This fall, I retired after almost 40 years as editor of Duke Magazine, the university’s alumni magazine. That’s a long stint covering a campus—a lot of time to accumulate institutional and higher education knowledge. I thought that, after all that time, there weren’t many campus characteristics I hadn’t figured out. I had one big project, pre-retirement, and that was writing a book about the pandemic time at the university—how COVID affected not only the campus as a physical space but also as a place for discovery, personal growth, individual and collective well-being, and much more. With such an immersive undertaking, I learned a lot about how a campus handles a health crisis. I learned some other things as well.
First, much of the good work of a campus happens behind the scenes. Pandemic-time Duke put me in touch with workers who are too often perceived as just supporting the enterprise but who, in fact, make the enterprise possible. Essential workers, indeed. One person among many I met was Valerie Williams, who oversees Duke’s main dining hall for first-year students. Her arrival at Duke predates my own four decades ago. Her grandmother had been in a similar role at the university; she still has the stub from one of her grandmother’s paychecks. Her grandmother advised her to work conscientiously and to look for opportunities to keep advancing. That’s exactly what she did. She became a head cook, assistant manager and eventually a manager. She thought hard when I asked her what kept her going through the depths of the pandemic. “Seeing people happy,” she said.
Another essential worker: a driver on the intracampus bus system, Michael Eubanks, aka Big Mike. He’s a self-described people person, and from watching him on one of his routes, I would validate that self-description. He was in awe of his students and the “amazing things” they did as undergrads and beyond. He was particularly proud of their social justice work, from protesting against sweatshop labor to agitating for a living wage at Duke.
But he would often steer conversations with student riders toward life advice. In a campus publication, one student called him “the pseudo-parent we all sometimes need—never afraid to tell us what we’re doing wrong (i.e., putting our feet on the seats), yet always there to remind us of the things we’re doing right.”
Second, while we often hear affectionate reference to the “campus community,” the various subcommunities can be vital. Those subcommunities provide an important support structure and opportunity for growth. For the book, I did some sampling of extracurricular life, constrained as it was when the pandemic closed down so much of the campus. One student talked to me about feeling embraced by Jewish Life at the university. Not that pandemic circumstances made it easy to be deepening her religious identity: “A lot of Judaism centers on community, on being together physically, on praying together and sharing a meal around the Shabbat service. It was so sad to me that we would lose the ability to sing together.” But the subcommunity still played a major role in supporting and sustaining her—she even ended up having her delayed bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony, through Jewish Life.
The subcommunity of student journalists never missed a beat in producing issues of The Chronicle, the student newspaper. The editor as the pandemic set in was Matthew Griffin. In his farewell column, he acknowledged the challenges of an ever-shifting pandemic scene: “I often felt overwhelmed. I wondered some days whether I had the strength to keep from falling apart, let alone to run a newspaper.” At the same time, he celebrated the social bonds that kept his staff motivated, even as the usual bonding events—a dodgeball match against the student government, for example—were out of bounds.
Third, faculty naturally care about their students—even at large institutions. At a research university like Duke, the rewards system for faculty hinges much less on being clearly student-centered than on scholarly accomplishment. For me, though, it was illuminating to see new evidence of concern for the whole student—the student as a learner, to be sure, but also the student trying to manage the pandemic stresses.
During the fall 2020 online semester, some professors adjusted their assignments or carved out unofficial breaks in the academic calendar. Seemingly small professorial gestures were even more significant. I learned, for example, about Lisa Merschel, a senior lecturer in Romance studies. Early in that semester, Merschel held get-to-know-you virtual sessions with students, in small groups, right after class. Later, she hosted in-person “office hours” on campus; students would sign up for a time slot and meet with Merschel, socially distanced, face masked and with an open agenda. “The most meaningful part of Professor Merschel’s class was the sign-off at the end of our meetings,” one of those students told me. Usually it was un abrazo—a hug. Sometimes it was “I see you” or “I’m here with you.” Such sign-offs, brief as they were, “never failed to lift my spirits, even in the most stressful weeks of the semester.”
Then there was Tom Ferraro, a longtime English professor, who, even in his Zoom box, worked hard to forge a true learning community. As he told his students, “I know how tired we all are. It’s hard on us.” But throughout this online experiment, Ferraro was committed to replicating, as much as possible, the conventions of the traditional seminar. Close reading, the basic stuff of his seminar, offers “equipment for living,” as he put it. Through the assigned texts and his relentless questioning, he wanted to prod his students to stretch themselves intellectually—and also, at a time of psychic upheaval, to absorb themselves in the works and the worlds created by generations of American novelists, poets and essayists.
Fourth, one of things campuses do best is promoting shared rituals. When everything was remote, Duke offered its traditional holiday-time production of The Messiah online. Duke Chapel was splendidly decked out on the computer screen, and the singers were powerfully on display. But you really need a real space, not a virtualized space, to handle all that Handel; taking it in at a remove made it less than a gathering of the community.
When things finally started opening up, I found myself soaking up more than ever the authentic campus experience. The elaborately organized group photo—with the booming voice of the football coach providing direction—of the newest class. The student musical theater troupe putting on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with preprogrammed insults hurled at the cast. Since it’s Duke, of course, the characteristically raucous tone, and generally the glorious victory, of a home basketball match.
Then there was the celebration of a professor’s book about the sacredness of the natural world; pandemic protocols demanded that the posttalk reception would offer individual portions of food in clamshell containers. The last day of classes, marked by free T-shirts, games on the quad and poems made to order courtesy of a costumed Poetry Fox. An in-person graduation ceremony, with speaker John Legend telling the assembled students that, during the pandemic, “you were forced to pause—to see yourselves not in competition with one another, but in community with each other.”
Fifth, higher education can be nimble—which has not always been an obvious point. I’m thinking of the sentiment expressed by former Harvard president Derek Bok, from 15 years ago, in his provocatively titled book Our Underachieving Colleges. Professors, as he put it in his conclusion, might be inclined to experiment on their own around their teaching methods and techniques for stimulating learning. Still, “a majority of the faculty are content with the status quo.”
It’s telling that at Duke, undergraduates entering this fall are still to be guided by “Curriculum 2000.” One faculty effort at curricular reform collapsed several years ago, apparently a victim of competing interests and competing visions; another is just starting up. But the pandemic was a challenge to status quo thinking, certainly in how courses might be delivered. One of my sources for the book was Matthew Rascoff, then Duke’s associate vice provost for digital education and innovation (now at Stanford University). “Many faculty thought they knew how to teach,” he told me. “Nobody thought they had mastered how to teach online. So can we question some of our assumptions and take a more curiosity-driven, more exploratory approach to what we do? It’s scary to do that, when you’re there as the expert in front of your students.”
A pivot to “emergency teaching,” as he described it—virtual breakout rooms, real-time class surveys, video meetings with guest speakers and all the rest—helped define the moment of crisis. “Everyone recognized that they had to be a learner.”
A campus is an interestingly messy place. So maybe it’s not surprising that even after those many decades covering campus life, I hadn’t mastered all the subtleties or fully reckoned with all the qualities of this one place—that I, too, still had things to learn. What the process of writing the book underscored, above all else, is that learning—including learning about the campus itself—is an endless, and endlessly rewarding, pursuit.