L&S Curricular Connections

Big Ideas Courses

For Faculty

Class photo of the Big Ideas Course Sense and Sensibility and Science. Center, bottom row: Rob MacCoun, Saul Perlmutter (Physics), and John Campbell (Philosophy).

Since its launch in 2012, the Big Ideas Courses program has inspired new ways of thinking and learning, kindled new levels of intellectual curiosity, and furthered the ultimate aim of a liberal arts education by altering the way our students see and interact with the world.

The campus offers hundreds of excellent courses. What sets Big Ideas Courses apart is that they take up key intellectual and societal challenges that cannot be adequately addressed by the perspective or methodology of one discipline alone. Most importantly, Big Ideas Courses are truly co-taught by two or more faculty members from different departments, meaning that both or all of the instructors attend every class meeting, and interact with one another and the students.

This kind of teaching is a challenge, but it’s a rewarding challenge. Faculty participants report that Big Ideas Courses push them outside their intellectual comfort zones, resulting in, as Robert Sharf (East Asian Languages and Cultures) expressed it, “the most intellectually stimulating and challenging experience that I have had with undergraduate teaching since I came to Berkeley.” And the students benefit from seeing the faculty members model the process of taking in new knowledge and adjusting their perspectives as a result. It’s no wonder that the students find these courses transformational.

“It has been a true joy to teach in the Big Ideas program. Thinking with, talking to, and learning from colleagues across different fields is one of those dreams of university life all too rarely actualized. The Big Ideas Courses program makes it possible, supporting and celebrating innovative intellectual exchange about challenging topics.”
Keith Feldman faculty profile
Keith Feldman, Ethnic Studies

Call For Proposals

Interested in proposing a course? We issue a call for proposals each fall, for courses proposed for the following or subsequent year. Off-cycle proposals are sometimes entertained. 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 part or all of the GSI funding (salary, benefits, and fee remission). 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? Contact Aileen Liu, Director of Curricular Engagement Initiatives, to set up a time to talk.

“I've learned so much from teaching a Big Ideas Course because it's not in my discipline. I'm always learning more about Sara’s background in business and engineering, and all the experience she brings from working out in the world. It's the transdisciplinary Where do we connect? Where we do not connect? Why don't we connect? What's interesting there? That helps translate excitement to the students. It’s a great place to be as an educator, a place where you can learn and be teaching at the same time.”
Lisa Wymore faculty profile
Lisa Wymore, Professor of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies
“Teaching in the Big Ideas Courses program is really fun. Lisa and I are not only from very different disciplines, we are also opposite in our learning styles. When I'm being really abstract, and I'm in my head, she's in her body. We learn a lot from each other's differences in perspective in the classroom."
Sara Beckman faculty profile
Sara Beckman, Professor, Haas School of Business and the Department of Mechanical Engineering

Goals and Objectives

The Big Ideas Courses initiative was developed with the following goals in mind:

  1. Engender a respect for collaboration among individuals who are already deeply informed on different aspects of a particular question or subject.
  2. Encourage a realization that any idea or point of view can be bettered—and occasionally even changed—by exposure to the enriching influence of another set of ideas or methodologies presented by an equally informed but differently educated peer.
  3. Demonstrate for students the value of teamwork, which is likely to be a lynchpin concept throughout their working life, whether they become a lawyer, a manager, a neuroscientist, or a symphony musician.
  4. Provide a compelling transformative breadth experience for students, to complement the intellectual depth of the major: breadth courses are key to a liberal arts education.

In Big Ideas Courses, two or more co-instructors actively demonstrate for students the kind of communication and breakthrough learning that can result when varied, yet equally legitimate, approaches are brought to bear on a subject or problem. Through exposure to lively faculty discourse, students experience the kind of dialogue and debate that takes place in the most vital and cutting-edge professional and scholarly environments. These courses promote active learning: students follow the lead of their faculty in engaging directly with the course material, as opposed to passively noting down the insights of the professors. Because no one professor is the “sage on the stage” in these courses, everyone is empowered and inspired to contribute actively.

"Teaching with a faculty member from another discipline was much more work than teaching alone or with another philosopher, but in many ways more rewarding. I got first-hand experience of the differences between ways in which philosophers and musicologists approach the same material, and I also learned a lot from the differences in styles of teaching. As a result of teaching the class, I have become more open to different approaches both to reading texts and to interacting with students in the classroom."
Hannah Ginsborg faculty profile
Hannah Ginsborg, Philosophy
"Co-teaching Societal Risks and the Law was the most fun I've had in the classroom in twenty-five years of teaching at Berkeley. It was delightful, interesting, and deeply educational to engage with colleagues with such different perspectives and teaching styles—and watch them in action. I know it will improve my teaching. Likewise, it was fascinating and enjoyable to watch the students engage with each other and us, and together to construct something much more like a 'tapestry of understanding' than the typical disciplinary monofilament thread."
Philip Stark faculty profile
Philip Stark, Statistics
"All of us have so many pressures that the natural tendency is to let anxiety drive you into focusing more and more on your own specialization. And the thing about having signed up to do one of these classes is you are forced to let the air in, and let the wind blow and have the bracing experience of trying to hold your head up in the discussion with a physicist or a social scientist or whatever it is. To be honest, if it were only the students who were learning it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun."
John Campbell faculty profile
John Campbell, Philosophy
"I can say without reservation or hyperbole that teaching a Big Ideas Course 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. Providing an opportunity to both re-think the fundamentals of my own discipline, as well as engage new and essential connections to students and ideas far outside my own experience, the course represented to me the best and too rarely realized promise of the diverse community of knowledge that we know as the university."
Nicholas de Monchaux, Architecture and Urban Design