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In dining and writing, keep Duke's variety alive

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Sorry kids -- that fine dining you have come to expect from WU is on its way OUT. Who cares if Duke dining is ranked number one? Everything is scrapped. Vegetarian? Better buck up! Vegan? Yeah, you are screwed. Carnivores, you aren’t immune either. Eat up now because next year Duke’s premier, highly touted dining program is being completely revamped. But fear not. We are sure the new one-entree-only approach is far superior to the current array of global, mouthwatering offerings that tempt palettes and lure kids into being well fed and social. We are very sorry we cannot share why we are making these changes - you just have to trust us that this is the right decision for all of you. Bon appetite you filthy animals! You may all eat cake, but only one kind, vanilla.  

Clearly Duke isn’t dismantling its wildly successful dining program. Fabulous local fare and a veritable smorgasbord of delights will be available daily. Instead, Duke is eviscerating its highly touted, wildly popular Thompson Writing Program (TWP), or the University Writing Course (UWC) as it was known back in my day. 

No “just kidding” is forthcoming. But don’t worry! The administration has been completely transparent and provided detailed justification for firing the current, multidisciplinary writing staff and turning the TWP into a pedestrian rhetoric and composition program. Not. Duke is sure the new non-tenure track, un-unionized and untested hires will be just as good as the tried, tested and beloved professors it currently employs. But why?

Thirty years ago, before the glorious heyday that is Duke dining today (think dry bagels and old coffee), the UWC was in its infancy, but it was still a wonderfully innovative writing program. Three days a week, at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. and armed only with said dry bagel and stale coffee, I left Southgate Dorm and headed to West Campus for my UWC class. As an overwhelmed, yet already very determined Math/Econ major, I figured I had made it to Duke, so clearly I could already write. I indifferently chose a UWC topic and prepared to endure drudgery. 

Instead, I fell in love with a leftist legend. My love affair, although unrequited, continues today. My UWC instructor assigned readings by luminaries like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Their politics, passion and in Chomsky’s case, a liberating lack of footnotes entranced me. My sheltered mind was blown wide open. Politics, Art History and Women’s Studies - oh my! They beckoned beguilingly to me, and I followed. 

Since then, my mind has remained receptive to new ideas, and I never dangle prepositions. The intertwined life skills of good writing and an open mind helped immeasurably when I earned a Masters in Art History from Williams College and even more so later in law school. I may even have snuck a little Noam into an opinion during my time clerking for The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. I think Duke students today deserve the same opportunity to engage with challenging subjects and pursue unexpected interests in their writing classes!

As a current Duke parent, I want our kids to enjoy both mind-blowing classes and fantastic food. And I’ve come to expect that Duke can deliver excellence on all fronts when it chooses to do so. So, imagine my surprise when I learned about the proposed changes to the TWP. Imagine my shock when I learned there is nothing official in writing justifying Duke’s decision to dismantle the TWP. Vague declarations about a new direction from TWP’s head and a passing nod to multi-modal writing from Vice President Kramer are insufficient. Quite simply, Duke’s lack of information leads me to speculate. Any ulterior motives for messing with the TWP must be refuted or put out in the open.

The Chronicle has been covering this issue. A rally was held supporting the current TWP faculty whose jobs are in jeopardy. Parents are writing to the administration and their kids are speaking out. I’ve collected story after story from current students who deeply value their disciplinary-rooted Writing 101 courses and the TWP faculty, just like I did all those years ago. I’ve sent these incredibly heartfelt and life-changing stories to Vice President Kramer with a copy of this letter. But my ballpoint pen needs some support. The fantastic faculty need support. The non-regular rank writing faculty are still in the dark about the future of the program, and negotiations with the administration have already begun. 

As an alumna, parent, and True Blue believer, I am asking the administration to do right by the faculty, do right for your students, do right for your institutional reputation and do better for the sake of our kids. Offer renewable contracts to the dedicated faculty members who are about to lose their jobs, and keep the writing program grounded in the multidisciplinary model that has served students so well. Duke didn’t become a premier academic institution by gutting the things that work. The TWP works well in its current form. 

Now kids, grab a poke bowl and a steaming ginger turmeric latte and start supporting this invaluable program, with its multidisciplinary writing courses and talented non-regular rank faculty. Demand transparency for those professors, act up and speak out. If you don’t, you deserve the old bagel and coffee Duke is trying to pass off as better fare. Do it for your professors and do it for yourselves. You all deserve better than this. Much better.

Anne Dowling is a member of the class of 1992. 

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