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Arts and Sciences Council discusses changes to interdepartmental majors, introductory courses

Arts and Sciences Council discussed expanding the origins of interdepartmental majors and the importance of introductory courses at a Thursday meeting.

Interdepartmental majors revision

Previously, interdepartmental majors consisted only of student-initiated degrees that combined parts of the curriculum from two pre-existing majors. IDM requirements were determined by the student in conjunction with advisers in both departments, and the director of undergraduate studies for each department would evaluate and sign off on these requirements. 

The proposed change at the meeting was to add a department-originated IDM, whereby two separate departments could propose an major. The requirements for these majors would be publicly advertised, and any student would be able to declare a department-originated IDM. Moreover, students, administrators and faculty could track the progress of these requirements through the advisement report just like any other existing major at Duke.

The IDM revision passed nearly unanimously, with only one abstention.

Enhancing student introductions 

Trinity College Dean Valerie Ashby also provided an update on an ongoing effort to enhance students’ first exposures to any given discipline in Trinity College. She first introduced the idea during the Sept. 15 Council meeting.

She told department chairs to consider questions like, ‘How are our students being introduced into our fields, into our disciplines?’ and ‘What is that experience for them in the classroom?’

Ashby reflected on how she was “energized” by one particular statement from one of the faculty who was assigned to brainstorm methods of improving introductory courses.

“I heard this statement that was sent to me, that I quote over and over again—‘When we think about what we want to do here, if this is the only course that a student takes in your discipline, is that the experience you want to have left with them about what it is that you do?’” she said.

Ashby explained that she sent a letter out to the department chairs on Jan. 23 asking if they would consider designating a liaison in their department to Arlie Petters, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College and associate vice provost for undergraduate education.

She announced that by April 1, she had received drafts of ideas from 35 of the 40 Trinity departments and units. 

Some of the ideas included creating more obvious pathways into the discipline, improving the quality of teaching assistants and redesigning gateway or entry-level courses altogether, Ashby explained. She added that since the majority of Duke students are not going to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor, it is equally important to realize that students will be taking many different pathways in the world.

“There’s no idea you’re going to come up with here that we’re not going to get excited about," she said. "So [brainstorming] is what we want you to continue to do.”

Teaching for Equity

Emily Stewart—a co-founder of the Teaching For Equity Fellowship—then discussed the role of her organization on campus. 

She explained that Teaching for Equity provides Duke faculty with an opportunity to learn and practice strategies that better engage all students in classrooms, labs and learning spaces. She added that faculty in the program delve into culturally relevant teachings and look at how they can deepen and build on students’ prior knowledge, practice theory teaching approaches and understand institutional aspects of the profession. 

Stewart highlighted some of the psychological dilemmas often faced by students of color on Duke’s campus.

“Many students don’t feel like they belong here, even though they worked incredibly hard to get to Duke and were strongly recruited,” she said. “Their fellow students think they were accepted due to affirmative action, and so they begin to question their own abilities.” 

She added that students of color are often directly asked to answer questions about their personal experiences for the benefits of helping white students understand, whereas white students aren’t asked to do the same.

In some cases, it has been particular departmental faculty members’ failures to address sexist and racist comments in the classroom or to speak up when other students provide misinformation that have incited students of color to change their majors.

Teaching for Equity, Stewart explained, was developed after the noose incident on Duke’s campus in 2015 when students were asking that faculty and staff educate themselves about how systemic racism operates at the institution and in the classroom.

She encouraged council members to grasp the importance of the program in light of the 2015 noose incident and in light of the fact that the classroom populations at Duke are only becoming more and more diverse.

“[Students] were asking us to make Duke a place for all students’ pride and benefit. This is important feedback for all of us as educators, and this program is just one opportunity to build awareness and help us work toward that goal,” she said.

Introduction of a new chair

Layton expressed her gratitude toward the Council for all that she learned over her tenure as council chair, before introducing José María Rodríguez-García, associate professor of romance studies, as the new chair for the 2018-2019 school year.

Rodríguez-García explained that during his time, he hopes to recruit larger numbers of the faculty body to serve on committees of Arts and Sciences Council and that he plans to revise some of the committees in order to help make that happen.

“I would like to call upon all of you to fill seats in these committees in order to generate as many ideas as possible,” he said.


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