Making a Good Match

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

Part of the The Interdisciplinary Fit Series

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

"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

"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

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."