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Back in the classroom, president feels at home

President Nan Keohane has become such an institution at Duke that her first name, "Nan," has become students' frequent shorthand for the administration. "Nan needs to change the admissions policies." "Nan's getting rid of fraternities." "Nan should fix this lightbulb."

Now, with Keohane co-teaching her first course since coming to Duke, the oft-cited, somewhat mythologized president and political philosopher has become a flesh-and-blood fixture in 18 students' lives. While the transition from icon to teacher has been mostly smooth, students have occasionally experienced mild confusion about her role of "Professor Keohane."

"People call her 'Nan' in class sometimes!" said senior Sarah Blum-Barnet with an incredulous laugh, adding that Keohane has reacted graciously. "She doesn't flinch. She hasn't asked anyone not to."

Despite such slips of the tongue, Keohane and co-teacher Peter Euben said their upper-level political science seminar, titled "Inequalities," has gone extremely well. They said students' awe about a course with the president dissipated quickly, and discussion has been lively and intelligent.

"It is so exhilarating," Keohane said. "If I had any doubts--which I didn't--about the decision to go back to teaching, being in the classroom has certainly confirmed the wisdom of that choice."

In the course, students use classic political philosophy texts--like Rousseau's Second Discourse and Plato's Republic--and contemporary works to explore how human inequalities are manifested, how people deal with them and what lies behind them.

Keohane and Euben, who have been friends since the 1970s, took the opportunity of Keohane's final semester as Duke president to re-expose her to political philosophy before she commences a one-year research sabbatical.

"He and I have wanted to teach in an area that is of interest to me as I began to shift toward my sabbatical," Keohane said, "so I'll get a kind of a running start onto being a scholar again."

Students were required to have some background in political philosophy and had to write an essay on inequalities to gain entry to the course. Several students admitted that Keohane was a primary draw, but added that the subject matter was extremely important to them as well.

"The nature of our discussions are such that if you're not interested in the material, there's no point in taking it," said senior Evan Oxman. "The novelty [of Keohane] wears off pretty quickly otherwise."

The course is structured as a discussion-based seminar. Students described Keohane as low-key, down-to-earth and receptive to diverse viewpoints in the classroom.

Keohane said it was particularly important to acknowledge the validity of many perspectives when discussing such a difficult set of topics. "People tend to have strong feelings about inequality, and we are very careful to make sure that if the discussion is beginning to move very strongly in one direction, one of us will jump in and, in kind of a Socratic way, say, 'What about the opposite?'" she said.

The class has responded with lively, sometimes passionate, sometimes humorous debates. Blum-Barnet described the atmosphere as largely casual.

"There may have been some intimidation the first day, but there sure isn't any now," Euben said. "They're just as happy arguing with her now as they are with me." Euben and Keohane maintain an equal role as teachers, alternating leading class discussions depending on their respective areas of expertise. Keohane, as a Rousseau buff, took the lead in exploring the Second Discourse; Euben used his background in the classics to provide perspective on Plato.

Students and teachers alike say the adjustment period is mostly over, and the class has moved on to the more pressing issues raised by the course materal.

Midterm grade for Professor Keohane? The consensus suggests "A."

"She's an engaging professor, as is Professor Euben," Oxman said, "and you wouldn't really be able to tell, if you didn't know she was the President... that she was."

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