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.