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‘It’s been exciting to see how students lead the way’

As dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Uta Poiger has brought together different points of view representing different disciplines to help students respond to evolving societal issues, such as privacy and ethics in the social media age. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern is leading the way in the type of learning and knowledge that separates humans from machines, providing students with the skills needed to thrive in a workforce disrupted by advancements in technology.

The university’s strategic plan, Northeastern 2025, embraces the benefits of lifelong learning, combined with interdisciplinary and experiential education and an approach to learning called humanics, which combines data literacy, tech literacy, and human literacy.

Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern since 2012, has responded by bringing together different points of view representing different disciplines to help students respond to evolving societal issues, such as privacy and ethics in the social media age.

For example, she has pursued global integration by developing humanities programs with NCH at Northeastern in London. She has also introduced innovative aspects to the curriculum by offering short-term “pop-up” courses designed to connect students with global news events in real time.

Poiger sat down with News@Northeastern to discuss her vision for integrating the liberal arts and new digital proficiencies.

A big question of our time has to do with identity. Who are we as a people? What does it mean to be a global citizen? What do we stand for, and where are we going? The work you are doing in humanics is geared to take on these fundamental issues.

Fields that are out of the social sciences and the humanities, and fields that have a strong interest in policy-related work, need to engage in these large questions. That has always been one of our goals, and it continues to be very, very important. With humanics, the university has really put a stake in the ground to say that technology-human interactions, technology-community interactions, and technology-political formations and interactions are important facets of life today that universities need to be very much thinking about.

If you look at President Aoun’s book [Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence], the formulation in humanics, which we have very broadly defined as the integration of human, data, and technological literacies, has really positioned the college as a key player in the university—but also where work in the liberal arts is seen as important for our students and toward broader publics.

Three key arenas that we have focused on in the college are digital humanities, network science, and—the most recent one—information ethics. What is responsible citizenship today? How do we interact with one another? How do we interact with our environment? How do we imagine our political as well as business governance systems?

The College of Social Sciences and Humanities has been focusing on privacy and ethics at the intersection of smart technologies and humanities. Is this a critical area for the college moving forward?

Privacy is certainly one of the issues we have been focusing on. What has also come up is the ways in which algorithms are designed. And also what data those algorithms use in order to answer questions.

We have a strong collaboration in computer science and data science between Ron Sandler, who heads our Ethics Institute, and Christo Wilson, who is very much involved in cybersecurity and the degree programs in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. It’s a very interesting collaboration between someone who comes out of philosophy and applied ethics, and someone who is out of computer science.

One of our key challenges right now is how do we always bring the right people with the right kinds of expertise into productive conversations with one another? These kinds of big questions about privacy, about what kind of news is a person exposed to, are not going to be solved by one person—not by one programmer, not by one ethicist at a university.

Do you see the college providing an example of leadership on how to recognize and respond to these relatively new issues of ethics and privacy in the digital world?

Historically, a lot of people in academia worried that close collaboration with players outside of academia might contaminate the work that we are doing—might not have us be institutionally apart enough in order to be really honest interpreters of what is going on. I don’t think that stance is one that we can afford. I am someone who is very much committed to basic science research, where the utility is not always immediately clear already. Because Northeastern’s experiential learning model and commitment to use-inspired research is so well positioned, we need to listen to what we hear beyond the universities. And then, at the same time, also be clear about the contributions we can make as universities.

You have been at the helm of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities since 2012. What were the goals you set for the college back then?

At that point [in 2012], already I had a very clear sense that the interaction between the humanities and social sciences and policy fields, and the fields around us at the university, was going to be very important. We are historically known as a university more for engineering and for business than for the fields that I lead, and at the same time I have always taken very seriously that interdisciplinarity is one of the signatures of Northeastern. In that context, developing interdisciplinary areas of focus was very important. What was already clear was that network science and digital humanities could be areas of excellence for us. We were in the process of founding the Network Science Institute.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When I came in 2011, I became very quickly involved—as chair of the history department—in the search for our first digital humanists. We then founded the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks as I became dean. And because we had a first-mover advantage, we were able to become recognized in the digital humanities as a global power, basically within a few years.

Part of what makes us unusual is having our NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, computer scientists, social scientists—especially computational social scientists—and humanists work together. And that gives our whole effort a somewhat different flavor. It is really recognized as unusual around the country and around the world.

How have combined majors influenced the curriculum?

One of the things that I recognized early on is that our students like to look at large questions from multiple angles. One of the successes, which is important for humanics as well as for the university, has been the ecosystem of combined majors—different from dual majors—where students take courses of two majors but also have integrative classes that link the work they are doing within those.

Integration is a theme that we talk about so much at the university, and it’s very much a theme for us in the college, and for all of my leadership work as well. We have built nine combined majors with the Khoury College of Computer Sciences alone, and more than 60 overall. So our students are basically voting with their feet in that direction, and we have to make sure that we set our curriculum, as well as our hiring, accordingly. It’s been exciting to see how the students continue to lead the way there.

How are you proceeding with Northeastern’s new initiative in England?

Right now in London we have eight students from Northeastern studying on a humanics-themed semester that we have called “Data, Ethics, and Culture,” with our new partner, New College of the Humanities. They are focusing on some basics of data science, in the context of social science and humanities questions. They are building their own projects, and I really look forward to seeing the content.

They are studying with philosophy faculty—from here as well as from London—the question of technology and human values, and I consider it a success that they complained to me that the class that they have on cultures of London does not take changing technologies into consideration quite enough for their taste. As is so often the case, our students really are our leaders in the kinds of thinking that are needed in today’s world, and they are excited about the integrative thinking around questions of algorithms and social issues that we are offering them there. Now, it doesn’t hurt them to get engaged deeply with the history and cultures of London without having technology always at the forefront. But I love that I hear such complaints from them, that they think it could be even more integrated than we are offering.

How do you see the partnership in London progressing?

Together with the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, we are launching a global engagement program that is at first going to be open to business majors—as well as to business and economics and business and political science combined majors. It will also have a humanics theme.

Building on the experiences from this semester, we have had a cross-university faculty group work with student services in designing a year-long experience in London that students will be able to continue in Boston and at other campuses in our network, as well as in the network of partner universities that we have around the world. Initially, business as well as social science majors will be tackling the question of how technology is transforming our world, including the ways in which we are doing business. London is a very exciting starting point for them, because London is obviously one of the financial centers of the world, and a center for creative industries. We also expect to run the semester-long program in London again next spring as an offering to our entire student body.

You have launched several short-term “pop-up” courses as well. How have they been going?

In the spirit of being adaptable, and having offerings for our students that are in different frameworks but respond to issues of our day, pop-ups as a curricular framework now exist.

We had one in the fall called “Midterm Mayhem,” which was run by an interdisciplinary team of faculty between the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the College of Arts, Media and Design, in which students looked at data as well as text around the midterm elections. They had basically two weekends where they did intensive work in between the self-paced work.

More recently we ran a pop-up course on Brexit, where the faculty member gave a talk as part of a daylong event that we held at the New College of Humanities in London. The talk was available to students both in London and here in the U.S.

You’ve written two books. How have they influenced your career?

I wrote a book on the reception of American culture in postwar East and West Germany. I took that as a case study for thinking about the ways in which the two Germanys were coming to terms with their Nazi past, as well as with the Cold War division. So it was a way of taking American culture very seriously, which allowed me to tackle questions of race after national socialism. So, questions of how humans define themselves, how they define modes of social stratification, is something that I’ve always been interested in.

Then I did a collaborative project, The Modern Girl Around the World. That was a collaboration with five colleagues at my former institution, the University of Washington, that is basically a case study of globalization before the invention of the term. This kind of thinking about the global and the local was very important to all my work. Both books get taught all the time still.

It really, for me, brought home that there are sometimes things that one can do as a humanist only if one collaborates—that collaboration is intensely important. Equipping students and colleagues to be involved in collaborative work has been one of my major goals ever since.

In Robot-Proof, President Aoun talks about experiential learning as a delivery mechanism for the humanities curriculum. How does experiential learning tie into your work on the humanities front?

As an organizing philosophy for the college, as well as our educational framework, we have this mantra of the experiential liberal arts. It has three key modes of integration. One of them is the integration of experiential learning into everything that we do. We do not require co-op, obviously, but all of our students have an experiential learning requirement in the university. And they can fulfill this through co-op, through service-learning courses, and through specific courses that have an experiential learning attribute tied to them. All of our students have to do that, and our students have called for this. Because our student body is very much interested in being engaged locally as well as globally, and also wants to know how to engage responsibly.

What one might think of as more classic, traditional liberal arts capacities, like structuring an argument, ethical reasoning, philosophical debate—all of these we integrate with exposure to new proficiencies, and especially the new digital proficiencies. For some students, that can be exposure to programming.

What we need to get to at this point is computing across the curriculum. That means, for good citizenship, students need to understand how biases can be introduced into algorithmic thinking not necessarily because the algorithm is wrong, but because the data behind the algorithm is human-created, and reflects the biases of the data creation. I think our students are so particularly attuned to these needs, because we as a university and as a college encourage them and require them to engage in experiential learning. And I think it makes our students also particularly strong ambassadors for the kind of integrative thinking that we seek to instill.

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