Teaching on Purpose: Program Preps Graduate Students to Explore Questions of Meaning in the Classroom

What is a college education for? What role does it play in the development of students? And how can faculty help undergraduates navigate their formative years in college?

Katherine Jo believes that college educators need time and space to reflect on these questions—and not just when a student’s personal challenges become apparent in the classroom.

Along with colleague Jesse Summers, she launched a new program, Teaching on Purpose, to help doctoral students approach teaching in ways that support their students’ flourishing as learners and human beings.

Teaching on Purpose
Teaching on Purpose Fellow Wan Ning Seah (center) shares her small group’s discussion with the larger group. During this session, fellows used case studies to better understand the challenges faced by students from different backgrounds in order to be more inclusive in their teaching.

Jo is the Director of Program Development and Design for the Purpose Project at Duke—a partnership between the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke Divinity School, and the Duke Office of Undergraduate Education, funded by The Duke Endowment. The Purpose Project seeks to integrate questions about meaning, purpose, and character development into university education.

Research demonstrates that traditional undergraduate students (between the ages of 18–22) are in a key developmental phase. As “emerging adults,” students are grappling with who they are, who they want to become, and how to make sense of a complicated world.

Katherine Jo
Katherine Jo, Director of Program Development and Design for the Purpose Project at Duke.

“It’s bringing a philosophical, holistic approach to teaching,” Jo said of Teaching on Purpose. “We’re thinking of students as whole people, instead of seeing their intellectual activity as separate from their wellbeing and their thinking about the world and their place in it.”

The program also encourages doctoral students to reflect on their own professional identities—not only as scholars, but as educators—and how their discipline connects to questions of meaning and purpose.

Though these questions are not typically associated with STEM disciplines, “it’s not just for the humanities,” Jo said. “Professors can bring these questions into every class. If you’re an engineer, what are you building for?”

This spring’s 17 Teaching on Purpose Fellows come from a variety of Duke University schools, from the School of Medicine to the Nicholas School of the Environment. They represent disciplines as diverse as Literature and Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Jo and Summers, Director of University Initiatives for the Purpose Project, organized the weekly sessions around different themes, readings, and activities, and co-facilitated the discussions. Nearly 40 faculty members from the humanities, engineering, and the natural and social sciences also joined the students over the course of the semester to share their experiences as educators.

Some of the questions posed to fellows were “What is a good teacher of undergraduates?” “How can we invite students into meaningful learning?” and “What are some of the big questions your discipline addresses?”

“For me, one of the most important moments in the workshop was when graduate students from across the disciplines talked about their research to their peers,” said Christine Folch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Environmental Science and Policy. “It ignited interest in each other’s projects, and it showed how each of us approach big questions with different tools.”

“Framing our teaching around the big questions helps students understand why what they’re learning matters—why it matters to them, and if it’s not too grand to say it, why it matters to humanity,” said Summers.

Laavanya Sankaranarayanan
Teaching on Purpose Fellow Laavanya Sankaranarayanan.

“Over the years I’ve recognized that I value a lot of philosophical questions about teaching, and this fellowship gave a space for us to meet and talk about that from a much broader perspective,” said Laavanya Sankaranarayanan, a 2022 Teaching on Purpose Fellow.

Laavanya is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Genetics and Genomics Program in the Department of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics in the School of Medicine. She studies the roles of non-coding DNA variants and genetic regulatory regions within the context of polycystic ovary syndrome.

Because of her passion for teaching, she pursued pedagogical training through a number of programs offered by the Duke Graduate School (the Certificate in College Teaching Program and the Preparing Future Faculty Program) and finally, Teaching on Purpose (which also counts for credit towards the Certificate in College Teaching.)

It may be difficult to imagine how a student in Biostatistics might find common ground in a discussion about teaching with a student in Political Science, but Laavanya found working with doctoral students in other disciplines to be illuminating.

“I actually liked that it was so varied because it made the conversations so much more interesting,” she said. “At one point, Katherine [Jo] said something like, ‘This is a liberal arts education, because we’re having conversations with students from different [disciplinary] backgrounds,’ and I was like, ‘That’s absolutely true.’ As someone who never went to those types of institutions [that offer a liberal arts education], this is what I had been wanting, and I didn’t know I needed that to help fulfill my interest in lots of varied ideas.”

“There’s tremendous value in having these conversations with people from other disciplines,” agreed Joseph Mulligan, another 2022 Teaching on Purpose Fellow.

Joseph is graduating from his Ph.D. program in the Department of Romance Studies this spring. He studies literature, politics, and intellectual history in 19th and 20th century Spain and Latin America: in particular, the intersections of ethics and literature, civic education, and education reform.

Joseph Mulligan
Teaching on Purpose Fellow Joseph Mulligan. “It addresses head-on the fact that students are people—that they’re human beings, and as human beings, they have lots of problems, lots of questions, lots of competing interests,” he said of the program.

While Romance Studies requires its graduate students to take a full semester to study the theory and practice of foreign language teaching, Joseph also took advantage of other pedagogical training opportunities. Through the Duke Graduate Academy, he took a course offered by Duke University Libraries on teaching with archival materials, which he used to create a course model incorporating archival research. He was also a Bass Instructional Fellow.

“Having seen the value in those interdisciplinary conversations, I was really excited to have the most interdisciplinary experience in the pedagogical context,” Joseph said, “which was Teaching on Purpose.”

Through Teaching on Purpose conversations, he realized that he had not always incorporated ethical questions into classroom discussions in ways he would like.

“In talking to colleagues and hearing from faculty across the disciplines, especially from the STEM disciplines, I realized that if I don’t raise those questions, it might be the case that no one ever does in the four years that these students are in school,” Joseph said. “I feel like in the past I’ve focused on comprehension and ‘critical thinking,’ but without really asking the students, ‘How can this help you live your life?…How can this transform the way that you think about yourself, or think about the world, or think about what you want to do?’”

The first run of the program was met with positive feedback from visiting faculty as well as the fellows: responses to a post-program survey unanimously recommended Teaching on Purpose to other graduate students.

“Honestly, it was a great experience,” Laavanya said, “and if you’re interested in big picture questions about education, this is a great space to do that.”

Applications are now open for Fall 2022 Teaching on Purpose Fellows! For more information, click here.

Teaching Civil Discourse in the College Classroom: A Summer Seminar for Faculty

Announcing Call for Applications

Teaching Civil Discourse in the College Classroom: A Summer Seminar for Faculty
Made Possible with the Generous Support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
Instructors: Teresa Bejan (Oxford) and John Rose (Duke)
Keynote address: Gary Saul Morson (Northwestern)
Dates: August 9th – 12th, 2022


We are pleased to announce a call for applications to an upcoming four-day faculty summer seminar entitled “Teaching Civil Discourse in the Classroom: A Summer Seminar for Faculty,” made possible by a generous grant from The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. The seminar, to be held at Duke, will be led by Teresa Bejan (Oxford) and John Rose, Associate Director of the Civil Discourse Project. The seminar will prepare early career professors to teach a course based on CDP’s own highly popular class at Duke, “How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization” (HTAPP). The course offers tools to promote open discourse and civil disagreement about controversial social and political topics.

The seminar will cover topics including potential course content, best practices for effectively promoting civil discussion over sensitive topics in the classroom, and how to utilize university resources to create such courses. In addition to Prof. Bejan and Dr. Rose, this year Gary Saul Morson (Northwestern) will serve as a guest lecturer. The seminar will be free of charge with food and lodging covered. Participants will stay at the beautiful JB Duke Hotel on Duke’s campus. In addition, participants will receive a stipend of $5000.

In order to participate, applicants must agree to teach a course similar to Duke’s HTAPP within three semesters of finishing the seminar. Successful applicants will need to acquire express and written approval from their department chair or dean allowing them to teach such a course within that timeframe. In addition, participants will agree to participate in a Zoom follow-up meeting within three semesters of the summer seminar, where they will present the results of their course to other participants.

This seminar is open to full-time, tenure-track or recently tenured faculty at 4-year or higher institutions. If you would like to be considered for this seminar, please email John Rose (john.rose@duke.edu) with your complete application, including the following attachments:

1) CV/Resume
2) 2-3 page statement explaining your interest in the seminar
3) Any other relevant documentation, including relevant course syllabi, publications, etc. (No more than 3 additional attachments please.)

There is no application deadline. Applications will be handled on a rolling basis.

Questions regarding the seminar or application can also be emailed to Dr. Rose.

History, Storytelling, and Asian American Identity: A Conversation with Min Jin Lee

In its first in-person event since the spring of 2020, The Ethics of Now series welcomed “Pachinko” novelist Min Jin Lee to the Durham Arts Council on April 8, 2022.

Adriane Lentz Smith and Min Jin Lee
Adriane Lentz-Smith (right) and Min Jin Lee in conversation at the Durham Arts Council on Friday, April 8, 2022. An audience of 175 attended the talk, which was followed by a book signing.

In an hour-long conversation with host Adriane Lentz-Smith and audience members, Lee discussed a variety of topics—from happiness, morality, and the insights afforded by history to storytelling, racism, and Asian American identity. Below are some excerpts from her comments.

On happiness

One of the reasons I wanted to come here today is you’re the ethics institute, and that is something that I care profoundly about…I don’t believe in [happiness.] I really don’t. I think that the pursuit of happiness is causing people to be miserable. I believe in joy, I believe in gratitude, I believe in meaning, I believe in purpose, I believe in moral goodness. I believe in satisfaction and contentment. But the pursuit of happiness, I think, is a really immature thing.

On her moral sensibility, reading the Bible, and writing

If you are telling stories, and stories are really just our lives made into order, you have to see what you cannot do and what you can do. One of the great lies we tell ourselves in the 21st century is that we don’t judge. What nonsense! We’re judging all the time. You go on Twitter for about three minutes, and you are angry about something. Because we think something was done in a wrong way, which means you’re judging…

We are constantly thinking about morality—what is allowable, what is not allowable, what should be held accountable, what should not be held accountable. And Bible or the Quran or the Torah…they are all discussing what we need in order to live a wise life…

In my reading of the Bible every day, I have learned so much about story and about human characterization, so I wouldn’t stop even if you made me.

On studying history as an undergraduate student

Min Jin Lee
Lee spoke with humor, candor, and empathy about viewing human experience through the eyes of a novelist and researcher.

I wanted to be an English or Literature major, but that seemed so glamorous to me…I thought that I would in major in history, because it’s essentially storytelling, but it’s all nonfiction. It also sounded very solid. Back then, it was very solid, whereas now, it’s, “Oh, you’re a history major, you want to be a waiter.”

Everything that I’ve done in my life…[is] because I have such a strong foundation in history. I tell people all the time, if I didn’t read as much as I did, and I do—I really couldn’t function in the world. And I have nothing but respect for STEM. I went to the Bronx High School of Science, which means that I have an inordinate amount of expertise in math and sciences, and yet I also understand that behind science is this idea of inquiry, and inquiry is a humanities discipline.

So I want to integrate both fact-based learning but also inquiry and philosophy, which is so important, and now that I’ve interviewed so many important people in the world…I have met all these billionaires, and so many of them are philosophy majors. Yeah! So they’re not waiters—and by the way, waiters are not bad!

On framing our lives as stories

I’ll have an incredibly brilliant student come to my office hours, and they’re sobbing. I’m like, “What’s the matter? Talk to me.” And they’ll tell me something that happened that was disappointing. And I say to them, “Do you know that you’re in Chapter Two?” And all of a sudden, it dissipates…and they can feel this relief…Depending on which story you’re telling, it can make you feel like you can control the chaos of life.

On anti-Asian violence

Right now, what’s happening with anti-Asian violence is deeply disturbing, because there’s a lot of documentation of what’s going on and the numbers are appalling, but I’m going to say something weird as a novelist. Beneath that rage that you and I feel…underneath it, I have a question: “Why don’t you like me?” That is my question. Let’s go below that: “I want you to like me. And when you don’t like me, it hurts me.” When you can have those discussions, things can change.

On the desire of Asian Americans to assimilate and to achieve (with the example of being published in The New Yorker)

I think that the wish to be American is something that many Asians and Asian Americans have…Now, obviously that term ‘American’ can mean very many things. If the wish to be American means a wish to be white, then that needs to be questioned.

As for the wish to be published by The New Yorker–I’m going to address it, because I’ve never met a writer who didn’t want to be published in The New Yorker! We think of The New Yorker as probably the most prestigious literary magazine in English, probably in the world. So, if we look at that, and we name that as what it is—the object—then what are we really saying? We’re really saying: we wish to be accepted by the most prestigious literary organization in the world. What we really wish for is recognition. We want universal acclaim.

When I’m with my students, I often say, if you have that wish, that’s not a bad wish. Let’s look at that wish and see what you really, really want, and let’s figure how to get it, and if you think it’s good for you.

Now, the whole thing with things like The New Yorker, or any other imprimaturs which make us feel that we’re accepted–if that requires mortification, and by mortification, I mean killing off parts of yourself in order to be accepted, I always say, hold on. Let’s take a look.

I have always fought very, very hard against trying to kill parts of myself off in order to be accepted, and as a matter of fact, it’s caused me a lot of problems…I have to struggle against a world that wants me to behave in a certain way that can be satisfying, that can get good results.

On “Pachinko” as a universal story

…I’ve leaned so deep into my Korean-ness, I thought for sure that I was going to create an isolated bubble of myself, but ironically, the more particular I got, the more specific I got, the more universal it eventually became. I wrote a book on spec. I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a contract, I didn’t get paid to write this book. I spent 30 years of my life researching it on my own coin.

This book is taught in Korea and around the world by people who teach Korean history. If you had asked me, why would anybody want to read a book about the Korean-Japanese people, you would have been a reasonable person to ask the that question…but I said I’m going to just do it because I want to, because I was really upset about the inequities they’d suffered.

On loving your Korean family and Korean identity

I love being with Korean people. I have so much fun. They tease me and I tease them back. There’s a kind of generosity and openness that I really love.

Adriane Lentz-Smith and Min Jin Lee
Lentz-Smith and Lee listening to a question from an audience member. Many of the questions were about navigating Asian American identity in the United States amid pressures to assimilate, increased attacks on Asians, and the continued perception of Asians as “perpetual foreigners.”

I’m not saying all Korean people are this way. I get it. One of the reasons why I’m talking about it right this second, is because I hear this, too, when I interview Koreans. They say stuff like this to me: “You’re a nice Korean person…don’t trust those Korean people.”

In my interviews for “American Hagwon,” do you know how many kids I’ve interviewed, who are grown, who’ve said to me, their mothers or fathers have said, “when you go to this excellent school that I’m sending you to, that I sacrificed so much for, don’t hang out with the Koreans”? This is a Korean person telling their Korean kids this.

And I think to myself, I understand why the parent says this…the parents are trying to say, I want you to get the outcome that’s good. Therefore, I want you to have these four years of hell, of hating your peers…or your mirrors. So what you’re really saying is, “I want you to hate yourself. You are your enemy.”

So what I hear these messages…I think, things will change, when we say, we’re here. I like myself, and I like my brothers and sisters. I like my family.

Social Choreography Turns Audience into Artmakers

“Parliament” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2018. Photo by Christina Gangos.

When you think about experiencing art, what comes to mind? Likely, you imagine going to a museum to look at paintings, or to the theater to watch a play.

What if instead of observing art, you—and the people around you—were the art?

That’s one of the many ideas behind “Amendment,” a project by Michael Kliën and his Laboratory for Social Choreography, that demonstrates his approach to art making—art as constituted entirely of the interactions of the people in the room.

Four years ago, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University hosted Kliën’s “Parliament.” Participants signed up to remain in a gallery space with each other, without speaking and without electronic devices, for up to six or seven hours at a time.

After an initial period of awkwardness and uncertainty, members of “Parliament” found ways to communicate and respond to each other’s movements. Spontaneous interactions emerged. Imaginations activated.

According to Kliën, this kind of experience provokes deep questions about “how we should be in the world”—as individuals, and with each other.

Comic style drawing of a pregnant person surrounded by animals
This concept art for Amendment reflects an origin story drawn from another of Kliën’s projects, the “Social Dreaming Matrix.” Illustration by Rafal Kosakoski.

Unlike “Parliament,” “Amendment” lasts an hour and a half. During the first fifteen minutes, participants will be given instructions that will guide their actions and interactions for the next seventy-five minutes.

Kliën says that part of the instructions, or “propositions,” for “Amendment” is a new origin story for humanity, one reflects new conceptions of “how we relate to the natural world, to others, and to ourselves.” This story was drawn from another of his social choreography projects, the “Social Dreaming Matrix,” which interwove dreams from hundreds of participants during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the first fifteen minutes, the participants are free to move, respond to the music playing in the space, interact with each other, negotiate their roles in the piece, and “understand and resist familiar social—and perhaps personal—patterns,” says Kliën. No participants are obligated to do anything they don’t want to do.

There are no recordings and no observers. Everyone is a participant. “There’s nothing but the experience,” said Kliën. “That’s the art.”

Who should sign up for “Amendment”? Anyone 18 years or older, “with a sense of adventure,” said Kliën. Comfortable clothes should be worn, allowing for easy movement and easy sitting on the floor.

Participants can sign up for one or both “Amendment” sessions, which take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 18 and Tuesday, April 19 in the Rubenstein Art Center, or “Ruby,” at Duke University. On Wednesday, April 20, at noon, there will be an open reflection session for people who took part in the sessions in the Ruby Lounge.

Sign up by emailing the Laboratory for Social Choreography at labsc@duke.edu.

Durham Premiere of “Fire of Freedom” Spotlights Historical Black Leader

Mike Wiley in performance as Abraham Galloway. A trunk lies in front of him
Wiley in performance as Abraham Galloway. Photo by Trevon Carr.

CONTACT: Sarah Rogers
(919) 660-3035

DURHAM, N.C. — Abraham Galloway was a freedom fighter. Born near Wilmington, N.C. in 1837, he escaped from slavery, became a radical abolitionist, risked his life behind Confederate lines as a Union spy, and recruited hundreds of Black soldiers to fight during the Civil War. He was known for his fiery oratory, his swagger, and his habit of visibly wearing his pistol at his hip. He was part of a delegation of Black southerners who met with Abraham Lincoln in the White House to demand suffrage and the full rights of citizenship. Following the war, he was one of the first Black men elected to the North Carolina state legislature.

Despite these accomplishments, Galloway’s story is not yet well known, even in his home state of North Carolina.

“The Fire of Freedom,” a one-man play starring actor Mike Wiley and featuring vocalist Mary Williams, promotes Galloway’s legacy by depicting the freedom fighter’s journey from ex-slave to the one of the most compelling political leaders of his time.

Wiley will perform “The Fire of Freedom” at the Carolina Theatre at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 11, the play’s Durham premiere. This performance is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. They are available online via registration at TheFireofFreedom.eventbrite.com.

“Galloway’s presence in the story of America should come as no surprise,” said Mike Wiley. “The resilience of enslaved Black people is documented in detail in the pages, songs, and stories of our nation’s history—for those who are looking, for those who are listening. The surprise that a man such as Galloway could exist arises more often from those who are not paying attention.”

An MFA graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and winner of its Distinguished Alumni award, Wiley is an acclaimed actor, playwright, documentarian, and director. He plays dozens of characters in his one-man shows, often based on key events and figures in African American history.

“The Fire of Freedom” is inspired by a biography of Galloway by North Carolina historian David Cecelski. Playwright Howard Craft wrote the theatrical adaptation. Cecelski and Craft will join Wiley onstage after the one-hour play for an audience talkback.

This performance is sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, where Wiley recently began a three-year appointment as Artist in Residence. He will co-direct a project called “America’s Hallowed Ground,” which tells the stories of historical sites through community-engaged art.

Call for Volunteers: Hostile Terrain 94

Toe-tags with information about deceased persons
This close-up of the Hostile Terrain 94 installation shows the toe-tags that mark the locations where individuals’ bodies were found.

The Kenan Institute for Ethics invites volunteers from the Duke and Durham community to participate in an art installation project the memorializes the 3200 people who died attempting to cross the US-Mexico border between the mid-1990s and 2019.

This installation, Hostile Terrain 94, is conceptualized by the Undocumented Migration Project. It will be simultaneously installed at more than a hundred institutions across the United States and globe.

In small groups of 15 people, volunteers will fill out toe-tags for the individual victims. Once 1600 toe-tags are filled out, groups of five people will then install the toe-tags on a temporary map on the wall of the exhibition space, making visible the human cost of the United States’ “prevention through deterrence” policy.

A number of 45-minute and 60-minute volunteer slots are open from March 16 to April 20. Jose Ortega-Estrada, Stephen & Bear Postgraduate Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, will lead these volunteer sessions.

“My hope is that this project will help individuals emotionally connect with the information on the tags, memorialize and stand in solidarity with these lost lives, and spark conversations of the root causes behind migration,” said Ortega-Estrada.

To sign up for a volunteer slot, please visit this page.