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Stamatis Candris

Senior Stamatis Kandris presents part of a group project about brain-to-computer interfaces from the Mental Organs special topics course with professors Jack Furlong and Kenny Moorman.

Special topics courses prepare Transylvania students for real-world issues
by William A. Bowden

Many outsiders looking in to Transylvania are intrigued by some of the more unusual courses in the curriculum. These kinds of classes are known as special topics courses, and while some may seem odd, they offer Transylvania students opportunities to tackle real-world issues using the knowledge they’ve obtained from Transy’s liberal arts curriculum.

Special topics courses are meant to be taught once, or at least not regularly. The faculty Committee on Programs and Curriculum (CPC) does not have to be presented the courses unless they are under consideration to be included in the regular course schedule rotation.

“These courses are usually developed because of current student or faculty interest, and they are often interdisciplinary, or reflective of a professor’s special expertise or interests,” Vice President and Dean of the College William F. Pollard said. “We look for courses that will be likely to complement the regular course-catalog courses that a student takes. We want the courses to have substance, depth, and meaning.”

Often the classes are interdisciplinary, and many are team-taught, with two or more professors either in a classroom at the same time or taking turns teaching. These professors are almost always from different disciplines, so students are able to look at topics from various angles and methods.

“In some ways the biggest benefits come from allowing a student to investigate a subject reflective of personal interest but connected to the broader curriculum,” Pollard said. “These can lead to significant undergraduate research. The courses often help students to understand that disciplinary boundaries are meant to be crossed and are often artificial to begin with. These courses either show connections between and among disciplines, or they allow a student to pursue a narrow area of emphasis. So they go both ways and can speak to depth or breadth.”

“This is where the important questions are being asked, in an interdisciplinary course,” philosophy professor Jack Furlong said. “If you’re going to graduate school or you’re going out to make policy, there is no way you can put your philosophical blinders on or your biological blinders and solve a problem. For example, these days, any biomedical innovation immediately comes with ethical and political concerns, so we would be remiss in our duties if we did not offer courses that are interdisciplinary.”

The science of how we think

Mental Organs is a course that has now been taught twice, in fall 2007 and fall 2010. Furlong and computer science professor Kenny Moorman began talking about consciousness, free will, language, and related issues that researchers of artificial intelligence have with philosophers. The idea intrigued them, and they decided to try to turn the issues into a special topics course.

“In one sense, it was going to be a study in an area of science called cognitive science, something that Jack and I are both very interested in,” Moorman said. “We decided to focus on the two areas we love. Mine was language, and his was consciousness. We got an on-campus grant, got resources, and spent the whole summer planning it with wide-eyed wonder.”

One of the roadblocks that surprised the professors was the amount of time they had to devote to compiling the vocabularies specific to philosophy and computer science and what was meant by certain terms.

“The vocabulary that is used in cognitive science these days is still in flux,” Furlong said. “The problem early on was that when Kenny said words like ‘process’ or ‘programming’ and I said terms like ‘mental processes,’ we weren’t on the same page with what we meant by the word ‘process,’ and we didn’t even know we weren’t on the same page.”

They taught the course in 2007 as a 2000-level course and continued to work out the kinks even as they were well into the term. At the end of the course, both professors considered it a success and continued to work together on the cognitive science topic, constantly sharing articles back and forth and having discussions on the evolving trends in the complex field.

When they decided to do the course again in fall 2010, they bumped it up to a 3000-level to ensure the students had a firm foundation of the various subjects. They picked different texts, and they tightened the focus to explaining consciousness from a narrative perspective, using works of narrative to understand what people are thinking.

The professors moved through the term team-teaching from the textbook, then alternated presenting journal papers. The course culminated in group projects where the students would become experts and teach the class about one topic from the course. The groups presented on non-human intelligence, brain-to-computer interface, artificial intelligence in video games, and moral machines.

“These are all topics that have incredible relevance in the world,” Moorman said. “One of the things we brought up in class with the moral machines is we do a lot of our killing now with predator drones. They’re always controlled by a human sitting back in relative safety. That changes the dynamics of war quite a bit if you’re able to kill the enemy and there’s no fear in your mind that you’re going to die.”

Now that the other side has learned to jam those signals, it creates a new wrinkle in the debate. There is work being done that will allow those drones to autonomously target enemies rather than shut down when they lose those signals. In essence, the drone learns to “choose” whether to attack.

“The term ‘autonomous’ is a heavy moral term,” Furlong said. “It is wrought with all kinds of responsibility. It is possible to program a machine to follow a set of rules, but whether you can get the rules to be a matter of choice and a ‘moral’ choice is a good question.”

The idea that special topics courses explore real-world subjects in the classroom is what draws both professors to teaching these kinds of issues. Then there’s the added bonus of getting to learn from each other as scholars in very different disciplines at the same time as the students are learning.

“As a professor, you’re not the boss anymore,” Furlong said. “Students learn to think at a much more complex level when they don’t have a sage on the stage saying yes and no. You have two people, and they’re both sweating.”

“I’m having to justify things that a student may not call me on, but Jack will call me on things, and I’ll call him on things,” Moorman said. “Students said they enjoyed it when he and I would really get into conversation or argument, whatever you want to call it. I hope they realize that this is what they learn all the way back in Foundations of the Liberal Arts, that this is how you carry a discussion with somebody over points you may disagree on, without resorting to name-calling.”

Multidisciplinary approach to Latin America

Latin America and the Natural World, a course taught by three professors in fall 2010, took a somewhat different approach to interdisciplinary teaching. Anthropology professor Chris Begley, Spanish professor Jeremy Paden, and history professor Greg Bocketti each took a month to approach the same subject from three different disciplines instead of the traditional team-teaching model.

“It was team-designed and sequentially taught,” Bocketti said. “Team teaching at its best is when two teachers are doing everything together, picking out the readings, showing the students a model of interdisciplinary work. This was more of a multidisciplinary class. We took one idea and positioned the students so that by the end of the term, they had seen this issue from three different perspectives and three different people with three different sets of training.”

As its name implies, the course was designed to explore the views of the natural world in Latin America from outsiders such as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century explorers, from the natives, and from contemporary and modern-day authors and eco-tourists. The professors chose several readings from a span of around three centuries and from the Caribbean and northern South America all the way to Argentina.

Begley went first, looking at how the natural world in Latin America was represented during the first arrival of European explorers.

“We talked about how the perception changed over time and how the representation of the natural also blended over to cultural representations of people and societies that were in this area,” he said. “There were ways in which people were dehumanized, associated with the natural world rather than the cultural world—they’re savages, they’re wild.”

Paden used literature to compare and contrast the writings of natives to Latin America and travelers from North America and Europe, looking at how they viewed the natural world. He explored some of what were perceived to be challenges and advantages presented by nature, particularly in the nineteenth century following the Romanticism movement.

“The way nature gets talked about in the nineteenth century, either it’s looked at as inherently moral and as a spiritual space so it should be respected as such, or a nature that should be transformed by human work, and that’s what makes it moral,” Paden said. “That divide is really something that you can still see in development questions in the twentieth century.”

Bocketti’s section looked at more recent developments in environmentalism and ecotourism. The students studied ecotourism operators and how they attract clientele, and whether or not those operators and eco-tourists play into stereotypes about Latin America environmentally and culturally.

“When I talked about environmentalism, saving nature, and ecotourism, organically it corresponded very well with what the other guys were doing,” Bocketti said. “When it comes to something like environmentalism, you have environmental actors and local environmental actors. Then in tourism, you have foreign tourists who are coming in to be eco-tourists. So a lot of these things resonate.”

Model of the liberal arts

On the surface, the course seemed broad, but tackling it from so many different angles created a common thread that wove through the three months.

“What you begin to understand is the historical component, the scope of the context that you really need to understand something,” Begley said. “So here you had these three sections, different in some ways, but all serving to contextualize this idea of how this natural world is envisioned or represented.”

“In lots of ways it’s modeling what we mean when we talk about liberal arts because you can’t understand something in isolation,” Bocketti said. “You only get an isolated view of it. Transylvania’s trying to improve our interdisciplinary offerings. Latin American studies and this particular course can be a model for how we might be able to do some of those interesting things and still honor the disciplines that we’re retaining.”

Paden noted that this type of learning, which examines a topic in conjunction with other worldviews, is not just a product of liberal education. When students move on to postgraduate studies, they will be required to have the skills to do research from a broader range than what comes with general undergraduate education. They are being prepared for learning after Transylvania because of the skills they are learning in interdisciplinary courses.

“Gone are the days where all you do is sit down and explicate a poem,” Paden said. “Typically what we do in postgraduate seminars is read the literary texts next to philosophical texts, next to anthropological texts. We place the poem or novel within a specific historical context and see how it enters into the ideological debates of the time. A course like this is modeling to the students the kinds of questions and the kinds of approaches they’ll be asked to do should they go to do postgraduate studies.”

That idea is what differentiates Transylvania’s undergraduate education from that of so many other schools, that students are prepared for not only graduate school, but also learning beyond that into careers and everyday life. Many of the special topics are anything but traditional; however, today’s students need to have a broader understanding of the world than can be offered in narrow-discipline courses. And if the number of biology majors becoming lawyers and English majors becoming successful entrepreneurs is any indication, students are getting just that at Transylvania.

For more special classes, click here.

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