Fitting Interdisciplinary Classes into the Curriculum

Students are engaged by team-taught classes, but making them happen takes work

Part of the The Interdisciplinary Fit Series

Two professors. Two disciplines.

It sounds simple enough to put them together to create one fascinating class, but it's not, even at a university such as Duke that embraces interdisciplinary study.

Neuroscientist Scott Huettel and philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong discovered this when they developed a course at the intersection of science and ethics, examining issues such as whether a jury should consider whether a criminal's behavior may have been affected by a brain tumor.

"Neuroscience can tell you a lot about the trees, whereas philosophers see the forest," said Sinnott-Armstrong, the Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics. "Brain studies give you a lot of details that raise giant issues about the nature of humanity and social interactions and how people see the world. Philosophy, on the other hand, is good at constructing big theories about these issues, but sometimes we may miss the details." 

Forty Duke undergraduates from various backgrounds and majors took the joint course this past spring, all drawn to the topic of neuroethics. All came away with a richer understanding of how humans react to emotional situations, form moral judgments, and make decisions and govern themselves. (Students discuss the class in this video.)

Other Duke classes have begun exploring such fascinating intersections as those between computer science and gothic architecture, or global health and human rights.

Developing such interdisciplinary classes is "one of the most important issues we face at Duke," said Susan Roth, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. Yet pursuing them "can put real stress on the system since the teaching faculty are generally drawn from departments. If a course doesn't solve a core department need, it can be difficult to sustain it."

Although Duke students snapped up all 40 seats in last year's neuroscience and ethics class within a few days, it took years for their two professors to bring the course to life. Along the way, Huettel and Sinnott-Armstrong faced challenges they probably would have avoided if they stuck with regular departmental courses.  And even though their course has been successful, it may continue to face challenges since Duke lacks a long-range model to ensure ongoing support of such efforts.

The story of this class, which Duke Today tells here, illustrates the challenges facing the university as it works to enhance its distinctive strength in interdisciplinary education. Administrators and faculty are grappling with how Duke -- and other universities organized and funded primarily through departments -- can best encourage innovative classes that reach across disciplines.