Big History, Big Lesson

Big History, Big Lesson

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What should students learn in their first year of college? Should freshman seminars be foundational—and how do we interpret the term “foundational” in the context of liberal education? Does it denote rudimentary, basic, fundamental, or even highly specialized? While a strong education is built on a mastery of vital skills, educators must also interpret “foundational” to mean preparing students with the knowledge they need to lead fulfilling and productive lives. Students require a program that introduces them to vast bodies of interconnected ideas, meets the needs of our time, invites them to explore their own role in the unfolding story of our planet, and maintains the sense of wonder and possibility with which they came to campus on their first day.

This is how we at Dominican University of California arrived at “First Year Experience ‘Big History,’” which offers students more than lessons on how to survive college; it has the potential to mold eager young students into kind, insightful, and creative global citizens.

After four semesters of application and revision, our team of faculty collaborators describes our Big History program like this:

First Year Experience “Big History” at Dominican University of California is a one-year program that takes students on an immense journey through time to witness the first moments of our universe, the birth of stars and planets, the formation of life on earth until the dawn of human consciousness, and the ever-unfolding story of humans as Earth’s dominant species. As the evolution of human cultures is studied, students engage with fundamental questions regarding the nature of the universe and our momentous role in shaping possible futures for our planet.

Why did Dominican University elect Big History as the first-year content for its General Education program? For one thing, Big History is inherently transdisciplinary and lends itself well to supplemental events and activities. It has also been our primary objective to prepare students for the opportunities and challenges of our world. The Association of American Colleges and Universities describes 21st-century liberal education as an “approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.” Learning to synthesize information is essential, as is having a framework for the scaffolding of learned information and knowledge. Big History provides this framework. And Big History asks big questions, which warrant big answers, and challenges students to consider how they will play a role in our collective future. Our Big History program incorporates three of the “essential learning outcomes” the AAC&U sets out in its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) campaign: knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, and personal and social responsibility.

With a story as large in scope as that of our universe, the possibilities for bringing together interdisciplinary ideas are boundless. The breadth and scope of information lends itself to a yearlong immersion so that the concepts can be explored in depth and through the lens of numerous perspectives. To address the vast array of subjects broached in Big History, it was essential that our faculty collaborators be as diverse as possible, and thus we included instructors from a number of departments, including art, biology, business, creative writing, history, literature, mathematics, music, occupational therapy, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, social and cultural studies, and women and gender studies. We also featured guest speakers, such as evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme, sociologist Robert Bellah, historian Craig Benjamin, astronomer Russell Genet, and the cartoonist Larry Gonick, in addition to our own resident Big Historian, Cynthia Brown.

For many teachers of Big History, mastering the content is the first task; mastering its pedagogy is another. To facilitate a free exchange of ideas and sense of community in this group, the program has invested significant time and funding into faculty development. To date, we have held two summer institutes for participating Dominican faculty members; in response to popular demand, our upcoming 2012 Summer Institute will be open to external faculty. These weeklong seminars have proved invaluable to our progress here; we use the time to discuss the latest in Big History developments, refine existing course literature and documents, experiment with sample lectures, and plan student events. It seems that in our efforts to provide students with a meaningful first year, we have also hit on an exceptional premise for collegial team building and innovative teaching, an unforeseen but welcome side effect.

The program and courses that have emerged from this wonderful collaboration are innovative, unique, and reflect the diversity of the group. So far, they include a survey course in the first semester that all students are required to take and a choice of discipline-based courses in the second semester:

• Big History: Nature and Culture from the Big Bang to the Present

• Visual Art through the Lens of Big History

• Human Cultures and Political Systems through the Lens of Big History

• Myth and Metaphor through the Lens of Big History

• Trade through the Lens of Big History

• Philosophy through the Lens of Big History: Humanity’s Quest for Meaning

• Religion through the Lens of Big History: Homo sapiens & the Religious Experience

• Sex and Gender through the Lens of Big History

• Visualizing Big History: Art

• Writing Big History: Creative Writing

The creation of a variety of courses that emphasize the larger narrative and reinforce major concepts of Big History strengthens the program and student interest. The second-semester courses are not traditional survey courses, but rather inquiries into the major concepts of Big History through the lens of a specific discipline or field. This summer, we look forward to adding more disciplines to the conversation in order to expand our course offerings and refine the existing courses.

A variety of activities turn the course sequence into a Big History experience, fostering a greater retention of content and appealing to a range of learning styles. Most current Big History courses are built on the lecture model, often accompanied by weekly discussion sections with graduate teaching assistants; at Dominican, we want our students to be active learners. For the kinesthetic learners, we stage the Hominoid Skull Lab, casting students as paleontologists to identify a host of model skulls, and in our Planetary Accretion demonstration, students play the role of planets. Our Stargazing Event welcomes the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers club and their high-performance telescopes for crater demonstrations, star party games, and a late-night tour of the cosmos right here on our Dominican campus.

Because of our first-year Big History program, students learn to ask questions about the larger implications of their studies, and absorb and analyze new information more critically and introspectively. As one student expressed it, “It’s honestly a perspective that I didn’t expect having … especially in my first year of college. My major is nursing and this course gave me a view of how complicated, or complex, life is; and by taking nursing, I feel that in a way I’m protecting it and I’m giving more meaning to it. It’s good to feel involved.”

By devising an original program based on Big History, we have re-created our entire first-year program and, in so doing, have expanded the foundation of our undergraduate education. It was an ambitious—perhaps audacious—undertaking. At the time, I don’t think we quite envisioned or understood the enormous potential of Big History as an educational foundation. We are now developing our second-year experience to build on the students’ knowledge of the Big History narrative while prompting them to examine a global issue or concern at the local or regional level, often through service learning or community-based research. You might say that Big History is big at our institution, and we see the possibility of creating a truly cohesive four-year educational model.

After two years of teaching this program, what stands out most about our Big History-educated sophomores and juniors? We find that they came into the program bright and enthusiastic young people, and now proceed with their education as agents for positive change in a world of possibilities, brought into focus by Big History, as seen through the lens of a broad range of disciplines. In this way, our first-year program is “foundational.”

In the words of our resident ornithologist and Big History professor James Cunningham, Big History “forces all of us to think laterally as opposed to linearly.” It also instills a keen and nuanced awareness of how we arrived in the present moment and how remarkably capable we are in shaping both the future of humanity and the planet. This is not a perspective commonly held or fully realized by most college freshmen.