Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement created to bridge science and humanities

by Carter Brace | 11/2/15 8:05pm

Dartmouth has announced the creation of an Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement to bring together the sciences and humanities. The institute will be directed by philosophy and physics and astronomy professor Marcelo Gleiser.

“The goal is to bring the sciences and the humanities into a constructive dialogue,” Gleiser said.

The Institute arose out of Gleiser’s desire to create a more comprehensive institute for cross-disciplinary study.

“There’s been a lot of talk about cross-disciplinarity, but there’s very little being done that is effective,” Gleiser said. “There’s the odd course here and there, but you don’t have a truly transformative medium where this can be done.”

To provide this medium, the institute will have three main functions. First, it will host public dialogues around the country on big questions between scholars from different disciplines. Second, it will bring scholars in the humanities and the sciences to the College as fellows in residence for up to one term. Third, the institute will create two online courses in conjunction with DartmouthX, the College’s online learning initiative.

The public dialogues will be held in large theaters around the country in major American cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. There will be a total of nine dialogues, with three each year over three years.

“We’ll bring together very prominent scientists, humanists and spiritual leaders to talk about questions where a single approach doesn’t make sense,” Gleiser said. “For example, free will. Are we free to chose? Scientists have one way of looking at this question, philosophers and theologians have a different way. I want to bring these people into conversation in a public forum,” he said.

The public dialogue will also be aided by question-and-answer sessions with the audience and livestreams of the events on the institute’s website. The day after the dialogues, more intimate workshops of 20 to 30 people will be held to discuss the topic in greater detail.

Members of the public will apply to attend the workshops, though five Dartmouth students will be selected to attend, Gleiser said.

“Those people [attending the workshops] will be what I call my ambassadors, they’re going to be charged with spreading the word and starting the conversation,” he said.

Gleiser intends to transcribe and edit the nine public dialogues into a book which will include his own commentary. Gleiser will also produce a blog on the institute’s website, which he hopes will be similar to his blog for National Public Radio, titled “Cosmos and Culture.”

“With my NPR blog, we’ve created a community of people who really talk to one another,” Gleiser said.

The fellows program will attract individuals with cross-disciplinary backgrounds and interests for events such as student and faculty lunches and dinners as well as public lectures.

“We want philosophers writing about science and vice versa. We want playwrights with plays about science and novelists who are scientists,” Gleiser said.

The first online course will most likely run in spring 2017, Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning director Josh Kim said.

It will be based off Gleiser’s course “Question Reality!” offered at the College last spring, which combined physics, philosophy and religion. The second course’s topic is undecided and will be open to proposals from the College’s faculty.

“The idea is that part of the institute’s work is to do outreach and education, and DartmouthX can be another vehicle for that work,” Kim said.

The institute’s goals align well with those of DartmouthX, as both are focused on undergraduate students’ intellectual experiences, he said.

“Our main goal with the DartmouthX initiative is to open up an experimental space to improve learning here on campus,” Kim said.

The institute will be funded by the College and the John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which focuses on answering “big questions” through cross-disciplinary work. The Foundation donated $2.5 million, followed by complementary College funding of $1.5 million.

The money will mostly be used to pay for speakers, fellows and travel expenses, Gleiser said.

“When you want to attract high-caliber people you have to be very generous,” Gleiser said.

Philosophy professor and institute steering board member Adina Roskies said that the institute aims to foster dialogue between more technical fields and the humanities.

“The goal is to make science more accessible to non-scientists,” Roskies said. “There’s a moral imperative that the world would be a better place if the sciences can talk to the humanities.”

For instance, the institute could deal specifically with issues surrounding climate change, the environment and food systems, Roskies said.

The steering board of the institute includes academics from institutions of higher education across the nation in a variety of disciplines, often with interdisciplinary backgrounds. Roskies, who holds degrees in neuroscience, law and philosophy, has just such a background.

“I’m an obvious person for the steering board,” she said. “I’m a scientist and philosopher.”

The steering board also includes recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Humanities Medal and the MacArthur Fellowship.

Roskies said that the members of the steering board know relatively little about the specifics of the institute besides its aims.

“[Gleiser] hasn’t shared many details with us yet. I don’t even have a copy of the proposal,” Roskies said.

Kim said DartmouthX has not started producing the online courses for the institute at this time.

“Its really, really early,” he said. “The grant hasn’t even started. There’s nothing even fully planned out yet.”

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