Not your standard R&R

The new Spring Breakthrough program allows students and faculty to go beyond their academic limits.
Writer: 
April 19, 2017

On a mid-March afternoon in Room 101 of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, Panera catering boxes stack high at the front of the room, a half-filled jug of OJ and green coffee cups scattered about; clear trash bags swell with boxes that previously housed sandwiches. A few ticks to the right are three first-years and a senior, diligently woodshedding song lyrics that they wrote the previous night and this morning—a song designed to both fit into the canon of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning play Hamilton and build upon it, matching styles if not source material. In the front corner is Noah Pickusassociate provost, senior adviser to Provost Sally Kornbluth, and associate research professor of public policylooking at his notes, nodding along, amused and impressed.

Welcome to spring break at Duke. Or, rather, Spring Breakthrough.

The new, completely free program, inspired by Provost Kornbluth's undergraduate experience at Williams College, provides a chance for students to learn and explore an interest area outside their comfort zone—but without the burdens of the standard college course. That is: no grades, no prerequisites—although still a healthy amount of ambition.

“This is raising the bar on creativity to say that, in four-and-a-half days, you have to understand enough and be sophisticated enough historically, and creatively attuned enough to capture that complexity [in a song],” said Pickus, days before his “Hamilton: Music, History and Politics” course, one of eight offered this spring break, was set to begin. “At the core of it is the notion that trying to write anything under deadline with your peers that is compelling musically and lyrically, that just seems like a really neat challenge. We’ll probably be exhausted by the end.”

It sounds, of course, pretty far removed from the traditional idea of a little R&R. “Spring break is maybe a challenging time to say to students, ‘Don’t go to the beach, come take courses,’ ” said Laura Howes, associate director of strategy and operations, who shepherded the program from the January 2016 planning stage through its launch this year.

But after securing some of the favorite Duke faculty and polling sophomores to see what timing was optimal, she said, “we decided to try it in the spring and see what uptake we’d get. And we’ve been really happy. The original goal was fifty to 100 students, and then, as goals tend to do, it got more ambitious.” Ultimately, 106 first- and second-year students enrolled.

The exploratory courses aimed to accommodate students with no background in an area and those already intrigued. Declaring a major can effectively leave students with intellectual blinders on; taking a quirky, light-hearted course can show that there’s much more available. “Scholarship is so much about learning more and more incrementally about a subject,” Pickus said, reminiscing about an art-history class he took his senior year. But “this [course] was like learning how to see in peripheral vision rather than just one direction.”

Many professors drew up the courses from scratch, and—in order to make them fun—the faculty members had some leeway to indulge. Alexander Glass, earth and ocean sciences lecturer in the Nicholas School, took students to sites both near (Duke Forest) and far (Cape Hatteras) to witness the effects of climate change. Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology, and Vanessa Woods, research scientist in evolutionary anthropology, marshalled students to a zoo, an animal shelter, and a goat farm to highlight varying cognitive advantages held by our mammalian counterparts.

In the biology department, assistant professor Eric Spana and professor Mohamed Noor delved into the truth and falsehoods of various science-fiction stories, exploring questions like the genetics of Harry Potter (how the “wizarding gene” works) and the science of “making” Captain America. It turns into, as Spana said, “the greatest hits of modern biotechnology.” The fear for them wasn’t getting students into the class, but actually seeing the students delve into the research of whether something was feasible or embarrassingly fictitious.

“It works great here. I think that that’s Duke—Duke students tend to be really inquisitive and resourceful,” said Spana, before Noor laughingly told a story of how quickly students exposed the scientific flaws of Avatar: The Last Airbender that morning.

For first-year Freddie Xu, the notable aspect was how relaxed the sci-fi course was, compared to the standard college offering. “You can learn whatever you want to learn; you can guide the class as a student rather than what the instruction is,” said Xu, who, as a native of Appleton, Wisconsin—not a popular spring-break destination—was excited to have something to do on campus this spring break. Also exciting: “Exploring a topic that I’m probably never going to be able to look at in a college course in the rest of my career.”

Pickus’ Spring Breakthrough course came from a “family kernel”—his teaching of the founding period, his wife’s work with primary sources at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and his daughter’s love for music and Hamilton. The course spanned disciplines: Students read an actual letter from Alexander Hamilton housed in Rubenstein Library, honed melodies with upperclassmen from Small Town Records and Hoof ‘n’ Horn, listened to theater studies assistant professor Brad Rogers, and—in one of the highlights—had a workshop with local spoken-word poet Dasan Ahanu to understand performative nuances.

The goal, ultimately, was to empower, and embolden, students to add to the canon. “History is living, and history has resonance, and history is complicated,” said Pickus. “Did Miranda get it right? Some people say he played up Hamilton’s abolitionism; others say he played down Hamilton’s elitism. I see Miranda as an invitation to students to write their own versions of this.”

First-years Sonali Mehta and Tristan Malhotra, who wrote a three-minute spoken-word story about Aaron Burr and his wife, dove into the details of the language each used to the other in historical letters and melded that into the stylistic contours of Hamilton itself. “The hard thing, which I didn’t realize how difficult it was until we started trying to do it, was that—not keeping too much of the original language, because that’s not accessible to a modern audience, but keeping enough of it so it’s still true, you know?” said Mehta, who took Pickus’ “Migrants, Managers, and Multiple Citizenship” course in the fall semester and performs on campus with Hoof ‘n’ Horn. “It’s a hard balance.”

“We had an ambitious idea to medley a bunch of [original Hamilton] songs, and we tried it yesterday,” she said, laughing. “It did not work, and we rewrote pretty much the entire thing today.”

“I have a feeling that I’m gonna be at the piano tonight just furiously, like, ‘Let’s get this together,’ ” said Micki Haralson, who cowrote, with fellow first-years Katie Freedy and Elle Eshleman, a song exploring Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence with Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Church. “Because I want this to be good.”

Much like Mehta, this isn’t Haralson’s area of expertise; she’s a writer, not a songwriter. “I’m much more of a prose, lengthy [writer]. I can have as many words as I want, and it can be as confusing as I want because you get to read it several times,” she said. “But this is like you have one punch, you have one time to say everything.”

The closing banquet was the closest thing the program had to a final. Noor and Spana’s class compiled slides on Kong: Skull Island (which they had watched in theaters), “rationalizing [it] in terms of science.” Some classes, like Glass’, shared photos of what they saw during the week; others, like students in psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s course, simply talked about broad themes and what they learned. To represent the Hamilton course, a video recording of Mehta and Malhotra played, and things came full circle with Pickus’ daughter helping to perform the composition from Haralson, Freedy, and Eshleman—one that didn’t exist in any capacity four-and-a-half days ago.

If you stepped onto Abele Quad then, you would’ve encountered massive silence, save the chirping of a single bird. The only people in your vicinity had clustered at the main bus stop; walking through Clocktower and Crowell quads, you would’ve seen almost no rooms had lights on. It was 7:40 p.m. on the Thursday of spring break, and you could’ve assumed campus had been dead for a week.

Had you been 300 feet to the west, you would’ve known better.

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.