Generation Duke
Generation Duke

Generation Duke

Through students' eyes, new takes on old themes
June 1, 2009

It's striking, and a little disconcerting, that current undergraduates were not even born when Duke Magazine was started. Across the years, though, Duke students have been enduringly interesting to be around. We invited six students with a variety of outlooks and experiences to talk about particular aspects of campus life today. Some of their themes, like the persistent appeal of Duke basketball, will have a familiar resonance, though informed by a fresh perspective; others, like the pervasive reach of information technology, would have seemed fantastical twenty-five years ago. Together, their essays remind us that students are astute observers of the complex campus scene that they inhabit—and that they help shape. Watch the students' photo shoot with photographer Chris Hildreth.

Intellectual Life

Play Hard, Work Harder

By Chrissy DiNicola '11

On Saturdays, I wake up at noon. By this time, my roommate will have already spent three hours in the library. Weekend mornings, she has no trouble surrounding herself with the dedicated, the studious, the possibly crazy. However, the intellectually engaged student—one who pursues learning beyond what is required, for the sake of learning itself; one who does not separate academe from everyday life; one who discusses class at dinner—is hard to find.

Of course, it is impossible to assess Duke undergraduates as a whole, but I have noticed that some students who began college with a genuine interest in learning have become consumed by competition. I often see them hunched over textbooks, with cold, black coffee and pained expressions of urgency. Nothing sways their focus. They hope for law school, graduate school, or Wall Street but are distracted from their intellectual curiosity, becoming obsessed with grades.

Recently, during dinner with friends anticipating medical school, I realized the most respected people at the table were highly regarded not because they contributed interesting ideas to the conversation, but because they had shattered the curve on everyone's last organic chemistry test. Throughout the meal, people pointlessly rehashed exam questions until someone exclaimed, "Let's just not talk about class!" The anxiety caused by competing for a high GPA makes them, and many other students, associate academic life with assessment and stress. They develop an aversion to all things remotely related to school.

Pressure for academic success seems to be a major cause of the "work hard, play hard" phenomenon, which some administrators, faculty members, and students think has a dampening effect on Duke's intellectual atmosphere. The issue, officially addressed in a 1993 report "We Work Hard, We Play Hard" and later examined in a 1994 story for Duke Magazine, is neither new nor unique to Duke. In fact, a Google search of the phrase "work hard, play hard" first returns an article from The Daily Princetonian.

At Duke, it seems most people blame "playing hard" for what they consider students' academic shortcomings, but I don't think sports and the Greek system are ruining intellectual vitality. Many intellectually engaged Duke students choose to enjoy basketball and social functions. I know some who debate Foucault Monday through Friday and spend their weekends playing beer pong. Devotion to the life of the mind seems able to coexist nicely with "playing hard."

With "working hard," though, it is incompatible. My friends who think of learning as work—a task that needs to be completed so they can relax, a task that is separate from everything else they do—lose sight of the thrill that comes from learning for its own sake.

I believe students who suffer through classes they dislike to reach future goals, or spend the entirety of their time at school fighting for high marks, receive a diminished education, whatever their GPA or place on the bell curve. They refuse to let themselves stray from a certain path because they feel it will not directly relate to their chosen career, or they avoid academic exploration because they feel there is no room for academic error.

This unwillingness to take intellectual risks works against our development of curiosity, our capacity for intellectual excitement, and our understanding of our lives' potential. It confines us to the subject matter, situations, and ways of thought with which we are most comfortable, at precisely the time meant for exploration and growth.

DiNicola is from Charleston, South Carolina, and is majoring in English and visual studies. She is an associate editor at The Chronicle, a member of the club water polo team, and a Duke Magazine intern.


Information Technology

The Allure of the Electronic Cocoon

By Kevin Plattenburg '12

In 1911, Alfred North Whitehead said of technology that "civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them." Nearly 100 years later, I am not only studying and taking challenging classes at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, I am also embedded in the fabric of Duke's vibrant social life. Both of these important facets of the Duke experience are tightly bound together through technology. From the time I wake up to my cell phone's alarm in the morning to the time I finally put my laptop to sleep for the night just before climbing, exhausted, into bed, I exist within an electronic cocoon that directs much of the organization of my life both inside and outside the classroom.

The extent of this cocoon is hard to fathom. Technology has intruded into virtually every aspect of my life. While I'm seated before the glowing panel of my laptop, my brain swims through an ocean of content. There are always more Web pages, videos, pictures, articles, movies, music, podcasts, newspapers, and books to devour. The all-encompassing tentacles of Facebook permit me to check on any detail of my friends' lives at will. The Duke library website allows me to access millions of academic resources, Google gives me billions of not-quite-academic ones, and YouTube provides me with an endless cornucopia of audiovisual information and entertainment. I never really escape the inundation of content.

When away from my laptop, I stroll around with my headphones firmly in place. Ensconced in a tiny, personalized bubble of sound and data, I can access nearly anything I desire instantaneously, thanks to Duke's campus-wide Wi-Fi network. E-mail, text, Facebook, and instant messages—even the odd phone call—form a continuous stream of inbound and outbound traffic pulsing through the radio transmitters of my iPhone.

I am not alone in this hyper-connected state. Should I ever happen to glance up from my phone's display, I will see other faces concentrated intently on their own displays. Nearly every Duke student is here with me by choice, as our electronic worlds permit us to disengage with the real one any time we wish. When we are bored, we dive deeper into the boundless, inescapable, swollen stream of content, forming instant connections between our individualized data bubbles.

Our youth culture is founded upon immediate access to any type of content, and any interruption of this artificial basis confounds us. My friends frequently tell me that they feel naked without their phones and that a dead battery virtually kills meaningful social interaction. Indeed, I find the moments I am out of range of data infuriating. I feel cut off, alone, and friendless.

While human culture has obviously flourished for millennia without the access to the wealth of data that we now have at our fingertips, we may have already crossed a point of no return. Once unleashed, the addictive potential of an endless flow of content renders life without it duller. While I may feel isolated and friendless in the moments that I am unable to form a virtual connection with a peer or stream the latest and greatest bleeding-edge content to my eyeballs, the immense social and academic advantages this conveys when I can are impossible to pass up.

Can a culture founded upon endless content thrive? Can technology significantly aid the important social and academic functions of our lives? Do I have the same level of interpersonal connection with Facebook friends, who may judge me based on my profile, as I do with friends I meet in the flesh? These are important questions for our generation to consider, and there are no easy answers, despite what older generations might tell us.

The Duke student thus walks the line between content overload and technological isolation. We are given the opportunity to determine just which aspects of our lives are important enough to manage consciously and which can be, in Whitehead's words, "performed without thinking of them."

Plattenburg, from Atlanta, is the Duke Magazine Web intern. He is on both the debate and the ski and snowboard teams and is a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.


Civic Engagement

Classroom Without Borders

By Michael Blake '10

As I walked through the bustling streets of Cape Town each morning on my way to work at the District Six Museum, I stared in awe at the world around me. I passed by Zimbabwean refugees, sleeping on the sidewalk and hawking goods in the street, struggling to survive hundreds of miles away from home. I gazed in disbelief at the latest headlines in the newspapers that highlighted rising xenophobic attacks on foreigners and the failure of government intervention to stop the violence. And, for the first time in my life, I was in the racial minority. The sights and sounds I encountered made my life back in the U.S. seem distant and unreal.

This past summer, as a participant in the DukeEngage program, I spent eight weeks working on a long-term civic-engagement project in South Africa. With seven other Duke students and three Duke professors, I studied the anti-apartheid movement, conducted oral-history interviews with its activists, and collaborated with the District Six Museum's youth outreach program.

The District Six Museum was established by former residents of a community bulldozed by the apartheid regime because it was multiracial and diverse. The District Six Museum functions not only as a depository of history but also as a site for the education of future generations about the horrors of intolerance and hatred.

The semester before coming to South Africa, I had studied the District Six Museum and its history as part of a research project for a public-policy class. Now, a place that I had read about in books was coming alive before me, and I was helping to further its educational mission by assisting in the research for an upcoming exhibition, organizing a soccer tournament for its youth program, and facilitating an exchange program between South African youth and teenagers from Sweden.

Working at the museum forced me to apply academic knowledge beyond the classroom—an important lesson in and of itself. But perhaps the most meaningful aspects of my eight weeks were experiencing South Africa and getting to know its people. Despite the poverty and political instabilities that plague daily life, I met and learned from so many individuals who could still offer me a smile and speak positively about their lot in life. Amid squalor and shacks was a profound hopefulness. A privileged American, I was forced to question, test, and rethink my own basic values, assumptions, and worldview.

Civic-engagement work, some say, does not come without a price tag. Critics will often point out that outsiders seeking to help can actually have a negative impact on a community dynamic. Others argue that civic engagement is a distraction from the true purpose of a university education—instruction in a specific academic discipline (the view expressed by Stanley Fish, former chair of the Duke English department, in his new book Save the World on Your Own Time).

I disagree. Academic engagement and civic engagement are not mutually exclusive. By working in the community, I was able to see how the issues I learn about in the classroom shape the everyday lives of real individuals. By immersing myself in another culture, my own beliefs were challenged, and I was given a window onto a world that I never knew existed. My mind was stimulated in a new way, and I saw my own future possibilities in a new light. To me, that's education.

Blake, a history major, is from Buffalo, New York. He is a resident assistant and a member of both The Chronicle's editorial board and the DukeEngage Student Programming and Advisory Council.



Connecting with the Other

By Lauren "LC" Coleman '10

Before coming to Duke, I never would have been able to use a term like "other" to do anything except boss around my younger sister. (Could you hand me my other shoe, please?) And yet, if I could take away only one thing from my time here at Duke, it would be the vocabulary that's given a voice to my so-called "otherness," that elusive quality that society alternately embraces, shuns, celebrates, or denigrates based on its mood—
my status as a woman, an African-American, a financial-aid student, a Southerner.

Three years and a seemingly endless list of characterizations later, it is easy to find fault with Duke's campus culture. I know I do. Despite its increasingly diverse student body and supposed "one big, happy family" ethos, Duke's student body is more like a mixed salad than a melting pot. One needn't look very hard in order to tell the lettuce from the tomatoes and onions from the cucumbers. And at the end of the day, people eat what they like off their dinner plate and leave the rest for someone else to worry about.

On campus, we have resources like the Center for Race Relations and the Women's Center. But where was their influence the first time I found myself the only black woman at a predominately white section party? Duke's housing policy, which requires students to live on campus for their first three years, is an attempt to make otherwise imposing Gothic architecture feel downright homey. And yet the community atmosphere that the university strives for is disrupted by individual decisions to self-segregate and institutionalized policies that allow (white) frat boys to dominate the West Campus housing scene. This almost guaranteed that I would eventually be the only black woman at a predominately white section party—because, quite frankly, on a Saturday night, there is rarely anywhere else to go.

While the social scene leaves a lot to be desired, as an academic institution Duke keeps its promise to its students. I remember once being assigned a paper on how African-American masculinity and femininity has been constructed within our society. I rolled my eyes at the page length. Ten pages? I sighed melodramatically at the list of books we had been assigned. All those lengthy tomes for one measly essay?

This essay in particular sticks in my mind because it was one of the few times in my Duke career that I actually wrote beyond the page limit. Somehow ten pages just didn't get to the bottom of what had emerged as an exploration of my own identity.

But there was a greater, and unexpected, outcome—making connections with people I would never have guessed shared my experiences of otherness: my Asian-American roommate, who listened as I read aloud one revision after another; the Southern Jewish girl who raised her hand in class the next day and opened up a discussion on what it meant to be a minority on Duke's campus. Talking with them about what it's like to be on the outside of mainstream culture meant exploring a larger world of otherness within the confines of the Gothic wonderland.

Who would have thought my experiences as a black woman would resonate with my white, Jewish classmate more resoundingly than the experiences of her white, Christian sorority sisters? Or that a two-hour dialogue on stereotypes would bring my roommate and me closer than two years of bonding over finals, boys, and Grey's Anatomy? We came to recognize the differences in our own lives as something that could help us connect with other "others."

It is not enough to come to Duke and just "be." Black. White. Rich. Poor. Southern. International. Straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Even in a mixed salad, a tomato is going to eventually rub up against a cucumber. At some point, whether in a paper or with a close-minded peer, whether in a classroom, at a Step Show performance, over dinner, or during a late-night study session in Perkins, every Duke student—even members of the majority—will encounter a situation where their experiences are "otherized." Not just different, but subordinate. Less than. Looked down upon.

It is the academic, intellectual side of Duke that I count on to teach me what Duke's dysfunctional social scene never could: how to analyze, articulate, and ultimately defend my "otherness." I credit the university's professors, administrators, and guest speakers—rarely afraid to ask the hard questions—with giving me the vocabulary necessary to do the same.

Coleman, who is majoring in women's studies, has been involved with the Black Student Association, the Center for Race Relations, and the Executive Council on Gender. She has lived in nine states in her twenty-one years.



Rebels with a Cause

By Nate Jones '09

Bishop William Willimon, former dean of Duke Chapel, was well-known during his time at Duke for calling committed Christians on campus "rebels." In one sense, he is undoubtedly right. As Duke has grown, the relationship between "eruditio et religio"—the two founding principles that appear as part of its motto—has become more complicated, and the dominant culture on campus often requires committed religious people to push their convictions to the private realm.

However, committed religious people at Duke are not rebels simply in the 1960s-protest sense of the term. Rather, we are, and rightly so, "grateful rebels." Duke is known throughout the country for being one of the only elite academic institutions with a thriving chapel. While many of Duke's peer institutions have seen chapel attendance steadily decline over the last few decades, Duke Chapel can still claim more than 1,000 congregants in regular Sunday morning worship, including prominent Duke faculty and staff members and a large number of students.

Moreover, Duke Chapel is still home to a group of flourishing campus ministry programs. Few other private universities can lay claim to a full-time Muslim chaplain, a robust center for Jewish life, spiritual leaders for Buddhist and Hindu students, and a healthy, active ministry for every major Christian denomination. (In addition, a new Muslim Life center was dedicated this spring.) Furthermore, Duke Chapel's creation of a Faith Council that embraces the five faiths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism is a way for adherents of different faiths to engage in conversation for the sake of public intelligibility on campus.

And so one could argue that religious people at Duke have much to be grateful for. Still, Willimon was right in saying that to be religiously committed is to be straining against the cultural climate. A chief aim of the Enlightenment was to refashion morality so that disinterested moral discourse became the paradigm. However, the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm—the three major faith traditions of most Duke students—lay claim to particular traditions that are anything but disinterested. Indeed, many would contend that secular discourse can never be disinterested. While the properly "enlightened" sensibility is to relegate the religious to the private realm, Christians, Muslims, and Jews hold that true expression of faith should also have a public dimension.

Expressing faith publicly on a college campus can be tricky, but there are tangible ways that it can and does happen. For example, there is a small—yet vocal—group of Duke students who believe that there is more to sex than the hook-up culture. We see sex as a precious gift of God—precious, but fragile. In the face of a hook-up culture that is all too often caught up in the here and now of instant gratification, religious students who are looking instead for the lifelong fulfillment of loving marriage are surely expressing their faith publicly.

Intellectually, religious students must—and often do—challenge the presumption that true academic work is necessarily secular. Duke's undergraduate journal of Christian thought, Religio (which I cofounded), seeks to do precisely that. Students read and write about the ways in which faith informs every aspect of life, ranging from literature to biology to engineering. After all, as religious people believe, all truth is God's truth. It's a revolutionary idea that has stood the test of time. I have loved my time at Duke.

I have loved it not in spite of my religious faith, but because of it.

Jones, a native of Chapel Hill, has been involved in various activities at Duke Chapel, including singing in the chapel choir and serving on a student ministry group. He has performed with Hoof 'n' Horn and was a student manager for the football team. He will attend Duke Divinity School in the fall.



Swagger On

By Connor Southard '12

When Duke athletics are mentioned, most in the university community, from the greenest freshman to the most seasoned alum, home in on one particular source of pride and prestige: Duke's iconic basketball program, elevated to sacred status by Mike Krzyzewski.

This is not to say that other athletics programs at Duke are weak or somehow insignificant, though Coach K's boys cast a tall shadow. We have elite programs in golf, lacrosse, and women's basketball and are often near the top of the ACC in almost all of our sports. But, deep in the consciousness of everyone who knows Duke intimately, there is a picture of the sweaty and dour coach, hair immaculately parted on the side, surrounded by his trim, disciplined, and ruthless players, fearlessly glaring at the on-court world. Coach K has what on the street is called "swagger"—not braggadocio or boastfulness, but a defiant, competitive confidence.

Swagger is a basic part of what Duke is—in academics, not just basketball. We're a school with ambitions above what might have been our station, founded at a time when America already had enough elite universities, thank you very much. We began as a small Methodist college and have since come to occupy a place in the world's first tier, rubbing shoulders with much older and more ivy-laden universities. We honestly think we can be the best, that spirit drives us to be the best, and we're well on our way to getting there. Coach K, Duke basketball, and the rest of Duke athletics are the most visceral manifestations of that competitive, bold spirit, and that's why they suit this university so well.

Swagger is an easy concept to swallow in the abstract, but swagger on the playing field or on the hardwood may not have an obvious relation to academic excellence. "Krzyzewskiville," the tent village that springs up weeks ahead of the Duke-UNC game as students stake out places in line for coveted tickets, is often described as a pit where GPAs and serious academic work go to die. It's true that the most die-hard fans of Duke basketball occasionally have a hard time keeping up with their work, and that there is too much beer pong played on weeknights.

"Tenting" in K-ville is Duke's version of the odd rituals that have always been a part of college life, but it is also something more. The willingness to take on the challenges involved—the cold, the long hours, the fascistic rules of the line monitors—is emblematic of the unique passion students feel for our very own ritual. Tenting is a sacrifice we're willing to make because we want to see and feel our school's swagger in its rawest form and revel in being a blue-painted, hand-waving pilgrim on Cameron's hallowed ground.

Southard is a Duke Magazine intern, an A.B. Duke Scholar, and a member of The Chronicle's editorial board. He comes from Laramie, Wyoming.