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Bridging classrooms and communities: Intellectual engagement at Duke

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This year, Duke Student Government (DSG) began the Student Leader Steering Committee, in the hopes of harmonizing student priorities with administrator work streams to improve the undergraduate experience. Our monthly meetings have convened students from different pockets of campus for a conversation with a senior university leader around a big-picture issue facing Duke—from construction, to classrooms, to curriculum. These discussions have been open forums for student concerns and incubators for ideas of how to change our university for the better—from giving students the opportunity to design Duke’s next dorm to responding to undergraduate feedback about how to improve the dining experience.

Our meeting for this month fell right before the midway point of the semester—a time of seemingly life-defining decisions—what major to declare, what housing to select, whether to go abroad or not. The Duke experience seems to be an endless series of value choices—between classes and clubs, seminars and talks, parties and Netflix. As we fight through the never-ending season of midterms, our day-to-day decisions can feel disconnected from the sense of purpose and passion that brought us to Duke in the first place. Thus, for our March steering committee meeting, we tried to unpack what authentic learning really looks like in a conversation with student leaders and Provost Kornbluth about intellectual engagement on campus.

“Exploration” is almost too easy at Duke. The university has invested heavily in flagship academic programs such as FOCUS, DukeEngage and Bass Connections which provide undergraduate students tremendous opportunities to get involved, step outside of their comfort zone and develop a global perspective. But what our committee overwhelmingly noted was how siloed those experiences were from the social culture at Duke. Academics is thought of in terms of classrooms, not communities. Engagement is viewed through the lens of coursework, not conversation. Discovery is pursued based on convention, not self-creation. These candid remarks from student leaders started a discussion about how we could work to shift campus culture—to encourage students to engage, dive deep and connect with one another over the passions that brought them to this community in the first place. Reflecting on these issues, we offer the following recommendations.

First, we must rethink faculty engagement. The faculty-in-residence (FIR) program is special for its role in making faculty feel like family and helping students develop personal relationships with their professors. Yet the experience is exclusive to freshman—only a single FIR exists on West Campus. As Duke works to renovate old dorms (Crowell) and design new ones (the Hollows), we strongly advocate for creation of spaces for faculty residents and the recruitment of new FIRs as a means of building community among students and with teachers. The FIR program is valuable because it humanizes faculty. It shows students their professors in a different light; a reminder that we are all citizens on this campus. Developing programs with the same goal and function would greatly enhance the undergraduate experience—from sponsoring “faculty storytelling” to learn about professors’ personal stories, to connecting upperclassmen dorms with faculty sponsors (similar to the LLC) for regular programming, to starting a faculty table at Marketplace to engage students in casual conversation. It’s our hope that greater investment in personal relationships will strengthen student support networks on campus.

Second, we should institutionalize academic programming at Duke. There’s an overabundance of speakers and seminars, but most events are niche and lack a common thread. We believe that consolidating resources and investing in programs that take place in under-utilized public spaces (the BC Landing, Penn Pavilion) offer an opportunity for larger gatherings of the Duke community. Creating consistent programming such as a “Common Hour” once a week, where students can convene on campus in a central location for a public event—whether it’s a slam poetry competition, or a debate between professors and their students—could serve as a regular meeting place that breaks down the barriers between the academic and the social. Importantly, the success of such a venture requires both institutional support and student buy-in. From the administrative level, we recommend dedicating specific staff and resources focused on designing and implementing such programs, similar to the operating model of Duke’s Artstigators. From the student body, we ask that student leaders step up from all groups—from majors and unions to fraternities, from identity groups to sports teams—and encourage their peers to be comfortable enough to break free of insularity in the pursuit of solidarity by co-sponsoring events with untraditional partners.

And finally, as we try to connect students with each other, we also hope to better connect students with their interests. It’s easy at Duke to follow the well-trodden path. Pre-meds can look forward to a 30-point email from the Health Professions Office once a week about due dates and deadlines to start checking the box of their medical school applications from day one at Duke. The Career Center makes it so easy to fit the mold of consulting and finance, with resources on resume format, cover letter writing, case prep and alumni interviews. Yet despite hearing from administrators and faculty members about the need to “explore” and “follow our passions," the resources to do so—to pursue work with non-profits or take jobs in public service, for example—are severely limited in comparison to the mainstream opportunities. We advocate for Career Services to shift its focus from vocations to avocations, working to develop the capacity and bandwidth to facilitate opportunities beyond the norm by creating more fellowships for students to take unpaid internships and having clearer application processes for non-traditional jobs (start-ups, entrepreneurship, etc.). After all, we go to Duke—and we should not use our four years in the wonderland as incubation for a lifetime in the conventional.

Of course, we recognize that changing campus culture is not easy—it can’t be written into a policy, featured in a brochure or delivered in a lecture. But the true barrier to change is ourselves. If we want to improve Duke, we have to work together from the bottom-up to bring together communities, put ideas into practice and take ownership of our Duke experience. We hope you’ll join us as we work to turn conversations into change.


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