On A Planetary Scale

And here’s one more concept course, but the great thing about this one is that I’m actually teaching it next year, with Bill Turkel. (Bill said in response to my last two posts, “I think your idea of ‘concept courses’ is great, except I think we should only teach concept courses, all of us, and standardized syllabuses and canons be damned.”)

Science, Technology, and Global History

There are mad and beautiful things beneath the skin of the world we know, that you only see when you look at things on a planetary scale.
— Warren Ellis, Planetary

I’m coming to think of Science, Technology, and Global History as a history of science and technology course with the brakes removed. It was Bill’s creation, I should say, but he kindly brought me on board to teach the second half. Here’s a tentative outline of the course, still a work in progress. The main ideas guiding us are a critique of disciplinary divisions between the sciences and humanities–we believe that history and science share important similarities–and also an effort to look at the histories of science and technology in a truly global or transnational way. This latter goal takes both Bill and I out of our wheelhouse, as a Canadianist and an Americanist respectively, but we are choosing to regard that as a feature rather than a bug.

The course is also inspired by “big history” or “deep history,” which employs the tools of science, social science, and traditional history to study the past over extremely long scales of time. That’s more Bill’s problem than mine, mind you: his semester goes from the Big Bang (or maybe just the late Pleistocene) to the Enlightenment. I just have to get from Darwin to the near future. But grappling with notions of deep history (including my own doubts about it–see Alun Salt’s post on the subject from December for some questions similar to the ones I have) has been a mind-expanding treat.

The format of the class is not all that radical–students, lecture, chronological order, exams–but our guiding philosophy in planning it has been to try everything that occurs to us that might be interesting or novel or cool. “What if we had a Google Jockey?” “What if I lectured on phlogiston as if it were real?” “What if we had our students collaborate online with a history of science class in India?” “What if we got our students to critique the Civilization tech tree?” “What if we told our students to redesign the university?” Clearly, Bill and I are terrible influences on one another. I expect as many of our experiments to fail as to succeed, but I doubt we will get bored.

8 Comments

  1. Please tell me you’re planning on recording the lectures for a series of podcasts!

  2. You need to arrange some sort of distance-learning thing so that I can take the course.

    Please?

  3. Yes, I’d like to drop by too. (Actually, I’m on campus so this should be possible, assuming that I’m not teaching at the same time.)

  4. All are welcome! But don’t think that reading my blog grabs you any extra grades…

  5. Pingback: Are Whales Fish?

  6. Hi Rob… Love your Big Pic teachings! My book EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution might be of some interest to you in teaching your course if you want to see how bacterial ancestors previewed globalization, etc. I will be keynoting 2nd Canadian Conference on Strategic Foresight in Edmonton CA Oct 28-30.

  7. Thanks, Elisabet! I will check it out. (The book, not the conference. I’m some distance from Edmonton.) In my last lecture for the course I tried to draw parallels between the “oxygen revolution” of our bacterial ancestors and the environmental transformations of our own time. (A story I drew mostly from J.H. & Wm. McNeill’s The Human Web and Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air.)

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