Finding Purpose at Duke

I think finding purpose is a lifelong journey, and part of that journey is realizing that things that once brought me purpose and meaning no longer do. Throughout high school, things that brought me a sense of purpose, reflected in a sense of joy and deep satisfaction, were simply stepping stones to getting into college. Using values as a baseline in which to define a life of purpose, I now realize that these things brought me purpose because they fed into larger values I believe in: achievement, growth and excellence. Of these three, only growth has stayed with me throughout my college journey. Part of the reason is that no clear stepping stones exist – college is a bed of gravel in which we must carve our own path.

Growth has given me far more flexibility than achievement or excellence because it is a standard to be measured only against myself, and so is a true value of purpose – something that comes from within me. Achievement and excellence were also short term, serving only to inspire me for short periods of time and leaving me with a listlessness that a true value would have not.

Growth has given me purpose and meaning precisely because it belies the criterion for a “single truth”; a value that must be universally applicable in order to have worth. It allows me to accept that values, passions and the way that people find meaning in their life are inherently individual. I attend college in a world where people are increasingly more and more accomplished, but far more fragile. In this setting, idealism and belief in personal values are not just important, they are also prerequisites to carving a path that is uniquely my own. In order to counter this fragility, my idealism has to be able to stand up to a stronger critique. In essence, it must higher standards than inner values have ever been subjected to. When I look at measuring my growth, I can draw strength from how far I have come, but also motivation to look at how far I have to go.

Part of the problem of finding the values that were closest to me was that little guidance existed. For people older than me, values had already been largely set out for them – a moral pull towards patriotism or a familial push towards duty. Growing up in an increasingly globalized world and moving around in it meant that I grew highly skeptical of ideals like patriotism and duty. I couldn’t swallow or find meaning in values based around “the higher goals of society”. I had been exposed to far too many versions of these values to accept a single one as my truth.

Gandhi once said, “[w]hatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Through my time at Duke, I have developed a modification of the quote, adapting the quote to reflect how the privilege of my education may well be significant, and that the things I could potentially do at Duke are overwhelming. In contrast to accepting insignificance, I find meaning and purpose in doing things that may seem insignificant now, but trusting that growth is its own end, not a means to significance.   

This article was first written for Ethics 253S: Pursuit of Purpose

Cheating When it Doesn’t Count

As midterm week approaches at Duke, numerous instances of cheating can be heard on the C1, on the plaza, and in Perkins.

– “Oh, I STINFed that class. Had to study for orgo.”
– “Can I see your p-set? I don’t have time to do it.”
– “First time I’ve written a paper without Adderall!”

Pressures are high, and so we cut corners.

But why would students cheat for classes that “don’t count?” The online course company, Coursera, reported dozens of instances of plagiarism in a sci-fi fantasy course attended by 39,000 students.

The class (and all classes offered through Coursera) is free, peer-graded, and carries no academic credit, except a certificate of achievement. Fun fact: Duke Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong teaches the largest Coursera course — over 180,000 are enrolled.

So, why did the students cheat?

An article by The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that many instances of plagiarism could be attributed to the various cultural background of the students. In countries such as China and Uganda, where I have taught, this seems plausible. Watching students study English by copying passages of a textbook over and over, it seems logical to me that they may lift sentences off Wikipedia or another author for a for an essay.

Nevertheless, confusion about what constitutes plagiarism can’t be the sole causal factor. Perhaps its also the unrelenting strive to “succeed” and the fear of failure. Even though Coursera is ungraded and open to the public, some of the students who voluntarily enroll may be similarly motivated as Duke Students. Thus, cutting corners may be a means to “achieve” and “succeed” in front of their peers.

So, does it matter?

At Duke, cheating has consequences for both the person and his or her peers. Curves are ruined, grades skewed. Plagiarizing on Coursera on the other hand, carries little academic consequence.

Given that students enroll for free, papers are peer-graded, and there is no academic credit, besides a certificate of completion, does it make sense to punish cheaters? What really is at stake?

I believe the answer is yes. Cheating is a categorical wrong in an academic setting. Imagine enrolling in the sci-fi class to seek intellectual fulfillment (or accomplishment), only to find yourself reading paper after paper of the synopsis of Frankenstein from Wikipedia.

Although we think of higher education as an outputs-oriented institution (think research, degrees, etc), it’s also a process as well. Avoiding the process of learning kills the meaning of education, especially in a “purer” learning experience such as Coursera where academic accreditation is not likely the end objective.

Coursera’s mission is to first and foremost foster a vibrant intellectual community. So while cheating doesn’t “count” in terms of “As, Bs, and Cs,” it certainly matters to the students and the future of the program. Granted, it’s silly to expect a “class” of 180,000 engaged, intellectually curious students. Nevertheless, plagiarism is certainly preventable, and worth preventing.

Roommates by Design?

After the initial high of “OH MY GOD, I GOT INTO COLLEGE” dies down and the reality that you will be leaving home next year to live amongst thousands of strangers sets in, the anxiety about whom your roommate will be becomes all consuming. Of course, not everyone entering his or her freshmen year of college is as concerned as I make it seem. Yet, let’s get real: roommates are a huge source of apprehension for the average incoming freshmen.
Obviously each person hopes that he or she will be paired with someone with whom he or she is compatible. Luckily the majority of universities have some type of questionnaire that asks generic questions such as, “Do you smoke?” and “Do you stay up late?” in hopes that students will then be paired with others with whom they are somewhat compatible. These guidelines can offer some comfort to incoming students, yet just because two people go to bed at the same time does not mean that they are in any way similar personality wise. And so students are faced with a decision: go random or self-select.

I was a tad bit shocked when after acceptance letters had been sent out, I received an invite on Facebook to the Duke Girls Class of 2016 Roommate Group. Out of curiosity, I accepted. I began reading through the hundreds of surveys that girls in my class had filled out. Each girl had uploaded a document, answering over thirty questions that were posed by the site’s anonymous designer. Each girl was actively “searching” for a roommate. As I scanned through the posts I was mystified by how comfortable people were. Here hundreds of girls were posting everything about themselves onto a public page in which other girls would simply go through and do what I was doing—judge. Every question from “How many siblings do you have?” to “What is your clothing and shoe size?” was asked. It was like an online interrogation of sorts. I felt uncomfortable with what was going on. Yet, many others seemed to think this page was God’s answer to the hell that is picking your roommate.
Every moment more posts were uploaded, more comments were posted, and more pairs declared themselves roommates. Continuously girls were choosing each other based solely off the fact that they shared common answers to a few superficial questions. I watched as the artsy girls chose the other artsy girls, the New York girls banded together, and the Division 1 athletes immediately cliqued. As the posts were uploaded, people continued to comment with “Oh, I love that show too!” and “Ah, I am also from San Diego!” None of the comments acknowledged differences in answers. Girls were simply looking for mirror images of themselves.

I have a problem with this situation because colleges are continually attempting to enhance their diversity. The finest institutions in America draw on students from countries and cultures across the country and the globe in an attempt to enrich the academic and social experiences of their students. Yet, if students are, before even getting to college, already forming cliques of people exactly like them, how is diversity benefiting anyone? It seems like when we have a choice, we choose to stay in our comfort zones.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that there is no such thing as separate but equal and that “separate is inherently unequal.” Yet today almost 60 years later while students have the right to integrate, they chose to separate on the basis of identities such as race. Why does this self-segregation occur? According to Tommy Lee Woon Associate Dean at the Office of Pluralism and Leadership at Dartmouth College, “One reason is ‘positive’ —shared identity, support and safety. The other is ‘negative’¬—people who feel self-conscious about being different gravitate towards those they think they have something in common with them.” Dartmouth like many other colleges struggles to integrate students of different races, religions, and social-classes. In this modern and often isolating world, students of the same background tend to stick together to find a sense of belonging and create a collective environment. This self-segregation is widely believed to be a very negative reality of campus life. However on the flip side, I know many girls who see self-segregation and similarly self selection as a guarantee they will be comfortable where they are living during their first year of college. And is that wrong? The transition to university life is already a scary one; the comfort of knowing your roommate is a nice security. So while diversity may be ignored and superficiality exuded, can we really blame those who desire some sense of familiarity during this first year in a foreign place?

How to go about choosing your roommate is a personal decision and one that should not be made hastily. While I understand the security associated with a roommate who is similar I also think that learning to interact and cope with people dissimilar to you is crucial. So what did you decide? Did you pick out of a hat and hope for the best or did you play the matching game, sorting through your options until you found the “perfect” fit?

Soccer Balls and Wedding Cakes


Separate and equal.

At least that’s the idea behind the new emerging trend of dividing boys and girls in public school classrooms. The students would be taught the same curriculum, but in different styles. (another link here)

Obviously the range of this novel (or should I say, archaic?) type of education varies widely. On one extreme end, the boys and girls simply sit in different classrooms, and on one other extreme end, boys and girls are not even allowed to speak to each other on school grounds.

Somewhere in the middle, however, teachers are instructed to use more direct commands and louder voices for boys and a calmer tone for girls.

The trend is emerging because, well, it’s working on tests and discipline issues, or at least those are the claims by some researchers and the schools that employ this method. As of now, there is really no conclusive evidence that favors either method due to a lack of data, and there are also just too many variables that need to be considered. Some variation of the method, however, is being used in some public schools in 39 states plus District of Columbia.

Proponents go as far as saying that this new method bridges the achievement gap between races, class, and of course, gender. In contrast, the opponents treat it as a way to enforce gender stereotypes and believe that the method does not prepare the students well for the co-ed real world.

While I must agree that telling boys to brainstorm sports things and girls wedding cakes is a terrible idea (many schools actually did this). It’s hard to argue against the notion of inherent differences in a boy’s brain and a girl’s brain.

In the U.S. today, more girls like pink than boys and girls tend to do better in reading tests than their gender counterparts. These are facts that are not disputable because they are hard numbers. But are these due to genetic differences? Or are they results of socialization? If it’s more of the former, is it ethical to divide up the boys and girls then? If the same is true for whites and blacks, can we divide them up the same way as well? And what if it’s more of the latter? Is it ethical then to divide up the boys and girls to try to break the expectations?

This attempt at education reform also focuses on less quantifiable characteristics such as the perceived notion that most boys are more impulsive and most girls more compassionate. The teaching style then addresses these differences. The keyword is most. People recognize that this may only work with a proportion of people, and that’s why they allowed optional opt-outs (the Alabama middle school that made it mandatory dropped it immediately after the ACLU came knocking). And if the improved test score numbers are real and it is working for the majority, what do we do? We don’t really know how detrimental it is to the minority that doesn’t fit the model yet as there definitely will be some social pressure against opting out. So should these public schools keep continuing their models?

This reminds me of the post when I talked about whether it is okay to send inmates to churches instead of jails. It’s a different approach to solve the problem, and it’s something that certainly lies in the ethically ambiguous area, but if it works, it certainly warrants more attention. Sure, test scores are not everything, but if this approach really helps the boys catch up on reading, is that really a bad thing? And according to many interviews, this method seems to help girls gain confidence and encourages them to ask more questions in class (this, to me, is less genetics and more society, stupid boys) – and that’s not really a bad thing either is it?

We live in a society where the most politically correct thing is to not enforce stereotypes and gender roles, and this is why a lot of people (me included) find this idea repulsive. But these educators are trying to use inherent differences to help, and what if this approach encourages more boys to pursue poetry and more girls to pursue science? The schools that employ this method argue that will eventually be the results.

Perhaps there is a better solution – test individual kids and determine which child goes to the “reading focus” and which child goes to the “math focus,” but then that will divide up the students even more and inevitably lead to accelerated classes for more talented kids and “remedial classes” for the ones behind. And whether that is ethical or not is a whole other discussion.

Grades: a D or an F? I’ll take an F please.

Oh, you’ve heard the old adage that less is more. We all know that it’s wrong. Why would you want quieter speakers, a slower computer, or less money? Everybody knows that more is indeed more. But more doesn’t mean better, as some students in a California school are learning.

Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch, California opened two years ago with a new premise-abolishing Ds from the grading system. And in many ways, it makes sense-nobody wants Ds, and they’re perched right between the permissible C and the dreaded F. But alas, in practice, this system didn’t work—high school students (and their parents) became frustrated with the failing grades some of them received, which lowered their GPAs. As a result, the district finally decided to add Ds back to the mix, and as a small gift, retroactively changed every single F into a D. Great, right? Nope. While it did raise the GPAs of students, it also prevented them from retaking subjects that they had previously failed. Obviously, many of these students actually wanted the F—by having a failing grade, they were allowed to retake classes, something that a barely-passing D didn’t allow them to do.

So in a situation like this, what is a school to do? Bring back the Fs? Change the policy and allow students with Ds to retake classes? This is not an easy question to answer, and there is a cost to each option as well. If the school allowed students with Ds to retake classes, wouldn’t this hurt students who had just barely gotten a C by not allowing them the opportunity to retake a course? And how well do grades truly demonstrate differences in knowledge? Does a 71% take significantly more effort or knowledge to earn than a 69%? From my perspective, it seems like the best way to solve this problem is to allow all students to retake courses, regardless of the grade they received. It isn’t fair to give a group of students a second chance simply because they did poorly the first time they took a class. If a second chance is given, it should be extended to all students.

The ramifications of this extend well beyond a student’s freshman transcript; in today’s increasingly competitive world, we often look to standardized measurements (like grades and test scores) as shortcuts to find optimal candidates for jobs and positions. At a place like Duke, it is easy to see how important these standards are. While these standards are often useful and efficient, we must also consider the shortcomings. For example, grades don’t demonstrate promise or dedication, and they don’t inherently take into account improvement over time.

We’ve all been in that instance where we are on the border of a better (or worse) grade. We know how much of a difference these small indicators make. And as a result, it is our responsibility to look (and live) beyond these standards. We should accept them, but we should also look at them as just a small part of who an individual is.

Beyond the ivory tower

At Syracuse University, the line between a public and private institution has become blurry.

Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed the chancellorship of Nancy Cantor, who has pushed the university’s benefits past the campus’ walls and into the town of Syracuse. At the university’s expense, it has embarked on many city projects such as refurbishing public areas and offering tuition to local high school graduates under Cantor’s tenure. Although she has encouraged faculty members to focus their research on the town of Syracuse, some professors have blamed Cantor for SU’s sliding reputation and budgetary shortfalls.

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