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Making a Good Match

Making a Good Match

Making two disciplines work in a single class requires skill and effort

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Making a good match

How Duke makes interdisciplinary studies work in a disciplinary world

Durham, NC - For more than two years, Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience pondered creating a course that combined neuroscience and ethics, thinking a meeting of neuroscience's hard experimental data with philosophy's thought experiments would result in a great educational experience.

But Huettel couldn't find the right partner, and he didn't have the philosophy training to teach the course by himself. It wasn't until 2010 that Duke's philosophy department and Kenan Institute for Ethics recruited Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Dartmouth, where he had team-taught a similar course on neuroscience and ethics. 

That stroke of good fortune brought Huettel not only his long-sought partner but also a philosopher who already knew how to talk to neuroscientists.

"It's important to remember just how different the disciplines are," Huettel said.  "People sometimes think all scholarship is the same, but we really use different methodologies.  As neuroscientist, I work in teams and collect big data sets, but as a philosopher, Walter is reading, arguing, synthesizing or working from first principles.  The cultures are very different.

"To make the class work, we have to find a common language or we're not going to be able to talk about the same material."

Once Huettel and Sinnott-Armstrong got started, they sometimes found it hard to maintain this common language.  In a class discussion about why humans engage in behavior to help others, Huettel discussed brain data while Sinnott-Armstrong countered with psychological findings that seemed contradictory.  That day's lesson, Huettel recalled, was that "not only do professors not have all of the answers, but ongoing and active questioning is part of our scholarship."

"We also encouraged a student discussion of free will," Huettel said.  "My approach was to emphasize how neuroscientists interpret a set of very interesting studies of people making decisions.  Walter's approach was to explore how we define free will.  Both are important, but come from different traditions.  That was one of the places where in the end we just had to agree to disagree.  On most issues, we could find a way to agree."

Sinnott-Armstrong said he welcomed these discussions but was also mindful that he, like the students, was learning about a discipline beyond his usual expertise.

"I had to learn along with the students," he said. "That made teaching the course very challenging and humbling, but also very rewarding and fun."

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