Using Multidisciplinary Teaching to Confront Difficult Topics
Inequality, the growing and often unsurpassable disparity in income and wealth for different populations of people, has increasingly become a major issue of study. From politicians on the campaign trail to the scholarship and courses found at the University, it is clear that this topic is a widespread concern.
“It’s not only a US problem,” said Senior Lecturer Allen R. Sanderson of the Economics Department, “it’s a world-wide problem that over the last thirty years, within the United States, within virtually all countries, the distribution of income and wealth has just gotten more unequal.”
This coming Winter Quarter, Sanderson and fifteen scholars from diverse departments across the University and beyond will join to offer their research and understanding of inequality in a multi-disciplinary course for College students. Part of the Big Problems Lecture Series and offered for the first time last year, Inequality: Origins, Dimensions, and Policy (ECON 24720) will feature insight from the perspective of Biological Sciences, Economics, English, History, Law, Political Science, and other fields of study across campus.
Sanderson wants students who take the course to recognize that there are many more facets to the problem than people think. “Whether it’s early childhood education or how one thinks about prenatal education, how one thinks about prison sentences and what they might be doing to white-black labor differentials,” he asked, “how are public policies […] either helping or hurting this distribution of income?”
Inequality is not Sanderson’s first interdisciplinary course. Sport, Society and Science, co-taught with William Rainey Harper Professor in the College Dennis J. Hutchinson, also featured lecturers from various departments, some of whom also then held administrative leadership positions — like Thomas Rosenbaum, a physicist who was Provost at the time and Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist who was Vice Provost. These varied disciplinary perspectives introduced students to the variety of approaches possible to a single topic.
“I don’t look at it necessarily as sports per se — could be the sports environment, could be crime, could be whatever,” Sanderson said. “It’s just ‘Can I apply Economics to something?’ Let’s take the Economics background you have and the quantitative background and let’s apply it to this particular industry.”
The enthusiasm of the students and faculty for the Sports course inspired Sanderson to take on a new challenge. Students were just as eager to enroll in the multidisciplinary Inequality course, and though 287 students bid for the course, the room size limited the class to 92 students. From the perfect attendance, attentive feedback, and eager participation the first time he taught on inequality, Sanderson believes the students found that course as rewarding as he did. “University of Chicago undergraduates and graduates and my TAs — it’s just the intellectual stimulation and the ability to work hard and it really is a pleasure,” he said.
Sanderson was also impressed by the quality of his colleagues’ teaching and how seriously they approached the course. “They did it because they too thought it was important, and it’s not every University that can pull off something like that,” he said. “I think that was an enormous benefit, both for our students to see the outside world and the outside world to see Economics, and also for faculty members inside to be on the same team with faculty members outside.”
As the course evolves, Sanderson said he remains grateful for the unique opportunity it offers to collaborate with colleagues and students in confronting difficult topics. Based on suggestions from students in the first version of the course, this Winter Sanderson plans to incorporate perspectives from other departments and a panel discussion featuring faculty with opposing views. Along with readings from journal related to the lectures and from On Inequality by Harry G. Frankfurt, new readings—like Richard V. Reeves’ Dream Hoarders—will ask students to consider how the upper middle class and educated elites contribute to inequality as well.