and painstaking work. Asia, Africa, and Europe are all carefully labelled in red and gold – but the labels are reversed so that Europe is labelled as “Africa” and vice versa. I can’t help wondering what the reaction was when the mistake was discovered.

What’s something interesting about you that your students might not expect?

I was the first person in my family to finish high school. (My mother left school for work at 14 and my father at 16.)


Register for HIST 104F here.

Find out more about Joy Dixon here.