Trying to assemble an “Anthropocene Curriculum”

Posted on Mar 16, 2014 in News and Events | 2 comments

Image by Benedikt Rugarby Christoph Rosol, Mar 15, 2014

This event is to be held
November 14-22, 2014
Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin

The Anthropocene—or however you choose to name the current era of environmental transition on a planetary scale—is a more-than-real challenge for human civilization. A crucial aspect of this challenge is to ferret out and create new forms of collectives. First of all, there is a need for a wide array of habitual collectives to bring the technically empowered, and maybe out-of-control human agency into closer awareness of and care for this capacious non-site of immersion, formerly known as “Nature”. The Anthropocene discloses the immediate resonance between our actions—but also our omissions and failures—with the entire geosphere, so why not perceive them as one and the same collage, always changing and shifting in its pattern but staying true to their reciprocal dependency? Second, there is the challenge to re-create collectives in a more classical sense: assemblages of mutual attention and co-workmanship amongst the billions of different “anthropoi” who are and will be dwelling on this planet.

The project

This applies foremost to where critical knowledge is formed, shared and raised: the university. Within the confines of knowledge production and dissemination in higher education, the “Anthropocene Curriculum” project proposes an experiment to tackle this challenge and explore creative solutions in relation to it. Developed by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG, both in Berlin, Germany) the “Anthropocene Curriculum” is a central, production-oriented element among a manifold of research-based exhibitions, experimental events, academic and curatorial workshops, as well as an ambitious publication project that comprise the output of the two-year “Anthropocene Project” led by HKW.

The “Anthropocene Curriculum” brings together university teachers from science, humanities, and art and design faculties from across the globe to collaboratively negotiate, develop, and supervise an exemplary curriculum on Anthropocene-relevant topics. Setting the curriculum as a practical goal the task is to creatively develop a mutual understanding of recursive themes and tropes within the confines of Anthropocene research, an emergent field that becomes more integrated and trans-disciplinary along the way. The curriculum itself will be implemented at the “Anthropocene Campus” taking place in November 2014 at HKW. Cast into the form of an autumn session helding a set of exemplary courses, a total of one hundred international young researchers from academia and civil society will get actively involved into the program, joining the effort by bringing in their own perspectives and expertise.

The immediate aim of this temporary co-learning space on the premises of a cultural institution and embedded within a more expansive situation in the HKW (exhibitions, screenings, artistic events), is to enter a productive discourse—free of university-curricular constraints—on knowledge design and dissemination, on skills and their trainings. As a result of the pre- and postwork of the 9-day event an “Anthropocene Coursebook” will be edited by the participants, ”instructors” and “students” alike. In the end, such cooperation seeks to adequately address the collaborative and educational skills needed to tackle the critical environmental challenges that the Anthropocene poses, challenges that immediately become social, technological, and epistemological on closer examination.

Hence, and on a more general note, the further goal of this ambitious project is to convey a wider grasp as well as epistemic sensibility for the spectra, interplays and metabolisms of elements taking place on and within a planet in transition. This includes efforts in prospectively conjoining the variegated systemic and anthropogenic exchange processes, from the biophysical and geochemical to the cultural, industrial, and virtual. Yet, it also critically reflects on social and aesthetic inputs and the effects that emanate from the general acceptance of a human-nature indivisibility. While this clearly speaks to the heart of the environmental humanities endeavour, such knowledge also implies the potency of design and actively pursues a readjustment of both “knowing” and “doing” within the broader geo-fabric. By incorporating diverse views and materials from different disciplines, by debating and combining them to form cross-disciplinary syllabi, a potent, earth-bound collective might be composed.

To be sure: the courses assembled within this project do not strive for a comprehensive, fully integrated tour d’horizon of the Anthropocene. Instead, they aim for a kaleidoscopic and resourceful approach that emerges from the glaring necessity to build a knowledge base simultaneously broad in its disciplinary perspectives, as well as out-of-the-box in its experimentation. An ideal curriculum informed by and calibrated for the Anthropocene does not teach disciplines, at least not as an end in itself. Working “in silos” certainly has its merits and so does rigorous disciplinary training. Nevertheless, the overall challenge to educate people for living up to the planetary scale of our pending crisis demands different approaches and methods.

Nor does an ideal “Anthropocene Curriculum” unify and equalize everything into a global view of nowhere. Instead, it composes out of localities, drawing connections between local concerns and local knowledge that carries it’s own historical contingencies. It mediates between different contemporary approaches and modes of scientific artistry. It prepares students for what will surely become turbulent times in the interdependency of science, culture, and a habitable planet. Its interdisciplinarity is genuine and rests on necessity. It provides methodical avenues for grappling with the scopes and scales of the Anthropocene predicament.

Moreover, the ever changing role of academia itself is hereby brought into the equation (or rather, multiple equations). Therefore, another central aim of this project is to accentuate the process of constructing and composing a curriculum and to bring this “becoming” to the foreground. Though building a curriculum with a panoramic view on topical, trans-disciplinary knowledge serves in and of itself as an end, the project’s desire is to also develop a self-reflexive discourse, as well as to highlight the uncertainties and humble limitations of scholarly engagement with the planet.

… and its procedures

As a result of general discussions and negotiations that took place since the start of the project in September 2013 on an internal online platform, and building on the presentations given at a midway meeting that took place January 23-24, 2014 at the MPIWG, the 27 participants of the project have now formed themselves into interdisciplinary groups of three or four. Within (but also across) these groups, the current task of each is to start elaborating their chosen topics and prepare materials for the seminars, excursions, exercises, and public lectures that will be presented during the “Anthropocene Campus” in November this year. Utilizing the online platform to mitigate communication procedures, the general discussion on goals and feasibilities of an Anthropocene-adequate knowledge base will continue.

Later this year the online platform will expand to include prospective students, while a public website presenting the compiled materials as well as videos of public presentations will be launched after the “Anthropocene Campus”. This will provide an accessible repository for further realizations of curricula that may be initiated at other places around the globe and added to the website later on. It is also planned to publish an open access edition of an “Anthropocene Coursebook”, consisting of the curriculum topics co-authored by the three tutors and their respective students.

All this is, no doubt, a bold and risky undertaking. Being a magnificent task in inter-disciplinary diplomacy, it challenges the academic folklore of often talking about collaboration but rarely putting it into practice. Here lies the virtue and open possibility of the Berlin “Anthropocene Project”: grounded within a cultural institution, it provides an extra-academic terrain to allow for another standard of exchange to happen. Strictly speaking, the “Anthropocene Curriculum” is a rare opportunity, namely one in which different perspectives may be debated in a frank and straightforward manner and controversial standpoints may be used in a productive way. The challenge here is to be a collective.

You can find more information on the project, the instructors, and the seminars at

Image by Benedikt Rugar Image by Benedikt Rugar


  1. What a fantastic initiative!

  2. A magnificent project, putting into practice what so many are waiting for; intellectual leadership in response to climate change.

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