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Teaching Big History

Teaching Big History

Richard B. Simon
Mojgan Behmand
Thomas Burke
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    Teaching Big History
    Book Description:

    Big History is a new field on a grand scale: it tells the story of the universe over time through a diverse range of disciplines that spans cosmology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and archaeology, thereby reconciling traditional human history with environmental geography and natural history.Weaving the myriad threads of evidence-based human knowledge into a master narrative that stretches from the beginning of the universe to the present, the Big History framework helps students make sense of their studies in all disciplines by illuminating the structures that underlie the universe and the connections among them.Teaching Big Historyis a powerful analytic and pedagogical resource, and serves as a comprehensive guide for teaching Big History, as well for sharing ideas about the subject and planning a curriculum around it. Readers are also given helpful advice about the administrative and organizational challenges of instituting a general education program constructed around Big History. The book includes teaching materials, examples, and detailed sample exercises.This book is also an engaging first-hand account of how a group of professors built an entire Big History general education curriculum for first-year students, demonstrating how this thoughtful integration of disciplines exemplifies liberal education at its best and illustrating how teaching and learning this incredible story can be transformative for professors and students alike.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95938-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Six college professors and a librarian sat around a big oak table. At one side of the room, large picture windows opened onto a curated landscape of green lawn, gardens, and trees from around the world. On the room’s blue walls was painted a mural of the fox hunt—horses and rifle-toting riders leaping fences—with subtle religious subtexts. The room had been a dining room in the redwood mansion that now housed a dormitory and classroom space. The gathered faculty had been tasked with developing, after two years of attempts and failures, a new general education curriculum for first-year...


    • ONE What Is Big History?
      (pp. 11-20)
      Richard B. Simon

      On my first day as a college undergraduate, I walked into my freshman seminar, “The Gaia Hypothesis,” a course on James Lovelock’s groundbreaking theory that the biosphere, all life, interacts with all of Earth’s systems—climate, oceans, and the rocks themselves—in ways that maintain temperature and chemical homeostasis on Earth. The course changed my understanding of how the Earth works, and of how everything works. It was disruptive, and transformative, and it framed the rest of my education so that when I studied astronomy, paleontology, sociology, climate science—and even literature—it all seemed to fit together, to make...

    • TWO Big History and the Goals of Liberal Education
      (pp. 21-26)
      Mojgan Behmand

      At the age of twelve, I was certain that I would change the world; at the age of thirty-two, life in academia had made me certain that I would have little effect on it; and at the ripe age of forty-two, I became a believer and a dreamer again. The reason? Big History and liberal education.

      August 2007 saw the beginning of my tenure at Dominican University of California, a 123-year-old secular institution of Catholic heritage twelve miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The institution had until 2000 been a liberal arts college before transforming itself into a comprehensive...

    • THREE Summer Institutes: Collective Learning as Meta-Education
      (pp. 27-40)
      Thomas Burke

      In late May our leafy campus with its quietly elegant architecture begins to slow toward its lighter summer pace. Though some classes are still in session, the student population is significantly less than at term time. Most faculty are studying, writing, researching, and engaging in the world of ideas away from campus. Administrative offices are peacefully diligent. The campus smells different, more natural without the hub and bub of a collective humanity intruding on it.

      The last week of May 2010 found a ground-floor classroom in the Beaux Arts–style Guzman Hall filled with thirty professors, colleagues from across the...

    • FOUR Assessing Big History Outcomes: Or, How to Make Assessment Inspiring
      (pp. 41-55)
      Mojgan Behmand

      Utter the word “assessment” in an academic setting and you’ll elicit a range of reactions: blank stares from uninitiated students, groans from faculty fearing another addition to their heavy workload, soliloquies from administrators waxing poetic about assessment, and threats from accrediting associations couched in terms like “excellence” and “success.” Interestingly, the first documented use of the term “assessment” was in the 1540s, meaning “determination or adjustment of tax rate.”¹ Now, in the twenty-first century, it is part of the established vernacular in education and enjoys the same popularity as taxes. So here’s a warning: approach assessment with the utmost care....

    • FIVE Big History at Other Institutions
      (pp. 56-74)
      Mojgan Behmand, Esther Quaedackers and Seohyung Kim

      In our first year of teaching Big History, we Dominican faculty gathered over lunch every week to discuss curriculum and pedagogy. We often found ourselves wondering how Big History was taught at other institutions. We heard about Cynthia Brown’s challenges in proposing a Big History course; we listened to the story of David Christian’s path from Russian history to Big History; and we generally speculated about the inception of individual courses or programs and their specific successes and challenges. In the ensuing years, we have met many of our American and international colleagues, both here at Dominican and at various...


    • SIX Teaching Complexity in a Big History Context
      (pp. 77-90)
      Richard B. Simon

      I was preparing to teach our first-semester course, and studying the preliminary edition of David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin’s textbook,Big History: Between Nothing and Everything, when I was asked to teach a unit on industrialization for Dominican’s second Big History summer institute.¹ As I compiled my materials and sketched out an outline, I realized that while I had a lot to say about industrialization—probably waytoomuch to say in a brief hour—I didn’t yet have a way to focus, to narrow and crystallize everything important about the age of industrialization in a way that...

    • SEVEN Teaching Threshold 1: The Big Bang
      (pp. 91-108)
      Richard B. Simon

      In the early 1990s, the American university was in the process of shifting from one approach to general education—the Western civilization model—to another, the world cultures model. At the school I was attending as an undergraduate, GenEd 101 was still “The Roots of Western Civilization.” My section was taught by a tweed-jacketed, golden-curled classics professor of British origin. We read a verse translation of Homer’sOdyssey, and we studied Chartres Cathedral, and in between we read the Bible, as literature. That is to say, we read it without the underlying assumption that the story related in the text...

    • EIGHT Teaching Threshold 2: The Formation of Stars and Galaxies
      (pp. 109-119)
      Kiowa Bower

      Toward the beginning of our Big History survey course, I invite my students to sit in a circle outside on the grass and share whatever they would like to about the class. In one class, a student expressed that the early material scared her, forcing her to think about things outside her comfort zone. The immense scale of the universe was overwhelming, and she was completely lost trying to grasp the early universe described by the Big Bang theory. She felt lost in the particle soup and the unintuitive concepts of the early cosmos. While there was still some anxiety...

    • NINE Teaching Threshold 3: Heavier Chemical Elements and the Life Cycle of Stars
      (pp. 120-134)
      Richard B. Simon

      The culminating project in our first-semester course is a Little Big History. Each student picks a subject to examine across Big History using a simplified version of the form pioneered by Esther Quaedackers. The subject can be an object, a person, or even a concept. Each student writes a thesis-driven final paper that traces her or his subject through each threshold, either chronologically or counter-chronologically (see the “Little Big History Essay” activity in chapter 17, “Activities for Multiple Thresholds,” and chapter 19, Cynthia Brown’s “A Little Big History of Big History.”) It’s a causal argument, really. This is a challenging...

    • TEN Teaching Threshold 4: The Formation of Our Solar System and Earth
      (pp. 135-148)
      Neal Wolfe

      When I asked the freshmen in my Big History class to place the following celestial entities in order outward from Earth—the moon, the edge of the solar system, the edge of our galaxy, the sun, and the Andromeda galaxy—I was astonished that several placed the sun between Earth and the moon (not to mention placing the Andromeda galaxy inside our solar system). We can’t assume that students possess even a basic understanding of what our solar system actually is, let alone of its formation. Of course, they have learned about the sun and the different planets in their...

    • ELEVEN Teaching Threshold 5: The Evolution of Life on Earth
      (pp. 149-163)
      James Cunningham

      I have been a biology teacher for over forty years, yet I continue to be amazed and awed by life, its complexity, and its variety. At the time of writing this I have taught Big History for four years. Teaching Big History has helped me tie the origin and evolution of life in with the rest of the universe’s story. The origin and evolution of life is linked with the rest of the story by the framework of increased complexity. When teaching Big History I try to convey the wonder and awe of life to my students, many of whose...

    • TWELVE Teaching Threshold 6: The Rise of Homo sapiens
      (pp. 164-200)
      Cynthia Taylor

      When I was a graduate student, it was drilled into me that I must focus my study of American history on a particular time period, or on one historical event or individual, based on written historical documents found in archives. While history survey courses were for lower-division undergraduate students, graduate students searched to find areas of study in ancient, medieval, or modern history that had not been written about or were open to new methodological approaches and revisionist interpretations. Then, a few years ago, I was asked to participate in the Big History program at Dominican University of California. Faced...

    • THIRTEEN Teaching Threshold 7: The Agrarian Revolution
      (pp. 201-214)
      Martin Anderson

      One of the main difficulties of teaching the agricultural revolution in general, and agrarian civilizations in particular, is that most people in modernized societies, including students, are divorced from the nature of agricultural life. I had only a brief experience of it myself, as a child, having spent a few weeks one summer on my uncle’s farm in Minnesota. I recall several milk cows, chickens, and a barn in addition to the house. I’m sure he was growing something, as I rode in a tractor. I saw the farm animals as pets and had a great time. I wasn’t there...

    • FOURTEEN Teaching Threshold 8: Modernity and Industrialization
      (pp. 215-231)
      Richard B. Simon

      Inspired by our work at Dominican, I was teaching Cynthia Brown’s bookBig History: From the Big Bang to the Presentin an advanced composition class at City College of San Francisco, a large community college with a particularly diverse student body. On the first day of this intensive summer course, “Big History and the Future,” I introduced students to the concept of complexity and led them through the story, threshold by threshold.

      Once we got to the Industrial Age, the bigger questions arose, without any coaxing on my part. On some level I felt like the class discussion was...

    • FIFTEEN Threshold 9? Teaching Possible Futures
      (pp. 232-260)
      Richard B. Simon, Martin Anderson, J. Daniel May, Neal Wolfe, Kiowa Bower, Philip Novak and Debbie Daunt

      When the group tasked with envisioning a new general education program for our university first sat around the long oaken table and began to sketch out what a core curriculum built around Big History would look like, we imagined an elegant course sequence that would introduce students to the wealth of human knowledge, use that knowledge to focus within a discipline of interest, and then follow up with a choice of more advanced courses designed to give students agency in “shaping the future.” Three and a half years later, as we studied the assessment data we had gathered at the...

    • SIXTEEN Reflective Writing in the Big History Classroom
      (pp. 261-274)
      Jaime Castner

      In the spring of 2012 I had just graduated from Dominican University of California with a bachelor’s degree in literature, and I was in love with classrooms. To me, there is nothing like the intellectually saturating, paradigm-shifting, out-of-place-and-time kind of classroom colloquy that one finds in college. That is, I was in love with the kind of classroom colloquy one finds in college until I was tasked with facilitating one. Then, as I entered my first semester as a teaching assistant in Mojgan Behmand’s “Myth and Metaphor through the Lens of Big History” course at Dominican, it seemed my only...

    • SEVENTEEN Activities for Multiple Thresholds
      (pp. 275-286)

      The activities that follow are meant for use with more than one threshold, at any point throughout the Big History course, or at the end of the course as a culminating project.

      Neal Wolfe’s “Walking the Big History Timeline” exercise may be most useful at the beginning of the course, in conjunction with Threshold 1. It would also be effective after teaching Thresholds 1 through 4, or it could be visited or revisited at semester’s end.

      Our “Amateur Astronomers Star Party” is an annual event held in the fall, as the days grow shorter, in which a group of local...

    • EIGHTEEN Igniting Critical Curiosity: Fostering Information Literacy through Big History
      (pp. 287-295)
      Ethan Annis, Amy Gilbert, Anne Reid, Suzanne Roybal and Alan Schut

      The poet Thich Nhat Hanh explains interdependence thus:

      If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in your apple juice. … You cannot point out one thing that is not in the apple juice: time, space, the Earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists in a single glass of apple juice. In fact, one could say that it took almost the entire universe to produce a single glass of apple juice or a single human being. If any whole category, such as...

    • NINETEEN A Little Big History of Big History
      (pp. 296-308)
      Cynthia Stokes Brown

      Only human beings can tell stories. No other animals can, so far as we know. It took a universe to produce story-telling human beings. So, to tell the story of how people began to tell the Big History story, we need to go all the way back to how the universe began.

      In the beginning, some 13.8 billion years ago, out of a mysterious something or nothing that we know nothing about, all the energy and matter in our entire universe burst forth from one tiny spot. Temperatures were so high that matter could not form; there was only energy....


    • TWENTY Big History at Dominican: An Origin Story
      (pp. 311-317)
      Philip Novak

      Everyone who wants to tell a story is faced with the thorny problem of where to begin. Every “once upon a time” one can think of is already the result of other things that happenedbefore that—unless of course our “once upon a time” is the Big Bang, from which our material universe really did begin, and which has no “before” that the human mind can comprehend. But to beginevery storywith the Big Bang, though technically correct, would be impractical—not to mention boring! So we usually begin our stories in a more recent, and thus somewhat...

    • TWENTY ONE Teaching Big History or Teaching about Big History? Big History and Religion
      (pp. 318-335)
      Harlan Stelmach

      When “teaching” what is known as Big History, an answer to the question posed in the title of this essay is paramount. What appears to be a subtle distinction is at the heart of clarity about the subjects of Big History and religion. Teaching, rather than just teachingabouta subject, assumes, if not agreement and commitment, at least deep sympathy for the subject. Some might even say it assumes a kind of “participation” in the subject. Not to understand this will lead to confusion on the part of our students and those of us teaching Big History. I was...

    • TWENTY TWO The Case for Awe
      (pp. 336-342)
      Neal Wolfe

      In the 1949–1970 radio and television seriesDragnet, police sergeant Joe Friday famously admonishes the witnesses he interviews to stick to the facts. Inevitably, he succeeds in catching the bad guy; his no-nonsense approach is perfectly suitable for police work, at least of the popular culture variety.

      The Big History narrative is the ultimate in factual approaches. After millennia of constructing creative, often rather fanciful stories to explain how the world began and how humans entered the picture, we finally are able to construct a science-based account of the origin and development of the universe, which we render as...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 343-360)

    On a hot Northern California afternoon in late May 2011, some thirty Dominican faculty members sat in the round, in a redwood-paneled ground floor classroom called Meadowlands Hall. We were deep into our second Big History summer institute, and we had broken into groups to brainstorm. What were our wishes for our young program? What did we want students to take away?

    Each group of four or five had a sheet of big white paper and a few felt-tipped markers. It was late in the day, late in the session, and we were punchy and loose—full of new information...

    (pp. 361-400)
  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 401-406)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 407-426)