Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Undergraduate collaborative humanities courses are valuable experiments for faculty and students alike

New integrative undergraduate courses shed light on health inequalities, Indigenous languages of the Americas, and simulated reality. Since 2019, the institute has enriched Brown’s curriculum with six courses through its Collaborative Humanities Course Award program, with three more courses debuting in the 2023–24 academic year.

Humanities perspectives enrich all professions and fields of study with necessary historical and cultural contexts. This is particularly true now, at a time of ecological crisis, social unrest, and rapid technological advancements that challenge shared assumptions and long-standing norms.

Since 2019, the Cogut Institute’s Collaborative Humanities Course Award has enabled humanities faculty to partner with scholars in other divisions to create courses highly relevant to the contemporary moment. Courses developed thus far have explored such topics as happiness, loss, immersive reality simulations, computation in creative arts, public health disparities, segregation in city formations, climate history, and Indigenous languages.

The experience can be defining for students. “The idea of public health and its practice is talked about a lot in medical anthropology, but until now I hadn’t really felt as though there was an opportunity to explicitly integrate it in my academic life. The course actually convinced me to pursue Brown’s undergraduate/Master of Public Health five-year program,” one student wrote after taking the spring 2023 course “Are We Really in This Together? Culture, Structure, and Health Disparities.”

The course, taught by anthropologist Daniel J. Smith and public health scholar Abigail Harrison, centered on global health emergencies such as COVID-19 and how these exacerbate existing inequities and/or give rise to new ones. Students developed human-centered case studies of health emergencies and practiced forms of cultural and structural analysis that can enhance public health research and practice.

“ Finding the different ways that serious study from different disciplines came together and spoke to one another was a real source of joy and inspiration! ”

Scott AnderBois Associate Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences

“Almost half the students had never taken an anthropology course before,” said Smith, “so it was incredibly satisfying to see them discover what anthropology has to offer for understanding issues in medicine and public health.”

A large part of what makes these courses so important to the curriculum at Brown is that they expose students to the methodologies and norms of disciplines outside their concentrations on topics of shared concern. For one anthropology concentrator in “Are We Really All in This Together?” being in a course with so many STEM and public health students “definitely shifted the dynamic of the class and our discussions. I felt encouraged to think more concretely and practically” and reexamine theoretical assumptions.

For the faculty who create these courses, collaborative teaching is a labor of love. There is great joy in embarking on a journey of shared curiosity and impacting students, but a new collaborative course is an experiment that requires significant time, commitment, and generosity to develop and lead.

“Linguistics and linguistic anthropology really are different: Scott [AnderBois] and I get along great and have worked together before, but organizing the class and defining expectations for different types of students was surprisingly challenging,” anthropology professor Paja Faudree said of creating the spring 2023 course “Indigenous Languages of the Americas.”

The course examined Indigenous languages not just from the perspective of linguistics, but also considered how politics, pop culture, and other social contexts are critical to their study. Students interrogated the effects of colonialism on Indigenous languages and their speakers, and they worked with speakers themselves, practicing community-engaged scholarship.

“Getting a broader perspective across the whole region of the Americas has given me a rich context to better understand how similar issues play out in different language communities and languages with different grammatical features across diverse linguistic ecosystems,” said AnderBois.

Kimberly Toney, Coordinating Curator for Native American and Indigenous Materials at the John Carter Brown Library shows students a map of New France
John Carter Brown Library curator Kimberly Toney shares a rare map of New France with students.
José Montelongo, Maury A. Bromsen Curator of Latin American Books at the John Carter Brown Library, shows students rare books
Students examine rare books published by Indigenous artisans with curator José Montelongo.

Disciplinary differences were the starting point for the syllabus of the course “Simulating Reality: The (Curious) History and Science of Immersive Experiences,“ which cognitive scientist Fulvio Domini and Italianist Massimo Riva have taught four times between 2020 and 2023. The course explores the ongoing human fascination with simulated reality and how it intersects with phenomena such as social surveillance.

“We started the course by illustrating our reciprocal research perspectives and introducing key terms we would examine critically throughout the course—’real’ as opposed to ‘virtual,’ ‘experiment,’ ‘modeling,’ ‘simulation,’ and ‘immersion’—before engaging with a series of case studies, from pre-digital optical devices such as the camera obscura and the magic lantern to contemporary 3D VR and AR experiences,” said Domini and Riva.

Listen to an episode of the podcast “Meeting Street” on “Simulating Reality.”

“ Almost from the first class, we said that we would like to teach the class again. ”

Abigail Harrison Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences (Research)

Discovering how disciplines differ and overlap is what makes these courses distinctive for many students. “Everyone brought so many contrasting perspectives to the reading discussions, it was fascinating. I loved seeing how different the two fields of studies were and how they could fit together,” said Cecile Schreidah ’24, who is pursuing an independent concentration in infectious epidemiology.

Interdisciplinary collaboration deepens nuanced thinking for students and faculty alike. Whether it generates new research directions or highlights existing pedagogical questions and practices, team-teaching strengthens community and sparks dialogue that enhances the quality of learning at Brown.

“Our experimental course might not be central to a traditional curriculum in Italian studies or be considered a concentration requirement in cognitive sciences,” Domini and Riva reflected, “but we are convinced that it enriches both curricula.”