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Changing the System

Changing the System

Faculty and administrators look to add flexibility to the system

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Changing the System

How Duke makes interdisciplinary studies work in a disciplinary world

Durham, NC - As long as faculty members come up with courses that promote inquiry across disciplines, as "Neuroethics," Duke is going to find a way to offer them. But campus officials say the university is still experimenting with the best way to support interdisciplinary study over the long term.

"To be successful, support for interdisciplinary courses must be sustainable," said Vice Provost Susan Roth. "We don't want to struggle to find discretionary funds every year to fund a strong course. The discussion we're having now is what model will best accomplish that function."

Established in 2010, the Provost's Undergraduate Team-Teaching Initiative (PUTTI) is a prime example of how Duke is working to build flexibility into its school-based budgetary system.  The funds ensure departments don't suffer a financial penalty when they support faculty who teach interdisciplinary courses.

In its first year, the program funded two courses -- Scott Huettel and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's class on neuroscience and ethics, and one on partnering and parenting taught by Brian Hare, a primate anthropologist, and Suzanne Shanahan, sociologist and associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

This year, owing to a continued commitment of Provost funds, several additional such courses are likely to be launched. Roth and others said the experience from these few courses will stimulate discussion on how to pay for interdisciplinary classes more widely, including questions of whether and how the university might develop a central source.

Interdisciplinary education is also getting a boost from the arrival of new Arts & Sciences Dean Laurie Patton, who said she was attracted to Duke in large part by "the centrality of interdisciplinary work" in the campus culture. Saying she sees Trinity College as taking "leadership but not ownership" of interdisciplinary initiatives, Patton said interdisciplinary research and education that advance large, broad research questions is a critical part of the school's "intellectual mandate."  In a speech this semester to Arts & Sciences faculty, Patton specifically cited three initiatives in computational sciences, social sciences and the Mellon Foundation-funded "Humanities Writ Large" that are expected to produce new research and education.

Susan Roth
Susan Roth

In addition, Patton and Roth will convene a group with faculty and administrators from all of Duke's schools to discuss how best to establish and fund interdisciplinary courses across the university. The group will hold its first meeting this month.

Administratively, Roth said Duke's seven university institutes are its strongest existing tools for promoting interdisciplinary classes, providing creative ideas and valuable administrative support for interdisciplinary education.

Recently, the institutes have contributed heavily to two new interdisciplinary initiatives: the two-year old annual Winter Forum, a university-wide exploration of a major world problem such as pandemics or refugees, and the Problem-Focused Interdisciplinary Research-Scholarship Teams (PFIRST) initiative, which supports faculty research collaborations.

Both initiatives should serve as sources for future interdisciplinary courses. Yet Roth notes that although the institutes' mission includes helping "to introduce interdisciplinary innovation into the curriculum," they too face challenges relating to Duke's departmental structure.

Faculty who have developed interdisciplinary classes say it can be tedious to find the right funding models and administrative support, or to navigate administrative details such as curriculum codes and classroom space that are often handled by administrative assistants within departments. Yet neuroscientist Scott Huettel, like most others, says the benefits far outweigh the hurdles.

"I've been asked why this matters," he said.  "Very simply, I think it's the kind of exciting but rigorous class with which Duke University ought to challenge its students."

Counting Interdisciplinary Courses

The university doesn't officially define or count its interdisciplinary courses, but there are good reasons to assume they are expanding. Since 2007, for example, three of the university's seven interdisciplinary institutes -- for ethics, global health and genome sciences and policy -- have developed 50 new course offerings.

Hallie Knuffman, special assistant in the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, says that total represents just a portion of the number of courses that promote interdisciplinarity at Duke, including courses in certificate programs, the Focus (first-year theme-based course cluster) program, and others. The difficulty in categorizing and counting interdisciplinary courses is just one example of the complexities for a university founded on a departmental model to adapt its systems to better reflect its emerging interdisciplinary vision.

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