Tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues – from energy supply to mass migration and public health – is at the heart of an acclaimed new book series edited by history faculty at Washington State University.

The first three volumes in the innovative Roots of Contemporary Issues academic series, recently released by Oxford University Press, provide critical histories for understanding and addressing big problems that confront society today.

The books represent years of scholarly research by Associate Professor Clif Stratton, Professor Jesse Spohnholz and former Postdoctoral Instructor Sean Wempe, now an assistant professor at California State University, Bakersfield. They reflect the thematic structure and successful teaching approach of the Roots of Contemporary Issues program (RCI) and introduce WSU’s pioneering teaching approach to educators and students elsewhere.

Closeup of Jesse Spohnholz
Jesse Spohnholz

“We designed the books after years of learning how to engage with WSU students who are eager to learn about how the world developed the way it has,” said Spohnholz, RCI director. “They understand that learning our world’s past empowers them to shape its future.”

RCI courses are part of University Common Requirements (UCORE), aimed at helping WSU students in all disciplines acquire broad knowledge of the wider world and develop transferable skills that complement their major study programs. The classes enable understanding of the deep past as being connected to the present and of history as a process of knowledge construction still ongoing today.

Closeup of Clif Stratton
Clif Stratton

“The series grew directly from the realization that to have textbooks that truly complemented the dynamic teaching methods of RCI faculty required designing and authoring such books,” said Stratton, director of UCORE.

Each book explicitly connects pre-modern to modern history and each chapter includes both Western and non-Western content.

Power Politics: Carbon Energy in Historical Perspective, written by Stratton, examines the way our current carbon-based economy developed over time. The book focuses on how government and business leaders, as well as ordinary people, have transformed the ways fossil fuels interacted with other processes, including capitalism, imperialism, diplomacy, industrialization and conflict.

Ruptured Lives: Refugee Crises in Historical Perspective, by Spohnholz, explores the long history of forced migration and refugees, including debates about the scope and limits of humanitarianism, global economic inequalities, racist rhetoric and immigration policies, as well as the relevance of national borders. Covering a wide range of geographic areas, the book provides frameworks for understanding diverse ways that refugees have impacted individuals and societies.

In Chronic Disparities: Public Health in Historical Perspective, Wempe addresses public health crises, ranging from the bubonic plague to HIV/AIDS, and explores how health initiatives have impacted racial, class and gender divisions in different societies. It covers the rise of public health and sanitation, coercive globalization of health systems, colonial medicine, eugenics and substance abuse.

Faculty at institutions nationwide have given the books rave reviews: “This is a truly innovative series that promises to revolutionize how world history is taught,” said Nicola Foote, vice dean of the Honors College at Arizona State University.

“The volumes … address controversial issues with impartiality but not detachment, combining historical context and human agency to create accounts that are meaningful and usable for any student,” said Trevor R. Getz, history professor at San Francisco State University.

Two more books in the series by WSU faculty are set to publish this fall: Gender Rules: Identity and Empire in Historical Perspective, by Karen Phoenix, examines the role of gender in imperialism; and Heavy Traffic: The Global Drug Trade in Historical Perspective, by Ken Faunce, looks at the role of different drug trades as a case study for globalization.