I have a problem as a writer: I’d want to talk about everything at once. At a recent meeting of Schwartz Institute fellows, the editor of this blog tried to convince us to write smaller posts, pieces that don’t necessarily take on huge subjects or heady academic arguments, but instead simply muse or riff or chat for a little while about what we’re interested in as scholars, teachers, internet trolls, Beyonce fans, whatever. Keep it simple, he said.
To prove that I’ve taken this message to heart, I will share my musings on a little topic I find myself contemplating more and more these days, the cosmos. That is, all of space and time laid out on the grandest scale. Or rather, on Cosmos: A Personal Journey, the 1980 mini-series created by Carl Sagan and the recent reboot of the series currently airing on Fox, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Cosmos sets out to explain complex concepts from physics, biology, and astronomy to a popular audience, using stories, metaphors, and stunning visualizations to impart to non-scientists the wonder of the universe and the power of science. In essence, the series tells the story of the universe as revealed through developing scientific theories over human history. Taken together, we see how human life emerged as one small part of the cosmos and how human cultures learned to use the tools of science–rational thought, experimentation, careful observation, exchange of knowledge–to build ever-more sophisticated understandings of the universe in which we live.
I won’t go on here about which version of the series is better, especially as we’re only six episodes in to the new series at the time I’m writing this. (Obviously, Sagan’s original version is better, as originals tend to be.) Instead, I want to think a bit here about what Cosmos has taught me as someone who thinks about broad, invisible social and cultural systems like race, class, and disability as revealed through the tools of critical cultural theory. While I study broad theoretical concepts about social and cultural identity, I work in real-world colleges and universities, institutions that deal with practical things like grading rubrics, administrative policy documents, and student transcripts. While I like to talk about everything at once, contemplating vast invisible systems of resource distribution and social privilege, I need to be able to communicate my ideas to administrators, service providers, fellow faculty, and even students who might not share my vocabulary or my fascination with abstract, invisible systems.
I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about here: the way Cosmos teaches us to think about time. As humans, we tend to measure time in units that make sense to us–hours, days, years. These units are helpful for organizing time in the scale we actually deal with it: how long it takes to get to Brooklyn or to write a dissertation or to live a life. The problem with communicating scientific ideas about the universe to non-experts is that the real scale of the cosmos stretches out over billions of years, a scale far beyond our comprehension in everyday terms.
Cosmos uses a visual metaphor to help us make the tricky conceptual leap from common-sense time to cosmic time: the Cosmic Calendar.
Here we see over thirteen billion years of cosmic development represented as a single calendar year, beginning with the Big Bang on the first second of January 1st and ending (sort of . . . ) with our current moment, the final mili-second of December 31st. In between, we see all 13.2 billion years of cosmic history broken up into months, each representing a bit more than a billion years, allowing us to visually represent events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (around “May 15th”) or the development of the first living organisms on Earth (“September 21st”) within their proper historical scale.
Visual metaphors work especially well for chronological information. While time is clearly abstract and invisible, most of us have been well trained to use visual tools comprehend it, tools like timelines, calendars, and daily chronometers (remember wrist-watches?). The Cosmic Calendar works because we recognize the tool of the monthly calendar as more or less universal — kind of like the way news anchors like to measure big physical distances in the number of football fields could fit there.
For my work thinking about colleges and universities, the time scale is much smaller, only a few hundred years. My challenge comes when I try to think about space.
We are used to thinking about institutions of higher learning in spatial terms. If I want to talk about what Baruch college is like, for instance, I can talk about physically walking around the 14-floor Vertical Campus building, I can see it sitting there beside Lexington Avenue made out of bricks and glass, I can spot it on a map or draw a floor plan of the building.
But representing Baruch on a physical map renders invisible and abstract many of the important features that define universities as institutional systems: you can’t tell by looking at a floor plan which spaces are used by faculty, administrators, or students; you can’t acknowledge that Baruch is experienced different ways depending on your status in the institution. Since I’m interested in the experience of people with disabilities in higher education institutions specifically, these subjective conceptions of space are important to how I map institutions — space as it is experienced from person to person, depending on cultural or social identity. And here’s where I start to need visualizations like the Cosmic Calendar to explain what on earth I’m actually talking about to folks who don’t live in my personal world of theory.
I’ve taken a few stabs at making this kind of visualization. A few years ago I tried to create a map to represent the institutional forces linking me as a first-term graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center to the geographical spaces I moved through as a teacher at LaGuargia Community College. In this diagram, made in Prezi, I tried to represent institutions as rectangular brackets, which contain both physical spaces like classrooms and offices (represented as green rectangles) and institutional forces (represented as circle frames). Forces either emanate from particular geographical spaces or link them together.
In this visualization, I was trying to communicate how I, as an inexperienced teacher in a PhD program, relied on a series of invisible administrative programs and policies in order to access the geographical spaces at LaGuardia (including my classrooms, where I got to deploy my authority as “instructor”). Without those programs and policies in place, my experiences of the CUNY geography would have been considerably different. I wanted a way to map the administrative programs, to show the institutions and their forces together in one visual map as I had experienced them given my peculiar status as a first-year PhD student making use of the practicum program to secure employment as an adjunct teacher.
I’ll conclude my musings on space and time with an admission that I’m still no expert at using visual metaphors to teach my audiences about complex, abstract systems–not yet. I’m still limited by my abilities with the kind of digital visualization tools that could help me get my ideas across in more dynamic and straightforward ways, for instance.
Cosmos inspires me to be ambitious in my communicative aims while also being inventive in my tools for communication. See the series for yourself at http://www.cosmosontv.com/ where you find the first six episodes streaming in full for a limited time.