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Time has a teacher

Time has a teacher

World traveler inspires new course on time

August 17, 2020 at 2:57pm

Bruce Harvey has never been able to ignore the tick, tick, tick of a clock.

He’s spent a lot of time thinking about time. He’s wrestled with how elusive it can be. Tick. How fast and slow it moves. Tick. How mysterious. Tick. Precious. Tick. And how it comes to shape and define everyone’s life. 

Harvey, who’s been an English professor at FIU for more than two decades, couldn’t drown out the sound of the clock, so he decided to do something about it. He created an undergraduate course — open to all students regardless of their major — focused on the idea of time.

“The real seed of the idea for this course came from a discussion with Dr. Allen Wesler, who has been a passionate world class traveler to ancient anthropological sites throughout his life,” Harvey said.

Wesler is the author of The Story that Changed the World, which explores the prehistoric origins of human consciousness. He is also a supporter of FIU’s philosophy program. In 2017, FIU hosted the Archaeological and Philosophical Perspectives Conference which brought together leading humanities experts to explore Wesler’s theory and intellectual work. Harvey was inspired by Wesler — someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about consciousness and time.

Harvey’s concept sounds abstract, but somehow he has kept it organized and all-encompassing. Blurring the boundaries between history, philosophy and the humanities, the syllabus launches at the “cognitive take-off” — about 30,000 years ago when people first became aware of lunar cycles. Tick. It was the moment people began to understand they were “living-in-time.” From there, the class delves into ancient Greek and Roman thinking, Renaissance writing, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and more. Tick. Tick.

Assignments are unlike any other assignment in a typical undergraduate class. In one, students are asked to look around their rooms and pinpoint the oldest object — not necessarily something they’ve owned the longest, but the oldest in terms of geological time. Another exercise encourages students to think about pain, and yes, even death. Tick. And as a sort of counterweight to pain and death, the film Groundhog Day is part of the class. After all, what would a discussion about time be without Bill Murray waking up every day in Punxsutawney and it’s always Feb. 2 and there’s nothing he can do about it. Tick. And tick. And tick again.

In a productivity-focused world where time is tracked — and yes, time is money — Harvey’s course gives students permission to pause. Instead of reacting to time only when it’s being “wasted,” like when stuck in traffic, the hope is they will begin to understand time on a deeper level and from different perceptions.

“The course is meant to be both thought-provoking and personal for students,” Harvey said. “I know they might not be interested in whether a cockroach remembers pain if they were to fail to stomp it out in their kitchen, but what about the dog waiting at the door for them to come home?”

When creating the class, Harvey took inspiration from conversations he’d had with many friends and colleagues at FIU. With Grenville Draper, professor of Earth and Environment in the FIU Institute of Environment, he would have long talks about the wonders of rocks. Some of their ages are calculated in billions. Tick. Tick. Tick. Sharks don’t live quite as long, but Harvey still recalls the moment he learned that sharks have memories. It was during a conversation with Mike Heithaus, marine biologist and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. Sharks actually remember a lot, Harvey was told. All of this stuck with him. It’s the kinds of things he wants his students to think about.

Creating such a unique and out-of-the box course has been a highlight in Harvey’s long teaching career. Tick. And it’s also provided an outlet for him and all of his thoughts about time.

“I’m getting older. And the clock doesn’t stop ticking,” Harvey said. “So, some of the existential features of the course — such as whether death means the end of individualized time or not — become increasingly important to me.”

Harvey knows his time at FIU is coming to a close. Although he’s nearing retirement, he is going to let that clock continue to tick, tick, tick for a little longer. He’s not quite done thinking about time just yet. Tick

HUM 3306 — History of Ideas: The Idea of Time, from Deep Time to Digital Post-Time Consciousness” is offered online every Fall, Spring, and Summer semester.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education magazine