Arts and Sciences Council wrapped up the semester with its last meeting on Thursday.

The council discussed how to improve the pedagogy for introductory courses and heard further explanation of a proposed bylaw change for the council. 

“Quite frankly, I think we need to pivot from a curriculum-based discussion that still feels like a win-lose negotiation of something to really focusing here on the student experience for a moment,” said Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. 

Ashby told council members about her new focus on improving courses for first and second-year students. Although there is no formal initiative or program, Ashby explained that she is working with her department chairs to prioritize the issue.

The goal is not to create a new signature program or special set of exciting classes, but to improve the pedagogy and experience in introductory and core courses that students take.

“What I don’t want people to do is go off and create a set of courses that are separate from the core, because we are talking about the core. Not another shiny object, the core,” she said. “Now, I want your core to be a shiny object.”

Ashby explained that she discussed the plan with the department chairs and has asked them to get back to her by late March with ideas and suggestions about how she can help them with the project. She noted that she wants the faculty to consider the endeavor in terms of solutions and ideas they might have. 

Although the new focus does not have the aim of recreating the framework under which students navigate Duke, Ashby noted that what they learn from the process of improving courses “absolutely could” inform future curriculum discussions. 

She asked the faculty to consider students' experiences in their introductory courses as if it were the only one a student will take in that discipline. She asked if the introductory class would make students consider more courses in that area. 

“My question is, if you were going to teach this course to your child—who pays $65,000 a year—how do you want that to be taught? What experience do you want them to have?” she asked. “When they find out it’s not their thing, how do you want them to walk out of there mentally?”

On the issue of what mental and emotional effects courses can have on students, Ashby also discussed the existence of courses that “weed out students”—which she clarified does not imply intent by the instructor to do so. She noted they are found predominately in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, and specifically the natural sciences.

Although 60 percent of Duke students come in expressing interest in the natural sciences, only about half of them graduate with a degree in it. The drop-off rate is not consistent among all demographics, however.

“If you look at the demographics, there are certain groups where 60 percent graduate, it just so happens that it’s white males. When you look at the demographics for women of any race/ethnicity and underrepresented students, that number [of students that graduate with natural science degrees] is about 30 percent,” Ashby said. “When you drill down into the data, we can match those students up perfectly intellectually and it still happens.”

In other business

Michael Munger, professor of political science and a member of the council’s executive committee, explained the procedure and consequences of the veto referendum that the council is considering adding into their bylaws.

The proposed veto referendum seeks to give the general faculty a chance to weigh-in on particularly controversial issues—Munger highlighted the council's previous debate about online courses—without completely going around the council.

“We want to ensure that the decisions of the council represent the will of the faculty,” Munger said. “The problem is that the council is like the U.S. Senate—each department, each unit, only gets one vote. That may have pretty different consequences than a vote of the entire faculty.” 

The change, which will not be voted on until next semester, would give the general faculty body of Trinity a manner of recourse if enough members disagree with the council’s approval of something. The veto referendum only allows faculty the option to veto legislation that the council has approved, and would not allow them to pass their own legislation by at-large referendum. 

Under the current proposal, within ten days of an Arts and Sciences Council decision, a petition with ten percent of Trinity faculty members’ signatures would have to be presented, and within 20 days of the initial vote, a Trinity-wide vote would have to occur. If a quorum—currently set at 40 percent—of faculty vote and the majority of those members want the decision vetoed, then the policy would revert back to the original status quo before the council made a decision.