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Retiring professors share thoughts on the '3 types of Duke students,' importance of the Dean’s List

Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, and David Malone, retiring professor of the practice of the program in education, thinks students are the mitochondria of the university. 

At this Thursday’s meeting of the Arts and Sciences Council, a new committee was introduced and professors discussed the issues and value of the Dean’s List. Additionally, three retiring professors shared insight from their decades of teaching, which included thoughts on pre-professionalism, the three types of students they’ve identified at Duke and how students are like mitochondria.

CUT: Dean’s List and personal leave

The meeting began with the introduction of a new committee, the Committee on Undergraduate Teaching, Academic Standards and Honors (CUT) for the “enhancement of the teaching of undergraduates in Trinity College, with the enforcement of the highest academic standards in undergraduate teaching, and with the establishment and review of the standards for academic honors,” according to a slide at the meeting. 

CUT is chaired by Jakob Norberg, associate professor of Germanic languages and literature. The committee is small and features a voting member from several areas of Trinity College including natural sciences, economics and humanities. 

These departments are respectively represented by Julie Reynolds, associate professor of the practice of the department of biology, James Roberts—Fred W. Shaffer professor of economics—and Shai Ginsburg—associate professor in the department of Asian and middle eastern studies. The committee will feature sophomore Meghna Mahadevan, who was nominated by Duke Student Government. 

Norberg discussed the controversy over the Dean’s List and how CUT would deal with these types of issues moving forward. This controversy began when Economics 101 changed from a graded class to pass-fail in Fall 2019. Since students need to be taking 4 courses for a grade to qualify for the Dean’s List and first-year students cannot take more than 4.5 credits in the fall, these students could not be on the Dean’s List.

This controversy led to discussions over the weight of the Dean’s List. 

“People care about academic excellence, they care about GPA, they are not interested in the Dean’s List,” Norberg concluded, after talking to faculty and advisors in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. “However, pre-med advisers often use references to the Dean’s List in their recommendation letters.” 

He found there was no data about what students thought about the Dean’s List so he could not decisively evaluate how much students cared about it. Malone, along with Sherryl Broverman—associate professor of the practice of biology and global health—speculated on if getting rid of the Dean’s List for first-years would allow for more academic exploration with less anxiety over grade performance. 

Norberg considered the stress students are under to have perfect grades, saying “Duke attracts those who are pre-professionally inclined.” Instead of “deprogramming” these driven students, he wants to encourage students to explore more and reduce stress. 

Norberg also mentioned the possibility of making a distinction between different types of personal leaves of absence. The current policy for personal leave is that students who take a personal leave are not allowed to step onto campus for whatever reason. However, Norberg is considering re-evaluating this policy and distinguishing between academic and other types of personal leave. 

He considered if students on academic personal leaves, such as internships and research, should be permitted to return to campus because they would be of some academic value even if they are on personal leave, Norberg said.

The council did not discuss alterations to the personal leave policy for other reasons of absence, such as mental health leave.

CUT also considered re-evaluating the academic dismissal policy. Currently, those who are suspended twice cannot re-enroll until five years after the date of the second suspension. 

“We are considering a change to this policy,” Norberg said. 

'The three types of Duke students'

Malone, faculty director of Duke Service-Learning, who has taught here since 1973, considered the two key responsibilities of the University to be generating new knowledge and supporting students in their academic growth. 

From his years of teaching, Malone hypothesized that there are three types of students: The Deeply Invested, The Buds to Blossom and The Hard Nuts to Crack. 

The Deeply Invested are those “intrinsically motivated to learn for learning’s sake” who love to learn and engage with work regardless of GPA or career goals. The Buds to Blossom arrive on campus unsure of their purpose: “unsure yet open.” These Buds are influenced by “campus culture and messaging” and yearn to find their direction. The Hard Nuts to Crack see their education as a means to the end of a prestigious career and are “extrinsically motivated by grades and future rewards.”

He passed around pink slips to everyone in the room and asked them to “think, pair, share” to consider the percentage of students that fall into these categories. After five minutes, the consensus in the room was that 20% are The Deeply Invested, 50% are The Buds to Blossom and 30% are The Hard Nuts to Crack. He anticipated that this may vary by department, but generalized that students are, as a whole, too scheduled and too busy. 

Malone shared advice he got a long time ago on campus regarding scholarship, that “students aren’t an interruption of our work, they are our work.” He disagreed with an idea he heard in the past from fellow faculty that Duke doesn’t have the right students, and that the admissions process needs to be altered to foster a student body with more engagement. 

Instead, he argued that even in scholarship, students give a lens to professors.

“Students are mitochondria because they are like the energy and currency of the cell that is the University,” Malone said.

'Put students first!'

Associate Professor of Chemistry Richard MacPhail summed up his time on campus since 1984 with the advice to “put students first!”

He said that “worries about credentialism and pre-professionalism may be overblown” for chemistry students, who often need to shadow professionals and do research to fulfill their academic trajectory and explore their interest in chemistry. 

In terms of issues with Duke, he expressed his increasing concern with the mental health and wellness of students, which he has felt has become increasingly worrisome in his 36 years at Duke. 

“It’s something that we have to contend with,” he said.

He also discussed the issue of students who are first-generation college students or come from less advantaged backgrounds and the struggles they face coming to college, such as feeling unsupported.

'Our daily life'

Mary “Tolly” Boatwright, professor and director of undergraduate studies for classical studies, has taught and advised undergraduates for 41 years. She first arrived at Duke in 1979 and said Duke’s main constants are the caliber of the students and faculty and the dedication that professors have to students, research and service. 

Sharing advice to other professors, she wrote and displayed, “Academia is not (only) research & teaching—it’s our daily life.” 

She shared how the student body has evolved and become more diverse since she first began teaching at Duke.

She considered the idea that the humanities are declining while STEM courses become more popular. She noted the smaller class sizes now and felt this helps her get to know students better.

“Don’t let someone asking for an A- instead of a B+ keep you up at night,” she said.

Paige Carlisle

Paige Carlisle is a Trinity senior and a staff reporter for The Chronicle.


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