The independent news organization of Duke University

Beyond the classroom: intellectual engagement at Duke

guest column

The first meeting of the Duke Student Government (DSG) Steering Committee focused on “constructing community,” with the roundtable centering on recent and future changes to campus facilities. Student leaders voiced their thoughts on current infrastructure and offered suggestions for the design of new buildings. The most important takeaway was how Duke’s spaces become starting points for relationships, experiences, and communities. As President Brodhead said, “We take trouble with physical structures because they serve the real construction project this great university is engaged in: the building of capable men and women, eager to deliver their promise in the life of their times.” It was with this thought in mind that the DSG Steering Committee convened its second meeting, focusing on the intellectual foundations that Duke aims to provide for every student. The group—which included the student leaders of flagship programs (e.g. DukeEngage) as well as core academic organizations (e.g. majors unions)—was joined by Dr. Steve Nowicki, the Dean and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, for a conversation about intellectual engagement on campus.

While there are many academic programs at Duke, we recognize that there is not always a robust intellectual climate. However, opportunities for engagement exist in excess on campus—from the hundreds of student groups to the dozens of daily events on Duke’s calendar. The real challenge faced by students and faculty alike has less to do with capacity and more to do with culture. Students commented on how many well-intentioned programs had been reduced to another box to check as part of the Duke experience. For example, Trinity Requirements established in Curriculum 2000 were intended to help students explore courses beyond their major field of study. Yet today, most students take to bookbagging with expediency, rather than engagement, in mind. We discussed how many undergraduates look for courses that hit the T-Req sweet spot by carrying multiple codes (e.g. ALP, CZ, EI), rather than seeking classes in new and unknown disciplines. Part of the problem stems from the fragmentation of student life. As it currently stands, the Duke experience is siloed into a series of big-name experiences that lack continuity or purpose as a whole. The key challenge is elevating the impact of many initiatives beyond the short-term—such as extending a DukeEngage program from simply a summer of service to a deeper mindset of knowledge in the service of society, or working to use Duke Conversations as starting points for new relationships and opportunities. Reflecting on these issues, the Steering Committee offers the following recommendations.

First, although we appreciate that progress has been made recently towards improving advising for first- and second-year students, we believe that the current advising process still reinforces the checklist mindset at Duke. A student’s first meeting with their advisor takes place during O-week; an interaction characterized by clichés such as “college is a time for exploration” and “you can major in anything you want.” As a student progresses in their undergraduate career, and especially when a student is assigned an advisor in their major, these discussions can become more of a formality to secure approval for registration, rather than an opportunity for advisors to challenge students about their choices and path. This model is insufficient. We believe that advisors must be more present—rather than always asking students “What are you taking?” they could instead begin conversations by asking students to reflect on “Where are you going?”. Urging students to re-conceptualize college as a journey rather than a series of events (e.g. pre-requisites, major declaration, internship, job offer) may facilitate critical reflections about process rather than outcomes. We applaud the Academic Advising Center’s decision to shift from “pre-major advisors” to “college advisors,” as well as their investment in Directors of Academic Engagement and Peer Advisors. We hope that administrators will expand these initiatives and increase their focus on improving advising within the major, which often varies in quality and capacity from department to department.

Second, we believe more resources should be invested into helping students pursue “non-traditional” career paths. A specific challenge highlighted during our discussion was the financial deterrents to internships in public service and the non-profit space. Funds that exist, such as the Hart Leadership Program, are limited in capacity and students often choose less fulfilling summer experiences due to financial realities. While Duke’s financial aid policy is progressive, with “re-costing” programs reducing monetary barriers for students to participate in study abroad programs, more work still needs to be done to support those on less financial aid. Another area we felt can be strengthened is undergraduate access to the Duke alumni network to expose them to unique, innovative and exciting industries as seen through the success of DEMAN weekend.

But beyond academic policy, we strongly felt that our aspirations for intellectual engagement must be grounded in the social realities of Duke. Campus culture often segregates the academic and the social—that learning is confined to the classroom, that dialogue is only planned, not organic, that Saturdays are for Shooters, not conversations. Without a doubt, progress has been made—from the creation of the Living Learning Community as a model for embedding intellectual engagement into the residential experience, to the increased investment in programs that foster interdisciplinary learning, such as service-learning and Bass Connections. However, these are only starting points. While DSG is without a doubt committed to improving the academic experience at Duke, our work—from the development of new policies (such as reforming registration) to the creation of new tools (such as an online syllabus archive)—only touches the surface of a challenge that has deep roots in modern society. Although Duke students have an innate sense of intellectual curiosity, extenuating factors—from peer pressure to financial constraints—have created barriers to true engagement. To truly achieve a substantive change in the academic climate each of us will need to have the confidence to experience discomfort, take risks, and go beyond our own silos on campus. 

Moving in the right direction will take small steps: the courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger, the curiosity to take new courses, the confidence to ask hard research questions. We are excited to engage in this process of self-discovery, and hope you too will join us as we work to redefine the Duke experience. 


Share and discuss “Beyond the classroom: intellectual engagement at Duke” on social media.