During the week prior to Family Weekend, Team Kenan’s ongoing Couch program encouraged members of the Duke community to think on and engage in dialogue about whether parents have the right to predetermine their children’s genes and whether there should be limits on how humanity chooses to enhance itself. Some students espoused the opinion that modifications of our innate genetic code could ultimately unravel what makes us innately ourselves, “It’s a human right to not want to change,” Others wondered whether “fixing” challenges would fundamentally alter whom we become, “My brother is autistic. I would never just fix him because to me, he’s my brother and he lives a great life just like us,” and while admitting, “Everyone has things about themselves that they’d want to change”, nonetheless worried that the ability to make alterations would ultimately lead to more dissatisfaction, “There’s a point in which you should just love yourself.”
Couch goers were concerned about the potential for a slippery slope effect: “It’s really difficult to set nuances for this. Genetic modification should be all or nothing,” worrying that pre-natal modifications could exacerbate social inequalities and pressures to conform to standards of attractiveness, physical prowess and mental ability set by those with the financial means to set the genetic bar. “Would it even be your baby if you modify [its genes]?”
During the week celebrating the inauguration of Duke’s 10th president, Vincent Price, Team Kenan’s ongoing Couch program encouraged members of the Duke community to think on and engage in dialogue about how we memorialize history and how that affects our relationship with our modern community. Some students expressed a sense that it is critical to represent the past, even if problematic in a modern context, out of responsibility to inform the present: “The founding fathers weren’t Jesus,” “I think it’s important to know who things are named after and appreciate the history.” Other students suggested that the best place for recontextualizing history is an academic setting, “Actually understand what’s going on so you can prepare for a better future,” and that it is not only appropriate, but an obligation of higher education “Ignorance is not looking to improve oneself; it’s our job to educate ignorant people,” in the hopes that it makes for better understanding, in the future, “When you’re not willing to change things based on the the way they were before, you’re being obstinate.” Yet another group of couch-goers expressed a sense that statues have no place on campus, for various reasons, ranging from beliefs, “From the perspective of Judaism we don’t create statues because they are reminiscent of false idols,” “We have a culture of individualism which translates to selfishness,” to a belief that our society is inherently self-centered, “We have a culture of individualism which translates to selfishness.”
“There are benefits to being a stranger, because you see things differently from people who have been in that space for a while. The more time you spend in that space, the less you see things from [an] outside [perspective].”
– Duke President Vincent Price
This past week, Team Kenan’s ongoing Couch program partnered with Me Too Monologues, an annual performance of Duke students’ “intimate, personal experiences and explore narratives [on the topic of identity,] that would otherwise be silenced on campus.” Team Kenan set up the Couch on the BC Plaza to engage in dialogue with more than 100 Duke students, faculty and staff, over three days about their experiences with and thoughts on individuality and group identity within Duke’s campus culture; how tensions between curation of identity and authenticity, active and passive identity markers, and cohesion and diversity shape our community.
While many students spoke about a pervasive sense of pressure to keep their heads down and blend in, whether it stems from cultural background… “It would be easier to not be a person of color at Duke. But I’m not sure I would change it, if I could,” or the impact of ‘Effortless Perfection’: “I don’t talk about my shit to other people because Duke is stressful enough…”
Although 92% percent of the students who took part in the Couch conversations said that they had altered their personality, at some point during their time at Duke, in order to fit in, some lamented how Duke undergraduates “define themselves mostly by what they’re planning on majoring in, or the groups they’re involved with” and how easy it is to reduce their peers to broad generalizations “I don’t want to reduce people to their organization or Greek affiliation, but it’s low-hanging fruit of what to talk about,” all of which reduce our ability to empathize with others and detrimentally impact our decision making. Two-thirds of students we asked, said they felt they had no control over how others perceive them.
Conversations included how communities and environments affect us in ways that we don’t recognize until we’ve left them, “I had always thought of myself as Indian and not Indian-American, until I came here and went abroad,” while another, reflecting on her new viewpoint on adulthood, worried, “I feel like I’m turning into my mother.”
After some time spent deep in conversation on the Couch with Team Kenan, one student, echoing President Price, affirmed that the difficulty balancing of perspectives is vital to navigating life, “I think to live a full and meaningful life, you need [to affirm your identity and fit in with others]… If you don’t do either well, college is the best place to practice both.”