Changing the System

Faculty and administrators look to add flexibility to the system

Part of the The Interdisciplinary Fit Series

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

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.