Perceptions vs. Realities

By Rachel Revelle

Duke students rejoice as Duke wins the national championship during a watch party at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday evening. Duke won the game against Butler with a score of 61-59.

Let’s lay the negative stereotypes aside, please.

Another year at Duke has begun. I’m having trouble acknowledging the fact that it has now been five years since I unpacked, went through Orientation Week, and started class for the first time.  Yes, I feel a bit older this year, and the freshmen seem a little younger. But that process of how exactly to fit comfortably into life at Duke is still very near.

Hopefully students are invigorated by all the messages that this is their time, that they can pursue anything that they wish, in any number of creative ways. They should take these messages to heart, because Duke means it. But we all know there are some negative stereotypes lurking as well. Effortless perfection has for several years been the theme of campus culture—the bright, engaged kid making incredible strides in his or her field, and yet feeling internally overwhelmed and forced to make compromising decisions to maintain self-image. If there is any word I would use to describe a Duke student, it is intense. We have to succeed, so we do what we must.

But must we lie, cheat, steal, and sleep around in a YOLO whirlwind through the four shortest years of our life? Well, apparently not. Let me introduce you to two different studies that came out last spring, and which I hope will be a good foothold for the coming year. One is a report on Duke Social Relationships, and the other on Integrity in Undergraduate Life at Duke. It turns out students have healthier relationships, and value integrity more highly, than perceptions suggest. The Duke Social Relationships Project found that students do have meaningful friendships and relationships, and build a strong sense of belonging through any number of routes, but particularly through academic engagement. As a Chronicle editorial put it last spring, well-being is within our grasp.

I did my fair share of contributing to the “work hard, play hard” stereotype, and then bemoaning its effects on college lifestyles, such as the lack of a dating scene. I probably could have figured out the lifestyle I was comfortable with for myself a lot easier if I had gotten the notions of a student body full of crazed, social climbing competitors out of my head. It turns out there were a lot less of them than I thought.

The integrity report also gave me quite a reality check.  This rigorously constructed and executed research project, conducted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Academic Integrity Council, gives us real insight into how students both think and act, inside and outside the classroom. Compared to a similar study five year ago, there were marked reductions in several areas of dishonesty, yet the perception of dishonest behavior was far higher than reported cases. Again, let’s embrace the positive reality that a life at Duke should be, and usually is, one of integrity both inside and outside the classroom.

Besides the fact that our perceptions just don’t match the realities for either study, there are a couple of interesting ways that these two studies intersect. One is in an area I’ll call the ethics of collaboration. Innovative, collaborative education is a prime way to promote the holistic sense of belonging that comes with academic endeavors. It involves increased engagement with faculty, peers, and real-world problem-solving situations. It is also clearly the direction in which the university is heading, with curricular experiments such as DukeImmerse, a focus on interdisciplinary programs and initiatives, as well as undergraduate opportunities for vertically integrated research projects. But with this emerging model of education comes understandable confusion about standards and practice, what should count as collaborative versus individual effort. The two categories in which academic dishonesty had increased were related to collaborative, team-based work. A conclusion of the report was that “Duke has a real opportunity to establish clear, consistent strategies and best practices in communicating integrity standards for teamwork.” I’m going to challenge students—along with the administration—to think proactively about what those standards should be.

Another finding from the integrity survey links back to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Students had clear ideas of what was ethical versus unethical, and were largely not engaging in the unethical behaviors. And yet, they were averse to taking action against dishonest behavior, overwhelmingly because it was “not my business.” While it’s common to have a strong individual sense of integrity, we don’t always translate that to the campus at large. The small percentage of dishonest behavior becomes conflated to the point that we think it applies more broadly than it does! We are a generation that advocates for tolerance—a good thing in many, many cases.  But there is a danger when our tolerance borders on moral relativism.

Yes, we are intense. But, on a personal level at least, we are also very intentional in what we care about. Let’s be a little more intentional in how we care for the university as a whole. That means affirming the positive realities of our campus culture, taking pride in a community of integrity, and proactively thinking about how to move forward with these conceptions of life at Duke.  Future classes will thank us for it.