Rules of Engagement

October 1, 2002

 

Campus Gargoyle

Don't walk backwards. That's rule number one. It's distracting, and the goal of student-led tours is to create a personable atmosphere for prospective Blue Devils and their families. Rule number two is, don't overemphasize basketball. "Prospectives" get enough of that from Dick Vitale. We want to give the impression that our students care foremost about their education.

During my stint as a summer tour guide, I soon learned that, while not having to walk backwards is a relief, steering clear of basketball is a skill unto itself. Even the undergraduate prospectus, produced by the same people who made up the tour-guide rules, opens with a two-page photograph of Krzyzewskiville, complete with captions detailing what the occupants of each tent are up to the night before the game.

Then there's rule number three, the most important of the tour guide commandments: "Have fun!" Prospectives like to see that students are enthusiastic about the school, all smiles and suntans. Today it's 90 degrees at eleven in the morning, and I haven't eaten breakfast. I'm having trouble with enthusiasm. After introducing myself, I begin the long march from admissions down Chapel Drive with my fifteen captives in tow. I make small talk with whatever family happens to be right behind me until finally, with some parents gasping for breath, we reach the first stop on the tour: James B. Duke.

I begin at this statue because it's a good place to talk about university history and warm up the crowd with jokes about Big Tobacco. This morning, however, an anonymous prankster has beat me to the punch by rolling a prophylactic over the cigar in the statue's hands, a detail I don't notice until I gesture upwards while describing Buck Duke's endowment of Trinity College. Several parents shoot distressed glances my way. I try to keep talking, but a mix of awkward laughs and fatherly scowls tells me it is time to move on.

So I curtail history, skipping campus layout and religious life, and leading the crowd on to Duke Chapel. After sufficient gawking at the family sarcophagi inside, the tour continues to the Bryan Center. This is where most tours get interesting. While there aren't too many questions to ask about campus layout (religious life usually gets one or two), parents and students have concerns about student life. Moms want to know if their sons, who are all gifted journalists, will have to try out for The Chronicle. Fathers want to know if their daughters, who are all gifted actors, will have parts in drama productions. The sons and daughters themselves want to know if students can have cars on campus. And everyone wants to know if first-years actually have to eat at the Marketplace twelve times a week.

The Bryan Center is also where alcohol comes up, usually right after I mention that the Armadillo Grill has a beer and wine bar. What's the drinking age? Do they card? Predictably, alcohol is the trickiest subject on the tour, and I am never sure just how honest to be. Duke is a big place, I tell them, with many different social outlets. Alcohol has a role in campus life, but many students don't drink at all. Without detailing the complexities of Duke's drinking culture, I communicate that Duke students are responsible enough to make their own decisions, given the rules set by the university. To this one young man asks with pleading eyes, "Yeah, but East Campus isn't really dry, is it?"

We move outside to discuss residential life. I describe what things will be like in the West Campus quads when the new residential system takes effect this fall. I talk about housing selection, selective living groups, and Greek life (also something we're not supposed to overemphasize). The most common questions here are about the lack of air-conditioning and the prevalence of co-ed dorms, both of which inspire concern. The amount of construction on campus is also a popular topic.

Somewhat surprisingly, rush doesn't come up often, though on almost every tour a dad asks me my fraternity affiliation. This is also when visitors bring up the more obscure subjects: "Can you keep pets in the dorms?" asks one father; "How are the girls?" asks a fourteen-year-old younger brother; and an older gentleman with a European accent asks, "What do you do about bullies?"

Inevitably, someone inquires about the benches. I rely on this as a segue to athletics, explaining that the benches have three functions: a display of dorm pride, a social gathering point, and kindling. By now, the crowd is ready for bonfires, basketball, and jokes about Chapel Hill Community College. Tour guides agreed early on that rule number two doesn't make any sense since you can't overemphasize basketball. So I shamelessly mention that, while the football team hasn't had a win in two seasons, you can't pitch your tent outside Cameron more than six weeks before game day. Disbelieving laughs all around.

The last stop is Perkins Library, where we talk about academics. The information is basic, though my explanation of Curriculum 2000 elicits blank stares and furrowed brows. The key here is anecdotes: that professor who took you out to dinner, or that one class that changed your worldview. The truth is, the facts of a Duke education aren't all that different from everywhere else. Most of our peer institutions have core curricula, study abroad, and a roster of superb faculty with a sincere interest in teaching undergraduates, just like us. A lot of schools have several million books in the library and wireless Internet connections, just like us.

So what exactly is different about a Duke education? Well, there's FOCUS, for freshmen--that's good. And the Grateful Dead house course. But the real difference? Only at Duke can you hear the third pick in the NBA draft give a twenty-minute presentation on the Gold Rush of 1849.

Despite the impossibility of accurately representing Duke in an hour and fifteen minutes, I enjoyed leading tours this summer. In the admissions office is a bulletin board with positive notes from visitors. The more experienced guides have fan letters telling how so-and-so "totally made me want to come to Duke." In my six weeks, I received only one comment: "Our guide was great! The best part was when a squirrel fell out of a tree and almost hit him!" I guess walking backwards isn't the most distracting tour-guide phenomenon after all.

-Nurkin is a senior English major from Atlanta, Georgia.