Big Problems

Executive Director: Margot Browning, JRL S102, 702-5657,

The Big Problems courses that follow are among a growing number of capstone experiences offered as electives to fourth-year students in the College. Under special circumstances, involving senior project needs, third-year students may in some cases get special permission to register for a Big Problems course.

"Big problems" are characteristically matters of global or universal concern that intersect with several disciplines and affect a variety of interest groups. They are problems for which solutions are crucially important but not obviously available.

Big problems courses emphasize process as well as content: learning how to creatively confront difficult intellectual and pragmatic problems wider than one's area or expertise and to consider how to deal with the uncertainty that results. This might often point to the importance of working in groups. If the common core curriculum gives a basis for learning and the concentrations develop more specialized knowledge, the Big Problems experience develops skills for thinking about and dealing with the important but unyielding issues of our time.

Big Problems courses encourage linkage to B.A. papers, research experiences, or internships. They use interdisciplinary team teaching, seeking to cross disciplines and divisions and to transcend familiar models of content, organization, and instruction.

Each year a Big Problems Lecture Series features outside speakers and additional workshops for interested students.


For a description of the numbering guidelines for the following courses, consult the section on reading the catalog on page 15.

23400. Is Development Sustainable? (=BPRO 23400, ENST 24400, HIPS 23400, NCDV 27300, PBPL 24400, PLSC 21200). PQ: Open to fourth-year students with no prior Environmental Studies course. This is a discussion course intended for senior students without an environmental background. Its aim is to develop skills in analyzing "big problems" that surpass the scope of traditional disciplines and single paradigms. These include human population growth, the unintended consequences of technology, the conflict between economic development and the preservation of our habitat, and choices regarding the allocation of resources to present versus future needs. T. Steck, Staff. Spring.

23500. The Organization of Knowledge (=BPRO 23500, HIPS 23000). PQ: Fourth-year standing. This course explores several structures of knowledge that students may have encountered in their core and specialized education, with the goal of enabling students to identify and explore the implications of these different structures. We ask whether all knowledge is relative, and if so, to what? When things are structured differently, does that mean that knowledge is lost, or are there several diverse ways of structuring knowledge each of which may be viable? We read a wide range of classical and modern thinkers in a variety of disciplines. W. Sterner, H. Sinaiko, W. Booth. Not offered 2001-02.

23600. Social Context, Biology, and Health (=BPRO 23600, PSYC 25300). PQ: Fourth-year standing. We take for granted our relationships with other people as fundamental. Yet when these connections are absent or disrupted, our minds and biology are likewise disrupted. Epidemiological studies have now clearly established a relationship between social isolation and both mental and physical health. This course adopts an integrative interdisciplinary approach that spans the biological to sociological levels of analysis to explore the interactions involved and possible mechanisms by which the social world gets under the skin to affect the mind, brain, biology, and health. J. Cacioppo, M. McClintock, L. Waite. Spring.

23900. Biological and Cultural Evolution (=BIOS 29286, BPRO 23900, CHSS 37900, HIPS 23900, LING 11100, NCDV 27400, PHIL 32500). PQ: Fourth-year standing. Basic knowledge of evolution and genetics helpful. This course is taught by guest lecturers from linguistics, evolutionary genetics, and the history and philosophy of science. We elaborate theory to understand and model cultural evolution; explore analogies, differences, and relations to biological evolution; and consider basic biological, cultural, and linguistic topics and case studies from an evolutionary perspective. Time is spent both on what we do know, and on determining what we don't. W. Wimsatt, Staff. Not offered 2001-02.

24100. Science and Religion (=BPRO 24100, HIPS 24200, PHIL 24500). PQ: Fourth-year standing. In this course, we explore some aspects of the relations between science and religion in Western culture, including Christian, Jewish, and Islamic. Questions to be taken up include: What are science and religion? Are they competing intellectual systems for making sense of the world? Social institutions? Can they be in conflict with one another? Can they support one another? Each of the three instructors treats these questions by examining certain historical episodes and texts. The course is team taught to add different perspectives to the material. D. Garber, J. Kraemer, R. Perlman. Not offered 2001-02.

24200. Psychoneuroimmunology: Links between the Nervous and Immune Systems (=BIOS 02370, BPRO 24200). PQ: Fourth-year standing and BIOS 20180s or 20190s. This course covers all aspects of neuroimmunoendocrinology at the molecular, cellular, and organismal and social levels. M. McClintock, J. Quintans. Not offered 2001-02.

24300. Globalization and Neo-liberalism. PQ: Fourth-year standing. Developments over the past decade have led a number of former leading enthusiasts of globalization to raise basic criticisms of the Neo-liberal paradigm. In doing this they have echoed and drawn attention to the results of economists and historians whose work undercuts the basic premises of Neo-liberalism. This course explicates a varied collection of this work, viewed as a critique and alternative to Neo-liberalism, by economic historians such as Hobsbawn, Williams, Arrighi, and Polanyi, and economists such as Palley, Taylor, Stretton, Marglin, Eatwell, MacEwan, Blecker, and Brenner. R. Baiman, M. Rothenberg. Spring.

24400. Concepts of the Self from Antiquity to the Present (=BPRO 24400, CLCV 28100, HIST 20400). PQ: Fourth-year standing. This seminar explores the evolution of ideas about the nature and formation of selfhood from classical antiquity to the present. Along the way, we look at Greek tragedy, Stoic philosophy, early Christian texts, and the conceptual models of selfhood and self-understanding behind Descartes, Kant, Freud, Foucault, and others. Students should be prepared to deal extensively with scholarship on self, ethics, and community across the fields of philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and social history. S. Bartsch, J. Goldstein. Spring.

25000. What Environmental Crisis? (=BPRO 25000, ENST 28400, NCDV 25000). PQ: Open to third- and fourth-year students with no prior Environmental Studies courses. Consent of instructor. Various aspects of global environmental change are considered in succession by a team of specialists from several disciplines (e.g., anthropology, ecology, economics, ethics, geography, geosciences, law, political science, public policy, and sociology). The goal is to apply several traditional modes of thought to the analysis of a "big problem:" human impact on the natural world. The format is the reading and discussing of diverse sources and the writing of a short paper each week. T. Steck, Staff. Winter.

26000. Narration and Knowledge. PQ: Fourth-year standing. Narrative is one of the most fundamental means of organizing human experience, whether collective, individual, fictional, or historical. This course explores the meaning of narrative organization of materials in a variety of discourses, ranging from case histories to narrative poems. It explores the powers of narrative and also considers the question of whether narrative organization sometimes serves to distort the underlying material involved. The mode of the course is exploratory and analytic, rather than dogmatic. R. Strier, B. Cohler. Not offered 2001-02; will be offered 2002-03.

For descriptions of the following associated courses and programs, consult the relevant concentration sections of the catalog. Registration in these courses is not restricted to fourth-year College students.

BIOS 22257. Darwinian Medicine. PQ: Completion of the general education requirement in the biological sciences. R. Perlman, W. Wimsatt. Autumn.

HMRT 20100/30100. Human Rights I: Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (=HIST 29300/39300, INTL 31600, LAWS 41200, LLSO 25100, MAPH 40000, PHIL 31600, PLSC 33900). M. Green. Autumn.

HMRT 20200/30200. Human Rights II: Historical Underpinnings of Human Rights (=GSHU 28800/38800, HIST 29400/39400, INRE 39400, LAWS 41300). M. Geyer. Winter.

HMRT 20300/30300. Human Rights III: Contemporary Issues in Human Rights (=GSHU 28900/38900, HIST 29500/39500, INRE 57900, LAWS 47900, PATH 46500). Staff, R. Kirschner. Spring.