Go to the U of M home page


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hist 5960: Framing Modernity: Big Histories and Scientific Stories

THE DEPARTMENT of HISTORY is offering a course (Hist 5920) for Spring 2015 on Thursdays from 1:25-3:20 titled "Framing Modernity: Big Histories and Scientific Stories". It will be a typical seminar but the class is open to graduate students and faculty who may already have a full load but still want to attend as time permits.

Framing Modernity: Big Histories and Scientific Stories, " will examine recent attempts to interpret and explain both large and small developments in human history using concepts, vocabulary and theories from the natural sciences. The phrase "Big History`" has been popularized by the historian of Eurasia, David Christian, who in his book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, places the history of human beings into a larger, encompassing history of the earth, the solar system, and the universe. His book was read by Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, who found it so compelling that he invested millions of dollars into creating and implementing a K-12 curriculum based on Christian's work. For Christian, hard sciences like geology, physics, and chemistry offer important ways to rethink the place of human beings in the universe, and to tell a more complete and urgent story of the human's relationship to nature and the cosmos. Another "big historian," Daniel Smail, looks to the life sciences for a better understanding of history and historical processes in his book On Deep History and the Brain. He uses recent advances in biology, neurophysiology, and cognitive science to narrate a history of human beings that, he suggests, sheds important new light on the smaller scale social, political, and cultural processes that are the more common themes of historians' attention.
Our course will be an interdisciplinary inquiry into big and deep history as an intellectual, social, and scientific phenomenon. We will try to make sense of practitioners' points of view as well as their relationship to disciplinary history. We will be asking: how do we read "big history," and how does "big history" ask to be read? Where might "big history" fit in the politics of historical production and of intellectual production more broadly? How does "big history" use disciplinary knowledge? What assumptions does it make about the relationship of scientific inquiry to humanistic inquiry? How does it claim and enact the authority of historical explanation? We will also ask, how "big history" is different from older Enlightenment and 19th century attempts to place man in the history of the cosmos? In other words, how is big history's claim to be a vitally useful explanation in the present different from other grand narratives? And finally, how might we imagine a response to the claims that big history is a vital way of reimagining the education of young people not only in the United States but around the world? We welcome student from any discipline and field interested in puzzling over these questions about time, scale, human and non-human agency, and the production of knowledge.*********
The course will be run as a typical seminar with a core group of graduate students who are registered for the course and come every week, commit to doing all the reading and writing assignments, and to building an intellectual experience for themselves and each other. But because certain topics in the class may be of interest to graduate students who already have a full load, as well as to faculty who are interested in "big history," I would like to open up the class to anyone to attend the seminar meetings as their time and interest permit. The only requirement is that this, more intermittent, set of participants recognize that the core group will be building a rapport during the term, and that their presence and participation should not disrupt this process. We will discuss these ground rules on the first day of class. I will be happy to send the syllabus out to anyone who might have interest.
The themes of the course echo and compliment a number of other ongoing curricular and extra-curricular activities at the U, and we will design as many interactions between our course and these other activities as possible. My hope is that this experience will lead to more connections between students across fields in our own department and between graduate students in neighboring departments and our own department.