School of Humanities asks the Big Questions

New series of courses seeks to further integrate humanities into a broad-based Rice education

“The world is a human world, and scientific expertise in isolation offers an essential but incomplete foundation for guiding humanity’s future.”

Big Questions promotional flyer

Big Questions courses will be available beginning in the fall.

That single sentence articulated the essence of “Branches of the Same Tree,” a 258-page report the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued last year calling for greater integration of the humanities into the so-called STEM fields. Years of research and anecdotal data supported the conclusion that humanities studies are crucial to preparing students for everything from their careers to their civic duties.

This call for integration has been a source of inspiration for a new series of courses offered through the Rice School of Humanities beginning this fall. Big Questions, as the courses have been titled, will tackle such topics as “Who should vote?” and “What is utopia?”

The objective: exposing students outside of the humanities to important humanistic discussions.

“I took the report as an opening for us to go out and be more inventive in inviting students from the other schools into the humanities for courses that pose the same big questions that students are probably already thinking about during their four years of college,” said Kathleen Canning, dean of the School of Humanities and the Andrew Mellon Professor of History.

“They are questions that are as a basic as ‘What is the meaning of life?’” she said.

Classes such as professor Vida Yao’s highly regarded Death and Dying already serve a similar function, Canning noted, albeit with a smaller class size and without one of the crucial elements the new Big Questions courses will have: learning labs.

“We do have faculty teaching courses that students do regard as life-changing, but a lot of those who enter into those arenas are students already in the humanities,” Canning said. “The idea, really, is not to do something that much different than what we already do, but to get questions that are attention-grabbing to bring students into humanities classes that might not otherwise take them.”

Larger class sizes and learning labs in the Big Questions courses will enable students to do the kind of applied humanities work that’s increasingly sought-after in the post-college world. Just ask the admissions office in the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, which is now reserving eight spots each year for Rice humanities majors.

“These will be big classes where you can have big discussions and big projects with a range of students,” said associate dean of humanities Lora Wildenthal. Learning labs projects, she said, will range from creating podcasts and websites to conducting interviews or presenting theatrical productions.

“And the big class size makes it possible to create more interesting teams among a wider range of people,” Wildenthal said.

The first Big Questions course offered this fall will be titled Is All the World a Stage?

The first Big Questions course offered this fall will be titled Is All the World a Stage?

The first Big Questions course offered this fall will be co-taught by Joe Campana, the Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English, and Christina Keefe, Professor in the Practice and director of the Rice Theatre Program. The course, titled Is All the World a Stage?, will ask students to consider the role of drama in their lives and what distinguishes drama from life.

Theater is omnipresent, whether it’s political theater or dramatic posturing on social media. Campana and Keefe’s course will ask students to consider theater from its origins in the classical amphitheater to its modern incorporation into everyday human behavior, with learning labs that include acting and directing exercises and live performances.

In spring 2020, two additional Big Questions courses will be available. One, Where Is Utopia?, will be co-taught by Joshua Bernstein, lecturer in painting and drawing, and Fabiola López-Durán, associate professor of art history. The other, Who Should Vote?, will be taught by Caleb McDaniel, associate professor of history. Future courses could tackle such topics as climate change, race and citizenship.

Big Questions courses have also been designed as distribution courses, giving non-Humanities students further incentive to enroll. But the bigger plan is for students to come away from these courses with much more than three hours and another D1 on their transcript.

“Behind this effort is our conviction that the humanities are necessary for answering many big questions today,” Wildenthal said.

Canning agreed.

“This is a campus with a lot of serious students and they will take these Big Questions seriously, which, for me, is a big opportunity to have them engage,” she said. “They care deeply about who votes and who’s a citizen and how to protect people who are in vulnerable categories. They care about climate change. They care about ‘what is race.’”

Ultimately, these Big Questions will integrate the humanities even further into the overall education and daily discourse of Rice students — an accomplishment unto itself, Canning said.

“The metric of success is that these courses involve students who say, ‘I might not have taken a humanities course, but this one really appealed to me.’”

For more information on Big Questions, visit

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.