Faculty optimistic about new Trinity curriculum's focus on humanities, divided on enrollment impact

As enrollment in the humanities continues to decline nationwide, Duke's latest curriculum proposal may buck against the national trend.

The Trinity Curriculum Development Committee recently submitted its final report to revamp the existing curriculum. The proposal involves several changes, including increasing the minimum potential number of foreign language requirements from one to two, mandating that first-years take related courses in a “constellation” and offering class clusters called “century courses.”

Perhaps most notably, the proposed curriculum would remove the Modes of Inquiry graduation requirements and add an additional humanities distribution requirement. 

Duke students and faculty have previously expressed concerns about the prioritization of STEM over the humanities, pointing to declining enrollment in the humanities over the past decade and the fact that none of the University’s top five majors in 2022 belonged in the field.

The new proposal includes six distributional requirements: Investigating the Natural World (NW), Quantitative and Computational Reasoning (QC), Social and Behavioral Analysis (SB), Exploring Civilizations and Cultures (CC), Understanding Human Expression (HE) and Creating and Experiencing Arts (CE). 

The first four requirements are roughly equivalent to current Areas of Knowledge categories, while the last two requirements split the current Arts, Literature, and Performance (ALP) requirement.

“The current ALP category is so broad that it basically combines both the arts and humanities, and we thought it was important to have those as separate because each contributes to a student's education,” explained Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience and chair of the TCDC. 

Huettel explained that having a broad liberal arts education is key to “epistemic humility,” defined in the curriculum proposal as “recognizing the limitations of one’s own knowledge, engaging with others’ viewpoints and considering multiple disciplinary perspectives.” 

Students are currently required to complete two courses in each category. For courses with two distribution codes, only one can count toward their graduation requirements. 

Distribution requirements in up to two categories can be fulfilled by taking a century course, which fulfills a distribution area with one course instead of two. 

The Arts and Sciences Council is expected to vote on the new curriculum in April. If approved, the curriculum will go into effect for Trinity students matriculating in 2025. 

Professors optimistic

Several professors in the humanities prefer the new curriculum's distribution requirements over those from the current model. 

Anthony Kelley, professor of the practice of music, believes the increased number of arts and humanities distribution requirements will benefit students. 

“Creativity is the equivalent of a muscle that needs to be conditioned regularly — you can't just turn it on and turn it off,” Kelley said. “The practice of creativity, practice of artistic practice, practice of the performative nature of creativity — all of those are going to be significant enhancements to our graduates by the time they've passed through this curriculum.” 

Kelley hopes awarding class credit for arts courses instead of labeling them electives will transform the perception of the arts into a serious pursuit as opposed to a “side hobby.” 

However, the new distribution requirements may not be enough to change Duke’s culture around major distribution.

Marc Brettler, Bernice and Morton Lerner distinguished professor in Judaic studies, hopes that departments can build upon the new curriculum to improve the visibility of the humanities and educate students about potential career prospects. Brettler noted that studies show humanities majors have similar earning power to STEM field graduates over time and express similar satisfaction with their post-graduation life to college graduates in other majors. 

Associate Professor of English Kathy Psomiades believes the new curriculum reinforces the notion that students should be exposed to a diverse set of perspectives and disciplines to shape their worldview.

Increasing humanities enrollments

Although the new curriculum requires students to complete more arts and humanities requirements, professors are skeptical that the new curriculum will increase the number of humanities majors.

“I have been through a lot of institutional change, and one thing I have learned is that it is not predictable,” Psomiades said. “My suspicion is it's not going to be hugely different.” 

Psomiades observed that many students already take more than the required two ALP-coded courses out of interest, and it is difficult to predict what effect scrapping Modes of Inquiry might have on the number of classes students take to fulfill distribution requirements.

Brettler was also reluctant to predict how the new curriculum would affect his department.

“I teach prophecy, but I’m not a prophet,” Brettler quipped. “The hope is that, given how well the humanities are taught at Duke, that more exposure to the humanities will lead more students to take courses in the humanities.” 

Other professors were more optimistic. Paul Jaskot, professor of art, art history and visual studies, hopes that the new curriculum will allow students to branch out earlier, leading to more students declaring minors and majors in the humanities. In the music department, Kelley anticipates a slow growth in enrollments as the arts gain more visibility. 

According to Huettel, increasing enrollments in the humanities is not a main priority of the new curriculum, which instead seeks to reflect the “space of the full liberal arts.”

“We never once considered class enrollments in any discussion over two years,” Huettel said. 

If the new curriculum does increase humanities enrollments, Psomiades, Brettler and Kelley feel confident that their departments could support modest increases. However, Brettler and Kelley noted that they may require more resources if enrollment increases significantly. 

For his part, Jaskot said that if enrollment in the art, art history and visual studies department increases from the current 20% to 25% or more, the department would ask for more faculty and studio space. 

Jaskot’s department is already stretched thin in some areas as enrollments in subjects like cinematic arts have exploded, and he has pressed Duke administration for more support. 

“The administration hates me because I'm always asking for something,” Jaskot joked. 

Mixed student reactions

While professors in the humanities are largely optimistic about the proposal, some students think the new distribution requirements are too onerous. 

“I think there are in fact enough arts and humanities requirements between ALPs and CCs,” said junior Devesh Shah, a pre-med student majoring in neuroscience. “There are ample opportunities for first-years and undergrads in general to explore the humanities without it being overwhelming.”

Anticipating pushback from STEM students, Owen Astrachan, professor of the practice of computer science and a member of the TCDC, noted that the new distribution requirements should not be overwhelming.

“They’re STEM people, they can do the math. Two out of 34, three out of 34, or four out of 34? That’s really not that many,” he noted. 

Shah believes the humanities are not adequately supported at Duke and would prefer that the University support the humanities by providing “optional ways to engage,” including increased funding and advertising for humanities clubs and events, rather than changing the distribution requirements. He pointed to Duke’s changes to the Thompson Writing Program faculty in the 2021-22 academic year and small-scale arts events’ lack of visibility compared to STEM opportunities. 

First-year Natalia Harnisch, a prospective English major, felt similarly, pointing out that STEM buildings like Wilkinson are much better quality than humanities buildings.

Meanwhile, senior Emma Williams, a global cultural studies major and English and philosophy minor, is optimistic about the proposal. 

Williams believes engagement in the humanities “deconstruct[s] the barrier” between the real world and abstract thinking, influencing how people absorb media and encouraging them to be more curious. 

For Harnisch, the humanities are about learning communication skills, exploring one’s identity and connecting with people on a deeper level. 

“We're seeing this trend across the country right now of colleges actually reducing their humanities requirements,” Williams said. “And so, that's actually an encouraging sign to me that Duke would choose to go in a different direction.”

Zoe Spicer profile
Zoe Spicer | Staff Reporter

Zoe Spicer is a Trinity junior and a features managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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