How did students help shape the proposed new Trinity curriculum?

With only two Trinity Arts and Sciences Council meetings left this semester and a vote on the proposed new curriculum pending, The Chronicle is taking a look back at the ways student input has shaped the intellectual blueprint during the course of the curriculum's drafting process—and how students will continue to influence it during the implementation stage.

Students have contributed to the curriculum discussion in formal and informal ways. Duke Student Government has held several town halls and discussions to periodically seek student input, and professors have started informal class discussions on the subject and asked for students’ thoughts through Duke Conversations.

The opinions voicing by students have been as diverse as the individuals expressing them—but some common themes have emerged. 

DSG’s town halls and discussions

Ray Li, Trinity ’15 and former vice president of academic affairs for DSG, was instrumental in guiding the IDC committee and DSG’s early efforts to collect student feedback. He and Lavanya Sunder, DSG president during the 2014-15 academic year, worked with Suzanne Shanahan, the chair of the IDC committee, to host five town halls during his senior year.

“We would basically sit and throw around big picture ideas,” Li said. “That first year, 2014 to 2015, was about getting all the big ideas on paper and kind of seeing what we could change about the curriculum. So we started throwing ideas at the wall to see what would stick.”

Five to 10 students were invited to each town hall based on a survey DSG sent out in its weekly email blast. The groups were diversified based on students' majors, extracurricular interests and other factors.

Since Li graduated in 2015, DSG has continued to hold town halls—hosting approximately a dozen since they first began in 2014—and also held a larger discussion in November 2016 with students from each major.

Sophomore Kushal Kadakia, chief of staff for DSG, hosted the November discussion with Shanahan and DSG President Tara Bansal.

“There is no one Duke student, it’s impossible to find a single archetype," Kadakia said. "But it’s always easier to get representation from the bigger departments—e.g. biology, public policy—than others—e.g. medieval renaissance studies, ocean sciences."

Senior Katie Becker, who represented the psychology department at the discussion, authored a column in The Chronicle afterward, calling for the faculty vote to be postponed due to the "lack of student input" in the process.

“Most students I’ve talked to fall in one of two camps—they’re entirely unfamiliar with the curriculum changes, or they have major reservations about them,” she wrote in an email.

Kadakia noted that DSG has sent out information about the town halls and other curriculum-related events through their weekly emails, but that not every student opens them. Inviting representatives from each major to the discussion was DSG's way of being more “proactive," he said.

“I think students are really excited to provide feedback about the curriculum," he said. "Every student goes through it, so there’s a little something they like and something they want to change."

Faculty informally seek student input

Outside of DSG’s efforts to offer students a formalized way to provide feedback, some faculty have asked for students’ thoughts through class discussions or Duke Conversations.

Frances Hasso, associate professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies, asked the 10 students in her “Thinking Gender” seminar to give feedback on the Fall 2016 draft of the curriculum. A 35-minute discussion followed, and Hasso provided notes of it to the IDC committee and presented it to the Arts and Sciences Council.

Hasso said that she sought her students’ opinions because they are “key people to ask about what works and doesn’t work in the curriculum.” Her students did not like the “The Duke Experience” and removal of the foreign language requirement, but did not consider the mentored-scholarly experience to be an issue. “The Duke Experience” is not in the current draft, and a reduced form of the foreign language requirement has been reintroduced.

Sophomore Evan Morgan said that his Italian professor once opened class with a discussion on the curriculum, but said that the languages faculty he talks to “don’t seem to have a particularly strong voice in this affair.”

First-year Valedie Oray attended a Duke Conversations event in October on the curriculum hosted by Clark Bray, associate professor of the practice of mathematics.

“I really like the idea that faculty was directly involved in talking with students in a more informal setting, which I thought was really cool,” she said.

Oray added that she liked the "Focused Inquiries" aspect of the current proposal because it pushes students to explore a field outside of their professional interests, but said that too much focus on the liberal arts aspect of the curriculum may take away from students’ exploring their passions.

“So this Duke Conversation that we had—it was such a fire conversation—everybody was so passionate about it. But what everybody agreed on is that a liberal arts education is important, but at the end of the day you have to take classes that will be helpful towards your future,” she said.

Moving forward

Kadakia noted that the work of collecting student input is not over.

“We will start doing a second round of feedback and town halls about what the implementation of this curriculum is going to look like,” Kadakia said.

He noted that DSG’s outreach efforts going into the implementation phase may include a “listening tour," involving going to various major unions’ meetings, authoring an op-ed in The Chronicle and hosting more strategically-diversified town halls.

Before they can begin soliciting opinions on the implementation phase, however, the faculty will vote on whether or not to approve the curriculum in March or April.

“This debate is occurring in the Trinity Arts and Sciences Council because the faculty handbook says we are in charge of undergraduate curriculum—that is a crucial piece of our faculty governance responsibilities,” Hasso said.

Becker noted that, although she wanted increased student input, the final product is a faculty decision.

“Ultimately, it shouldn’t be the students’ decision—it’s clearly up to the faculty and the institution to decide what the requirements for earning a degree from that institution should be," she wrote. "With that being said, I think students have enormous wisdom to offer, and their many concerns should not be discounted.”

First-year David Frisch expressed similar sentiments about the overarching role of faculty in the process.

“To me, students should have a little bit of say,” he said. “But it also seems to me that if we knew everything we needed to learn, we could buy a four-year library membership and save the $300,000 of tuition.”

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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