Duke Kunshan University Welcomes First Undergraduate Class

On Monday, while Duke students in Durham were starting their first classes of the fall, Duke Kunshan University welcomed its first undergraduate class of 266 students from around the world. Twenty-two faculty, hired from a pool of over 1,300 applicants, began teaching in an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum. Over the past year they developed the curriculum, planned their courses, and crafted syllabi in a professional development fellowship supported by the Learning Innovation team and leadership from Duke Kunshan and Duke.

On Sunday evening, just prior to the first day of classes, Noah Pickus, Dean of Undergraduate Curricular Affairs and Faculty Development at Duke Kunshan University, wrote the following message to the faculty. We are sharing his note with the broader community in the hopes that it inspires our learning community on both sides of the Pacific and around the world.

There are opportunities for Duke faculty to teach at Duke Kunshan for 7 or 14 weeks. Please contact Noah Pickus if you are interested.

Dear Colleagues:

Well, we’re really going to do this. Tomorrow, we begin teaching in the first session of the first semester of the first year at DKU.

More than four years ago, twenty faculty gathered in a room at Duke and began imagining a curriculum. Two years ago, we consulted with colleagues at Wuhan and at leading universities in China and the US. A year ago, all of you came to DKU for the first time. Six months ago, we met in Durham to build our individual syllabi and to make connections across them. Now, tomorrow, we make it all real. We breathe life into the words that have stood in for the thing itself.

I’m thrilled that you’re the ones who will make it so. I hope you’ll soak up every moment of this distinctive enterprise. And I hope you’ll thank the many academic and administrative leaders and staff at DKU for their unstinting efforts to bring us to this place.

This past week, [Dean of Undergraduate Studies Marcia France, Professor James Miller, Professor Scott MacEachern] and I met with almost all of you about your first session course. They all look fabulous! Where else will first year students compare Genesis, Confucius, and Marbury v. Madison? Or contrast Ibn-Khaldhun, Xunzi, Marx, and Durkheim? In how many universities will students begin their studies by creating visualizations of what they mean by “home,” comparing ideals of love, marriage, and family in Eastern and Western societies, and considering the meaning of satyagraha (the quest for truth) as a form of activism? How many will begin by making their own documentaries, visiting Shanghai, debating the ethics of AI and of world poverty, plunging into Chinese and global environmental and health issues, starting their journeys into data sciences and statistics, and taking their core math and science courses as part of an integrated whole?

As we begin our journey together, I want to share some broad take-aways from these meetings and from multiple conversations over the last two weeks at DKU:

Flexibility: No plan survives its first encounter with reality. All the ideas we’ve had about how to teach a global student body in intensive seven week terms will be altered by the reality of doing so. We can expect a lot of learning by doing. Think of your syllabus as a road map: you know the destination and you have options along the way to alter how you get there.

Open Source: Keep track of the routes you take on your journey, including the unexpected cul-de-sacs and short-cuts. Let Marcia and me know what you are learning. We can take up issues as part of a weekly Curriculum and Pedagogy Implementation Working Group. And on October 12th, from 9am-12pm, we’ll hold an “open source” review workshop. We’ll look for common themes and lessons learned that can be applied as you wrap up Session One and begin Session Two. Please also send me your final syllabus and we will post it to a shared faculty site on Sakai.

Networks: Our curriculum operates as an integrated set of core courses, hybrid majors, and co-curricular experiences. This grid-like system gives it great strength, encouraging faculty and students to attend regularly to the interconnected nature of knowledge and problem-solving. But networks can go dark if a key node goes down or goes rogue. Unlike traditional curriculums that are built on departmental silos, every change in one part of our curriculum effects the entire curriculum.
For every idea you have about how to improve the curriculum and pedagogy in one area, pay equal attention to the impact your proposed change will have on the entire enterprise.

Expectations: The diversity of our student body means that we will learn a lot quickly about whether we are asking too much or too little of our students. Keep your eye on whether students are adjusting well to the reading load, discussion-oriented seminars, and analytical writing. At the same time, pay attention to whether all or some students need to be challenged further. You might, for instance, encourage advanced students to read additional materials based on your recommendations and to meet with you.

Teams: Many of you have included team projects as part of your active-learning approach to the classroom. The students will love these projects. These collaborative assignments are also a crucial way that the academic experience can contribute to genuine cross-cultural engagement. At the same time, group assignments can be notoriously difficult for students to navigate. In the mash-up culture in which they have been raised, the lines delineating creativity, borrowing, and innovation from stealing, cheating, and lack of integrity are anything but clear. The challenge is to establish clear expectations that encourage and promote teamwork while drawing lines when individual effort is needed.

Fridays: Perhaps the most unexplored part of our curriculum is how best to use Fridays without classes. We don’t want to overload Fridays and we need to be mindful of students’ obligations to other faculty on these days. Yet we also don’t want to establish a 3-day weekend culture. In addition to any formal field trips you’ve planned, think about how Fridays can show that intellectual life isn’t confined to the classroom. These “spillovers” might include specific programs, such as the Humanities Center is planning on Sept 14th. They also might provide informal opportunities for you to respond to students interests in creative and unexpected ways.

Most important, remember that the heart of a liberal arts education is the mind-on-mind experience, the magical moment in which faculty and students think anew about the universe. No curriculum and no course can substitute for the intensity of that experience. Invite your students into the world that you love and they will love it too.

I can’t wait to see what happens next!