Professors from disparate disciplines will weave together knowledge in trio of Norwich Humanities Initiative courses

Our paths, and disciplines, cross again.

In the fall, the Norwich Humanities Initiative, which presents team-taught, cross-discipline courses, debuted with Narrative Medicine, which had students explore language and storytelling’s role in health care. Students presented work and findings from the course, taught by English Professor Patricia Ferreira and School of Nursing Director Paulette Thabault, in December at the annual Students to Scholars Symposium at Kreitzberg Library.

This semester, three new courses will complete the pilot slate for the initiative, supported by a $35,000 Humanities Connections Planning Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. As in Narrative Medicine, the new courses — Geoarchaeology of Lost Cities; True Crime; and Game Theory: Art of Strategy — will pair College of Liberal Arts faculty with faculty from the College of Science and Mathematics and the College of Professional Schools.

“It’s about cross-disciplinary conversation, specifically with a humanities focus, which is … about inquiry, creativity, collaboration and hands-on learning experiences.”Amy Woodbury Tease, director, Norwich Humanities Initiative

“It’s about cross-disciplinary conversation, specifically with a humanities focus, which is … about inquiry, creativity, collaboration and hands-on learning experiences,” initiative director Amy Woodbury Tease, a Norwich English professor, said in December, describing the initiative’s aim.

“(Then it’s) about thinking about the value of the humanities in different disciplines. Why do you need a humanist at NASA? Why bring a humanist into a conversation about how to build a car? It’s thinking about the human element,” she added. “A businessman might say, ‘Yeah, this works, it’s a great model.’ But, then, the humanist might say, ‘But what’s the impact on the community where we’re building this thing?”

Criminal justice professor Elizabeth Gurian will team with English Professor Kathleen McDonald this semester to present True Crime, a course in the Norwich Humanities Initiative’s pilot slate. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Richard Dunn, a geology professor, said the Geoarchaeology of Lost Cities course he’ll co-teach with history professor Christine McCann will show how ancient scenarios portended modern conundrums. In studying China’s Han dynasty, for example, students will explore whether agriculture-interrupting periods of wetness (often involving flooding) and droughts link to social upheaval. (Spoiler alert: they do.)

Climate change, which observers including Wilson Center Senior Fellow Sherri Goodman say will worsen both dry and wet periods, might, therefore, threaten peace.

“To really understand a problem, you really can’t rely on just one field (of expertise),” Dunn said at a November preview of the new courses at Kreitzberg Library. “By bringing these different fields together, you get a better answer and (can) ask a whole bunch of new questions.”

Brian Glenney, a philosophy professor, will co-teach Game Theory with business professor Kahwa Douoguih, a newly minted senior fellow at Norwich’s Center for Global Resilience and Security. At the November preview, Glenney was, fittingly, playing chess with visiting students.

Glenney said in games, as in business — or life — a fundamental choice is cooperate (and follow conventional rules) or cheat. He said students will soon learn he and Douoguih perceive this binary differently.

“I like the theoretical component of what it means in the evolutionary sense for our species to have survived this long and essentially cooperate, cheat, cooperate, cheat. Evolution is grounded on game theory,” he said. “Whereas Kahwa, she’s like, ‘Who cares about theory? I want to know how to apply this stuff for international business, for strategic business approaches.’”

Glenney said he expects friendly disagreements about theory versus practical adaptation between the professors and among the students. Such disputes, he added, will show game theory and its ancillary topics are alive and dynamic.

“We want students to participate in the live discussions,” he said. “All we need to do is get them to a certain threshold of understanding of what game theory involves, and then, we can, in some sense, let them go.”

Seeking a second grant

Woodbury Tease landed the initiative-launching National Endowment for the Humanities grant and will work to secure a second, initiative-sustaining grant, of $100,000 to cover three more years.

Business professor Kahwa Douoguih will team with philosophy professor Brian Glenney to present the Norwich Humanities Initiative course Game Theory. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

To keep the initiative strong, Woodbury Tease said she will use exit interview data from Narrative Medicine students to understand the course’s strength and weaknesses and inform future teaching. Also, she said, Ferreira and Thabault will present a workshop this spring to help other professors understand course logistics and team teaching strategies.

Woodbury Tease called Narrative Medicine a success and said it will return in the fall. She predicted more success for the initiative, given that the spring courses are at or near their 20-student capacities.

If the second grant comes, Woodbury Tease said she’ll probably repeat the call for courses that helped develop this year’s slate. She said a faculty team received 17 proposals and evaluated them for interdisciplinary scope, intellectual quality and academic rigor before choosing the pilot four. 

Meanwhile, Woodbury Tease said, institutional support, including entrepreneurship grants for faculty from Provost Sandra Affenito, buoyed this year’s courses and should help the learning continue.

“I’m feeling really positive about the possibilities and looking forward to seeing how these next three classes go,” she said, adding that she hopes to offer three to four initiative courses in 2020-21.

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Here’s a look at the remaining 2019-20 initiative’s courses:

Geoarchaeology of Lost Cities

Professors Christine McCann (history) and Richard Dunn (geology)

Cities, harbors and battlefields have faded into history, lost to conquest and destruction, burial or erosion. But the physical remnants or records of the civilizations behind these landmarks, however scant, tell a story. By examining written documents, material remains, climate and geological data, this course will examine how scientists, historians and archaeologists work across disciplines to answer and develop questions about past cultures. Students will explore queries such as, “What happened at the Battle of Marathon and where is that battlefield today?” “Where is Memphis, the capital of Old Kingdom Egypt, and how was it rediscovered?” and “Did climate change influence war and peace in the Han dynasty?”

Game Theory: The Art of Strategy

Professors Brian Glenney (philosophy) and Kahwa Douoguih (business)

This course will explore game theory, a tool to optimize choices and strategically resolve modern problems. Examining the prisoner’s dilemma, the stag hunt and the paradox of the commons will let students link models of rational choice to practical applications. Platforms such as VCWeb, MobLab, and GameWeb will let students apply game-theoretic strategies to small, daily life problems (book sharing, food and drink distribution, etc.) and build toward a larger group or individual project correlating with career goals in business and leadership.

True Crime

Professors Elizabeth Gurian (criminal justice) and Kathleen McDonald (English)

Dial “M” to meditate on murder, a popular theme in reality and myth. This course will explore the crossing of real world and fictionalized serial murder cases, examining the crimes and seeing how artists, through appropriation, sensationalize these events. Sometimes artistic presentations of these cases can warp perceptions of the criminal justice system.



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