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Big Problems turns ten and faces the future

The program, which offers capstone courses to upperclassmen, has been on a "starvation budget" for two years

William Wimsatt, emertius professor of Philosophy, had been teaching for upwards of 25 years when he got the opportunity to go on a retreat in Bellagio, Italy to do research. At what Wimsatt describes as the “cushy retreat,” he watched experts from around the world hold workshops every week on solving big problems, like “constructing a new African republic, or how are we going to deal with the spread of malaria.”

Wimsatt “saw a steady stream of people coming in and working on social progress,” and wondered why he hadn’t done more. He was also contemplating the concurrent reduction to the Core at the University, a decision he wasn’t excited about. “Personally, I’m not entirely sure that this is a good idea,” he wrote in an April 1997 proposal to Dean of the College John Boyer.

Inspired by the Bellagio retreat and motivated by changes to the Core, Wimsatt proposed a “Big Problems” course.  “To my great fortune, John Boyer thought it was great idea,” he said. Wimsatt said Boyer even encouraged him to start teaching in the fall, but Wimsatt gave himself a year and a half to plan the program.

Ten years later, Big Problems has offered 33 courses directed at third and fourth-year undergraduates (although graduate students and second-years who have completed the core can take certain courses as well). Thanks to a large grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations in 2003, in the 2004-2005 school year the program was able to offer 13 courses.

However, in the last two years the program has been on a “starvation budget,” and this year only two new courses will be offered, said Wimsatt. In total, seven courses will be offered this year, each taught by two to three professors from disparate fields.

Wimsatt is also leaving his post as director of the program. Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology Professor Laurens Mets is co-director of the program along with Anthropology Professor John Kelly, beginning this fall. “To get both of them is really a super hit,” Wimsatt said. He hopes their departmental connections will help attract new faculty to teach.

Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics Robert Perlman co-taught Biological and Cultural Evolution in the first year of the program and has continued to teach as well as being a member of the Big Problems steering committee.  While he said the co-teaching and interdisciplinary approach doesn’t appeal to everyone, “There’s a group of faculty that are very excited about the prospect.”

Reaching beyond your expertise is crucial to the program, Wimsatt said. “The idea really is also to encourage faculty who aren’t specialist in the area to be willing to go out on a limb some…. They’re leaders of an investigation, not just experts in it.”

He compared it to co-teaching at the University’s medical school, where one teacher may teach for three weeks, a different teacher for the next three weeks, and a third for the final three weeks. Big Problems requires that both teachers actually be in the classroom together. “We want people there, all the time, to argue back and forth.”

And, living up to his original inspiration, Wimsatt said the “idea of these courses is always for them to have a social edge.” However, Wimsatt added, courses that he initially worried might be lacking a social focus, like a course on the self taught by Classics Professor Sadi Bartsch and History Professor Jan Goldstein, sometimes surprised him. Wimsatt found out after the course had been approved that it focused on the relationship between the self and society. “It turned out to be one of the better courses,” he said.

Despite the broad focus of the program, the courses are geared to a higher level than the core.  “Now that you’ve been through the core and have a good background in a number of areas…apply some of the things that you’ve learned to big issues,” Perlman said. “If it were taught as a first-year course it would be superficial.”

The proof is in the pudding­—for the Energy and Energy Policy course, students work in teams to write a research paper of publishable policy—and six of these papers will be published in an online issue of Chemistry Central Journal. 

While the Big Problems program has become a mainstay at the U of C, with students even requesting to major in it (it’s a program, not a major or minor), the metrics of success for the program aren’t in how many solutions it comes up with.  “The idea of a big problem is that it’s presumptions to talk about a solution,” Wimsatt said.