Monday, we outlined the general structure of what the forthcoming Duke IDEAS program will look like. With details of the program yet to be hammered out, we would like to raise a few important concerns during the program’s initiation and development phases.
As we stated, we believe Duke IDEAS project teams will offer students a unique opportunity to engage in structured and rigorous interdisciplinary work. If the skills students will develop—collaboration, flexibility and problem solving—overlap with what is demanded by employers, it is a welcome but minor bonus.
The logic of what constitutes worthwhile interdisciplinary pursuits should not be responding to the whims of the job market. Job markets are mutable, and the preferences of employers do not always align with the Duke’s pedagogical responsibilities.
Another concern is the need for mechanisms to solicit student feedback and oversee project teams. While cross-school partnership is great in theory, there is a risk that diverse stakeholders will have incompatible understandings of what a project actually entails. In a particularly dire scenario, project teams could function as a vehicle for professors to engage in self-directed research with the help of unpaid research assistants. Duke IDEAS needs to ensure that, in practice, students are always engaged in substantive learning and productive work—not merely performing superfluous tasks to be turned into resume bullet-points.
Most importantly, Duke IDEAS must heavily consider its process for identifying the societal “problems” that project teams address. What exactly constitutes a societal “problem”? While it is tempting to pick much publicized scientific, economic or environmental problems, we hope that Duke IDEAS takes advantage of the University’s diverse methodological approaches. In short, Duke IDEAS must also shed light on the “problems” of the human condition, which the humanities disciplines may be better equipped to address. Only one of the current Duke IDEAS themes has a strong humanities flavor—Information, Society and Culture.
Ensuring the humanities have their place in Duke IDEAS is far from old-fashioned. Some of society’s greatest contemporary challenges are best approached through the distinctive lenses these disciplines offer. An investigation into the effects on the brain of the new digital age may incorporate linguists and historians, but will likely be grounded in the unique insights offered by neuroscience. Similarly, studying the effects of racism in contemporary America would likely bring statisticians and economists to the table, but would perhaps be best organized around a cultural anthropologist’s exploration of the experiences of affected communities. The humanities need to be at the forefront in these themes, not tacked on as mere decoration.
These fundamental questions—such as those of ethics, power, identity and culture—are perhaps not as intuitively addressable as those of energy, food and information. But they are equally important. The addition of a sixth theme, maybe organized broadly around questions of human values, could ensure that space is carved out for the humanities disciplines.
Clearly, Duke IDEAS aims to help the University produce knowledge in the service of society, and we understand that Duke’s strengths and limitations will impact the issues we tackle. We only ask that this program strive to consider the full range of problems that humanity faces.