On a campus where Busch Light and Boyle’s Law vie for students’ attention, a group of undergraduates set out to capture a sense of Duke’s intellectual culture.
Duke Student Government convened the 10-student Intellectual Climate Committee in Spring 2011 to investigate the state of intellectual life inside and outside the classroom. They sought to start campus dialogue and suggest improvements the University can make to enhance the intellectual lives of students. The ICC findings, published Tuesday, compile a large-scale survey of Duke students and interviews with leading students, faculty and administrators. The key to a thriving intellectual climate is seamless intellectual interaction from class time to free time, said committee chair Amanda Peralta, a senior.
“It’s essential in an intellectual climate for socialness to be a part of that,” she said. “If the only interactions that students have with each other that are intellectual are in the classroom and when they leave they don’t talk about it anymore, then that’s not a real intellectual climate.”
The ICC collaborated with the Office of Institutional Research to frame the questions and execute the survey. They sent it to 2,002 undergraduates, of whom 542 responded—a 27 percent yield.
In the survey, 84 percent of respondents said they were moderately or very satisfied with their intellectual experiences in the classroom, whereas 66 percent were similarly satisfied with their intellectual experiences outside the classroom.
Forty percent were moderately or very satisfied with the availability of intellectual outlets on the weekend.
Although the response rate was not as high as hoped, the sample was representative of the broader student population based on subgroups such as year, social demographics and undergraduate school, said Jiali Luo, assistant director of institutional research.
Young Trustee Kaveh Danesh, Trinity ’12, who convened the ICC as DSG vice president for academic affairs, said the lower rate of intellectual satisfaction outside of the classroom should not be a cause for alarm because the classroom is an inherently intellectual space, but the outside encompasses many types of spaces.
The administration can create more social intellectual spaces by working with students to host recurring events that can have alcohol present, but not as the central focus, Danesh said. Organizers should aim to merge the intellectual and the social, “rendering them indistinguishable.” Danesh suggested the weekly E-Socials, hosted by the Pratt School of Engineering, and the annual President’s Ball as models of this sort of event.
The committee identified several focal points for discussion that recurred in the surveys and interviews. For instance, prevalence of extracurricular interaction between faculty and students ought to increase, Peralta said. The survey found that half of students think faculty encourage intellectual climate moderately or very much.
Some faculty members have lively engagement with students, but the administration should encourage this more, Peralta said.
“[Faculty] aren’t incentivized,” she said. “There’s a clear pressure for them to do research and publish papers and [pursue] tenure track and all that. But there aren’t any specific incentives from the administration... for them to really interact with undergraduates on a deeper level.”
Steve Nowicki, dean of students and vice provost for undergraduate education, said the ICC report will be most successful if people avoid the opportunity for excessive self-criticism and embrace the search for ways to do things better. He added that the administration cannot change student behavior by fiat, but that there needs to be a collaborative effort with the administration supporting organic, student-led initiatives. Former DSG president Paul Slattery, Trinity ’08, for instance, drove the creation of the Duke-funded FLUNCH program, which pays for students and professors to interact outside of the classroom over meals.
Duke’s architecture makes routine social interactions between students and faculty difficult because there are few social spaces where that happens naturally, Nowicki said. There are only two faculty residences on West, for instance.
“At the moment, a faculty member has absolutely no reason to go over to the Gothic dorms [on West Campus], and even if she wanted to she couldn’t get in,” he said. “How do we make it so faculty have reasons to hang out in productive ways in the houses?”
The house model and the West Union Building renovations should improve the situation by creating more physical spaces, like Von der Heyden Pavilion, where undergraduates, graduate students and faculty can congregate. The administration would be interested in funding houses to host professors for dinner chats, if they choose to do so, Nowicki noted, and in the long term faculty members may develop relationships with particular houses.
The discussion of intellectualism at Duke should avoid a narrowly highbrow definition of the term, he cautioned.
“You know, I like to have a few beers, and I’m a successful intellectual, and I tell stupid jokes sometimes,” he said. “To assume that to be an intellectual means you’re only talking about Chaucer or cold fusion or Laplace theorem is misplaced because nobody is like that. What it simply means is that you have a broader view of what is interesting to talk about, and it might extend beyond just one subject and that you’re willing to talk deeply about the issues.”
Peralta said she hopes the report will serve to expand the conversation to the whole campus.
“My intention is not to tell people what to do, but I just want people to talk about it and think about it more,” she said.