Oct. 21, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 3

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    Faculty using an interdisciplinary approach to look at ‘big problems’

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    How many people can the earth support? How can humans best use energy resources? How can cultural identity endure as globalization increases? Such questions are the fuel for Big Problems, a new interdisciplinary program for fourth-years in the College.

    The big problems discussed in the program are so named because no single discipline holds the expertise to address their complexity, much less offer a solution. To begin to frame the scope of a big problem, scholars in the sciences and humanities must cross the boundaries of their disciplines and their respective interest groups and work together.

    Big Problems courses are the brainchild of William Wimsatt, Professor in Philosophy. Wimsatt and J. Paul Hunter, Director of The Franke Institute for the Humanities and the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor in English Language & Literature, co-direct the Big Problems sequence.

    Wimsatt is teaching the First-Quarter course, Biological and Cultural Evolution, along with Salikoko Mufwene, Professor and Chairman of Linguistics, and Jerrold Sadock, the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics.

    “When we discuss matters of global concern in this classroom, we realize there are all kinds of questions we, as teachers and students, don’t know how to answer,” said Wimsatt. “So together, we are trying to figure out what we should ask and how we should approach finding answers.”

    Wimsatt said creating this kind of setting was influenced by his son’s social activism and by John Jungck, chairman of biology at Beloit College, who wanted to create an environment in which students were doing original research in the classroom. In this setting, not even the teacher would know the answer to simulated problems presented to them by a computer. “Thus, the teacher can help the students as much as possible, but because the teacher doesn’t know the answer to a question either, he or she serves more as a consultant,” Wimsatt said.

    He also said the goal of the Big Problems courses is to get students from different concentrations to approach problems larger than their expertise, to work together for coordinated answers and to inspire future research questions. First, students are given organizational and conceptual methodologies and relevant subject matter, such as population genetics theory and the nature of language evolution, to address the problems. Later, they explore implementation strategies and their practical applications.

    “Big Problems is an imaginative, innovative program grounded in our tradition of general-education learning,” said John Boyer, Dean of the College. “The courses bring the learning cycle of the College full circle, allowing advanced students––at a time when they are ready for it––to experience what I call the second level of general education,” Boyer added.

    Hunter said, “An undergraduate education tends to be like a funnel in which the early, general-education courses can get left behind. Big Problems is a capstone experience for fourth-year students that links their senior year to general education, but at a much more sophisticated level.”

    Last year, Wimsatt and Hunter invited faculty members who wanted to work collaboratively to a series of meetings for interdisciplinary teaching. A group of 20 to 25 professors met periodically last November through March and out of this group came the faculty members who were available to teach this year. Currently, the two co-directors are preparing an invitation to faculty to repeat the process.

    Mufwene said he has “experienced an intellectual expansion that comes from this cross-fertilization. My mind is racing across topics when Wimsatt is presenting his take on evolutionary problems. I am not a population geneticist or biologist, so my understanding of that area is very superficial. Hearing his approach to research has encouraged me to pursue a certain methodology in my research studying language evolution,” he said.

    Wimsatt said he hopes students and faculty who participate in the program will eventually create new research groups at the intersection of disciplines or along new research axes.

    “We hope students will pursue these questions further, that they will be encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary research,” added Mufwene.

    Future in-class guest lecturers include Bill Darden, Professor in Slavic Languages & Literatures; Michael Green, Assistant Professor in Philosophy; and Robert Perlman, Associate Chairman of Academic Affairs and Professor in Pediatrics.

    Other Big Problems courses will include Cultural Evolution and Problems of Globalization, which will be taught during Winter Quarter by Mufwene, Sadock and Wimsatt, and Is Development Sustainable?, which will be taught during Spring Quarter by Ted Steck, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program, and Bill Sterner, Lecturer in Computer Science.

    Chicago alumnus Richard Buchanan, professor and head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, delivered the inaugural lecture of the 1999-2000 Big Problems Lecture Series, which is open to the public. Similar in focus to the Big Problems curriculum for fourth-year students, the public lecture series will feature nine presentations.

    The second of the Big Problems public lectures will take place at 4 p.m. today at The Franke Institute for the Humanities. Philip Lieberman of Brown University will speak about “Human Language and the Reptilian Brain: On the Subcortical Bases of Speech, Syntax and Thought.”