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Evolving Systems Course, week 14: Reflecting on our semester's evolution

Anne Dalke's picture

Please reflect, this week, on our semester's evolution.....

If you'd like a nudge in a particular direction? Well, try looking back @ our first text, Thomas King's The Truth About Stories...what do you notice now about what King has to say, through the various lenses provided by our subsequent conversations?

Summer's picture

It's Amazing How Much We've Changed

    It has been too fast. This semester is amazing. To look back now, I can hardly recall where we started. We discussed, in last week's class, how the education process is the combination of the conscious and unconscious. I think our online postings can be a excellent example of the statement.

    We went through this unique process of evolution during the past 4 months. We can think and write in a different and better way than we used to. During this journey, we did our online postings almost every week, on purpose. Wether to express our feelings towards the in class discussion or to finish the required work for the syllabus. We became better thinkers and writers, unconsciously, along the journey. We are not conscious about how much we've changed each week, until now, the time to sum up. Now when I compare, I can see what a fantastic process it was.

    The Truth About Stories seems too long ago for me. However, King's "turtles" has been with us throughout the semester. We've been looking at and trying to find the turtles in every aspect of evolution in the class discussions. I feel like that the more turtles I find, the closer I am to the truth. There may be or may not be a absolute truth for everything, but it is the process of looking for it which is interesting. Who knows exactly how the universe started? Even the big bang theory is just a reasonable hypothesis. I used to be obsessed with the absolute truth. I sometimes feel that my curiosity is killing me. Now I can see the turtles, the whole process of pursuing the truth, and I see what the momentum is. 

    I learned so much from this amazing seminar. Looking back amazed me and I'm sure the new knowledge ahead of us would be even better.

schu's picture

Oh, it's time to look back?

I remembered that one day in the mid of this semester, I thought I should change my profile pic to have a new look. Well, I forgot about it, or the time fled so fast. But when the time fled, we also chased it, with our full interest, spinning head as well as willingness to find out the next turtle in a infinite series. I am really glad that we have enjoyed this intriguing seminar. Last Sunday, when four of us were discussing the performance in Haffner, I saw the very lovely change on ourselves, that we were talking about great questions, deeper and deeper, broader and broader. 

There are always too many questions to answer. I interprete it in a very encouraging way. Yes we can't solve every mystery, which makes us sick, but we have explored so much. And with all these questions, we can probably find our way through the career development, and we will  find the undiminished light of our lives too. I have asked myself many deep questions before, but sometimes I just gave up, or left it on certain level without any interest to dig deeper. Now they become eternal for me. How great that is.

The inter-disciplinary dimension of this seminar is really fascinating. This is a fairly success start of divergent thinking in college life. And that will never be an ending.:D Thanks, Anne, Paul, and everyone in this classroom for having such a nice journey together.

Imittleman's picture

 Wow.  It's really

 Wow.  It's really interesting to read over these posts and see how much the class impacted everyone.  And myself.  For me, it wasn't necessarily what we talked about.  Though, in a way, it was.  We discussed some really fascinating things and it was wonderful to see how each person struggled and dealt with these issues.  I enjoyed watching the arguments play out and watching how closely attached we all felt to the issues at hand.  How closely attached I felt to the issues at hand.  A lot of the things we DID talk about weren't necessarily new ideas for me but that didn't mean I didn't get a new perspective on any of them.  Man, people had some cool ideas.  

What resonates with me the most, still, is deep exploration vs. far exploration.  That really struck me.  I guess I spent most of my life thinking about new experiences, new adventures, change, change, change in an obvious way: travel.  Hell, it's why I came to Bryn Mawr.  Only to realize in this class I was seeing adventure in one way through a really narrow scope.  Those ideas are something I can imagine taking with me throughout my experience at college and beyond that too.  Also, the idea of change being the most powerful force, above all.  It's funny how comforting and scary that can be.  

Speaking of change, it's been really interesting watching our esem change.  Hardly any one talked in the beginning and now most of us do.  Maybe not everyone all the time, but we talk and we feel like we know each other because it was (here we go) our stories that we told.  And in our ideas, beliefs and feelings were our stories.  Because they're so attached to what we do.  Now, this is in a way, a story.  We're all linked to each other in some sort of special way: we took this class together.  Sometimes, I think, you are graced with a great class.  The material was great obviously, the professor was awesome, but the people really stood out for me.  We fit well and the class came together in a really unique way in which we all participated and all got to know each other beyond our general classroom personas.   

I know a lot of people who hated their esem, but I loved ours.  It wasn't like I was going to school.  It was like sitting around with friends and just talking about things, but really cool, interesting things.  It's only been three months but I know I've changed a lot.  I'm not sure if I can attribute this at all to Esem or being at college or whatever it is, but it's been a good change.  And I really like that.  

Thanks for everything.  It's been a good time.  

LAJW's picture

Individual Evolution


Actually for individual evolution, I have a lot to say about myself. Before coming to Bryn Mawr, I didn't know what the writing seminar really is, since I have never had a writing seminar back in Singapore. What I knew about the writing seminar is just another name of the English writing course. I did not really expect much from this course. To be honest, I do not have confidence in writing and writing is always a burden to me. Moreover, I am nervous of speaking English in front of others, since I always think that I have a different accent from my American classmates.


However, after taking the course, I found that all of my previous perceptions are wrong. I am really benefited from different ideas learnt from group discussions every week. Previously, I always thought myself as a science student which means that I cannot study philosophy or do critical and abstract thinking. I prefer scientific theories ( Haha, are they just stories created by scientists to help us human beings understand the world?), since they are just facts which are clear and direct for me to comprehend. Moreover, I have never questioned the reliabilities of these theories since they are proved to be accurate and I can tell that they are correct by studying and analyzing the data collected by scientists. However, this does not mean that after taking the course, I do not believe these theories any more. If so, I can just give up studying. Since everything is just a story, there is no need for me to waste my time and money to study and understand “stories”. I appreciate the scientific way of understanding the world and everything around us. But at the same time, I start accepting other approaches of understanding the universe and earth, since it is logical for me to understand where these seemingly scientifically wrong ideas come from. I am really happy to see the change in myself. In order to expand my own understanding of the world, I need to be eclectic. I think I am not as narrow-minded as before, even though I still do not believe in any God or creation myths.


Besides the change in the mindset, I also managed to find my interest in the study of brain. Not really much about the brain as the site of story construction, but “magics” that our brains can do. I am really interested in the study of the conscious and the unconscious part of the brain, where our unconscious feelings, perceptions, phobias come from. It is also interesting to play with the optical illusions and analyzed the reasons behind them. Hence, this writing seminar to me is not just about writing, but also about science( Haha, my favorite).


Most importantly, I find that writing essays of my interested topics are not painful any more. I think it is really important to me since I found a new way to communicate my inner self with others. I know this may sound a little like cliché. However, writing was really a big problem to me. I cannot write well even in Chinese.( Sorry, but that's true!) Now, I start realizing why some people like writing a lot. Sitting quietly with a cup of coffee and trying to talk to and understand myself actually can be a leisure to me. I enjoy the process of writing now, since it is a new way for me to conduct self-reflection which I think is important for people with busy lifestyles. We sometimes need to talk to ourselves and understand what our purposes are and where our goals lie. By doing so, we would never lose the motivation to move on and achieve.


As what Elisa said that in her post , the course is going to end soon and it is the time to say goodbye. I am also afraid of getting out of this comfort zone, since it takes really long for me to get to know new people. I really like our esem course Each one of us is so different that we always have something to share. Paul is always the one who bring us back to the main idea when we turned to discuss something else. Julie is always the one who summarizes the important ideas from our sometimes quite random discussions. Mattie is always the one who has “big” ideas. Haha, Carolina likes to argue sometimes and always says “ Oh, I don't know. You guys understand what am I saying?” Eva always speaks at a very low voice and has those abstract ideas. Elisa always has many personal stories to share. Even though that Angela and Jordan are pretty quiet during the class, their online posts are always thought-provoking. Val is always very cool, sporty and she could always bring laughters. Ilana (Haha, I always think that she looks like Jacob's sister ) always likes to raise hands to express her ideas. Moreover, Genesis can always relate our topics to arts which I think she is really good at. Haha, Hilary is the only girl who has red hair. Kayla is another cool girl in our class. Last but not least, Christine is always the one who likes to drink the vitamin juice.

I think I write too much. I really like everyone in our seminar group and I learned a lot from each one of you. Our seminar would not be so successful without anyone of you.


paige's picture

Praise for Plasticity

When I read the first chapter of the Truth about Stories this time around, it struck me how very relevant the book has remained to our class conversation as well as the conversation that has transpired in my head throughout the semester.

King suggests that we are chained to the stories we tell. We must be responsible storytellers for once a story is released into the world, it cannot be taken back. However, King also emphasizes that we can manipulate stories.  This series of statements has really affected my thinking throughout the course. I feel that King gives an appropriately cautious and hopeful perspective with which to see the world.

From the beginning of the course when we discussed “facts” and “truths” we have acknowledged the uncertainty of seemingly absolute concepts but we have also acknowledged how useful such concepts can be particularly in science as the provisional basis for the next set of questions. We are also very familiar with the concept of turtles all the way down. I feel that we have spent much of our class discussing what we feel our limitations are (the unconscious vs the conscious –who is the I?, are we in “charge?”, we can never find ultimate truth, etc…) but we have also discussed how to stretch boundaries (neural plasticity, creating a dialogue between the subconscious and the conscious, how can cultural change come about, evolution in all senses of the word). I feel that we really have been living up to the course name of making sense of ourselves in an evolving universe particularly because I feel we have made sense of the fact that “making sense of ourselves” doesn’t mean finding a place where we fit in or defining our responsibilities. Rather, I think that we have begun to understand just how dynamic the world is and that it is often necessary to hold two contradicting thoughts in the head at the same time. I think we have also started to see with greater understanding comes more possibilities and challenges because we are responsible for what we do with our knowledge.

I have so much to say in this post but no good way to write it all out. I am sad that this our last post. I was skeptical at first but I think posting online is very liberating. I also think reading everyone’s post really enhances the development of our conversation. It’s an extra window into our thoughts.

Speaking of, my ways of thinking have been subtly developing throughout the semester, which was made clear when I realize I have had a running theme throughout the class (I am more cohesive than I thought!) when I go back through the postings but that I have been slowly been taking it farther and into different areas. I have a new way of thinking about non-fiction writing. Due to the weekly essays I have gotten to explore new and fascinating topics (even if I still get caught up in the collection of all that information)! I have gotten to know my brain (my best friend, still) even more intimately.  The treasure is though not just getting to see this in myself but in others too. I feel that this is sappy but true.

 I have sincerely enjoyed this course. I will miss posting on the esem wall as well as sitting in the softly-light Dalton basement room, having the door closed and making sense of ourselves! Thank you all for creating such a great environment!

P.S two last links, one to an article reviewing an art.essay book entitled Portraits of the Mind that uses real images of the brain to talk about the evolution of our understanding of our mind/brains and the second to an article talking about the use of animations in molecular biology and more. I think its interesting because the book and animations the result of an effort to make science more accessible to a wider public. The book seeks to engage the reader through the aesthetic pleasure of the images which brought me back to our discussions about Logicomix, our generation's preference for the visual and education. Will visual be the new standard? .

Sarah Ann's picture


I feel like reading these posts in class on Tuesday is going to result in one of those moments I hate. One of those moments where I, the "token bawler," as my friends and I have come to call me, will probably start crying (even though I don't want to), and nobody else in the room will. I've been like that for as long as I can remember, and it makes for awkward, sniffly situations a lot of the time (subconscious brain, anyone?). I don't deal well with endings as it is, and here already are a bunch of posts talking about saying goodbye. I don't want to say goodbye. Goodbye means change. Change is something I've always shyed away from. Well, it always was.

That's where my main evolution through this class has been. Acceptance of change.

Evolution, in any sense of the word, is change. For someone like me, who feared change, this probably seems like an awfully odd ESem choice. But as the semester progressed, I realized more and more that it was definitely the right one. Obviously, coming to college was a huge change, one that I had a lot of trouble with at first. Being in this class, with our comfortable group dynamic and discussions, made me realize that change isn't something to be feared. Change is inevitable, and even though it's unknown territory, so is everything else in the universe to our comparatively tiny human brains (even though there is no "everything," and our brains are actually storytellers that can contain the sky... oh, the places we've been this semester, ladies!). I can't know what's going to happen. I can't have all the answers, or even all the questions. Although it's still a little uncomfortable for me, knowing that sometimes I just can't know for sure was a revelation that helped me adjust to being here. Change is a part of life that needs to be embraced just like any other.

I knew it. See? I'm actually choking up while typing. Dear ESem classmates, when we discuss this stuff on Tuesday, yes, I will probably cry, no, it probably won't seem to make sense, and yes, I am okay. It's been an emotional journey. Thank you all :]

bluebox's picture

Those damn turtles...

 At the beginning, I remember thinking that I could see the beginning and the end, but I didn't have any idea what would be in between.  I got the stories part, and once I understood that people make up stories for a reason, it all started coming together. Actually, every time i learned something new it felt like everything was coming together.  It was the in between that really made the experience what it was. I learned so much and it's one of those things where things I learned in this class I'll keep building on for--maybe not the rest of my life, but at least a really really long time.  It's so hard to even define what I learned, but I assure you, I learned it. It's still in my brain and adding to the information my brain gathers to make stories and make sense of an evolving universe.

Just a thought. What if the brain is the universe...Making sense of ourselves in an evolving ______. So  much could fill that blank. Ahh, everything is connected! The brain is what's making sense of itself in an evolving brain. The brain makes sense of itself in making stories, which we may or may not perceive as reality, which help our brain evolve and improve into the most fit to continue on (descent with modification, maybe?).  In order to create these stories, we exchange information with others and create stories form a culture.  Then, the culture itself gives us stories with the brain interprets and influences our individual person, which is made up of these stories and the bipartite brain, the conversations between the two parts of it form our sense of right and wrong, and the stories we need to explain it with...And we've come back to the beginning. It's not turtles all the way down, it's just a bunch of turtles in a ball pit. Think about that one.

Olivia's picture

the story that made a difference

After this course, after hearing this story, my whole life is different. My world suddenly expanded with all kinds of possibilities. Now, I can connect science with myths (I never noticed that they are the same in essence); I realized that the multi-universe theory is just one of the stories. I learned to analyze the origin of universe with various perceptions at different dimensions (myths, physics, biology…). I noticed that geological factors could be one of the stories for the culture changes; I became aware that cultural evolution had huge impacts on individuals. I also learned about logics, bi-part brains (along with many interesting phenomenon, such as illusions). Most importantly, everything is evolving, the universe, the culture, the individual, and even the brain. And all those things we have are just one story our brains pick. There are many other stories, many other possibilities. However, since there are so many possibilities, we have to choose only one from them. And since there is infinity, we can’t have everything. We can’t have all the possibilities or stories.


Another thing I took from this class is the thinking method, which is described as “turtles all the way down”. Now I know there is always another question below the answer. There is no end. No ground. No absolute certainty.

Before, I kind of thought about some of the questions above, but I ended up nowhere. And I never looked at things in a different way like what we did in the ESEM class. I never saw the connections between myths and science, the cutural and individual evolutions and so on. I never even thought about some of the possibilities. Now I just feel that a whole new world is open to me, and at the same time I know how to explore more with the thinking method.


This course was such a wonderful journey that I just can’t believe it is almost over…



Erin's picture

You'll Never Believe What Happened

"You'll Never Believe What Happened" Is Always a Great Way to Start. This is the first chapter we learned in the first novel The Truth about Stories by Thomas King.  Guess what, we didn’t know what we are supposed to expect at the beginning at the ESEM. At the this point, doing my last posting on the Serendip at the Canaday  at midnight, I really have a better chance to see myself better. For me, I believe I really came a long way to where I am today. Looking at the road I have walked by looking at my essays and postings, I can say with joy and confidence that I love my ESEM and learned a lot.

Every time I walked out the little basement, I feel that I just come from another world.  I enjoyed the discussions. Even though, the topics are just too big for anyone to make any sense in a one hour and half discussion. We have narrowed down our topics greatly without decreasing the depth of the discussion. I remember we had the discussion about the differences between the two sections. I think one features shaped our discussion is that we built our discussion based on each other. The discussion is continuous and developed both horizontally and vertically. Of course, the politeness and “cold atmosphere” are the two things come with our discussion on some sense. I think I really enjoyed this kind of discussion because of my own personality. I got a lot chances to speak out my opinions during our small group. My thinking has developed more maturely especially at the way of develop my argument more thoroughly and narrow down my evidence to a discreet perspective. I think these two important parts of thinking will benefit me all the way to end of college.

We have understood more about the origins about the universe and biological evolution. The sense of belonging did get lost during way of searching of answer. At the end, we understand it’s just another way of telling story. The ultimate truth may not be found out yet but I am happy with the stage we have reached so far. The cultural evolutions and individual evolution help me understand more about my role and interactions with larger environment. The reasons of the development in the society and the personal progress can be a serious of the turtle all the way down which is the wonderful methodology I have learned in this fascinating ESEM. I have to admit that I did get disappointed at the last part when we are talking about the consciousness and unconsciousness. Even though I haven’t figure the mechanism behind the scenery, the theory about the mysteries brains help me understand myself in a scientific way. I can start understand the behind scene reasons of my psychological and physical behaviors. The wonderful article “The rational dog with the emotional tail” by Jonanth Haidt give me the system of the explanations of my emotional decisions and way of thinking.

I can’t believe it’s coming to a end this week and it’s hard for me to say goodbye. I like the ESEM for its design of helping student really develop a better system of thinking. I wish in my lifetime, I will be able to take another class for me to really explore more about the environment around and myself. The continuous inspirations keep me motivated in this whole process.  Despite the complain I heard from my friends about their ESEM, I am so grateful I take the chance to have this wonderful journey wondering the sense of myself in this complicated evolving universe.




Angela_MCA's picture

In truth, in the beginning of

In truth, in the beginning of the semester I had no confidence that I could ever be convinced that "stories is all we are".  We had gone through stories of the universe, biological, cultural, and individual evolution, and here we are ending at the brain and the stories the brain constructs. The brain that we used all semester to understand these concepts of reality, logic, morality, and truth. The brain that now constructs the story of this class. Now, I'm more than open to accept that all we are, are stories.  Listening to everyone's different views and interpretations of various topics has really helped me to grow and understand the right questions to ask.

As for writing, I actually feel like I made some progress. Being given such vague prompts, I thought I would never be able to learn how to write a well structured essay. However, the vagueness of the prompts is what helped me to learn how to organize my thoughts and come up with well thought out themes.

nina0404's picture

The End in the Beginning

So yes I know the title is really cliche but deal with it :)

It's hard to believe that our first semester as Freshmen in college is almost over. Kinda of scary actually. While I am looking forward to not writing three page papers every week I am going to miss ESem. Mainly all of you girls.

I remember the first week of school, talking to people, and everyone asking, "What ESem are you in?". And for that first week I remember replying "Uhh something about the universe and me in a really long title". 

Then in the second week when people asked I finally remembered the name and would say, "Making Sense of Ourselves in an Evolving Universe". And then from the questioner...silence. When they opened their mouth in response it was always the same thing, "Wow. That sounds awful"....... Thanks for the vote of confidence all you Debbie Downers.

ESem was interesting in that I felt like I was very resistant to the idea of viewing everything as a story and in changing my writing style. Topics were so broad that I always felt lost and instead of making sense of myself, I was getting more confused. Weeks went by and class discussions became easier, everyone began opening up, and now I started seeing clairty in some topics (not to say that it happened often. Every topic confused me at some point). My writing I feel progressed (with lots of unwanted but necessary pushing by Anna...thanks), and I now feel that my voice can be heard in an essay.

In class we have taken one word and applied it to many aspects of our lives. While at time confused, frustrated, and stressed we always survived. I was really skeptic about ESem at first, but now that I have taken it I feel like it has helped me to become a better student, and not just any student but a Bryn Mawr student.  

Kirsten's picture

To sum it all up

 I have never been impressed with a writing course.  I also have never been able to pin point areas in which I have improved through the course of a writing class.  Before I took this class writing was a chore, and a chore that I did not accomplish well. I set myself up for "turtles all the way down" in most if not all of my papers.  This class has changed the way I begin to think about how I will tell my "story".  I can not more easily set up a thesis for myself that I can more affectively back up.  From learning this skill it makes it a little easier for me to tell my stories in a way that gets a point across that matters.

Also, the readings have been really interesting ;)


Aimee's picture

A Final Confession


I’m going to miss this course. Jeesh, what a change! I remember my first week of ESEM, and the terror that arose when I learned that I would write a weekly 3-page paper about NOTHING. I recall quite vividly complaining to my friends about the lack of prompts, and I remember their responses equally well. “Wow, Aimee! I’m glad I’m not in your ESEM.” My ESEM. That’s what it feels like now. I have ownership of a part of it – a timeshare of sorts. And every time I write a post, answer a question, or write an essay, I am engaging what I’ve learned while contributing to the knowledge of others. It’s a powerful feeling.

Thomas King wrote, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” 

I am beginning to understand the truth in his words. My mind and those of my peers are brimming with ideas and beliefs. Those ideas and beliefs came, in part, from our predecessors. I remember my mother’s words in my ear: “Aimee, procrastination is bad!” (I never listened). I remember the words of my Sunday school teachers: ”See! And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ Just like the Big Bang.” I remember Anne’s words: “Risky, hard, important, and required: that you contribute to 
ongoing conversation/learning of us all.” 

The truth about stories is that it’s all I am. I am bits and pieces - genetically, religiously, culturally – of my forbearers. Through my mitochondrial DNA, I tell the story of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and so forth. Through my beliefs and opinions, I tell a story of life events that have shaped me. Through my neurons and glial cells, my brain tells a story of self. I’m an Aimee, a cohesive, unified ice cream cone. Right?

I’m not so sure. I’ve been entertaining the “society of mind” hypothesis instead of doing my homework. You understand that I struggle with the unknown. You realize that I’m a nut-nut who doesn’t like the bipartite brain, even as I grow to accept its importance. Even if I don’t want to be bipartite, or divided into a trillion cells, I must accept that I am a bunch of pieces. I still think I’m cohesive and unified, but a society can be cohesive and unified too. Look at North Korea. So, what am I? What predominates? The parts or the person? Oy, this is confusing. This ESEM might be the cause of my mental breakdown.   

I am a story. How odd. Everything is a story. It’s turtles all the way down. How should I remember that statement? With fondness and smiles? Or with confusion and worry? I’m going to try for the smiles.

Let’s face it: life’s a story. The good new is: I (we?) can contribute to it. This weekend, I spent time researching my final ESEM paper. The topic: Why a brain with dementia constructs stories.

 And I realized that I was fascinated by what I was learning. I sat there enthralled, wondering how I could contribute to our knowledge of dementia and the raw humanity of aging. I could see myself as a geriatrician, or a medical anthropologist studying senescence, or a biologist researching Lewy body dementia. The possibilities were really reassuring; I have so many ways to tell a story of my own.  


elisagogogo's picture

so much perfection in so little words

I was thinking about education during last Tuesday’s discussion. The more I got to know how consciousness and unconsciousness work, the more I fell that unconsciousness is more powerful and is dominate to our brain. I remember a famous educator once said, what you get from education is the ability you have after forgetting all the staff you learnt from school. Does this mean it is our unconsciousness part of the brain that needs to be educated and empowered? If the answer is yes; if we can train our unconsciousness to be incredibly strong, again, why do we still need consciousness?

As for the Thursdays discussion, I fell the topic was sensitive but realistic. Because even though it is embarrassed to deal with, it does happen in the world that we live in. As I said in the class, I’ve never been in a conversation like this in China. I was amazed by myself when I first think incest was OK as far as they both feel comfortable with it. Why do we have to constrain ourselves and refuse to follow our heart? After carefully thinking about why are Chinese people against sex before marriage, it dawned on me that it is because we are human, with strong moral and complicated culture which other creatures don’t have that that, we cannot do whatever we want.


Back to the topic of esem as a whole. I really have to say that I  experienced an incredible grief after walking out of Paul’s office last week. Realizing that from me on everyone in my esem class will have her last individual meeting, I couldn’t believe the class is almost over. I am not used to always studying with different teachers and classmates (in China, teachers assigned to us will uasually not be changed within 3 or 4 years). Now, I fell that I will be pulled out of my comfort zone, leaving people whom I’ve just got familiar and fall in love with, and continue exploring. It’s hard to say if it is bad or not. It’s just too sad to me. I’ve experienced so many “goodbyes” this year. Goodbye to my high school, goodbye to my family, friends and my hometown… and now, it’s the time to say goodbye again.


I can still remember the time I chose my esem classes. As a first year student with no specific area of interest, I wanted to take a class that covers a broad range of things. I’m glad I got into this esem, which does not only benefit and inspire me in academic, but also infect me by its active atmosphere and diverse community. It’s always hard to cover something broad in a short period of time, but our class does in an organized way. From universe to biology, from culture to individual, we explored the world in different scales. We found that each evolvement does not appear separately, but forms a large loop as a whole, interacting with each other. Each has distinguished features that contribute to the evolvement of the universe, but they also share something in common: “The ultimate existing truth in the world is changing” “We can always know more but we can never know everything”… What makes this class more interesting is that instead of just studying the external world, we are also part of the story. We have our culture which just formed as the class going on. Our special gestures, our name game, our active debate, our diverse perspectives from students from various backgrounds, our reaction and conflict to Ann’s class… all of these make the class such a wonderful experience. I really enjoy the co-evolution process to study and to explore about the world.

Finally, thanks everyone. I Love you guys:)

Bingqing's picture


It is almost the end of the semester. We have explored the origin of the universe based on both various nonscientific creation myths in different cultural backgrounds and scientific theories in different periods. We have interpreted the natural evolution and cultural evolution. We have read individual biography and discussed bipartite brain’s stories. During all the process, we could always find new questions after we ended one. We found everything around us is full of mysteries when we consciously try to totally understand its evolving process. Just like we can only see the peak of an ice burg, the inside part is more amazing and intriguing. Don’t feel overwhelming. Turtles all the way down.

Everybody will smile from face and from heart when she hears “Turtles all the way down.” This is another thing we gain from exploring the evolving universe. When we try to figure out how universe, natural evolution and certain culture evolve, we gradually found our own culture, in which others feel hard to take part in. We share common experience and even “defense” this.

Even though the class is going to end, evolvement will never stop and our culture will never vanish. It is an endless journey of cognition and self-identity.


FluteSound4's picture

This goodbye...

Well, I can't really say goodbye yet. I still have Thursday for that. But I will be sad when this class ends. I've heard many of my friends complain about their ESEMs and how boring/uninteresting they think their particular ESEM is. My reactions to this class are the complete opposite. I have only complained a few times about this course and that was mostly at the beginning of the course when I didn't like being given abstract essay prompts or when I was trying to figure out how to learn a new writing style that was different from the typical essay style we were all so attached to in high school. Coming into this course I was really excited because it is a discussion based course. I love having discussions in class and I thought I was going to be one of those people who talked a lot. However, this class proved me wrong. I found myself staying quiet in class more often because I was just sitting there thinking and considering others opinions and ideas. I'm actually happy that I got this class section rather than Paul's (no offense Paul) because the relaxed nature of our class section helped me learn how to better organize my thoughts and speech. As for my essays. I am incredibly thankful to have Anne with us who helped me and my essays a long the way. Because of her my writing has grown and matured. Don't get me wrong though, even though my writing has come so far in these past 14 weeks, it still has a long way to go.

Now to go back to Thomas King's book. Well, I wasn't able to look through the book because I left it at home the last time I visited my parents. I think it's a book my mom will really like, hence why it's still in Virginia. But the thing that surprised me about this course was how often we referred to "turtles all the way down." In the beginning of the semester I never would have guessed how important that quote was going to be to all of us!

SoundsLikeBanana's picture

Turtles All the Way Down


Just like the Native American creation story, the more questions I ask the questions I have. This class has made me ask questions about the most basic concepts that under any other circumstance I would have never questioned, which I take as a sign of a class well done.

How was the world created? Why do I believe what I do? What is intelligence? Can one person influence an entire culture? Was our present culture inevitable? Where did these beliefs come from? Who is making the decisions in my brain? Who is I?

Turtle, turtle, turtle…

MC's picture

Anne, You've Changed!

So as I elected to forgo sleep in the name of good company and an overheated computer, I decided to work on the presentation for class. I began combing over the weekly postings, starting with our very first week. The posts were significantly longer. Infer from that what you like. I got around week 9 when I realized the highlights were put up in Anne's (and Paul's, of course) talking notes, so I decided to pull them up and look through them all. And, lo and behold, Anne's notes changed just as much as our thoughts in progress did. Admittedly some of it was probably standard "no more need to walk the first years through every step", but there was still noticeable change in how she wrote her thoughts and notes  and how much she wrote. Certain ideas repeatedly came up, and some were heavily emphasized, while others only seemed to last a single class period. Anne's thoughts faded into commentary only used to direct our conversations instead of giving us piles of textual evidence and questions. She became less of a moderator and more of a lurker, but not in a bad way. In a thoughtful way. But anyway, looking at the notes has been good. It's been thought-provoking and entertaining all at once, because I start to remember specific instances in these conversations and it's like little Christmas lights are being switched on in a neighborhood one by one until the whole street is one sea of green, red, and white lights.

So what have I decided based on looking at our notes?

Why, it's turtles all the way down. That has now become my only reasonable response to anything in this class or any other situation. Were you honestly expecting something different?

Hillary G's picture

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I have to say, it's hard to believe this class is over. We've discussed so many concepts from so many different perspectives that I think it's safe to say we all came away with something valuable. I can't speak for everyone, but I personally feel that I have gained a lot from our discussions. I've become better at understanding different view points and I have now experienced firsthand just how diverse people's opinions and perspectives can be.


We've determined, essentially, that all we are is stories. We are products of our cultures, of our genetics, of our experiences, and of our neural activity. Evolution occurs at the cultural level, at the individual level, and at the biological level. Our minds have been warped by discussions of reality and social issues, and concepts that we may never have thought about or questioned before.


We have been forced to step outside our comfort zones and embrace the idea of exploration. We have appreciated and cursed the world for all its complexities and mysteries, and we will likely leave this course with more questions than answers. But we have also been given a solid foundation upon which to ask those questions. Because what's really important is asking the hardest questions, and having the courage to do so.  And I think after this course, we will.


ecollier's picture

Exposure ≠ Acceptance

Mentioned in Thursday’s class was the possibility of people being more tolerant of societally/culturally unacceptable ideas (such as incest/homosexuality) if they have had more exposure to it. Although I’m completely willing to entertain this idea, I have not had exposure to incest in the slightest. The most I’ve seen of incest was an art installation about it once… and it was a bit disturbing and strange, yet in more ways than just incest. Plus it was art: free reign. Paul mentioned that with homosexuality (or non-heterosexuality, rather) people who had “exposure” to those people, they soon realize that those people are just people, but also gay. With exposure, we begin to disassociate the stigmatized immoral groupings that those people may fit into. 

So… back to the beginning: I believe that the reason I was willing to be okay with Haidt’s scenario, was because I have spent a considerable amount of time consciously trying to be capable of opening my mind to new and different norms. Also, my parents never taught me that incest was a bad thing. Its not as if they were supportive of it, but it just never came up. I formulated my own morality and method by which to judge good/bad action without any rules so limiting to which there would be no exceptions (i.e. incest).


Julie G.'s picture


 In Thomas King's The Truth About Stories, he states that "the truth about stories is that that's all we are" (first seen on page 2). The studies of the brain that we have been exploring indicate that King is right: everything that we perceive or think is a construction of our brain and there is nothing that we can know other than our own perceptions or thoughts. Yet, we can collaborate the stories we tell ourselves (our realities) and agree upon what seem to be similarities in both our perceptions and our reasonings. For example, we can agree on various scientific methods to determine how the universe was created, or how biological evolution took place. We can agree upon noticing commonalities and differences within and between cultures. We can observe an individual, or read their life story, to see the changes they underwent. And we can agree about methods and reasonings of neurological and psychological studies that indicate that each of our realities is a construction of our own minds. Or not: we can choose to disagree. We can choose to, or not to place qualitative values on particular notions of reality, or particular stories. But viewing everything as a story has the benefit of allowing us to try and open our minds and understandings to change.

mwechsler's picture

I can't believe it's all over

 I kind of can't believe it's all going to be over soon. Sometimes I think this class resembles the brain. I am arriving at the end and I actually feel like I learned a lot, but I didn't always feel like I was actively learning while it was happening, just like so much of the brains complex functioning happens in the subconscious. Your brain is this amazing thing and you can't even see it working for you.