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The magic schoolbus, redux

None of us go mini-golfing as often as we should, which is part of why there is much to say on behalf of a new initiative to expand the scope of the student faculty outing program. Previously available only to first year students, the reimagined program-—much to its credit—has been conceived of and coordinated by students, and answers to a cardinal challenge in designing academic experiences: No amount of bookishness can make up for the amicable spirit that comes from shared leisure, which sustains meaningful academic relationships.

The new proposal has unquestionably addressed part of this problem: by providing a formalized structure for students to interact with faculty in a non-academic context, the program transforms an impossible question—”Fancy joining me at the neighborhood pool party, professor?”—into an unavoidable one, as routine as a FLUNCH or a chat during office hours.

But student-faculty relationships are highly contextualized — we rarely see our professors outside of the classroom, disrobed of tweed and books out of hand. It will be no small beer to transplant these formal intellectual relationships into casual environments. And, as with many kinds of transplant, coordination is everything: For an outing to get off the ground, students must share interests with each other and the faculty member, and appreciate the activity at hand.

On this score, unfortunately, the reimagined program is not fully equipped. As it stands, the program relies on faculty members to cheerily foist outing opportunities onto students. This means that a student’s chance of going on an outing with the professor of his choosing is relatively slim. As a workaround, we suppose students could ask their professors to host excursions. But then this undercuts the program’s chief aim and virtue: That it makes asking faculty members on a platonic date easy, not awkward.

We imagine two alternatives to this, which have the advantage of solving this coordination problem and of putting the program in service of two significant student needs.

First, students need to bond with each other in the course of substantive experiences—to make cool friends during fun adventures. To address this need, administrators should couple the faculty outings program with the house model. This is not an original idea: the Faculty-in-Residence program on East Campus operates in the spirit of faculty members cultivating student communities. Unfortunately, Duke’s houses do not have live-in faculty. But it makes terrific sense to extend this spirit by allowing houses to invite faculty members to lead them on educational adventures.

Second, students need to connect personally with academic faculty in their own area of study, both for its own sake and because it allows faculty to provide superior mentorship. We can meet this need by coupling faculty outing programs with academic departments. This has the advantage of coordinating the interests of students and faculty. If a student always wanted to get to the nitty gritty of cellular mitosis with his or her biology professor down at the swimming hole, here is the chance­. He or she may even get a job in the professor’s lab afterwards.

Both of these needs cry out to be addressed, and a beefed up faculty outings program gives us the tool to do just that.

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