<![CDATA[Teaching Big History - The Teaching Big History Blog]]>Thu, 22 Jun 2017 05:20:39 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Inaugural Big History Summer Institute at WWU]]>Wed, 21 Sep 2016 22:31:18 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/inaugural-big-history-summer-institute-at-wwu Picture
by Richard B. Simon

Last week, we had our first Big History Summer Institure at Western Washington University. We’ve started a new course, Honors 101 “The Big Picture” under the direction of Honors Program director Scott Linneman, a geologist and a friend of geology legend and Big Historian Walter Alvarez. This fall quarter, all first year Honors students – a cohort of 150 – will be taking a one-unit course, featuring a series of top lecturers from across the university, working from their own fields of expertise, laying out (and questioning) the Big History metanarrative.  
Scott and I scheduled a one day Summer Institute, applying the pedagogy we developed under my colleague, coeditor, and friend Mojgan Behmand’s direction at Dominican University of California.
Faculty are from physics, astronomy, planetary geology, anthropology, history, and political science – as well as a climate scientist who is the Dean of Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, and yours truly, from Creative Writing. Fellow writer and English professor Julie Dugger, who is the University's new Director of Writing Instruction Support, also sat in.
The premise of the one-day institute was for faculty members to give each other a brief overview of key concepts that they will be presenting.  That way, we could have an eye to continuity.
We started with some introductions. It’s a big university – 15,000 students – so faculty didn’t all know each other.
Faculty had read Teaching Big History over the summer – and launched immediately into some discussion of how to deal with the privileging of scientific cosmology over other cosmologies, and of “western” narratives over other narratives. Diversity and inclusiveness are important focuses across Western campus currently – so we are being sure to build awareness and interrogation into the course that we’ll be teaching together.
I did a little bit of introduction to Big History, to the various strains that have come from thinkers in different disciplines, and some discussion of the various models of Big History teaching so far.
From there, I introduced the Thresholds of Complexity model (really focusing chiefly on the four features of complexity as an analytic tool). We worked through the FFC for a hydrogen atom, a star, a solar system, and a cell.
Then we circled back to the Big Bang. Brad Johnson, a theoretical physicist, gave us a sense of what he will present to students in his lecture on the early universe – incorporating the evidence for how we know, and drawing some important distinction between scientific methodology and other forms of knowing
He handed off neatly to fellow physicist and astronomer Kristen Larson, whose studies stars and how they churn out elements. She spoke on star formation and the increase in relative metallicity in the universe over time.
From there, Melissa Rice, a geologist who is active in NASA’s Mars exploration rover program, discussed planetary accretion and differentiation. (She was just back from a trip exploring the west to find proving grounds for a future rover concept.) She moved us beyond the goldilocks principle (in planetary terms, the idea that there is a “habitable zone” that is static across time). And talked about the “snow line” between rocky and gaseous planets. Planet science right now is exploratory, not predictive.
So we have been getting a sense of how the different disciplines will differentiate ...
At the same time, faculty effectively found the places where each lecturer would leave off and the next one pick up, and developing a sense of the throughlines that will, we hope bind the course together in a way that maks sense for our students.
It was time for lunch – a school spirit barbecue – so I framed that activity (our biologist was still on summer break) briefly in terms of the evolution of life on Earth – prokaryotic cells yield eukaryotic cells, which can form multicellular organisms – such as lettuce, pigs, and cows, and us. And our process at the campus barbecue would be incorporating the energy they had stored from the sun so as to make it available for our cells.
We returned from lunch and went right to the future, of necessity. As Summer Institutes tend to go, this necessity was the mother of invention: starting with possible futures framed the second half of the course, and hinted at incorporating an eye to the future into our distinct lectures. That’s important for students.
Jack Herring, a climate scientist and the Dean of Fairhaven College, spoke on the current state of global warming and how long-term its effects may be (not seven generations but seven hundred) and on geoengineering solutions – and plans to address them in a way that leaves students feeling empowered and agent, rather than despondent.
Kathy Saunders, a Cyborg Anthropologist, gave us a sense of a few possible paths that humans might ply as we develop sentient synthetic life forms. We may, she said, be creating our successor species. So what does that mean for humans and for our ethical regimes?
Then we went back in time to the development of our own species, as Anthropologist Todd Koetje led us through what anthropologists know about the origins and evolution of Hominines, beginning with where the great apes diverge into bipeds and “knuckledraggers” – including an eye-opening look at his own research on Neanderthals in Russia, and some perspective on the relatively small number of fossil remains from which anthropologists are still reconstructing our family tree.
His discussion segued neatly into fellow anthropologist Sarah Campbell’s discussion of agriculture. One key point: the transition is a continuum from foraging to farming. And we shouldn’t forget that foragers developed farming. And she will speak to the costs and benefits for our species of the transition to agriculture. Propagation is not more efficient; rather, it provides higher productivity per acre.
And that’s what allows civilizations to burst forth ...
Our historian was yet to return to campus – so we spoke collectively on industrialization to get us chronologically through the transition.
From there, Political Scientist Vernon Johnson began with the concept of Modernity and distilled a sense of what the important trends are in our human moment on Earth, in the U.S., and on campus. His job will be to find the throughlines for the whole story that lead through what’s in the news this morning. It’s a big job. He concluded with the idea that the new social movements are deconstructing the grand narratives upon which societies have thus far been running ...
We spoke a bit about developing a set of student learning outcomes both for the course, and for each of our individual lectures, which we’ll continue to hash out via email. And we discussed how we will assess course outcomes in a course without formal assignments.
Across the day, we kept returning to the importance of the evidence, just how we know these things to be so; the tension between correlation and causality; the scientific method itself and how it is applied from discipline to discipline.
Lecturers worked together to find the boundaries between one presentation and the next, and we developed a sense collectively of what the course will look like, so that we can all have a sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
We also decided to have one last two-hour session where the whole faculty return for a forum with students. An innovation that happened in the moment. That’s the stuff.
I’ve taught Big History at Western both in Stealth Mode (using it to frame a course on Modernity and The West) and in sanctioned transdisciplinary/lens mode, with the Fairhaven class “Big History and Creative Writing”, in which my students read David Christian’s Maps of Time, and interrogated it using the creative process – writing fiction, poetry, dramatic works, and personal essays, as well as songwriting and musical production and film.
But this was a more formal First Contact for Big History at this good-sized public institution.
It was a fruitful and exciting one.
It will be interesting to see where this adventurous faculty cohort and the First Year Honors students take it.

<![CDATA[Summer Institute Day Five: Industrialization, Ethical Dilemmas, Possible Futures, and a Bit of Ritual]]>Mon, 22 Jun 2015 04:14:29 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/summer-institute-day-five-industrialization-ethical-dilemmas-possible-futures-and-a-bit-of-ritual
Power tells Control to increase the energy flows.
by Richard B. Simon

n Friday, the fifth and final day of our fifth Big History Summer Institute, we talked about Industrialization (Threshold Eight) and The Future, which we sometimes think about as "possible futures", not to be confused with Threshold Nine. We talked about that, too.

We began with some re-freshing -- led by this writer -- on the Four Features of Complexity: diverse components (the building blocks for a form of complexity); specific arrangements (the structures in which those building blocks are arranged); energy flows (which allow the form of complexity to maintain its structure); and emergent properties (things a form of complexity can do that its component parts could not).

Then we watched the first five minutes of Charlie Chaplin's brilliant film Modern Times (1936)
, and analyzed it as an artifact of industrialization in the United States, and therefore as a text that can illuminate what's essential about Threshold Eight -- humans plus machines plues fossil fuels => wealth (and a host of other emergent properties in response, such as rebellion, and various types of social hierarchies or ideologies that warred against each other in the 20th century). (A more detailed explanation of this activity is in Teaching Big History, Chapter Six, "
Teaching Complexity in a Big History Context".)

Professor of Communications and Media Studies John Duvall led us through an examination of peak oil and the interlinked issues of energy supply and global climate change caused by carbon-forced global warming due to fossil fuel burning. He showed us a compelling bit of video. And filled in some of the challenges facing humanity in this century.

Nursing Professor Debbie Daunt broke us into groups (by categorizing our high school mascots -- very clever!) and presented each group with an ethical dilemma that professional health care providers face in practice. Our task: identify three issues at play in the scenario, then consider solutions. This is an exercise Daunt uses with nursing students to develop their ability to separate their own opinions and beliefs from their professional responsibility to serve patients and their families.

After lunch, we returned to using the Four Features of Complexity in an exercise in which we broke into groups and gridded out those features for our current global civilization, then considered how those trends we could start to see in the long story might manifest in the future, and in a possible Threshold Nine.

The massacre of churchgoers in South Carolina this week by a young racist was not something we had yet discussed as a group -- but the topic was unavoidable. What the activity leader (yours truly) had intended as a brief example of a social hierarchy (in this case, the skin-tone-coded social hierarchy of the plantation system in the American South that still exerts such gravity on American life)
led instead to an impassioned and multifaceted discourse. The good news was that after five days of intensive collective learning, we were not only at the breaking point intellectually -- we also had developed enough trust in each other to speak with both frankness and generosity on matters that we humans often find difficult to discuss.

Pulling back a bit, I think this is not an uncommon occurrence on day four or five of the Summer Institute -- and such moments remain some of the most resonant in the history of our program. Sociologists, take heed!

If entropy won the hour, Eric Sinrod, an attorney who teaches in Political Science and International Studies, brought a more ordered approach. He spoke on "The Potential Emergence of New Human Beings", presenting an overview of issues surrounding the incorporation of digital, mechanical, and biological technologies into the human organism itself. Sinrod asked us to consider the legal and ethical dilemmas that such potential new humans would pose (would we allow a group of humans endowed with enhanced powers to thrive, if such enhancements conferred vast advantages? How about when such advancements are only afforded by wealthy elites?)

Cynthia Brown then led our tradition
al Opinion Snake activity, in which we arrange ourselves from most pessimistic to most optimistic about the future, and discuss our position and our reasoning. (you'll find this activity, too, in Teaching Big History, Chapter Fifteen, "Threshold 9? Teaching Possible Futures").

Dan May gave us a lesson in language reconstruction, and how linguists have reverse-engineered ancient Indo-European languages and thus predicted successfully where certain cultural markers would be found. May and Craig Singleton led us in an Indo-European ritual to close the Summer Institute. We asked a few last questions, and shared our gratitude for a challenging and rewarding week of collective learning.

Food and drink followed in the California sun, out on the veranda.
Remembering our colleague Neal Wolfe, we situated ourselves on earth and in relation to the sun. We ate and drank. And then we went home to sleep, and to think.

I know they're mountains, darling, but all I can see is social hierarchies.
<![CDATA[Summer Institute Day Four: Complex Simulations and Transdisciplinary Lessons]]>Fri, 19 Jun 2015 07:30:37 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/summer-institute-day-four-complex-simulations-and-transdisciplinary-lessons
Hokule’a, a traditional Polynesian canoe, by Greg Taylor (http://www.divediscover.whoi.edu/history-ocean/polynesian.html)
by Richard B. Simon

This fourth day of our Big History Summer Institute 2015 was, as is probably usual, a day of both cognitive and physical exhaustion and new revelations about what we've been doing all week and how it fits into the longer sweep of the six-year development of our Big History program, courses, pedagogy, and faculty.

Today, we moved into Threshold Seven, the agrarian revolution. We ran three complex simulations of human society, civilization and activity. And we had three deep and expansive lectures on content that rung out as transdisciplinary approaches to specific topics.

We began the morning with historian Jordan Lieser leading a complex and very interesting (and fun) simulation of society-building in Threshold Seven. This worked like a board game, in which participants were given a set number of people with which to occupy a square on a world map, and begin to find food, using a 10-sided die to determine the outcome of that search. These budding clan groups could make decisions such as to raid neighbors or settle down and develop agriculture -- all with potential benefit and cost. We all wanted to settle in and spend several hours playing. The game's effect was to make the experience feel real, so that students could feel the consquences of such choices.

Director of Graduate Humanities Josh Horowitz taught us about the Polynesian migration -- the settlement of the Pacific Islands of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia -- and some historical and cultural background. Horowitz focused particularly on Polynesian navigators, and the "traditional star compass" they used to navigate and settle islands that were some 2400 miles away from the nearest continental land mass. We got a bit of Hawaiian language, music, and culture -- with a detailed mural focusing the lesson. We ran short on time, so Horowitz' Hawaiian-style simulation would have to wait until after the luau lunch that the dining hall (perhaps coincidentally) provided -- complete with flower leis.

Kiowa Bower led us through an impressive look at his study of technological evolution and biological evolution, the state of the theory, and his current thinking, which is that it is the same process, both featuring parallels, and with the "technium" as the logical continuation of the processes that unfold in the evolution of life (including, of course, increased complexity and energy processing efficiency over time). Bower laid out the theory and the thinking. This work will be the basis of a course he is designing for Spring 2016. This is a more complex, focused, and more highly developed approach to a technological future Bower has been thinking (and teaching us) about for a few years in this Big History context.

Professor of Nursing Debbie Daunt led us through her plague simulation. Each of us became either a trader or a pilgrim, and visited a list of cities in early modern Afro-Eurasia, where by rolling a die and reaching into a bag of different colored beans, we could stay healty; pick up plague; or pick up cholera. We would then roll additional die to see if we survived and for how long. Otherwise, we infected the cities in which we became sick, then died.

23/24 of us died, a death rate comparable to the actual plague we were simulating, which took place in the mid-1300s. Daunt asked us a host of reflection questions about the experience of trying to navigate a plagued world.

From there, Julianne Maurseth gave us a tour of her take on "Trade and Business Through the Lens of Big History." Maurseth's Big History perspective felt natural and obvious with out being self-referential. She explained leading students on paths toward improving themselves both as consumers and as eventual business persons -- particularly preparing them to bend linear, old-thinking, extractive organizations into circular and "entangled" ones. Her consideration of free vs. fair trade seemed quite timely, in getting at the tension between the power of free markets to improve hman lives and the power of big business entities to squash free market competition in ways that have the opposite effect. Whither, in other words, the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Boon or boondoggle for freedom?

Maurseth also broached the beginning of mechanized time that followed the invention of the clock in the early stages of industrialization -- and, interestingly enough, the last few sessions were the first in which the institute ran ahead of the clock.

We used some of that time to return to Josh Horowitz's lesson on Polynesian migration. Here, we rana simulation that had us, using no spoken language, assembling six-person teams for navigating long distances (to settle new islands) in double-hulled canoes (see above). The learning activity gave us us a bit of a feel for not just the activity of navigating, but also the Hawaiian culture and language.

Finally, Tom Burke led a well-organized reflection session. He incorporated brief, analytic free-writing prompts (what are you feeling muddy on? What are you feeling clearer on?) that led to some of the most comfortable discussion we've had all week.

One of our guests asked me this evening if Big History was a discipline or a pedagogy. I began to answer that it was the former -- but the truth is that it is probably really both. And that depends on the context. Big History is a discipline to be taught, for certain. But it is also an approach to teaching and learning and understanding other disciplines that seems to be recognizeable as such. You know it when you see it.

The sense from Wednesday that we had crossed a threshold into a new type of Big History teaching is what I had written had become clearer for me. It's a natural evolution, perhaps following some of the rules that Bower paid out for evolving life and technium. But our work appears to have grown into itself, its bloom to have filled out beyond its branch ends, and to have grown closer still to the vision that we laid out in some of our earliest and wildest imaginings about what this program could become.

Quite satisfying.
<![CDATA[Big History Summer Institute Day Three: Skulls and What's In Them (Collective Learning Rears its Head)]]>Thu, 18 Jun 2015 06:41:58 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/its-coming-together-big-history-summer-institute-day-three
Wolf skull, dog skull. (image: retrieverman.net)
by Richard B. Simon

Today, it felt like the many disparate threads that we have been laying out over the past three days at our annual Big History Summer Institute have begun to come together in a way that hints at a great synergy -- and also at our attainment of a new degree of collective mastery of Big History content and pedagogy.

Today, we spoke largely about the parts of the story of the universe in which life appears on earth and complexifies into myriad forms, in all their variation -- including Homo sapiens. But we also layered in some further consideration of other, earlier human origin stories and what they have in common (and thus what they have in common with the Big History metanarrative, the story that is suggested by the wealth of evidence from empirical human endeavor).

We started the morning with Dan May reading Ovid, from Metamorphoses, and discussing the ancient Greek text in terms of the eight thresholds of the Big History story. For Ovid, May suggested, Threshold Eight was his current reality, early modernity -- but besides that, the other thresholds are suggested in the opening verses of the poem.

What do you mean? one colleague asked (as devil's advocate and in the student's role)
. I just learned these eight thresholds last semester, and now you are telling me other cultures have them, too? But they are different?

Well, yes, and no. Humans have always tried to tell this story, the story of our own origins.

And, frankly, they've often gotten a lot of it right -- the chronology, in particular.

It's just (I'm thinking now)
that we have introduced, on top of the parts of the origin story that are rooted in careful observation of observable material reality, fantastical elements, which we use to bind that understanding of our material reality to a codified set of rules in accordance with the ways in which we want people to behave. It's not enough in Genesis, for example, to say that first there was a void, and darkness, and then God said let there be light, and then God created stars, then planets, then plants, then animals, then humans -- the chronology of which comports to what science tells us seems to be verifiably accurate. We must then add a more fantastical story about God fashioning Eve from Adam's rib, and telling Eve that she is to be somehow subordinate to Adam -- thus codifying a social hierarchy.

Zoologist Jim Cunningham explored the question of whether dogs evolved from wolves, laying out his pending course (Spring 2016) "Dogs Through The Lens of Big History." Cunningham gave us a lesson in comparative anatomy, and tracked some of canine evolution, asking important questions about how dogs and humans have co-evolved, and what the evidence is for that. The lesson also tied nicely to Tom Burke's discussion of artificial selection in mammals for specific traits, illuminating synergistic effects (in this case in an experiment in which Russian researchers are trying to domesticate foxes) that cause unforeseen outcomes (such as coat variation that ensues when only docility has been selected.)

From comparison of the skulls of wolf and dog (wolves' skulls are longer), we moved into our famous Hominid Skull Lab, in which participants handle seven different skulls, analyze various traits apparent in the skulls, and consider the implications of the variations they are seeing.

After lunch, we worked in small groups to develop a handful of courses for next year, essentially workshopping second-semester "Through The Lens" courses that are slated to run in S
pring 2016 and generating ideas for additional future courses.

This Summer Institute, our focus on the Lens courses is new
and very exciting. We are moving from courses grounded in a discipline to courses that turn our Big History lens on specific topics (Dogs, Technology, Food) using disciplinary expertise rendered transdisciplinary by crosspollination with Big History.

Leslie Ross showed us some cat pictures as a way of softening us up for a sweet tribute to our beloved colleague and friend Neal Wolfe, who died a little over a year ago.

Fittingly, after thinking about Wolfe, who modeled for his students what he felt was a fitting response to the Big Story -- awe -- we moved, guided by Lindsey Dean, into a much-needed open discussion of the human response to the story, and how it impacts our view of ourselves, our philosophies, and our religions. There's never enough time to go as deep as we would like here -- but the session provided some important breathing space.

Next, we got to sit on historian Cynthia Taylor's shoulder for five years of intellectual development in what she called "Looking Backward: Reviewing My Five-Year Pedagogical Journey as a Big Historian." Taylor led us from her experience at our first summer institute, through her voyage of discovery, from an American Historian focused on what she thought was an expansive 100-year life (that of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph) spanning the birth and death of Jim Crow
laws in the American south, to a view of the human story that was, in essence, 3 billion years long -- using biological taxonomy to reunite "human history" with the first 95% of the story of Homo sapiens. Then she demonstrated the impressive depth and breadth of her research into human food and culture for her pending second semester Lens course on that subject.

Taylor also emphasized the key Big History concept collective learning -- and compared its definition to that of the anthropologists' concept of culture.

By now our brains were beyond the overfull point -- yet one more striking post-post-grad-level presentation remained -- Julianne Maurseth spoke on "The Triune Brain and Variations on Human Intelligence."

Maurseth's talk fell under the category of Faculty Development. Her key observation is that students are, more and more, coming to us marked by trauma
(perhaps related to the financial collapse and its persistent effects within families, for example); and that this trauma, because of neural plasticity (or neuroplasticity), has left indelible effects on their brains' physical structure that can inhibit learning.

She spoke on neural plasticity, on some up-to-the-minute neuroscience, and how to enhance student outcomes by understanding what's going on in students' (and our own) brains. Maurseth modeled using some mindfulness techniques -- in particular,  diaphragm breathing (or "belly breathing") to help students control their own responses to academic stimuli -- responses that may have been not only formed by trauma in childhood that, for 17 or 18-year-olds, may have been quite recent, but also re-emphasized by successive instances that build neural pathways from stress stimulus to panic response that end up as "superhighways".

We can disrupt these superhighways by slowing down the signals that reach our reptilian brain, to give the neocortex time to respond before the body is overwhelmed by panic responses that yield less-than-optimal outcomes.

A fascinating, and immediately useful presentation.

We are filling in the narrative slowly and deliberately. We're also trying to offer some important guidance to our colleagues from within and outside Dominican in terms of building new courses and new programs.

And we are also, as a faculty, pushing into new terrain, and synergizing our expertise in our home disciplines with an expertise as Big Historians (which we've been cautious about claiming), and especially as Big History educators, to really take teaching Big History to a new and intellectually demanding and quite satisfying level.

<![CDATA[Big History Summer Institute 2015, Day Two]]>Wed, 17 Jun 2015 06:14:11 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/big-history-summer-institute-2015-day-two
Detail from Charles Jencks' The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.
by Richard B. Simon

oday, we looked at complexity in the early universe, and learned about a few second-semester "Through The Lens courses -- a focus we haven't really had on these courses in collective discussion in previous Summer Institutes. We also broke out into concurrent sessions in which veteran Dominican Big History faculty did some problem-solving on programming for 2015-16, and guests and new Dominican Big History teachers strategized developing learning outcomes for their future Big History courses and programs, which they could then use to tailor their courses through backwards design.

In the morning's first session,
Dan May led us through "Complexity by the Numbers". His core point was that changes in quantity (increases or decreases in temperature, such as the cooling of the early plasma universe, or the cooling of a star as its core fills with iron and fusion ceases) can trigger changes in quality (meaning not a value, but the material nature of a form of complexity -- a universe in which protons and neutrons and electrons form atoms, or a supernova blasts elements into space).

Led by Cynthia Brown, we took a crack at our Origin Stories activity (watch this space for it soon!) in which teams of "students" study, then stage origin stories from various cultures (ideally illuminating what human origin stories have in common with each other -- and with the Big History metanarrative).

Dan May tapped back in and talked to us about Threshold Four -- in particular, the formation of the moon during the "Big Thwack" (!) and the relationship via gravity, tide, and tilt, between the moon and earth. He also cited a few other irregularites in the solar system as evidence of continuous bombardment and collision.

After lunch, we broke out into two groups to plan for next year.

Art Historian Leslie Ross
showed us her course "Art Through The Lens of Big History" (note that the "Lens" courses have worked both ways -- Big History through the lens of a discipline, or the discipline through the lens of Big History.)   Most striking: a tour through the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, an enormous land art installation by Charles Jencks in Scotland, which ponders the wave forms that make up the universe through contoured land and other landscape features.

Another revelation from Ross' presentation: you can think of "thresholds" as gates, as in some sacred Shinto sites in Japan. Stylized gates or doorways or thresholds appear in many cultures' sacred architecture as ritual entranceways into sacred spaces.

(Thresholds? Gates? Big History? Hmmmm ...

Dan May returned once more to teach us "Quantum Mechanics Lite" -- a needed primer on the sub-subatomic: quarks, leptons, and bosons, including the Higgs (the effect of which on the Big History story this writer has been
wanting to understand since its apparent "discovery" in 2012).

Tom Burke modeled the second semester course with a look at his course "Beauty (and Aesthetics) Through The Lens of Big History". We broke into groups and considered the beauty of particular wild mammals
-- and why we might think they were beautiful (or aesthetically pleasing). We took a crack at re-designing them.

My group gave our giraffe a unicorn's horn, a longer, more leonine mane (one suggested it should be "blonde"), longer eyelashes, and an upturned, rather than a downturned, muzzle. Even with ears (this illustrator forgot to draw them), the outcome would have been troubling.

As it turns out, tigers (a very popular choice) and giraffes and horses were plenty good-looking to begin with.

We ended the day with a brief de-briefing led by Music Professor (and guitarist!) Craig Singleton.

That familiar and not entirely unpleasant cognitive exhaustion took root today. And some of us who are newer to the Institute admitted a bit of shell-shock.

Many of us are still pondering what the story means so far, for use as individuals, and as educators thinking about planning curriculum for academic years that loom a bit over the horizon, and that must serve the needs of our students and institutions -- and our own intellectual demands.

Just as we should be.

Also of note: some of our guests met deer and jackrabbits wandering campus this morning.

<![CDATA[Big History Summer Institute 2015, Day One]]>Tue, 16 Jun 2015 05:02:44 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/big-history-summer-institute-2015-day-one
(Photo: John Duvall)
by Richard B. Simon

oday was the first day of the fifth Dominican University of California Big History Summer Institute (though our first Institute was in 2010, in 2014 we hosted the International Big History Association conference instead).

We began the Summer Institute in 2010 as our killer faculty development tool. This annual, week-long intensive seminar works in conjunction with regular weekly faculty lunch meetings during the school year, and a semesterly faculty retreat.

In our summer institute, we share best practices, train new faculty (and retrain on new information and new methods, updating the Big History metanarrative with the latest developments in the endeavors of human knowledge).

In our first year, we were 30 professors arguing over the nature of the universe and reality and how to teach it. The following year, we focused on pedagogy over mastery of content. The year after that, we incorporated complexity in new and important ways.
Each year has had its own distinct character (and our learning cohort has evolved, including a core faculty, and new colleagues teaching our first-semester survey of Big History, or our many second semester "Through the Lens" courses, that address Big History by focusing in particular disciplines ("Big History Through The Lens of" Health and Healing, or Business and Trade, or Art History, or Studio Art).

In 2012, we began to invite
faculty from other institutions.

This year, we have a large cohort of guests, from the University of Saint Francis in Illinois, and from Bradford University
in Virginia -- as well as a handful of Dominican faculty who are new to Big History. Our new Director of Big History, Dan May, is running the institute for the first time. And our "veteran" Big History faculty are serving as the master teachers. In many ways, we have come full circle from our very first summer institute, when we brought in experts to teach us. Now we are become the experts, and we are teaching the teachers.

Big Historian Cynthia Stokes Brown started the day by giving us a little bit of a Little Big History of Big History at Dominican.

Dan May continued in that vein by presenting a Little Big History of his long-haired cat, Pangur Ban -- updating some of our knowledge of the Big History story in the process (Dan discussed the idea of the "big thwack", the collision of a Mars-sized object with Earth about 10 billion years ago, as well as the discovery of amino acids floating loose in space -- and invited us to consider the implications of these more complex building blocks of organic life as being potentially adrift throughout the cosmos)

Biochemist and molecular biophysicist Kiowa Bower ran us through a granluar look at "Threshold One: The Big Bang Through The Age of Darkness" and the evidence for how we think we know what happened so early in the development of the universe -- notably drawing distinctions between Doppler redshift and cosmological redshift (the former caused by objects moving away from each other, the latter, apparent in more distant objects, caused by the stretching of time/space itself. He gave us some detail on the observable universe (which -- though it is only 13.8 billion years old -- because of expansion, is 46 billion light years in radius), and theories of multiverses.

After lunch, Scott Calhoun, a Dominican faculty member in the Communications Department, new to Big History, visited Thresholds Two and Three
("The Stars Light Up -- and Blow Up") and gave us a closer look at our star, the sun -- and the life cycle of stars generally. He showed us "The Ancient Greek Finger Trick" for teaching parallax: 1. hold your finger out in front of you. 2. close one eye and line that finger up with an object. Now close that eye and open the other eye. That distance between where your finger is and where it was can be used with trigonometry to calculate the distance to distant stars.

I presented on using Big History in composition, literature, and Creative Writing classes. We started by writing Big History haiku. Then I laid out how my Big History composition courses work; how I use a Big History perspective to unveil new and important facets of King Lear
; and a bit on using creative writing in Big History classes, and Big History sensibility in Creative Writing classes.

Philosophy professor Lindsey Dean grounded our day in meaning, leading us through key activities in her Through The Lens course, "Philosophy Through The Lens of Big History". We pondered why different thresholds were mearningful to us, what big questions they raised. Then Dean explained the arc of her semester, and shared with us some key student insight into humanity, our role, our place, our potential (and sometimes our failings as stewards of earth)

Music Professor Craig Singleton gave us
a taste of his "Music Through The Lens of Big History", starting with the physics of what sound is and how sound waves are made, and the biology of how sound waves travel through the ear to the brain. He laid out some key thresholds in musical history. then he led us through a deeper, Big History-scale look into the history of the rock group The Eagles. Music, Singleton said, is not a universal language, after all, but rather a universal expression that manifests through many different languages or dialects.

We concluded the session with a brief debriefing and some discussion of the conflict between students who come to higher education expecting job training (and who may balk at taking a course they don't see as being a paving stone on the straight-line path to their career goal); on the changes in higher ed; some early talk on the potential for conflict between science and religion (never a dull topic!)

We ended the day at founding director Mojgan Behmand's house, with a sumptuous feast -- including some traditional Iranian dishes hand-prepared by our hostess, and laid out in grand California style, with Balinese music, plenty of local wines, and a view through the trees of the golden hills.

("We're not in Kansas anymore!" one of our guests marvelled.)

Really, today we spent getting our Big History legs back under us, getting accustomed to the dynamic of a new group and a new situation, and getting comfortable
with a new approach to Summer Institute, sharing the fruits of our collective learning.

Tomorrow, we go deeper.

<![CDATA[Writing Prompt: Humans on Pangaea?]]>Thu, 04 Jun 2015 17:03:49 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/writing-prompt-humans-on-pangaea
by Richard B. Simon

ere's a writing project to try with students.

magine that Homo sapiens and human civilization developed on the supercontinent Pangaea (as represented in the above map by Massimo Pietrobon). How would the history of our species be different? How might human migration, networks of exchange, and interplay between disparate cultures have been different? How would cultures have developed differently? And what might be some of the effects on collective learning?

Students could also think about how life might have evolved differently had plate tectonics left the supercontinent intact. And how about circulation and species in that one massive ocean?
What would weather patterns be like?

The project could be a research paper, an essay exam designed to assess facility with applied Big History knowledge ... or a creative writing project in speculative fiction, that encourages innovative thinking.
<![CDATA[Teaching Big History Reviewed in The History Teacher]]>Thu, 28 May 2015 21:40:59 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/teaching-big-history-reviewed-in-the-history-teacherBig Historian Craig Benjamin reviews Teaching Big History in the new issue of The History Teacher:

As someone who has been teaching Big History for twenty years, and as an author of numerous Big History articles, chapters, and books, I know of very few other instructors who have thought more deeply about pedagogy and assessment in this field as systematically and rigorously as editors Simon, Behmand, and Burke and their accomplished team of teacher-authors. Perhaps Brian Thomas Swimme, one of the leading proponents of Big History (or as he has often termed it in print and film, “The Universe Story”), puts it best when he notes that future scholars tracing the “rise” of Big History might well begin their story with the faculty at the Dominican University of California. There is quite simply no better teaching guide available than this well-written and quite inspiring book. Those of us deeply committed to the field are grateful to have this book available, because it may well help facilitate Brian Swimme’s prediction that by the twenty-second century of the Common Era, Big History will be “taught in every university around our planet.”

<![CDATA[How We Wrote TEACHING BIG HISTORY]]>Thu, 21 May 2015 18:17:48 GMThttp://teachingbighistory.com/the-teaching-big-history-blog/how-we-wrote-teaching-big-history
This piece originally appeared in Origins, the newsletter of the International Big History Association.

How We Wrote Teaching Big History

Richard B. Simon

When Lowell Gustafson kindly asked me to write a piece on how the Big History faculty at Dominican University of California worked together across the disciplines to write our new book Teaching Big History, it took me a while to understand how to respond. That’s partly because we have had the good fortune to be able to take such collaboration for granted. Cynthia Brown, our “resident Big Historian”, has often pronounced herself amazed at what we have done collectively to build the first university program on Earth to require that all first year students study Big History. This level of collaboration among university faculty, she says, is rare. It shouldn’t be. We hope that our book may serve as an example of how to do what we have done.

The writing of the book has been its own process, but it starts with the character of our Big History program itself, and that emanates from the people in the program – the individuals who make up our faculty – and from its leadership. From the beginning, Mojgan Behmand, who as the director of the First Year Experience and of General Education became the founding director of FYE Big History, led our large group to innovate and to find consensus in thoughtful discourse and debate. Faculty were invited to opt in. While some have cycled in and out of teaching duty, those of us who have remained close to the project have done so because we have found our experience in Big History transformative. We believe in it. We share the vision that this is where general education must go next.

The conspirators

Two years in, Mojgan realized that because we had been working so intensively and collectively with a large group of sharp and dedicated thinkers – about thirty faculty each year, in a rotating cast, teaching about ten sections of Big History or Big History “Through the Lens” of a specific discipline each semester – we had made some advances in Big History-specific pedagogy that might be of use to others, even perhaps to those who had been teaching Big History in other formats.

She got that twinkle in her eye that usually precedes a lot of work.

“We should write a book,” she said.

Mojgan, Thomas Burke, and I began to think about how such a book might work, and what should be in it. As English teachers, we have a lot of experience leading student writers to deadline. That’s what we do.

Because I had spent ten years editing my own little corner within a national music magazine and had spent some time getting writers to contribute work on journalistic deadline, I jumped into the role of editor-in-chief.

Mojgan attained resources and made sure that the book remained aligned with a curriculum that was evolving and adapting as assessment information came in, faculty from different disciplines came on board, new “lens” courses came online, and our pedagogical approach took shape through field trial.

Tom was the voice of reason and grace, sometimes in cases where Mojgan and I might have wanted to move in different directions. When we were editing his work, Tom would say “I don’t have any ego about this.” His example was invaluable for our collaboration.  He also made clear sense of the many learning activities that we include – a formidable task.

As for the writing, our colleagues, again, were invited to opt in. In some cases, we solicited particular pieces. But we allowed everyone to write to their own interests while using structural techniques to ensure that the larger work held together coherently.

The book’s structure

Popular book-length arguments, which we often use as texts in English composition classes, tend to follow the structure of basic argument. The ones that are the most resonant are grounded in storytelling. That’s because the human brain responds to story. That approach seemed a good fit for writing a book about Big History, which is itself a metanarrative about structure, yet in which we were also laying out a case for what should be done, and why, and how.

I initially thought the book should follow the structure of the Big History story. I asked Cynthia Brown to write a Little Big History of Big History itself. And I asked philosopher of religion Philip Novak, who, with Cynthia and biologist Jim Cunningham, had pioneered teaching Big History at Dominican, to write a Little Big History of Big History at Dominican. Phil, characteristically, both honored and interrogated the Little Big History structure, and ultimately crafted an origin story.

Those two pieces were the Big Bang.

I began to think deeply on and sketch out structures and outlines for the book. We three editors would meet and I would propose an outline, and Mojgan and Tom would weigh in with much better ideas – and so we refined the book’s structure in the same way that we have revised our program – through discourse, debate, and consensus.

Because we had embraced the Thresholds of Complexity model advanced by David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin, and drawing on the work of Eric Chaisson and Fred Spier, our program used the thresholds as units. So, it made sense that, as we laid out our pedagogy, we would begin with a chapter on complexity, then follow the thresholds, revisiting complexity at each step, which we felt was essential. From there, we asked our colleagues to volunteer to write on a particular threshold that was of interest. In our annual summer institutes, we were presenting on different parts of the story or approaches to teaching it, and some of our faculty had developed sub-expertise – often closely related to their home disciplines. So, we sometimes asked individual colleagues to write where they had particular strengths or inspiration, and could provide the most insight.

We also asked our colleagues to contribute write-ups of the hands-on learning activities that we had been developing individually and collectively. Some were developed for our Big History survey course, others for a Big History studio art class, or a Big History creative writing class, or a Big History business class. And so the book took on art projects, storytelling exercises, and even a stock-trading game. Those activities have been field tested with students and refined.

Essential to this, again, was that Thomas Burke developed a template into which the contributor would write a description of her or his activity, like a lab report – ensuring that the activity can be readily reproduced in any classroom.

Likewise, the chapters on teaching the thresholds follow a common logical and structural template – or the book would not have worked. We use parallel structure to ensure clarity and maintain the book’s coherence.

Because the “Practical Pedagogy” section of the book follows the structure of the Big History story, it has become, itself, a Big History account. Like all Big History accounts, it bears the imprint of its teller and its intended audience. In this case, the metanarrative is told from the point of view of teachers in classrooms, seeking the most effective way to share it with students. And what we have tried to do is to distill, for each threshold, the essentials that should be covered in the classroom in a unit on that threshold.

In each chapter, we tell a story. We lay out key concepts in that threshold. We explain how complexity manifests in that threshold, and include a flowchart for visualizing energy flows therein. We propose student learning outcomes and assessments for those outcomes that can be brought directly into a syllabus or course outline. We lay out and address challenges we have found in teaching each threshold. And we include detailed, tightly-organized lesson plans for activities that can be brought directly into the classroom. In a few cases, that includes handouts that can be photocopied or adapted.

Because there’s no fixed content for teaching “the” future, our chapter on teaching the future presents several different approaches to what we think of as “possible futures” – including key concepts, and pondering with students what a Threshold Nine might look like, based on the larger unfolding patterns in the story. In this chapter, we speak in the many voices of our faculty. They don’t necessarily all agree! It’s a discussion. It feels like one of our summer institutes. The writers are thinking, building on one another’s ideas, and innovating.

That has always been a distinct element of our program: many voices, gathered around the table, contributing, arguing, hashing it out, learning from each other, and arriving at solutions to pedagogical problems. We kept the distinct voices of our colleagues in mind in the joyously grueling weeks in which we editors wrestled with our razor-sharp UC Press copy editor. We were careful to maintain each colleague’s distinct voice as a teacher and as a storyteller, even as we worked to maintain structural coherence throughout the text.

Eventually, the larger book took on the structure of our program. Part One is about how we built a Big History program as a response to the demands of a liberal education in the twenty-first century. We also include a look at how Big History is taught in the Netherlands and Korea, as well as the Big History Project. Part Two is our Practical Pedagogy; it begins with a chapter on teaching complexity, which frames the threshold chapters. It goes on to include chapters on using reflective writing in the Big History classroom, and on working with campus librarians to embed information literacy into the course.

Part Three: Big History and its Implications plays to what we feel is another important strength: our approach to issues surrounding meaning and religion in the Big History classroom. We are presenting a grand narrative that sometimes challenges students’ home cosmologies – and thus the underpinnings of their identities. Helping students navigate this terrain is a big responsibility; we don’t take it lightly. We have had a long and challenging and impassioned and often inspiring and transformative wrestling match thereon. Our approach has always been to treat students’ religious traditions with great respect. In this section, our colleagues who are expert in the disciplines of philosophy, religion, ethics, and humanities lay out pedagogical approaches for handling the profound questions that are inevitable in the Big History classroom.

Finally, our Annotated Bibliography both models an assignment we give students and serves as a 40-page reference, featuring brief reviews of various relevant texts (including Big History accounts, other nonfiction works, novels, short writings, feature films, documentaries, videos, and multimedia resources) that Big History teachers can read for inspiration, assign to students, or use in the classroom.


Certainly, we editors had to twist a tail or two to get folks who are accustomed to academic time scales to hew to editorial ones. A few pieces required some heavy drafting, and even some occasional cognitive and editorial push and pull. Frankly, that work has been some of the most rewarding. To be given that sort of trust by colleagues is humbling.

That’s really how we did it. Our colleagues trusted us with their work and their words, and we editors worked hard to honor that trust.

It has been one of the wonders of building this program that teaching Big History is meta-educational, because the story, especially when we get to the human part in the last three thresholds and the future, is about humans learning collectively. So when we are teachers learning collectively about humans learning collectively so that we might spur further collective learning (about collective learning) in our students ... well, we are working on many levels.

As it turns out, multi-dimensional collective learning is fun! That, too, may be why we haven’t had much problem working across disciplines. We self-selected for interest in this project, and in this sort of collaboration. We like doing this together. And we’ve been doing it for nearly six years now. The truth is that, from the start, we very quickly became a Big History faculty.

Harlan Stelmach writes that the writing of the book has been the next step in our collective learning. We are looking forward to our next summer institute, where for the first time, we will be working from our own published text.

If I had to tell someone else how to do this part, the writing of a book as a group of professors with strong ideas, I would say, be generous. Respect everyone’s voice. Individuals should write from their strengths. And, fractally speaking, the group should write from its strengths.

Start with gracious leadership to set the tone. Also, be rigorous and thorough and fearlessly innovative. Keep a tight structure, and allow people to improvise within and upon that tight structure. Let each person make her piece or his piece a part of her or his own intellectual journey.

And when it comes to the copyediting, when you’re poring over every single comma and dash and colon and parsing how its position between these two clauses effects how we project our collective understanding of the essential concepts that underpin the complexity framework, or the cosmos, or life ... feel free to leave that part to the English teachers.

Seriously. We love that stuff.