Why Are We Here? Transcripts and Lifescripts

Dr. David Malone with Dean Gary G. Bennett
Dean Gary Bennett sits with David Malone at a student-centered conversation hosted by Duke Service-Learning. (Photos by Brenda Whiteman)

Duke Service-Learning recently hosted a student-centered conversation with Gary G. Bennett, dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Global Health, Medicine, and Nursing. A group of about 60 undergraduates gathered in an East Duke Building parlor speak with the dean and two dozen faculty and staff members about their purposes and experiences here at Duke. The conversation centered on the topic "Why Are We Here? Transcripts and Lifescripts."

The dean shared insights about the purposes of college — and faculty member Michael Klien of the Duke Dance Program; Katherine Jo of the Kenan Institute of Ethicsand Duke Program in Education postdoctoral associate Aaron Colston offered their thoughts. However, the majority of the 90-minute conversation centered around student voices, as they shared their perspectives on issues of deep concern to their experiences as Duke students. Several themes shaped the conversation.

The Themes

Theme 1: Stat or Story? Transcript or Lifescript? Aristotle or Astrophysics? Looking inward.

We all agree that college should be about finding your voice, discovering who you are, asking the big questions and creating your “the story of you." Yet, we all seem so busy all the time — and often we become driven to collect “stats” and credentials which we feel might distinguish our resumes from others. Michelle Obama in her book/film Becoming notes that students need to find “their story” not simply accumulate “stats.” What does it mean to be a story and not simply a collection of stats?  

Theme 2: Transformative vs. Transactional. Getting a life-changing education vs. performing school to prepare for future careers. Meaning-making Classes vs. Memorizing Classes. Looking Outward.

Duke is a place where many students have transformative life-changing learning experiences. In fact, the strategic plan of the university asserts that a primary goal of the University is “providing a transformative educational experience for all students.” Some form of the word transformative appears at least 12 times in the Duke strategic plan.

There is much to celebrate about a university that places the educational transformation of its students at its very center. Yet, some students say that their undergraduate classes are more transactional than transformational. Some students report that their general education requirements are just boxes to be checked. Some feel pushed to double major and earn a minor, too.

One student recently shared that while the first-year at Duke has transformational impacts, after year one, things seem to ramp up quickly as students scramble to find internships, figure out which student-led professional clubs to join, and engage in pre-professional coursework. How might we go about organizing the Duke experience to create more time and space for potentially transformative learning experiences, while also still doing what needs to be done to prepare for a career? Are both possible?

Theme 3: Social Emotional Learning and Well Being. Distress and Eustress. 

A little stress seems motivating. But when everything seems so high stakes and determinant on our future lives, it can become challenging to balance studying, sleep and a social life. One of the stories of Duke that students often share is that of those three things, you only get to pick two. Students report the need for more mentoring and stronger relationships with faculty — and are asking for more outreach and a greater sustained support from faculty, staff and peer mentors. Are we experiencing a “well-being” crisis?

The Conversation

David at the Dean's Talk
David Malone

Why are we here?  Professor of the Practice of Education David Malone introduced the session with reference to bell hooks and the memoir Becoming by Michelle Obama, as well as the former first lady's invitation for students to focus on finding their “stories” rather than focusing only on their “stats.” Dean Bennett began by sharing his own story as a first-year undergraduate at Morehouse College, including his involvement with a documentary by the BBC that focused on his achievements. In retrospect, he realized that he went to college to have an experience and not simply to accumulate stats. He sought to be comfortable in his identity. Bennett noted that when he speaks with others about their memories in college, they almost always mention the memories that they have with their friends, and they also mention that they wished that they had spent more time investing in curiosity and discovery.

Education is about becoming a person.  Schooling is more of a technical thing – about performing tasks to learn something very specific.  Why do we think of school as work, but social life as play?  Where is learning in that equation?  Just being curious and wondering about things?  - David Malone

The session was an invitation for students to share, discuss, and create their personal stories, rather than defining themselves by their stats. Students weighed sacrificing their well-being in order to maximize academic achievement. They discussed the pressure to achieve and to continue building their stats, including the pressures of applying to graduate school and medical school, and to find high paying jobs. The students reported feeling pressured to meet academic requirements, and they noted that by making something a requirement, the sense of wonder often disappears. Questions emerged: Are there ways to incentivize wonder and curiosity? Are following curiosity and passion signs of privilege?

Dean Bennett
Dean Gary G. Bennett

In closing, the dean encouraged students to take advantage of their time at Duke to immerse themselves in the intellectual wonders of this place. He mentioned a course that he took in comparative religions as an undergraduate that required him to read the Quran. One that changed everything, including the ways that he thinks about gender. One that he still thinks about all of the time. 

It changed everything. You can’t always know what’s going to happen. One thing that you can control is making an active, intentional decision to find your way into a class and just spend a minute immersing yourself in the wonders of this place.  - Dean Gary G. Bennett