Duke University Alumni Magazine

The Real Duke

by Roger Corless

    hy would you want to go and do a thing like that?" my colleague asked incredulously; "you'll be kept up 'til all hours solving their problems!" "No," I replied, "we've been told specifically that we don't do that. In fact, not to be in charge of discipline and not to be amateur psychotherapists are the only definite things we've been told about our job. Otherwise, it's 'whatever.'"

         What could this job be, with no duties? Maybe I shouldn't tell you. Maybe "they" don't know that, at last, "they" have done something that places Duke dangerously close to becoming a real university, and if I spill the considerable beans, I will lose the job and be returned to caretaker duties at the Theme Park.

         So, what is this all about? It goes back fifteen years, when SHARE (standing for, I am told, Student Housing for Academic and Residential Experimentation, an acronym so bland and redundant that it must be a cover for something more risque) occupied Wilson House. Wilson House had a faculty apartment, a remnant of the time when it was in fact the Faculty Apartments Building. The faculty member was leaving, the SHARE living group was looking for a replacement, and they felt that I was, as we used to say back then, able to "dig their vibes." At that time Wilson House, like Epworth in later years, was regarded as a hippie hangout, the last refuge of the rabidly radical, a flophouse full of drug-crazed ne'er-do-wells who somehow managed to keep their GPAs high enough to remain at Duke. In short, it was more like the real world than the nervous, conservative kitsch that Duke so often presents as its public image.

         When I was being interviewed as the prospective faculty resident for this group, by some administrative body that is probably long gone, there was the expressed suspicion that

         I was being duped. "The students in Wilson House asked for you?" "Yes." "Well, Dr. Corless, do you know what goes on there?" "Oh," I blithely tossed off the implied vision of profligacy, "I've been a visiting professor at Berkeley. Wilson House seems quite ordinary to me." And so I was accepted.

         But it didn't work out. Another administrative body at Duke precipitously moved SHARE into Alspaugh, which, either having no faculty apartment or having a faculty apartment that contained a faculty member who was not about to move out (I forget which), could not accommodate me.

         Five years went by. SHARE members came and went, but the energy, or perhaps we can say the personality, of SHARE was cohesive enough to remain identifiable. And so it was that SHARE, by then housed in Epworth, asked for me again, for again it was losing its resident faculty member, and it still felt, after all these years of reputed wantonness, that I was their man. Again I was interviewed, and again I was accepted, but again it failed. Some other administrative body decided that the apartment was needed for an artist-in-residence, so a stranger was foisted on the Epworthy ones, and I, who had been evicted from Central Campus Apartments, moved into a house I was thus forced to buy.

         Another ten years passed. Again, SHARE was losing its resident faculty member, and again it asked for me. "No," I said flatly, "I have a house," regarding that as definitive. But there seemed to be, as we say, some part of "no" that they did not understand, for they countered with "We'll help you move." It's fate, I told myself; why not, it'll never happen anyway. Another interview, and then the "We'll call you" routine. And, lo! this time it worked, and here I am, officially ensconced in Epworth House with, as I mentioned, a lot of beans--something close to $9,000 a year in a tax-free bonus, I think--for I have no rent nor utilities to pay and I get 500 food points per semester (a food point is, for those who, not being students, don't know, a unit of currency equivalent to a U.S. dollar but it is non-negotiable and, like manna, it vanishes when the weather gets hot). And I have no defined duties, although it is expected that I will "hang out" with the students.

         Golly, what a revolutionary idea! A faculty member actually meeting students on their own ground! Without formal structures! One fears that real teaching and learning will occur. Not the so-called teaching of the classroom. Courses, based on lectures in classrooms, are all right in their way, but the universities which are oldest and have presumably amassed the most experience in teaching and learning, Oxford and Cambridge, for example, have never taken to them. At Oxbridge, a lecture is sort of a talking book (in truth, that's what the word literally means) and, like a book, is ancillary to the living, personal presence of the Tutor, the human being who is visibly wrestling with ideas, for whom ideas are never abstract, but palpable noetic entities, who is on the edge of new discoveries (and new disappointments), who at best is the embodiment of a discipline and at worst is a reminder that books are written by fallible humans.

         It is impossible to understand the quest for knowledge in the firm belief that there is something worthwhile to be found, the fides quaerens intellectum, if students and faculty only meet each other across the barrier of the podium. One never knows when an insight will show itself, so one must always be open to the possible, perhaps still more to the (apparently) impossible. At Epworth, this happens. The theme of the SHARE living group is Diversity. We are diverse in years, in disciplines, in gender and sexual orientation, in race, and (having just become handicapped accessible) in disabilities. In short, we are a university.

         What goes on here? There is a friendliness and a rapport between residents that is obvious but, to the despair of the census takers, unquantifiable. The architecture helps. Rather than the grim corridors and cramped "expanded triples" of the other dorms, Epworth, having been designed for a more leisured age when people traveled with trunks and expected rooms rather than cells, has wide halls and tall ceilings, and there are obvious places where people congregate, naturally, while they are on their way in or out. It is unpretentious, it has seen it all, it doesn't, unlike most of the Duke architecture, care what you think of it and try to look like something else. It is what it is, thank you very much.

         In these functionally funky spaces, people move about at all hours, conversing, playing board games, cooking and eating, and yes, studying. There is no great gulf between work and play, they seem to flow into each other. So, for example, I go down the hall to find someone who might know why I suddenly can't get on to my e-mail. After a few blank looks, one student, turning down his roommate's music, confidently asserts that the symptoms point to the server being down again. I goes down too often, I say, what's wrong? We bewail the inadequacies of computing services at Duke, and assess the advantages of setting up one's own server. Another student comes along and asks what we thought about the debate. "What debate?" questions a serenely apolitical student, unaware that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole have been exchanging views that could affect the future of the planet. The student who has watched the debate is shocked, and the discussion turns from computers to political activism. This gradually turns into campus politics, and the advantages and disadvantages of an all-first-year-student East Campus. This leads into an inquiry into human nature since, it is somewhat reluctantly agreed, first-year students are human. From there it is but a short jump to interrogating Ultimate Truth itself, especially as Mr. Clinton had taken it upon himself to claim that all religions are basically the same, which, on hearing, I howled in mock agony.

         Where are we? About six of us are sitting on the floor, in one of the wide corridors, arguing loudly (a nearby room door pointedly closes) and eating freshly made popcorn. It is nearly one in the morning. Oh, yes, I'm being kept up 'til all hours, solving the problems of the world. Suddenly, I realize, after twenty-six years here, I've become a teacher. This is the real Duke.    

Corless is a professor of religion. This essay first appeared, in somewhat different form, in the Duke "Faculty Newsletter."

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