Under the Gargoyle


by Robert J. Bliwise

      When Broadway producer Manny Azenberg comes to campus, he's not usually in a dinner setting with fifteen freshmen. But at semester's end, Azenberg was center stage in the East Campus Union, helping himself to some potato chips from the plate of a nearby student and serving up ideas about the distressing economics of New York theater, the power of serendipity in shaping careers, and the importance of devoting yourself to something that engages you joyfully.

      Azenberg appeared for an eat-and-meet gathering of arts-interested freshmen who spent their first semester, in Duke parlance, "Focused." Students in a particular Focus program live in the same dorm and take many of their classes together. One of those classes meets over weekly dinners; the arts group chewed on themes ranging from the future of federal arts funding to the future of swing dance. In fact, Focus celebrates the unconventional: As the culminating project for a course on theater and movement, the arts students performed around campus in "Forum Theater," which encourages observers--in this case, curious quad bystanders --to step in, assume the role of an actor, and redirect the action.

      This year, almost a fifth of the freshman class was Focus-involved. The first-semester freshman Focus program had its origins more than two decades ago. Meant as an experiment in interdisciplinary course-taking, that earlier program was offered to students in the Baldwin Federation, a cluster of East Campus dorms. It wasn't, at first, pitched to freshmen. The program called itself "Twentieth-Century America"; it brought together students who followed a core of courses in history, political science, sociology, religion, and American literature.

      "Twentieth-Century America" continues --now as one of ten Focus programs--under the long-time leadership of history professor Richard Watson. "That buzzword Ôinterdisciplinary' is variously interpreted and variously carried out," Watson says. "But the idea is that a number of different students, usually a maximum of thirty, will be looking at a general subject from different perspectives."

      And they may see campus life from the perspective of academic immersion: Students find that Focus is tougher than the typical first-semester experience, Watson says. In last semester's modern American history course for Focus freshmen, he assigned eight papers, including a long research paper, and a hefty reading load in books and journals.

      Having endured Duke's admission process, freshmen submit themselves to another screening to be admitted to the program. Once Focused, they are far removed from the large survey classes that often characterize the initial plunge into college life. The "Structure in Nature and Human Designs" Focus has "a strong experiential component" in all three of its courses, says its director, zoologist Steven Wainwright. Wainwright's course on the biology of natural and human-made structures included hands-on work with structures ranging from molecules to machines. Mechanical engineering and material sciences professor George Pearsall, in his course on structure and engineering failures, had students experimenting in a testing lab as well as thinking through case studies. Sculptor William Noland involved students in studio projects.

      Wainwright structured a startlingly wide array of out-of-class experiences: some time in the Bio-Design Studio, one of his own endeavors, which he calls "the only art studio in an academic science department in the world"; a session on making and throwing boomerangs, which allowed students "to feel the interaction of the structure of their own bodies with the Ôboom' and its aerodynamic flight"; a visit to the Durham Brazing & Welding Company, "where all machines date from World War II and earlier--so do all four employees"; practice in charting from place to place the shifting "microflows" of New Hope Creek; and an exercise in spiritual control with a Tai Chi master.

      "The value to students is the thought-provoking juxtaposition of all these ideas using physical structure as a line of continuity," Wainwright says. "Also, in the three classes, they are learning that tactile and kinesthetic experience enhances learning in general."

      One of the programs that went far afield is "Medieval and Renaissance Studies," which spent a weekend in New York City. A sampling of the sprawling Metropolitan Museum began with an expert's account of how technical and interpretive skills were brought to bear in restoring a painting. A visit to the Pierpont Morgan Library took in medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts and printed books. But the main focus for the Focus group was the Cloisters Museum, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River. The Cloisters evokes the style of medieval architecture, including monastic cloisters and a chapter house. It has a collection of extraordinary breadth--illuminated prayer books, liturgical objects, fresco paintings, stained glass, sculpture, a treasury of precious metals and jewelry, a tapestry series depicting the hunt of the unicorn, and one of the earliest known complete sets of playing cards.

      Before the trip, students acquainted themselves with the layout and holdings of the Cloisters. Once there, they chose a particular object to write about, considering the formal elements and the effect on the viewer. The idea was to sharpen their adeptness at visual analysis, along with their understanding of the importance of historical context.

      In an e-mail message after the trip, a Focus student whose home is near New York said she didn't think another visit to the Cloisters would mean much to her. "Of course, I was wrong. In previous visits, I had noticed the picture on the wall or the sculpture in the corner, glanced quickly at a date or name, and moved on. This time, however, something compelled me to take a closer look, to try to understand the form and context of the works, to see into the artist's mind." In the electronically-transmitted words of another student: "This was my first trip to New York, my first flight, and, most importantly, the first school-related trip that I have ever thoroughly enjoyed....It was not merely observing the works themselves, but watching others' reactions to those works that really inspired me."

      Inspired by the aims of Focus, historian Sy Mauskopf agreed to oversee the array of programs "with some trepidation," in light of considerable teaching and research obligations. Now in his thirty-second year at Duke, he says he has never been busier--and that he has never been happier. Mauskopf teaches in the "Science, Technology, and Society" Focus. His Focus freshmen had their own field trip, to Glaxo-Wellcome in the Research Triangle Park, where they met with pharmacologist and Nobel Laureate Gertrude Elion. Focus, he says, "is the most exciting curricular development at Duke."

      Mauskopf compares Focus to an honors program. For the faculty, he says, "it is a very labor-intensive kind of teaching"; for students, it's an eye-opening opportunity to "see patterns, connections, maybe discords between what goes on in one course and another."

      It's also a remarkable "bonding" opportunity on many levels: Focus students get to know their peers as class-taking colleagues, dorm-mates, fellow diners, and, especially for the arts group, partners in such organized campus activities as theater productions. In a semester-long electronic discussion group, "Arts in Contemporary Society" Focus students shared their favorite poems--surely among the most intimate sharing experiences. For their part, Focus faculty typically take the barrier-breaking step of encouraging students to call them by their first names. One instructor talks about reading through the final set of papers in terms of separation anxiety: She was so hesitant to let go of the group that she found herself, at semester's end, a reluctant reader.

      Helen Solterer, Romance studies professor and "Medieval and Renaissance Studies" director, sees her Focus freshmen as unusually open to intellectual challenge. They "have a sense of risk taking," says Solterer. "They are not yet professionalized or terrorized by requirements of various sorts, and they are ready to be surprised." She says the team-minded teaching demanded of Focus faculty sparks intellectual excitement--not just between students and professors, but among faculty colleagues. Her program draws on experts in art, literature, and history.

      Another Focus, "Exploring the Mind," was, appropriately, especially mindful of the intellectual energy that comes from making connections among different disciplines. Last semester, the director, Gillian Einstein, drew on professors in philosophy, anthropology, and linguistics, as well as her own field, neurobiology. Her Focus faculty offered their own disciplinary insights on language, consciousness, and other topics, and covered those common topics at roughly the same point in the semester.

      The hope is, of course, that students' engagement with learning will blossom in other contexts. Focus is already serving as a model for a new senior "capstone" seminar. "Mind and the Brain," a spinoff of the "Exploring the Mind" Focus program, will be team-taught this spring by Einstein and Owen Flanagan, head of the philosophy department. Einstein says she would "like to expand the horizons of students who have narrowed themselves into their specific disciplines over the years." Administrators say that a full-fledged series of capstone courses might restore the intellectual drive in those seniors who regard the final semester as more a coast than a challenge.

      On a campus that seems to revel in arguing about the depth of student intellectualism--and even the definition of student intellectualism--Focus is celebrated as an entry point to the world of ideas. Students' "close interaction with the faculty gives them a different outlook on their college experience," says religion professor Thomas McCollough, who teaches in "Twentieth-Century America."

      "It emboldens them to venture out in taking the initiative, to raise questions and make suggestions, or simply to talk informally with their professors. Their interest in ideas, their zest for critical investigation, their no-holds-barred interaction with their peers in talking about their subject matter--this is, in microcosm, really the university as we idealize it."

Editor Bliwise taught in last semester's "Arts in Contemporary Society" Focus program.

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