What Now? Network Gives First-Year Students a Sense of Purpose and Community

This fall, the Kenan Institute for Ethics, working with Trinity College, has debuted the What Now? network of seminars, designed to enable first-years and faculty to build a community organized around some of life’s “big questions” and encourage them to develop the skills and habits that can lead to more fulfilling, purposeful lives. The What Now? network exposes incoming students to a wider array of ideas, as well as more faculty and engaged peers, than is typically possible in a single first-year seminar.

The program builds on insights from the Institute’s Purpose Program and a pilot course offered with the support of Trinity College last year; “Composing Oneself: Stress, Identity & Wellness,” co-taught by Denise Comer (Writing) and KIE Program Director Christian Ferney, struck a chord with students who took it. Because the class filled up so quickly, most of those who benefitted were seniors. The new What Now? network is specifically designed for first-years because “we hope to situate them to best take advantage of the next four years,” says Ferney.

All of the What Now? seminars – five offered this fall, and more coming in Spring 2019 – “have huge life-questions embedded in them,” says Ferney. What makes us happy? How do we judge success or goodness? How do we create durable and healthy communities? How can we engage effectively across differences? These seminars intersect in a dedicated weekly commonly scheduled period as well as structured in- and out-of-class activities that bridge seminars. interrelated and inter-disciplinary topics that provide context for the world students are preparing to enter while also inviting reflection on how they fit into that picture.

“I like to think of the What Now? seminar series as an effort to accomplish the principle aim of a liberal arts education, as Judith Shapiro described it when she was president of Barnard College,” says David Toole, a KIE Senior Fellow and associate professor of the practice of theology, ethics, and global health at Duke Divinity School. “She used to tell students that her job was to make the inside of their heads an interesting place to spend the rest of their lives. ‘A liberal-arts education does lots of other things,’ she would say, ‘but if it hasn’t made the inside of your head an interesting place, it has failed.’”

What makes the What Now? offerings unique from other first-year seminars is their “Common Time,” a dedicated, weekly, jointly-scheduled “lab” when all the students from all the network’s seminars can come together as one or rearrange into smaller groups. One such activity is an occasional “crawl” that takes students and faculty members to a place that lets them “get out of their heads.” The first crawl of this inaugural year was held at Duke Gardens. Students could wander around freely and talk with each other as they wanted to, while eating popsicles and without using their phones for 75 minutes. At the end, students expressed that they felt more relaxed and grounded than they had in a long time.

In addition to their crawls, What Now? network students meet every other week for faculty-led conversations in which they are grouped by residence hall rather than by seminar. These out-of-class activities bridge seminars and increase the chances that the students will run into the people that they have interacted with during class and common-time in daily-life situations. “It helps knit the community together,” says Ferney. “Real connections in communities are what keep people engaged and give life its richness. We want the experience of sharing that richness to follow them home, or to crop up again while walking to the bus or dinner.”