Waves of Global Change: A Holistic World History

I have had some people ask how I got interested in world history, and how did I come up with the idea for a holistic world history. Well, I need to tell a story to answer this question.

It all started back in the fall of 1992, when I embarked upon what would be a life-changing project. The project occurred to me in an intuitive flash. I was visiting a class taught by a popular history professor, Joseph Grabill, who would become my advisor and close friend. He was explaining religious change over time through what he called “eco-waves.” In just a short moment, something clicked, and I knew what I wanted to do.

I was a “non-traditional” (meaning older) graduate student at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and I had been toying with ideas for my thesis topic, but nothing was exciting me. I had put forward a draft proposing to compare first ladies Rosalyn Carter and Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet, the books I had checked out from the library sat by my reading chair for weeks on end, unopened and collecting dust.  At the moment, the thesis seemed a daunting and uninspiring task.

Denise working with world history teachers at the United World College

Denise working with world history teachers at the United World College

On the fateful intuitive-flash day something changed. I began to see a new way of teaching world history borrowing Joe’s “waves” as the organizing principle. Now, this idea excited me! I didn’t know for sure if the model would work, but from my research and experience, I somehow intuitively surmised that this was a feasible approach. After class, I rushed to the front of the classroom to share with Joe what to me was a fabulous idea. At first he looked perplexed as I babbled on about ideas I knew nothing about. He pondered for a moment then said “why not?” I was elated. At a later meeting I sketched out my rough plan for a thesis based on a model for teaching world history. I asked him to be my advisor. After an initial quizzical look he exclaimed, SURE! That was it. He loved the scheme and now we were both hooked.

I had no idea what I was getting into or the magnitude of the project. As I reflected on my decision, I realized I didn’t really know that much about world history. My mother forced me to take a world history class in 9th grade; it certainly wasn’t my choice. But I did like the class. Yet, there was a yawning gap between taking a 9th grade world history class and writing a thesis on the topic! In my defense, I did know something about the world. I taught world geography in grades 7-9 for several years. I also, was very interested in world affairs and kept fairly current with world developments. I was fortunate to have traveled to different parts of the world and learned a lot from my travels. But still, my ignorance was probably a blessing in disguise, since if I really understood the scope of world history I may have retreated from this daunting undertaking.

Denise working with educators in Singapore

Denise working with educators in Singapore

After ceremoniously dumping my “first ladies” books into the library return bin, I immediately and enthusiastically started researching and reading about world history. No dust accumulated on these books. In the early 1990s, as I was working on my thesis, the newly formed and expanding field of world history meant that lots of debate about how to organize it circulated. I zealously dove into applying anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, economics, and geography principles in helping to broaden my holistic model.

I successfully defended my thesis, and it even won an award. The doctoral program was my next big step. Through my five years in working on my doctoral degree, I continued with my research, writing, and teaching of world history. Gradually, the model started to coalesce and by the time I taught my last world history class at Illinois State University I felt more comfortable with its progress.

I took a year off of teaching to write my dissertation and concentrated on filling gaping holes in my model. I met weekly with Joe and occasionally with my other advisers, and can honestly say it was a wonderful experience. Joe and I wrestled with the quandary that the world history model, by its very nature, would never be definitively “done.” It was a constantly evolving project – a process, as one of my students astutely observed. I submitted the 450+ page tome to the proper committees and happily scheduled my dissertation defense.

I had the cute little dissertation defense announcements printed up and sent out to anyone and everyone.  I was actually looking forward to the defense and calmly seated myself among the imposing all male committee. The defense got off to a strange start, with actually a heated debate about world history between two of the committee members, and I wasn’t included! I calmly interrupted them and asserted that we needed to get back to the task at hand; it was my defense and I was going to make the most of it. I answered the many thorny questions with ease. It went well and the committee congratulated me as Dr. Ames at the conclusion. Joe proclaimed that “I was now the expert.” Although wary about the expert label, the title doctor felt right and well deserved.

From this time, over 15 years ago, I have continued with the vision that a holistic state of mind is an important way of thinking in today’s world. This vision has inspired me to write not only the world history book, Waves of Global Change: A Holistic World History, but a book for teaching a holistic world history, the global economy, and the financial sector. It has also inspired me to found the Center for Global Awareness in 2003 and expand it with others into a nonprofit in 2010.  The work continues. But I always here Joe Grabill’s encouraging words when I feel overwhelmed with the task: “You are the expert now. If you don’t do it, who will?”

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