Carnegie Mellon University
January 16, 2024

Cullen Named Dean's Innovation Scholar

By Stefanie Johndrow

The Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences has named Simon Cullen, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Philosophy, a Dean’s Innovation Scholar.

The award recognizes significant innovation in course design, teaching practice and learning outcomes assessment among teaching-track faculty in Dietrich College, as well as the promise of these faculty for ongoing creative and effective innovation. The fellowship provides two years of support, totaling $20,000, for curriculum development, course delivery and learning outcomes assessment. Through his fellowship, Cullen will develop and test pedagogical innovations that leverage Large Language Models like GPT-4 to train informal reasoning skills.

Cullen joined the Department of Philosophy in 2018. His research focuses on developing practical techniques to enhance group reasoning, depolarize political debates, and improve communication across moral and political divides.

“Simon has taken on an immensely important and challenging task,” said Richard Scheines, Bess Family Dean of Dietrich College. “He’s teaching our students how to have constructive, rational conversations about the most emotionally volatile and divisive issues in our society today, for example abortion and gun rights. He’s not only developed a popular and effective class, but he’s also innovating by fine-tuning GPT-4 to construct a dialogue partner for students to practice discussing these issues.”

Cullen’s course “Dangerous Ideas in Science and Society” has become one of the fastest-growing General Education classes at CMU.

“‘Dangerous Ideas’ is grounded in the belief that respectful, open and rigorous discussion is the best tool for deeply understanding arguments and strengthening our beliefs on virtually any topic,” Cullen said.

Prior to joining the class, many students told Cullen they had never had a serious discussion about any of the class topics with someone who does not broadly share their views.

“‘Dangerous Ideas’ is a work in progress, but the students have already amazed me,” Cullen said. “They work hard to charitably interpret arguments from diverse viewpoints, to parse them closely for logical structure, and to better understand the reasons people have found for endorsing and rejecting them. They have thoughtful and productive discussions about topics many say they’re too afraid to discuss in their academic and personal lives — and they do it while treating everyone with dignity.”

In survey responses and feedback, students expressed a deep appreciation for the respectful space “Dangerous Ideas” provides for challenging discussions of some of the most fraught issues on campus and beyond. As one student wrote in their feedback, “It meant a lot to me to have an environment where I could be honest instead of evasive, straightforwardly disagree with someone, and still be able to talk to them outside of class without fear of retaliation.”

Cullen said he aims to help students to think things through for themselves.

“For Dangerous Ideas, I’ve developed and tested techniques that empower students to explore, debate, and constructively disagree over challenging moral, social and policy questions. My approach promotes student agency, resilience, curiosity, argumentation skills and a deep understanding of the best arguments on multiple sides of every topic we discuss,” Cullen said.

With Social and Decision Sciences Professor Danny Oppenheimer, Cullen is working on “choice architecture” interventions to increase student motivation, achievement and well-being.

“Dr. Cullen is a fountain of creative ideas for how to improve teaching,” Oppenheimer said. “From designing custom bots using generative AI, to creating new course policies to improve attendance and get students invested in their assignments, to developing new smartphone apps to moderate class discussions and make sure more students can participate, to incorporating real-time surveys that give students anonymous feedback about how their peers are thinking about course content, Simon does it all.”