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The best part of Duke

When I first arrived at Duke in August 2001, I expected a strong showing from the latter half of the “work hard, play hard” maxim: beer, frat parties and boisterous basketball games. By contrast, I braced myself for academic disappointment after an incredibly rich classroom experience at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Little did I know. Three-and-a-half years here have left me with ambivalent feelings about many aspects of the University, but my courses have, on the whole, far exceeded expectations. I never imagined I would say this, but academics are the jewel of the Duke undergraduate experience.

Some credit surely goes to quick-thinking provost Peter Lange, who led the committee that devised the ingenious and inexplicably criticized Curriculum 2000 and has since acted as a sage steward of the University’s academic enterprise. Closer to home, former Dean of the Faculty Arts and Sciences Bill Chafe and Dean of Trinity College Bob Thompson served as enablers of great teaching, just as they should.

But most of the responsibility for classroom excellence belongs to the individual faculty members who work wonders every semester. Like any university faculty, Duke’s is filled with bad seeds and legends, colorful lecturers and googly-eyed researchers. Most have a place here; others keep their place ad infinitum to the sighs of their peers.

The best teachers forge a distinct reputation by possessing at least one of several crucial qualities. As I see it, there are five traits that make a great university teacher:

Personality. Some teachers excel in part because of the sheer force of their personality. We all know these types—you never look at the clock when they’re talking, and the most mundane material comes to life. At the end of class, you have a little spring in your step and maybe an irrepressible smile.

Students can probably come up with a list of these teachers in a second. I think of John Thompson and Gerald Wilson of history and Tom Nechyba of economics, to name a few. You’ve probably heard of these teachers, too, and if you’ve had them you probably haven’t skipped many classes.

Creativity. Nothing makes a semester like a course that is utterly out of the ordinary. It breaks the week’s monotony and can serve as a better knowledge conduit than a traditional course.

Even though participating in such a course can feel effortlessly enjoyable, it takes a teacher’s boldness and inspiration—not to mention hard work—to devise and execute creative course plans. Peter Feaver’s Foreign Policy and the Presidential Election course is a perfect example: the midterm was a public debate and the final will be a Presidential transition memo. Simon Partner also demonstrated great creativity with his Marketing and Consumption in Japan and the U.S. course, as we immersed ourselves in the Special Collections Library with the ultimate intention of creating a website about advertising in U.S. history. We also discussed other issues in weekly U.K.-style one-on-one tutorials with Partner.

Passion. Regardless of a teacher’s skills, a genuine enthusiasm for a given subject is evident to students and rubs off in class. Watching a passionate teacher grapple with the contradictions of his or her field or muse upon its possibilities in class is exciting and often leads students to seek more knowledge in the field.

David Bell obviously loves French cinema, and it made his course all the better. Likewise, Thomas Robishaux’s excitable lectures on medieval and Renaissance history imbued that archaic subject matter with urgency and relevance.

Clarity. This is the most underrated category and the hardest to achieve for many of your classic scatterbrained professorial types. A teacher who presents complicated material in an organized fashion, helpfully responds to questions and remains unburdened by the specter of obtuse pontification will easily endear himself or herself to students.

Graduate student Mike Hoffman was always crystal-clear in explaining the intricacies of international economics—thankfully, for my sake. And in terms of course organization and clear expectations, I was greatly impressed with statistics professor Dalene Stangl back in 2002. Clear teachers can be overlooked because they often lack bombast and bluster, but they are quiet stars and students appreciate them deeply when the subject matter is tough.

Inspiration. The greatest teachers of all go beyond imparting knowledge about math, politics or literature; they teach about life, demand introspection and ultimately change the way a student sees his or her role in the world. These are educators in the original sense of the Latin word educere, which means to “bring out.” By seeing the big picture and linking course material to action, inspiring teachers bring out the best in their students.

Bruce Payne was an inspiration to me in his PPS course on ethics. He integrated his own experiences into his pedagogy in a meaningful way, personalizing the literature we read and the ethical lessons he helped us discover. And even in discussing the far-removed institution of slavery, Syd Nathans brought us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the inherent danger and potential of representation.

I expected college would be an amazing experience, and it has been—in ways I did not anticipate. For me, the best part of Duke is the shuffle of chairs and notebooks that anticipate the opening of every class. At that moment, I can trust with reasonable certainty that for the next hour or so I will be challenged, changed and most of all educated, as a great teacher brings out the person I hope to someday become. That, more than anything else, is amazing.

 

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior.

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