Duke Kunshan University course offerings begin to take shape

Although Duke is still awaiting final approval by the Chinese Ministry of Education for Duke Kunshan University, members of the Arts and Sciences Council have begun designing the academic offerings for the target Spring 2014 opening date.

The Arts and Sciences Council was charged in Dec. 2012 with administering the process to approve courses for DKU’s inaugural semester, said council chair Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Schaffer professor of history. The committee created for the task, which is a joint effort by the Faculty Committee on Courses and the Global Education Committee, aims to make course recommendations by mid- or late February.

“The ambition now is to create a liberal arts curriculum in China,” Robisheaux said. “It’s full of lots of risks and challenges but possibly big opportunities as well.”

The Arts and Sciences Council is responsible for approving courses but has encouraged faculty input, he noted. Faculty members may submit proposals for courses, and some may teach at the DKU campus.

In planning courses, the committee is on familiar ground in some respects but also will meet unique challenges as a consequence of the campus’ location in China, Robisheaux said. The committee will emphasize quality, aiming to make every course offered at DKU similar in difficulty and subject matter to those offered on the Durham campus. The Faculty Committee on Courses is following its usual procedures to approve courses while applying them to the special circumstance of DKU.

Although the committee hopes to make available courses “span our divisions of knowledge” to include material in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, the DKU curriculum will also reflect the culture of China to include Chinese literature and language courses, Robisheaux said.

“It’s important that we make the Chinese curriculum available to our students and international students,” said Kun Shan Lee, director of the Chinese Language Program, who submitted a course to the Arts and Sciences Council on behalf of the Chinese department. “Language is integral to the culture.”

Nora Bynum, vice provost for DKU and China initiatives, noted that other courses could have special Chinese components, citing an example of a science course with special focus on environmental problems plaguing China.

Four global health courses have already been approved for DKU’s first semester, and the committee plans to add eight to 12 more to the course catalogue from which students may choose, Bynum said. All courses except for Chinese language and literature classes will be conducted in English. Semesters at DKU will be broken into two seven-week blocks in an effort to make it more feasible for Duke faculty to teach at DKU on a short-term basis while the Chinese campus is in its early stages, Robisheaux said. Students would take two courses during each block.

Bynum noted that ideally, DKU will eventually have a student body that is half Chinese and half international students, including students from Duke. The program will be targeted to upperclassmen Duke students, she said, and Chinese and other international students would be similar ages and at similar points in their academic careers.

Although procedures are standardized for the approval process, the committee faces a gray area in gauging the nature of the student body that will compose DKU, Robisheaux said, adding that it is difficult to put classes together without a clear understanding of the profile of the student to whom the course will be taught.

“Our courses [will] take place within a particular institutional and cultural framework that involves freedom of expression, particular ideas about plagiarism and authenticity in student work,” Robisheaux said. “Chinese students come from a different cultural framework…. That’s what makes [this] interesting and exciting and challenging.”

Other challenges professors may face could include teaching English academic writing to students who speak English as a second language or leading a classroom comprised of students not accustomed to discussing readings, Robisheaux said. Even though some faculty have been skeptical or critical of the DKU initiative in the past, Robisheaux said that many faculty members have expressed interest in playing a part in the design of DKU’s curriculum.

“We’ve made a commitment here at Duke, and we need to honor our commitment,” he said. “[DKU] is a very bold thing [and] we need to create a liberal arts education that instills critical thinking, independence and autonomy…. Our faculty can’t teach in any other environment.”

Although she supports DKU, Lee noted that the first few semesters of DKU may also put strain on Duke domestically in some ways.

“If I’m [at DKU], it means I won’t be able to be as involved or helpful to my program here on campus,” she said. “It’s a diversion of human resource.”

Bynum said, however, that DKU will only rely on Durham-based faculty for its first few semesters.

“Gradually DKU will build up its own faculty,” she said. “We’d like to build on the strengths of the Duke faculty and also provide opportunities for Duke faculty to teach in China.”


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