Knowledge, Schmowledge

Don’t worry, first-years, I’m not going to offer you any half-hearted, painfully optimistic advice on how to best navigate your “undergraduate experience.” You’ll get enough of that from your cheerful FAC’s. Rather, I’m going to ask you a cynical question: What is the point of the “undergraduate experience”?

In case it wasn’t abundantly clear in the college viewbooks you poured over, the “undergraduate experience” is college-speak for the four years of extracurricular activities, roommates, university-sponsored arts and cultural events, partying, student fairs, athletics and, of course, academics. Well, actually, what is so “of course” about academics anymore?

Unless you’re one of those Dukies who permanently moves to the library by mid-September, chances are your years here will be filled with a plethora of Martha Stewartan good times and civic and University engagement. You’re likely to join a few clubs, maybe run for Duke Student Government or even tutor kids at a local elementary school. A select few of you will found a new student group or establish a community service program, and one of you will become president of the Union.

Why? Why are you going to become so involved in campus life? Why am I so involved in campus life? It may seem like an absurd question, but I challenge you to formulate a sensible response beyond, “I want something to do when I’m not in class.” (That response might change for some of you, for example, to “I enjoy helping others.”)

After three years of campus life, I am beginning to understand the initial response in quite opposite terms. For students who pour their hearts and souls into student groups, community service or dance troops, sitting in class or writing a term paper is a welcome break from this appointment or that meeting. The point of academics today: “I need something to do when I’m not saving the world during my undergraduate experience.” Has the undergraduate experience evolved into this self-obsessed menace that places academics at the end of the list in its definition?

Upperclassmen should know exactly what I’m talking about. How many times have we spent the day going from class to the gym, to lunch, to a frat meeting, to a job, to student group activity, to a working dinner, to a soccer game, and finally back to the dorm room at 11:30? After a few shots of espresso at the Starbucks that pretends it’s not a Starbucks in Keohane Quad, we sit down and pull out the problem sets, the novel or the frightening stack of e-reserves. Don’t squirm, first-years, this scenario varies vastly from person to person, and around paper and exam time, well, honestly, it doesn’t always change that much.

For maybe the first time in my “undergraduate experience,” I experienced academia without these nuisances and distractions innocuously termed meetings, cultural events or sports games. While studying abroad in the spring, I simply had nothing to do. Few responsibilities, few meetings to attend. I had plenty of time to explore Cape Town, South Africa and immerse myself in my community, but I also had hours on end to immerse myself in academics. Sick, yeah? I certainly am not the type to lock myself in a study room at Duke, but locking myself in my house in Cape Town to laze with a book or a stack of readings was, well, liberating.

My classes were not a routine. I did not methodically check off assignments on my to do list. My term paper was not brilliantly thrown together at the last minute. Reading period was actually used to revisit old material with a sort of nostalgia, not to flippantly cram information and ideas in my head.

Thinking about graduate school where perhaps academia actually begins, I’m reminded of my time in Cape Town where academics was more than the final “of course” point in a list of components of the “undergraduate experience.” As Brodhead takes the helm, maybe reshuffling the definition is one place to start in the Duke of New.


Christopher Scoville is a Trinity senior.


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