About Big Ideas Courses

The Big Ideas Courses, first launched in fall 2012, are dedicated to the premise that the most important issues and questions of our time—or any time—cannot be adequately addressed by scholars versed in one discipline alone. The co-teachers of each Big Ideas Course bring the different methodologies, underlying assumptions and wisdom of their respective disciplines to bear on the course and its topic, and the resulting insights and discussions are richer and deeper than any one disciplinary approach could produce.

Those who teach in the program describe the experience as the hardest and at the same time most rewarding teaching they have ever done. As one professor wrote, "I can say without reservation or hyperbole that teaching a Big Ideas Course in the spring of 2016 was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my fifteen-year career teaching architecture, and probably one of the most intellectually rewarding as well. . . . The course represented to me the best and too-rarely realized promise of the diverse community of knowledge that we know as the university."

Many of our instructors have commented that they learn as much as the students do from these courses—and although this is often said about other courses, and often meant, the Big Ideas Courses push the faculty beyond their comfort zones to a much more marked degree than courses in their own fields ever could. And the students benefit from seeing the faculty members model the process of taking in new knowledge and adjusting their perspectives as a result. One professor wrote this:

As the course unfolded, the students had the opportunity to see their professors disagree with one another in constructive and respectful ways. We sometimes reinforced one another's points, we sometimes raised questions, we sometimes argued. In doing so, I think we modeled something really important: that it's okay to disagree, that one can do so respectfully and constructively, and that the resulting conversation can sometimes lead someone to change his or her mind. I don't think this is something that students see modeled in many other contexts (certainly not in politics!), but it's such an important part of learning and of effective engagement with other people.

It's no wonder that the students find these courses transformational. Here is just a small sample of the hundreds of positive comments we receive every semester:

"The course challenged me to think about my beliefs and question the way I have come to understand the world."

"I'm challenging what I believe, why I believe, and am looking for ways in which I could be wrong."

"The course was stimulating in that there was never one correct answer to any question asked or assignment given. The material forced you to create your own ideas and opinions about particular works"

"This course challenged the way I look at problems. I realized that when people from different disciplines come together, they bring more creative and innovative thoughts to the table."

For students, these courses fulfill an L&S breadth requirement (or breadth for one of the other colleges), in an exemplary way, in that they are designed with non-majors in mind, do not have prerequisites, and are taught by some of our most engaging instructors.

Interested in proposing a course? We issue a call for proposals each fall, with a November deadline, for courses proposed for the following or subsequent year. (Off-cycle proposals are sometimes entertained, so contact Aileen Liu if you have an idea.) Proposals should be one or two pages long, and describe both the course topic and the different disciplinary approaches each instructor would bring to it. If you have an idea but no co-instructor in mind, the program director may be able to help you recruit someone to teach with. Because these courses are truly team taught (and developed as a team) you will want to find someone you are compatible with, someone who stimulates your thinking and inspires you.

The support for courses that are selected includes up to $10,000 in course-development support, up to two replacement costs for the instructors' home departments, and most or all of the GSI funding (salary and benefits). If the courses fit well within your home departments' curricula, we can cross list them between your departments; otherwise, we are happy to create new L&S course numbers for them.

Questions about the program? Contact Aileen Liu (aileen.liu@berkeley.edu) to set up a time to talk.