I should have worn my comfortable shoes. I should have layered myself in sunblock. I should have caffeinated myself into a state of hyper-alertness.
So it goes. I was committed to sustaining myself, without pause, through a typical day at Duke. What is that? If it’s anything like this first Thursday in October, it means lots of activities to take in, lots of people to interact with, lots of scrambling to get from place to place.
I’m not sure how a psychiatrist might interpret the significance of ending just where you begin. There I was, on the East Campus wall trail, a big, gravelly circle, trying to keep up with David, a psychiatrist with an impressive stride, an expressive beard, and a long track record as a Durhamite.
At the Marketplace, Valacey, a Dining Services worker, was agreeably checking in Duke- Card-bearing freshmen. In her eight years on the job, the biggest constant has been early-morning groggy greetings; the biggest change has been accommodations around food allergies. Welcome to the gluten-free toaster. There was Brian, who told me he was fresh—if that’s the word—from five hours of sleep. He was up early to shape a presentation in his Focus program: Knowledge in Service to Society. His plate overflowing with scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns, Adam, seated nearby, was regenerating after four hours of sleep. (Sleeplessness in service to knowledge?) Adam was wearing a Kenan Ethics T-shirt, earned in a separate setting. A completely ethical transaction: Show up at a student activities fair, and get free stuff.
Go West, I told myself, and I hopped on the C-1 Express. Our driver, William, was beginning his shift. It’s a lot of vehicle to maneuver, but William couldn’t recall any unfortunate driving incident beyond a broken exterior mirror. “These are good people,” he said of the students. On board we had a gaggle of divinity students; they were being faithful (of course) in showing up for their morning “Introduction to Ordained Leadership” class.
This would be my introduction to sports practice, specifically the men’s soccer team. Players were looking to a match with Wake Forest, and practice was light, with the hope of avoiding injury. Even so, there was a lot of energy on the field: jogging and stretching to warm the muscles and elevate the heart rate, blasting the ball to mimic a free kick, and trying out formations for various field positions—defense, midfield, forward line.
My own heart rate accelerated at the construction (and destruction) site of the West Union Building—hard hat along with goggles, rubber gloves, and a brilliantyellow vest. Accompanied by John Hyzak, an onsite assistant project engineer, I walked through the once and future Great Hall and Cambridge Inn, all of those spaces stripped bare, right down to the original brickwork. Replacing the clay roof will involve hand-mixing colors and laying down overlapping tiles with precision. At the moment, some fifty workers were on-site, largely shaping the footprint of the new glass-and-steel structure. Above them a crane was moving materials from a staging area. Quite a crane: Its boom extends 201 feet, and it can lift more than three tons at its tip.
You can’t construct something without surveying, right? So it seemed perfect to encounter surveying students on a (modest) field trip, in the E-Quad. They were doing something very practical with instruments, appropriately, in “Practical Methods in Civil Engineering,” taught by the helpfully hovering David Schaad Ph.D. ’98. The class was learning to use a theodolite—students struggling to fix a point in space spelled that out for me. Eventually they’ll survey and draw up, through computer-aided design, a quarter-acre on campus.
A favorite point in Duke’s space is the Blomquist Gardens. Curator Stefan Bloodworth was leading a group tour around the timely topic of “The Biochemistry of Fall.” He talked about the processes that contribute to “leafpeeping,” as he referred to it—the colorful, autumnal allure of Southern forests. Using a metaphor rooted in factory production and cost-effectiveness, he explained why trees can “profitably” lose their leaves—profitably because it bolsters their survival.
A program called “Food Utopias” produced ample, if not utopian, offerings of turkey sandwiches. This was in the West Duke Building, reopened following a ceiling collapse. Among the speakers were Ben Barker, of Durham’s famed (and now shuttered) Magnolia Grill, and John Evans of the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. Barker dismissed notions of elitism around eating; as he put it, we’re not troubled by the idea that just a segment of society values the experience of opera. Evans argued for expanding our vision of what’s available and what’s delicious. Could we imagine employing rather than tossing out things like the head, guts, and bones of fish?
It was time for a different kind of sustenance, a musical interlude. The Biddle Music Building reverberated with practice sessions led by Eric Pritchard, a violinist, and Fred Raimi, a cellist, both with Duke’s in-house Ciompi Quartet. Raimi, who came on board in 1974, is the longest-serving member. Taking on Bach, Raimi played duets with Grace, a senior. He demonstrated bow pressure and speed, left-hand mobility, extension of fingers, shifting from one position to another. At one point he suggested that she play less tentatively, that she should imagine herself playing in Baldwin Auditorium. Pritchard worked with Carolyn, a freshman, on a Sibelius composition; a metronome measured her progress through the piece and kept her to a strict tempo.
Perkins and Bostock Libraries. The strict tempo here has someone walk through these doors on average every ten seconds, around the clock, all year long. In the reference department, someone had just inquired about what the weather is like in Paris in the winter. (I guess you can’t look that up.) In the von der Heyden Pavilion, I ran into senior Dan Altman, a former Duke Magazine intern. He was working on an assignment for a creative-writing course. It was a poem about the life cycle of a jellyfish. How far along had he gotten? “I’m still in the larval stage,” he told me.
Jellyfish exist in the sea, so I seamlessly surfed into “Dynamic Oceans,” taught by Alexander Glass in the Social Sciences Building. Today it was all atmospherics, thematically speaking. He bounded up and down the aisle of the lecture room, rather like a dynamic land creature, and it was a whirlwind of ideas: the different layers of the atmosphere, the allure of the aurora borealis, the effects of atmospheric pressure on the body, the quest for altitude records in vehicles ranging from balloons to test planes, the likelihood that the Earth will become another Venus, the influence of America’s space program in inspiring him into a life of science.
Off for a rendezvous with the Media Arts + Sciences Rendezvous, a weekly event in Smith Warehouse. Nicholas Gessler, a research associate in Duke’s Information Science & Information Studies group, was giving a lively talk—complete with cool computer graphics— on artificial life. This is the virtuous (and often virtual) ISIS. In Gessler’s courses, students set the initial conditions—maybe some cellular interactions—and watch a computer-driven evolutionary process unfold.
My own trajectory took me to another wing of Smith for “The Making and Unmaking of Women’s Intellectual Reputations,” sponsored by Duke’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. A reception for “Kafka, Crusoe, Colonialism, and the Logic of Cannibalism” had just broken up; the cheese and crackers were more casual than Kafkaesque, more banal than colonial, but I foraged eagerly. “Making and Unmaking” kicked off with meatballs, baklava, and other vaguely Greek edibles. Learning can be very satisfying. Among the speakers was Duke philosophy professor Andrew Janiak; he’s researching Emilie Du Châtelet, a French aristocrat who collaborated with Voltaire and published her own philosophyand Newton-inspired thoughts. A paradox, according to Janiak: In her lifetime she showed up in learned journals and corresponded with other philosophers. But she later slipped out of the philosophy canon.
Paradoxical or not, and like it or not, accomplished students need social strategies for their job search. In the Social Sciences building, Laura Suchoski ’09, social media manager for McKinney, a Durham advertising agency, was finishing a Career Center- sponsored presentation. Be mindful of your own digital footprint, she advised. And build a “relationship bank” of professionals whose careers interest you— and whose advocacy might help you.
Party time. An artful party, at the Nasher Museum of Art. I skipped the $2 ice tea and went for the familiar and free cheese and crackers. The Nasher Student Advisory Board had put together a rather clever scavenger hunt around the Miró exhibition. One example from the hunt: “I have one eye but cannot see. Which work of art am I?” I lingered more than scavenged, particularly in front of Miró’s Caress of a Bird, a sculpture fashioned from an ironing board, a tortoise shell, and a straw hat. With two eyes.
My last stop. It was at the faculty apartment of the omnipresent and perpetually energetic Sue Wasiolek ’76, M.H.A. ’78, LL.M. ’93, dean of students, in Gilbert-Addoms. Wasiolek was doing some TV watching with current and former dorm residents—thumbs up for Scandal, thumbs up for the student who, during commercial breaks, outlined her ambitions around social entrepreneurship. But How to Get Away With Murder was as inert as Wasiolek’s collection of ceramic cows.
Outside the dorm, students were headed out to make a late night an even later night. Not for me. After a day (and a night), I was satisfied with my campus immersion. Satisfied, but aware that there was plenty I had missed out on. What did Kafka have to say about cannibalism? I wish I knew.