Editors Note: Barry Wood sits on the IBHA Board of Directors and is a Professor of English at the University of Houston, in Texas USA. In the memo below, he articulates a case for the value of his Big History course. Enjoy!
TO: The Innovative Teaching Symposium Organizers
FROM: BARRY WOOD, Dept of English, University of Houston
RE: 5th Innovative Teaching and Learning Symposium, April 26, 2019
DATE: December 28, 2018
Today the announcement of this annual symposium arrived in my mailbox, including the usual invitation to submit proposals. I submitted a proposal for this event two years ago and was turned down. In considering why, it was clear that the emphasis of the event–then and now–is on METHOD: technology, delivery, hybrid design, interactive strategies.
So, what about my proposal being turned down? I teach a course on this campus that some would say is innovative. I have since 2011. It’s called COSMIC NARRATIVES. It’s in the UH core curriculum and draws 40 students per semester, every fall and spring. The broader professional term is BIG HISTORY. I am a founding member of the International Big History Association (IBHA) and I’m on the Board. I submit articles for publication in the Journal of Big History (JBH). So what is my course all about and why is it innovative? Probably by virtue of its content. It’s a narrative history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present emphasizing its relevance to the human situation (That’s the catalog description). Big History does not fit into any department on this (or any) campus, so I have to offer it as a college (not departmental) course in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS). The CLASS course designation is ILAS (Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts and Social Sciences). Actually it’s interdisciplinary science, too, because it requires input from Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Geology, Biology, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, and Genetics to present the Big History narrative. I subscribe to the leading STEM publication, Science, published weekly. New discoveries important for my course turn up in this journal on average every two weeks. I also subscribe to National Geographic and The Smithsonian, where additional perspectives valuable for my course appear with regularity. There are perhaps 25 Big History courses in the U.S. Mine is one of two in Texas. Others are taught at Berkeley, Dominican, Indiana Univ., North Carolina State Univ., Univ. of Michigan, Grand Valley State Univ. Another 100 or so are taught in the Netherlands, Russian, Australia, India, Korea, China, etc. And IBHA now has satellite organizations–in Russia, India, Australia, and China.
This is a truly multidisciplinary course and students recommend it to their friends. It draws students from approximately 25 majors each semester. I have rotated textbooks because there are a dozen or more that are useful. There is a website called CRONOZOOM which our organization developed with the aid of Microsoft. And we have (with extensive financing from Bill Gates) developed the BIG HISTORY PROJECT–a free on-line Big History course for middle and high school students. My most recent information is that it is being used by teachers in approximately 1,000 schools. If you want to investigate Big History, I suggest you log on to either of these websites and do a little exploring. Or try the Wikipedia article. A new Big History curriculum is about to be launched for elementary education. Clearly, this is a sweeping educational innovation that has developed in just eight years; it is penetrating every level of the education system from Grade School to Grad School. You can expect to hear a great deal about it as recognition spreads.
So my course, the only one in the world called COSMIC NARRATIVES, could well qualify for the most innovative course on this campus. Had my proposal been accepted two years ago, the concept of this course (and a ready-made title and course description) could have been picked up by faculty at UH Downtown, the Clear Lake campus, or the Victoria campus, members of which are highly motivated to attend. But it was turned down. I wonder why. Perhaps because most people don’t get outside the box when they think about “innovation.” We are in danger of thinking that if we aren’t loading up the classroom with media, power point, and interactive technology, then we are not innovative. But real innovation may also reside in course content–truly multidisciplinary content that leads students to an enlarged vision of their place in the Universe, on Earth, and within the biosphere; content that integrates their majors with other disciplines; content that challenges their minds; content that leads them to understand that their minds are the supreme achievement of this 13.8-billion-year narrative. COSMIC NARRATIVES takes the discoveries of the past 70 years and builds them into a single narrative. Think about what this includes: solid evidence for Big Bang cosmology; understanding of how 92 elements are created in the stars realization of how the Solar System and planets coalesced; the geological revolution and explanatory power of plate tectonics; the role of black smokers in the origin of life; the communication of information from cell to cell in every form of life; 4 billion years of evolution; the emergence of humans in Africa; the subsequent peopling of the world; the genetic revolution that allows us to discover that we carry Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA; the origin of social behavior in bee, ant, termite, and primate colonies; and the unbalance in nature that comes from single species dominance (the cause of our present environmental problems).
Courses like mine are taught by astronomers (Eric Chaisson at Harvard), anthropologists (Kathy Schick at University of Indiana), historians (David Christian at Macquarie University, Australia), forestry (Lucy Bennison Laffitte at North Carolina State University) political science (Lowell Gustafson at Villanova), geologists (Walter Alvarez at Berkeley), biologists (Ursula Goodenough at Washington University), and English (Barry Wood at UH). Why this medley? Because this course is multidisciplinary and is taught by specialists from many disciplines who have gone beyond their specialties to put knowledge from many other disciplines together in a single unified presentation. It’s a challenge for both the teacher and the student. I am pleased to have developed this course with the help of a QEP grant and to be able to say UH is on the forefront in featuring this new, demanding, multidisciplinary approach to core-curriculum education. But I was disappointed to find, two years ago, that no one on the selection committee for this event recognized the kind of innovation offered by this course.