It’s too early to use Passover as a news hook, but here goes. There are four perspectives from which to question the Bass Connections program: the wise child, the wicked, the simple one and the one who does not even know how to ask a question.
The wise among us will ask: Will the program positively change the educational experience we get at Duke?
The Bass Connections program aims to reshape interdisciplinary education by creating five vertically integrated streams, encompassing all 10 schools of the University. “Project teams” will work on issues related to one of five fields of study: Global Health, Education and Human Development, Brain and Society, Energy, and Information, Society and Culture.
The three articles and two editorials in The Chronicle about the program have attracted zero comments—a program billed to be revolutionary has generated little, if any, debate. We’re being kept in the dark as the administrators and faculty involved move from conception to implementation.
Indeed, Susan Roth, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, noted in an interview, “Once we knew for sure it was going to happen, we had a lot to do to get everything in place in time for registration this Spring, to launch it in the Fall. The reason we’re not talking is because we don’t have anything specific to say yet, but we’re almost there.”
Why not wait another year and slow it down, so we can have the conversation about how, and indeed if, we actually need to change the way we collaborate and educate?
Associate professor of English Robert Mitchell, the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory, has similar concerns about the need for such a program, which he shared with me in an email:
“It is still unclear to me what precisely this program will entail. It is hard, though, to see this effort ‘to transform undergraduate education’ as a response to any actual problem at Duke. … We should be wary of efforts to ‘transform’ from above what faculty and undergraduates are currently doing very well. … Encouraging faculty to participate in this program with promises of large course development grants is telling and, in my opinion, based upon a misunderstanding of what motivates faculty: Most of us will jump in and fix problems for free provided that someone demonstrates to us—rather than simply asserts—that something is broken.”
The wicked among us will ask: Isn’t this just intended to enhance the marketing of Duke’s “interdisciplinary” nature? It’ll make for an enticing PR spiel to high school students. But are we thinking through how to better teach undergraduates, Duke’s bread and butter? In a Jan. 22 Chronicle article, associate professor of philosophy Andrew Janiak said that he thought the program might separate Duke from peer institutions, noting, “We think you basically can’t get this anywhere else.”
The simple among us will ask: Will this program help me?
In an interview, Janiak explained that another goal is to create more “coherent pathways” for Duke students and ultimately “to change education at Duke.” Janiak continued, saying, “That sounds grandiose: We’re not going to change everything about education and we don’t intend to do so, but it’s an educational enterprise.”
You could accomplish the same ends by doing things that should be done anyway, like reforming pre-major advising so students are assigned to people who know how to tell them that documentary studies and English and women’s studies exist. But those reforms aren’t as sexy.
And those of us who do not even know how to ask a question won’t ponder these issues, because we need more humanities training to know how to question authority, contemplate how we’re being taught and challenge what we’re offered.
Roth said, “We want people from the humanities involved in these project teams, because the humanistic perspective is incredibly important; they will be a part of the conversation.”
Professor Owen Astrachan will teach the gateway course for the one area that sounds like it could incorporate the humanities—the Information, Society and Culture stream. Yet it sounds much more related to technology and privacy, rather than anything that would intrigue and satisfy students who just like to talk about books.
Janiak added that historical analysis could be integrated: “We’re often, I think, very quick to say, ‘Here’s this amazing new technology!’ There’s a wow factor involved with an iPad or something. We’re very quick to say, ‘This will change everything; education and communication will never be the same.’ That’s always part of the way Americans think about things, especially, because we’re not really a tradition-bound society. History helps us to figure out, is that true? Is it really wise to speak in that way?”
A real acknowledgment of history would suggest that what Duke did in the 1980s to break into the academic big leagues, by putting real money behind the humanities (our English department at one time was the best in the country) should be done again.
There is simply no substitute for people. If this amount of money was put into the endowment, Duke could create dozens of new faculty chairs with just the interest.
The best classes I’ve taken have been with outstanding professors in subjects as diverse as “Melville, James and Cather” and “Civilians in the Path of War.” The worst classes (which all happened to have been cross-listed) relied on conceits and clever-sounding set-ups but were train wrecks because the professors were uninspiring. The form of those courses displaced the content.
Roth calls it “an educational program that is fundamentally problem focused,” because they “wanted students to be able to understand that the questions asked in the academy are not always the same as those outside the academy, to try and bring those together.” But must students always be solving problems?
The danger with this flashy “suprastructure” (as Janiak called it) is that it might do nothing to change the quality of instruction.
Samantha Lachman is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Follow her on Twitter @SamLachman.