Challenges and Opportunities: Reflections on Teaching Big History Discussion Sections
Lauren McArthur Harris and Sarah Hamilton
In the winter of 2009 the authors embarked on an exciting and, at times, challenging adventure: helping to teach the inaugural big history course at the University of Michigan. In this article we reflect on the challenges we and the students faced in the course, as well as what we learned about the opportunities that big history can provide for students and their teachers.
Like many big history instructors we began this experience as novices: neither of us had any experience teaching big history, or even world history at the college level. Lauren, a former high school world history teacher, had recently completed her PhD in teaching and teacher education from the University of Michigan's School of Education. Although her research focused on world history pedagogy and curriculum, she had mainly centered on secondary world history in her work. Sarah was a second-year PhD student in the department of history, with only one semester of college-level teaching under her belt, whose own research concentrated on contemporary environmental history. Nevertheless, we had both done some reading in big history and were excited by the prospect of this ambitious course.
The Course: ZOOM: A History of Everything
As with most history survey courses at the University of Michigan, the big history course, entitled "ZOOM: A History of Everything," contained a lecture component (three one-hour lectures per week) and a discussion component (one one-hour discussion per week). With fifty-five enrolled students, Sarah led two discussion sections and Lauren led one, as well as an optional "lab" on the pedagogies of big history and world history for students interested in teaching and learning. Professor Douglas Northrop had spent the previous nine months designing and planning the course, building on his prior work teaching the university's large lecture class in world history and integrating a big history perspective into the winter 2009 theme semester, "The Universe: Yours to Discover." Our central textbook was David Christian's Maps of Time,1 though guest lecturers provided short supplementary readings to provide background on their specific topics.
In keeping with Christian's cross-disciplinary emphasis, ZOOM highlighted connections between history and the social and natural sciences. We sought to attract students from different departments, cross-listing the course with the departments of Ancient Civilizations and Biblical Studies; Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, and Islamic Studies; and Geological Sciences. Northrop designed the course to include twenty-eight guest lecturers: astrophysicists, evolutionary biologists, chemists, geoscientists, anthropologists, linguists, paleontologists, and specialists in almost every era of human history. The students themselves reflected a similar diversity, ranging from freshman to seniors and representing many majors including engineering, geology, economics, and physics, as well as history.
Essay and exam topics throughout the semester sought to draw out methodological and thematic connections between the disciplines—though most lecturers and readings did not make such connections explicit—asking students to consider how their own fields of specialty connected with others around the university. This interdisciplinary focus and structure proved to be one of the most beneficial and engaging aspects of the course for students and instructors, though also one of the most challenging.
In addition to a focus on interdisciplinarity, Northrop designed ZOOM to give students a new understanding of scale and shifting perspectives in time and space. The syllabus itself was organized logarithmically in terms of chronology, with "log t=10" representing tens of billions of years in the past, or the cosmic scale of the Big Bang, while "log t=8" dealt with the evolution of life and "log t=3" the origins of writing. This structure enabled us to spend roughly half the semester on the universe's first 13.6 billion years, from the Big Bang to hominid evolution, and to delve during the second half into details of human history on scales of millennia, centuries, and decades. We echoed this organizational plan in discussion sections throughout the semester, reminding students of the metaphoric lens with which we were "zooming" in and out, by powers of ten, through space and time, and emphasized that each level offered different but equally valid perspectives. The logarithmic structure, which we periodically graphed on the chalkboard in discussions, gave students a visual understanding not only of the absolute time we had covered in the course but of how each section fit chronologically with the others.
ZOOM's third focus borrowed directly from Christian's thesis of increasing complexity over time in both physical and social systems, and its corollary of increasing instability. Students learned to identify a common "hub and spoke" structure in systems ranging from galaxies to trade networks, and the ways in which information, energy, and materials traveled through and around these systems. The classes dealing with human history, in particular, lent themselves easily to this theme, and especially to the shifts in resource use and consumption that such complexity creates.
Not surprisingly, in a course premised on the integration of so many diverse disciplines, we and the students encountered substantial challenges in constructing a coherent narrative and in tying together the many individual lecture topics, lecturer styles, and readings. Several lecturers made concerted efforts to relate their stories to those preceding and following them, or to the goals of the course as outlined in the syllabus. Other lecturers, however, offered more isolated perspectives and students often needed to talk through their confusion about how to weave them into a larger tapestry. Discussion sections became in large part a forum for integrating the strands of lectures, readings, and students' own ideas.
The emphasis on disciplines, in this context, was key. Throughout the course, we asked students to identify the tools and structures of each discipline, thinking about how they approach evidence, what assumptions they make, and how their work relies on findings and methodologies from other disciplines. In essays on evolutionary biology, for instance, students identified the importance of tools as diverse as geological markers, skeletal excavations, DNA extraction, computer modeling, and climate science in understanding, in one student's words, how species "relate to the natural world and to each other." We focused discussions each week on the ways in which new material related to big history, to other disciplines, and to human history.
The common themes and consistent voice of Christian's Maps of Time also helped to create a sense of coherence. Though at times we encouraged students to challenge and critique Christian's theses, weekly assigned chapters tied together eras and themes even when lecturers' own views diverged. We also sought to forge a dialogue between lectures and the text, asking students how a biologist, chemist, or geoscientist might have written the week's assigned chapter differently, or highlighting Christian's ideas about the connections between the disciplines and asking students to provide specific examples from lectures. We frequently asked students to identify recurring patterns that had emerged in the different disciplines, drawing heavily on Christian's ideas of complexity and connections, but also integrating vocabulary and examples from class (see Appendix for selected discussion questions).
A second major challenge, especially in the early weeks of the semester, was our own unfamiliarity with much of the scientific material. Our best strategy was to simply tell the students that though we had learned as much as feasible in the context of the class, we were not experts in the science disciplines. We invited students from different disciplines to offer their own understandings of the information presented or to serve as "experts" in discussion sections. This improved class participation and ensured that students from non-historical fields had opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. The course itself, moreover, focused not on the intricate details of each scientific finding but rather on the connections between the fields themselves. We therefore briefly addressed students' basic factual questions in the discussion sections, but devoted the majority of class time to conversations about relations between the events and methodologies described, using our knowledge of the structures of the disciplines to guide students.
These unique challenges of the big history course, however, were far outweighed by the outstanding opportunities it offered for altering students' perceptions and introducing new and creative ways of thinking about history. ZOOM received an overwhelmingly positive response from most of the students, who reported on their mind-expanding experiences in lectures and discussions and whose work revealed obvious shifts in their understanding not only of history itself but of history's place within larger narratives. Some of the most profound transformations were those of deeply religious or traditional students, who began the course with firm declarations about absolute truths and the intransigence of their opinions. Christian's formulation of big history as a "modern creation myth" provided a nonthreatening, non-confrontational way to suggest alternative explanations and interpretations that such students often embraced, especially when accompanied with explicit conversations about the parallels between religious and scientific faiths.
We also found that big history can be particularly useful in helping students to understand issues of historical contingency; an idea that is far harder to get across using standard, familiar historical narratives. Broadening the field of inquiry made visible the ways in which the modern world is a product of a specific series of events, brought about by chance, natural law, and human agency in often-unpredictable ways. If that meteor had been just a bit off-course, we asked; if those molecules hadn't come together in quite the same way; if Admiral Cheng Ho had kept exploring, could the world as we know it have come to exist?
One of the instructors started her sections on the first day of class with an explanation of the term "teleology" and the prohibition against using the terms "inevitable" or "human nature" in class. Though students at times resisted this rule, especially when lectures and readings challenged the histories and scientific "facts" with which they were most familiar, by the end of the semester their final papers and exams reflected a true understanding of contingencies and the way narratives can change when chronological or spatial perspectives shift. Many students expressed their conviction, for instance, that their new perspectives of deeper time and broader space destabilized the traditional story of the rise of the West they had previously learned.
One of the major critiques of big history is that it replaces historical teleology with a kind of evolutionary one; that human agency is subsumed by the "laws of nature" and becomes irrelevant. We disagree: though big history does highlight the importance of the natural world in human history, individuals' actions and choices profoundly affected the way that history played out. Again, the issue is one of contingency: individual hominids stood up, and over hundreds of generations their descendents became bipedal. Some groups found it convenient to return to a particular stand of wild grains or vegetables year after year, and over time their descendents developed agriculture. The interplay of social, cultural, political, and natural factors over the millennia is a constant theme in big history, and one that creates a more complete picture of the species' trajectory than one focusing on agency to the exclusion of natural forces and trends.
The challenges and opportunities that we faced as instructors and students faced as learners in the big history course became the primary topic of the optional pedagogy lab designed for students who were planning on becoming secondary history teachers or who were simply interested in teaching and learning.2 In the lab, students explored the teaching and learning in the big history course and discussed how this might apply to teaching secondary world history courses. Students engaged in this exploration, in part, by analyzing the "instructional moves" of the different lecturers and reflecting on how these moves impacted their learning. For example, students focused on how an astronomy lecturer used the analogy of a raisin cake baking in an oven as an illustration of how objects spread away from each other as the universe continues to expand. We then discussed the use of analogies as instructional tools for describing difficult or abstract concepts and the applicability of this strategy to secondary courses. The lab also provided an opportunity for students to consider how they could use the themes of the big history course – interdisciplinary connections, complexity, shifting scales of space and time – in designing and teaching secondary world history courses.
Although ZOOM received a very positive response from most students, there are some changes we would make to the structure of the discussion sections if we had the opportunity to participate in another big history course. Perhaps the most important change we might make would be to spend more time in sections discussing the structure of the discipline of history. Two essay assignments throughout the semester asked students to write about the structure of disciplines, prompting them to consider how a particular discipline approaches evidence, what kinds of sources it uses, what questions it asks and what is at stake in the answers, how it connects with other disciplinary frameworks, and what role it plays in big history as a whole. For the first paper, students were assigned one of the disciplines addressed in the first half of the course (e.g., astronomy, geological science, biology). For the second paper, students addressed the same questions, but this time focusing on the discipline of history.
We found that most students, including history majors, had a more difficult time with the second paper. We speculated that this might be because, whereas the natural science readings and lecturers often explicitly discussed their methods and questions about evidence, the history readings and lecturers often did not directly address questions of evidence or methodology. One exception was a course reading from Janet L. Abu-Lughod's book Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 where she discusses some historiographic methodological problems such as the "problem of data" and the "problems of testimony and perspective."3 We found this chapter very helpful in our discussions and in future courses we would bring in similar readings and structure more discussions around how history lectures and readings use sources, discuss evidence, and pose questions and how these methods relates other disciplines and to big history.
ZOOM was truly a journey for the students and the instructors, from its early challenges to the standard narratives and inherited mythologies, through its humanity-minimizing perspective on the longue durée, to its final conclusions about the current path of humanity and our possible role and actions in the immediate future. One interesting effect of this process was that many of our students came away with a deeply environmentalist understanding of humanity's role in the universe, and a sense that the primary way their generation would influence the universe would be through its choices regarding conservation and ecology. Such a conclusion came about, we think, not through direct lecturing on the subject but rather through their enhanced understanding throughout the semester of the ways that seemingly unrelated factors influenced each other, such that social actions had biological repercussions, and vice versa. Unlike many environmental history courses, however, big history's emphasis on the transient nature of all things, be they stars, species, or civilizations, gave students a sense that even the substantial environmental challenges of the current era may be addressed and overcome in the long term. ZOOM's takeaway message, then, was overwhelmingly optimistic, contributing to its enthusiastic reception. As instructors, we too are optimistic about the opportunities this course offers students and their teachers to consider questions of complexity and shifting scales of space and time, and to examine the uniqueness of different disciplines, the connections between them, and how they help us understand big history.
Selected Discussion Section Questions4
Week 5: Chemistry: the History of Elements
Week 7: Archaeology: Humans before History
Week 8: Ancient Civilizations and State Formation
Week 9: Early Expansion: Histories of Regional Integration
Week 10: Empires and Systems: Connecting a World
Week 13: Where to? Histories of the Future
Lauren McArthur Harris is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Michigan who specializes in History and Social Science Education. A former high school world history teacher, she completed her PhD in Teacher Education at the University of Michigan in 2008. Her dissertation focused on how world historians, content standards, and teachers build coherence in world history and how this applies to the teaching of secondary world history courses. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Hamilton is a PhD student in the Department of History at theUniversity of Michigan. Her current research interests involve the environmental history of 20th century Spain. She can be contacted at email@example.com
1 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to big history (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
2 "History 299: Pedagogies of History" – developed by Bob Bain and Lauren McArthur Harris from the University of Michigan's School of Education – was a one-credit course "attached" to the big history course in winter 2009.
3 Janet L. Abu-Lughod, "Studying a System in Formation," in Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 3-40.
4 These are selected questions developed by the authors for the weeks in the course where discussion sections were held. Douglas Northrop designed the overall course structure, including the weekly topics.
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