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Trinity Dean Valerie Ashby discusses changes to introductory courses

Valerie Ashby, dean of Duke's Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, spoke to the Arts and Sciences Council Thursday at its last meeting of the semester. 

Curriculum changes stalled 

In April 2017, the Arts and Sciences Council decided against a proposed overhaul of the Trinity curriculum. 

Beginning last January, the Council began exploring ways to improve students’ introduction to the disciplines, Ashby said. Each department assigned liaisons to come up with feedback and ideas on how to best engage undergraduates with their curriculums. 

“The fact that all of the units responded was tremendous,” Ashby said. “I just wanted everybody to try, and everybody did.” 

Arlie Petters, dean of Academic Affairs of Trinity College, spoke to the Council alongside Ashby. His office took the 44 submitted recommendations from the faculty of each department and segmented them into three categories based on what the status of the ideas were: green, yellow or red. The nine groups—including computer science, classical studies and psychology and neuroscience—in the green segment had already started implementing their ideas.

The proposals: how to maintain consistent quality

“It’s everything that you can imagine that enhances the undergraduate experience as they are being introduced to your discipline,” Ashby said. “For some departments, it’s about how they are teaching. For some departments, it’s about what they are teaching. We’re leaving that to you.”

She explained that for some departments that teach a large number of first-year students, the questions are about how to teach the material and how to maintain a high standard across thousands of students. Some departments are focusing on improving graduate teaching assistants’ ability to teach. For example, in mathematics, professors grade much higher on course evaluations than graduate teaching assistants. 

“I want consistent excellence,” Ashby said. “That’s my goal.”

Other departments are rethinking how to present their curriculums. Ashby pointed out that the Department of Classical Studies is focusing how they describe what they are teaching to make it more engaging for the students. 

“This is not about decreasing rigor to make things fun,” the dean said. “This is about what is the most engaging way to introduce a student into your discipline.” 

In other business: What's Duke's worst classroom?

The ad-hoc Classroom Space/Infrastructure Committee reported back the information it had collected from a faculty survey about issues with the classrooms. The issues faculty cited ranged from a lack of markers and chalk to furniture complaints. 

The three worst classrooms, according to the survey? Gray Building Room 228, Languages Building Room 320 and—the "winner"—Social Sciences Building Room 136.


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