Timescales and Big History

Big History confronts us with a problem that is inherent to all historical research, but which is particularly prominent when studying deep time: what timescale is most appropriate for our historical research? The answer to this question is, of course, “appropriate for what?” What questions are we trying to answer? Are we, like Clifford Geertz, attempting to understand how humans spin “webs of significance”? Then, perhaps the time it takes us to wink — literally, the blink-of-an-eye — is the most appropriate timescale. Or, perhaps the few hours that it takes for violence to erupt in the form of a riot can teach us about the complex structure of early modern French society, à la Natalie Zemon Davis. Or, perhaps we might take the position that a few decades, or even a few centuries, is the proper scale for our research agenda — a subject of debate which recently erupted in the arguments over the History Manifesto.

The French Annales School — and especially Fernand Braudel — was particularly important in shaping historiographical discussions about historical scale. Braudel explained that we might think of history at three overlapping levels: l’histoire événementielle, l’histoire conjoncturelle, and la longue durée. L’histoire événementielle, a term he borrowed from François Simiand, was what he called “traditional history” — a narrative, political history of the nineteenth century. It was concerned with “the short time span, for the individual and the event.” [Braudel, “History and the Social Sciences” in On History, trans. Sarah Matthews  (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982, 27.] At a slightly broader time scale than the event were cycles or episodes of history which could last for years or decades. This time scale — l’histoire conjoncturelle — was a medium term timescale, especially useful for explaining economic cycles and demographics. Finally, Braudel proposed the concept of la longue durée. His notion of the longue durée suggested that historians step back from the short-term fluctuations of event and cycle and look at longer term structures and patterns. For him, history was like an ocean, with events akin to breaking waves, cycles similar to surface. Below this, however, was the deep, slow-changing ocean of time.  The longue durée was the most important unit of analysis. Historical events and cycles, while worthy of study, were epiphenomena.

Braudel’s notion of the longue durée has been fundamental in shaping modern historians’ appreciation of timescale, even though few professional historians pursue projects that extend beyond a few centuries. Big History, in particular, owes much to Braudel’s interest in exploring vast timescales — even his willingness to contemplate deep geological time. Also important to modern historical writing was one of Braudel’s driving motives: to inspire a rapprochement between history and the social sciences. In analogous fashion, Big History seeks cooperation between history and the physical and biological sciences — at times, very much in the spirit of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience. 

In the deep history course that I teach — The History of Evolution and Human Consciousness — I am very interested in having students grapple with the question of historical scale. What kinds of questions can we ask at different scales? What kinds of methodologies do they entail? What are the social, cultural, and political implications of pursuing historical questions at different scales? It is quite difficult, however, to get a good sense of scale in a Big History format. So, I designed the following assignment to help us out.

In this assignment, we will construct a timeline along Michigan St. We will meet on the southeast corner of Limestone St, and E. Michigan St., just east of the White River. From there, we will chalk the sidewalk, indicating key moments in the history of the universe and evolution. Every meter, which we will measure with a trundle wheel, will represent 10,000,000 years.

I have assigned each of you two events or eras. Your job will be to explain the significance of these moments. To help make this easier, you will need to answer the questions on this form, which is due before class begins:


Please fill out the form as you would any academic assignment. I will be grading you using the writing rubric outlined here. When we have completed this assignment, your answers will be available through the course website.

Be sure to save your answers (either printing them out or keeping them on your phone) because in addition to marking your two key moments/eras in chalk, you will explain their importance to your classmates as we construct our outdoor timeline.

A little math reveals that we will walk over a kilometer — from one end of campus to the other. I’ll be taking pictures and report back on whether this was successful and how the project might need to be adjusted in the future.

Students Working on the Timeline of the UniversePOSTSCRIPT

After completing this project with my students, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Things will flow best if you assign the order that students will present sketching out the timeline on site. I did’t do this, and while it didn’t lead to any confusion, it took more time than necessary to make sure that we went in order.
  • I work on an urban campus, but not one that is in the middle of downtown. So, traffic noise isn’t too bad. However, traffic noise was more of an issue than I expected. When I do this again, I will consider giving students a megaphone to use.
  • Be sure to check with city ordinances and contact campus/local police and campus administrators before you begin chalking sidewalks. Our city ordinances allow us to chalk. Before I did this project, I gave the police and campus administrators a heads-up so that nobody worried that we were defacing property.
  • Passers-by were quite interested in what we were doing and immediately read our text. This classroom experience could easily function as a way to engage with other students on campus or even function as a public engagement project if planned properly. Next time I do this, I will print small pieces of paper that explain our project and that can be distributed to individuals who are not in our class.
  • In the final meter of the project, time scales may need to be adjusted so that the text is easier to read. This could be designated by a note on the pavement or a different color of chalk.
  • My students seemed to be having fun and getting to know each other better as we did this project. This is a great early semester activity that takes some time, but one that I think will be valuable for learning in the long run.
  • Since I had all of my students fill out their assignments in a Google Form, I now have a spreadsheet with their detailed timeline annotations, which I will share with the entire class. So, while each student was responsible for only two events, they now have a detailed timeline of the universe that they can consult and annotate throughout the semester.
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