'An energy that makes other people interested': A look into Duke's undergraduate-taught house courses

The first Duke house course was offered during the 1967-68 academic year, according to a document from the University Archives. 

Over 50 years later, 23 house courses are on offer for fall of 2023, ranging from “Mad Studies" to “Creative Care in Healthcare," “Understanding Satire” and “Intro to Drug Development.”

House courses are now one-semester courses in Trinity College of Arts & Sciences that allow undergraduates to "develop their own ideas and skills" and "serve as a bridge between the academic and residential life." 

Although faculty members can also register to teach house courses, most instructors are undergraduates, and enrollment is capped at 18 students. The courses carry 0.5 credits graded satisfactory/unsatisfactory, meet once a week and are usually held in dorm common rooms on West Campus. 

Since student instructors create their own house course syllabi, courses are taught by those who are passionate about the topic. Instructors of house courses teach “what is not necessarily covered by the traditional offerings [of courses],” said junior Andrew Sun, co-instructor of the “Rhetoric Framing and Policy” house course.

Rhetoric Framing and Policy “grew out of [my friend] taking the American Grand Strategy seminar and feeling that it was lacking in other perspectives,” explained Thorin Chappel, a senior and the course’s other co-instructor.

“[My friend] and I had knowledge of different cultural traditions, and so we put that together into a supplemental course for people to take after they take the course in the department to get a broader angle,” Chappel added.

The nuts and bolts of operating a house course

While house courses often start as a passion project for student instructors, actually operating the course can be a lot of work.

At the beginning of each semester, instructors submit resumes, syllabi, required signatures and proof of instructor training for approval of the house course. All instructors who are undergraduate students need to have a faculty sponsor who acts as the official instructor of record for the course. First-time instructors also need to submit a letter of recommendation from their faculty sponsor. Duke Student Government recently added additional steps to the training process for student-instructors.

Besides some basic requirements that house courses need to meet, instructors can decide on the format of the class meetings, special events such as guest speakers and the amount of homework and reading.

Designing a house course to be effective can require a significant amount of the instructor’s behind-the-scenes time and energy. 

For instance, when preparing a discussion around a paper, “the difficult part has been going to that next level, spending another four or five hours to really tailor it to the students even after you've already mastered it,” Chappel said.

Sometimes, the fact that students are teaching other students can present its own challenges.

As a sophomore, Annika Aristimuno, instructor of the “Sensible Ethics” house course, is the same age or even younger than most of her students.

“That's probably something that house course instructors might struggle with,” Aristimuno said. “In college especially, it can be hard to take some of your peers seriously.”

But for Aristimuno, teaching a house course is not about “[standing] in front of the class and [bossing your students] around.” Instead, teaching a house course is about fostering a community of individuals interested in pursuing a topic deeply. 

“When you're passionate about something, it brings an energy that makes other people interested,” Aristimuno said.

While logistics can take time and energy, instructors say they enjoy great flexibility in exploring their interest fields, often with relevant experts and professionals. 

Aristimuno worked with Leah Torrey, Duke Chapel’s director of special initiatives, to design the first six weeks of her house, while Sun and Chappel invited Leonardo Williams, a City of Durham council member and current mayoral candidate, to give a guest presentation on policymaking.

“This is more work than I thought it would be. But it's good work,” Sun said, adding that this was his first semester teaching a house course. “You only really understand a topic when you know you can teach it … [it’s] very, very difficult.”

“I actually think, in that sense, the house course has taught me a lot more than a lot of my for-credit classes that I've taken at Duke,” he said.

The past and present of house courses

A 1980s house course guidance manual states that “the university, even the residential university, has long separated formal education from the informal education that takes place outside classroom, library and laboratory.”

Over 40 years later, that mission and purpose of being student-led learning opportunities that complement traditional course offerings remains the same, according to Heather Settle, the academic dean who directs house course operations.

Over the years, some house courses have become familiar, perennial offerings. Often, these house courses are tied to other student-run organizations, ensuring continuity of instruction as classes of students graduate from Duke.

For instance, the Duke Impact Investment Group runs a course called “Impact Investment.” Aristimuno’s Sensible Ethics is a part of the Ethics and Global Citizenship Living and Learning Community, and Sun and Chappel’s course connects with the Visions of Freedom LLC.

Classes like “Intro to Emergency Medicine” are not affiliated with any one student organization, but still are continuously offered, being passed on by students from one year to the next.

This type of class, referred to as “legacy courses” by Settle, gets taught “year after year after year” because “students involved in that are super excited about it.”

Before this semester, house course applications were reviewed by the academic dean’s office and were approved or denied based on whether the submitted syllabi followed fixed and rigid guidelines. For example, one previous syllabus requirement was to have weekly assignments of at least 50 pages of reading. 

However, Settle explained that starting in fall 2023, a committee of faculty members will directly be involved in reviewing house course syllabi, in order to evaluate proposals in the context of their fields.

When evaluating STEM classes, for instance, “there's somebody who has some knowledge of quantitative sciences who can look at this [syllabus] and say, ‘this is not 50 pages of reading, but it doesn't need to be,’” Settle said.

Settle took over the management of house courses two years ago, and she says that her vision extends beyond the approval process of courses. Settle hopes that house courses would be able to benefit from support funding or recognition systems, for example.

Ultimately, Settle wants to have the opportunity to build a community among house course instructors, all with the goal of reinforcing the project that sought to bring learning outside of the classroom in a formal way, and has now become a University community staple.

“That's basically what house courses are, fundamentally. They’re student initiatives. They come out of students’ interests in a particular topic and learning about it and sharing it with their peers,” she said.


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