June 6, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 17

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    College wants to offer students more ‘Big Problems’ to ponder

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    In 1999, the College launched a pilot program with the deceptively simple name “Big Problems.” Not a department, committee or concentration, Big Problems offered a range of experimental, interdisciplinary courses designed to be a capstone experience for third- and fourth-year students.

    Three years later, the Big Problems program has become an unqualified success. More than two-dozen faculty members, mostly from the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions, have team-taught courses. Now the program’s advisory board is hoping to expand course offerings, especially in the sciences, and is looking for new faculty members to participate.

    Big Problems courses usually center on complex matters of global or universal concern that cross several academic disciplines. “Such problems pose a variety of methodological problems even in their description,” said William Wimsatt, Professor in Philosophy and the College, who co-founded the program with J. Paul Hunter, the Barbara E. & Richard J. Franke Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and the College. “When we discuss matters of global concern in the classroom, we realize there are all kinds of questions we, as teachers and students, don’t know how to answer.”

    For fourth-year Will Swenson, who took “The Organization of Knowledge” last year, the course was a unique opportunity to come in contact with students from a range of different disciplines. “With a view of the way your area of study relates to other areas, you can learn to understand your own better and how to resolve disputes between various systems,” he said.

    The class, taught by Wayne Booth, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus; Herman Sinaiko, Professor in Humanities and the College; and William Sterner, Lecturer in Computer Science, “was as big and complex as the title indicates,” Swenson said. “It aimed to discover the organization of all knowledge––the relationship of each field of inquiry to every other field. Fitting that much inquiry into 10 weeks was an impossible goal, but the time we spent on it was very profitable.”

    This spring, students were able to choose from four Big Problems courses. Shadi Bartsch, Chairman of Classical Languages & Literatures, and Jan Goldstein, Professor in History and the College, team taught “Concepts of the Self from Antiquity to the Present.” Ted Steck, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and the College, posed the question “Is Development Sustainable?” in a course taught with Leigh Raymond, a postdoctoral fellow and Lecturer in Environmental Studies. Ron Baiman, economist at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Melvin Rothenberg, Professor Emeritus in Mathematics and the College, shared the course “Globalization and Neo-liberalism.”

    “Social Context, Biology and Health” brought together John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology; Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology; and Linda Waite, Professor in Sociology. For undergraduates, the course was an opportunity to learn about an area of research that their professors are currently helping to define. In the fall, the trio won a $7.5 million research grant from the National Institute on Aging.

    According to McClintock, their research, which is exploring the reasons why people who feel lonely have more health problems, “is a whole different way of looking at the relationship between the mind and biology.”

    With an emphasis on such collaborative methods, the course work encouraged developing new approaches to finding solutions. “The courses cover subjects that are really absolutely crucial,” said Wimsatt. “We want students to have some idea of the character of the problem––and to come away with some commitment to do something about it.”

    As for future offerings, Wimsatt has a long wish list: courses that sprung immediately to mind included the justice system, perhaps focusing particularly on the juvenile justice system; race relations, the educational system and social inequality; science, truth and politics; probability estimates and biases in policy-making; and nuclear energy, weapons and pollution.

    Faculty members also are encouraged to suggest courses, either for themselves or others. Douglas MacAyeal, Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, has proposed courses on the increasing scarcity of fresh water; espionage and secrecy; and one titled “The Tigris, Euphrates and Mississippi,” which would explore the complex challenges of harnessing water resources.

    The Big Problems program also includes a public lecture series every year. This year’s series, “Neither Individuals Nor States: War and the World,” was a response to the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11. Speakers included journalist Christopher Hitchins; Adele Simmons, vice chair of Chicago Metropolis 2020; and Abner Mikva, White House Counsel during the Clinton administration, who spoke earlier this year on “Liberty, Order and War.”

    For some undergraduates, the biggest problem with Big Problems is that the courses last only a quarter. “We do get phone calls from students wanting to major in it sometimes,” said Margot Browning, the program’s Executive Director. “Instead I ask them, ‘Why don’t you use a Big Problems course to enrich or extend your senior essay or project?’”

    The next open meeting for faculty on the Big Problems program will be held in October.

    For more information about this meeting or Big Problems courses, contact Wimsatt at wwim@midway.uchicago.edu or Browning at m-browning@uchicago.edu or visit the program’s Web site at http://www2.college.uchicago.edu/college-catalog.