A program for thriving at Duke

What if your classes not only shaped the way you thought but also the way you lived? What Now? The Duke Guide to Happiness, Purpose & Well-Being offers seminars designed to help you develop the tools and capacities to thrive at Duke and beyond.

Research across multiple disciplines suggests that students—and working adults—perform best when they are authentically connected to their work and to the people around them. What Now? classes are an opportunity for every student to consider what drives them, to learn habits that may help them succeed, and to have fun along the way.

Each seminar is a discipline-specific window into how to be happy, purposeful, or well. Explore the philosophy or social science of happiness; think about the meaning of belonging through Spanish literature; or consider how we communicate while learning about global health. These offerings give insights into different academic disciplines, but they also provide lenses through which to consider some of the fundamental questions that face each of us: What makes you happy? Why are you (or any of us) here? How do you choose the right path for you? What Now? offers a space not only to begin to answer those questions, but to live better in the process.

Faculty Committee: Martin Smith, Dean of Academic Affairs, Trinity College (ex officio); Denise Comer (Writing); David Malone (Education); Michael Kliën (Dance)

You take a seminar in the fall or spring of your first year. We’re offering first-year seminars (89S) and a more limited number of Writing 101 seminars in both the fall and spring semesters. Enrollment for these is open—sign up for the one you want.

graphic representing five different seminars, each a different color

As part of registration for a What Now? seminar, you’ll register for ETHICS 189: the What Now? Common Experience course. During this flexible “lab” course, students try out some of Duke’s best resources to support intellectual growth, wellness, and stress reduction. This .5-credit, satisfactory/unsatisfactory course also features faculty-facilitated conversations in students’ living groups, creating opportunities for students to get to know more professors and engage with scholars in a relaxed setting.

graphic representing five seminar colors mixed

You can search for What Now? seminars in the Advanced Search tab in DukeHub. Click Course Attributes and choose Interest Area. Select What Now? from the list.

The Classes

89S Courses for Spring 2023


MW 12:00 – 1:15PM

How do we find composure amidst countless stressors in our lives? Answering that question well requires inquiry across disciplines as well as hands-on experience. This course offers exploration into the arts and sciences of stress, identity, and wellness: What are structural causes of stress and how do they impact our sense of self and community ethics? What can arts of wellness, including yoga, mindfulness, and art-based therapies tell us about how we experience who we are, how we function, and how we act with others? How does stress impact us physiologically? This course will employ writing both as a method and object of study for the exploration of stress, identity, and wellness. Composing Oneself includes hands-on experience with stress-reducing wellbeing strategies, theoretical and research-based texts, and nonfiction, fiction, poetry, art, and performance. The writing component includes a semester-long blog (visible only to class members) for reflection on wellness practices, a book review about wellness, and a final project about stress, identity, and wellness. Each student chooses their own final project content (i.e., music and wellness; compassion and race; illness and art therapies; Wall Street and mindfulness, etc.) and format (i.e., a musical composition; a visual artifact such as a scrapbook or photographic essay; a research-based essay, etc.). Course includes opportunities to visit relevant art exhibits, attend related performances, and engage in meaningful interactions with other students, staff, and faculty on campus working in associated areas of research and practice.

Professor: Denise Comer


W 10:15AM-12:45PM

How is it possible to create great art with someone else? This course answers that question by examining music, visual arts, and literature. Our main references are the Beatles and Duke Ellington, who reached extraordinary levels of accomplishment thanks to vigorous, unmatched levels of collaborative interaction. We also look at Picasso and Braque, Kehinde Wiley, Warhol, Dutch workshops in the seventeenth century, architectural studios, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and movies. What we might call the ethics of collaboration plays out differently in these two ensembles. Musicians who helped Ellington were largely hidden due to the goal of establishing him as a genius composer who did it all by himself. The Beatles, in contrast, carefully cultivated the image of an egalitarian musical collective, and this image came to dominate rock during the 1960s. By examining creative collaboration across varied fields, students will explore how great innovations come about, what we ow those with whom we collaborate, and how successful models for creation reverberate across time.

Professor: Thomas Brothers

View a quick trailer for the class below:


TTH 10:15-11:30AM

Fear, love, anger, pride, regret, envy – the emotions seem to play a big role in our lives, as well as in the lives of certain other animal species. But what are the emotions? Are they guides to behavior? Are they judgments, or perhaps biases of judgment? Are they motivations? Or maybe they are epiphenomenal – mere side effects of other mental processes, essentially irrelevant to proper mental function. The course explores what the emotions are, what they are for, and how they evolved. We begin with readings of some classic treatments of behavior and emotion in certain animal species, including gulls and chimpanzees. We then consider emotions in humans, reading selections from important works in psychology, neurobiology, and ethics. The central issue in the last part of the course will be the role of the emotions in human judgment, especially moral judgment.

Professor: Dan McShea


T 3:30 – 6:00PM

When we think of “school,” most of us envision rooms full of desks in rows with students facing a teacher imparting knowledge. Was this nearly-250-year-old way of learning ever the best way to educate? In this course we will explore this question through film and fiction to help us to reconsider what education is—and also what it could be: Why are we here at Duke? What really is the purpose of education? We will use imagined worlds of speculative fiction and sci-fi to interrogate and critically re-examine our own educational experiences—in classrooms, in our personal lives and in larger patterns of education globally. Through this work, we will analyze the choices and decisions educators make in designing curriculum, choosing approaches to teaching, organizing learning experiences, and creating educational spaces. Students will put these ideas into practice via a service-learning experience in local schools in which undergraduates co-develop creative futuristic projects with K-12 students.

Professors: David Malone & Sarah Ishmael


TTH 3:30-4:45PM

What obligations do we have to each other? Do we have different obligations to friends, family, and strangers? Is loyalty a moral value or is impartiality more important? We will consider whether social life is necessary for or an impediment to the best human life. In particular, we will focus on altruism–giving to others with nothing expected in return–and on collective moral obligations. When a moral problem, like alleviating global poverty or remedying climate change, is solvable not by individual action, but by coordinated, collective action, does that morally obligate each of us individually?

Professor: Jesse Summers


T 3:30 – 6:00PM

The aims of education in general – and the purpose of college in particular – often remain invisible to and unexamined by students and faculty. This seminar will examine the multiple functions and purposes college serves – from credentialing to career preparation to finding meaning and purpose in one’s life. We will examine current critiques of higher ed as well as research on emerging identities during young adulthood. Students will examine scholarship on teaching and learning (SoTL) with a particular focus on emerging trends in progressive education such as self-authorship, integrative learning, experiential learning, growth mindset, and digital innovation. Students will explore theories of identity and emerging adulthood development – including racial identity development. Students will analyze divergent philosophies of education and then develop and articulate their own educational philosophy and statement of purpose. Ethical issues and inequities in educational opportunities will be explored. Students will engage in a service-learning experience focused on development of an initiative aimed at changing campus culture to create a more inclusive and equitable campus community.

Professors: John Blackshear & Kimberly Blackshear

Writing 101 Courses for Spring 2023

TTH 3:30PM – 4:45PM (WRITING 101.35)

In the 1980s, biologist E.O. Wilson popularized the concept of “biophilia,” that humans have an innate desire to connect with the living world. Yet, 60% of the global population now lives in urban areas, and a recent Pew survey found that 31% of U.S. adults report being online “almost constantly.” It’s clear that humans are increasingly disconnected from our biophilic nature, and that shift is impacting our health and wellbeing. Rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise, particularly among urbanites. Doctors are now prescribing a daily dose of nature to treat high blood pressure, and people are turning to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” to de-stress and recharge. The concept of biophilia has also extended to urban planning as initiatives like rooftop gardens, bird-friendly building design, and green beltways seek to reconnect humans with nature and increase biodiversity.

In this course, we will use seminar-based discussions, research, and writing projects to examine the evidence for purported health and wellness benefits of nature and explore the challenges of designing and living in biophilic cities. Our course materials will come from environmental science, urban planning, psychology, and conservation journals, popular magazines and books, and documentaries. In your final project, you will work collaboratively to propose a greening initiative that seeks to integrate nature into an urban space of your choosing. Throughout the semester, you will also take part in a fundamental element of academic writing, reading each other’s work and providing feedback for revisions. And of course, we will get our nature fix by holding class outside as much as possible and taking field trips to local natural spaces like the Duke Gardens.

Professor: Lindsey Smith

Offered at 4 different times:
WF 12:00PM – 1:15PM (WRITING 101.18)
WF 1:45PM – 3:00PM (WRITING 101.19)
WF 3:30PM – 4:45PM (WRITING 101.56)
TTH 3:30PM – 4:45PM (WRITING 101.63)

College is one of the many turning points in your coming of age. It is a time when you separate from your family of origin, and thus are in a unique position to be able to reflect on your identity. The questions—“Who am I?”, “Who do I want to be?”, & “What do I want?”—are often daily challenges as you navigate being more independent and living a good life. Together, we will use the field of educational psychology to explore your personal and academic identity development, especially in relation to your happiness. In particular, we will reflect on emerging adulthood & student development theories, as well as scientific research on happiness, to help us understand how various factors—such as gender, socioeconomics, race, ethnicity, religion, and culture – shape the development of your authentic self.

By using a variety of texts, videos, observations and interviews about coming of age and happiness, we will engage with the work of others, learn to articulate a position, and situate our writing within specific contexts. To begin, we will read, discuss, and write about our classroom treaty and student learning and other identity profiles using both our personal experiences and existing theories on coming of age and happiness (2-3 pages). Informed by these theories, we will engage in case study research, which involves in-depth descriptive and analytical writing.

The final project will be an exploration in the form of an in-depth personal narrative & analysis of some issue(s) significant to your coming of age and happiness (10-15 pages). The topic, and the related additional readings, will be carefully chosen by you so that each personal narrative will be relevant & meaningful as you continue your coming of age journey at Duke. Throughout the course, we will write self and peer evaluations (2 pages) of our academic writing, and thus collaboratively strengthen our ability to improve our works in progress.

If you are interested and willing to learn about yourself & others through personal writing, discussions, and readings, then this W101 class might be a great fit for you.

Professor: Sheryl Welte

Offered at 3 different times:
TTH 8:30-9:45AM (WRITING 101.20)
TTH 12:00-1:15PM (WRITING 101.21)
TTH 1:45-3:00PM (WRITING 101.22)

In the first trailer for season 4 of Netflix’s hit-series The Crown, the narrator ominously intones, “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made: a prince and princess on their wedding day. But fairy-tales usually end at this point, with the simple phrase, ‘they lived happily ever after.’” Accompanied by a series of glimpses of the show’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the irony of the voice-over lands hard: we know how this fairy tale ends, and it is not happily.

And yet it is only the benefit of hindsight that affords us this knowledge: in July of 1981, the media spun the Royal Wedding between the Prince of Wales and the People’s Princess as a fitting end to a whirlwind, fairy-tale romance. But the key phrase here is “the media spun”: that is, the wedding (and the relationship) was marketed and sold as the stuff dreams were made of. After all, aren’t we conditioned, from years of watching idealized relationships play out in romantic comedies, to want exactly this? A handsome prince to ride in on his white horse and sweep the beautiful maiden off her feet? To ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after?

This course, then, proposes to investigate Disney’s role in the media’s construction and perpetuation of the Happily Ever After. What does the media, and specifically Disney, tell us a Happily Ever After looks like? Who gets to be happy? Who doesn’t? How can we differentiate between what we truly desire and what the media conditions us to want?

We’ll explore the answers to these questions through in-class discussion and weekly writing assignments. These will (tentatively) occur through: (1) annotating selected scholarly readings using Hypothes.is; (2) discussing those readings and Disney films in seminars; (3) the development of a capstone project on a Disney film of your choice, which will involve a collaborative podcast (~18 mins) and an individual multimedia history (~2500 words). Together, these steps will take us through the stages of writing, from proposal to revision. We will start by discussing ideas of happiness in general, using Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) and Soul (2020) as touchstones. We will then turn to Disney’s predecessors: the literary fairy tales of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen, exploring how “fairy tale endings” were initially constructed. We will then shift to an examination of several key Disney animated films, which may include: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Peter Pan (1950), The Little Mermaid (1989), The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Frozen (2013). To return to the trailer for The Crown, we will attempt to see that “happily ever after” is not “the place of arrival, but the place where the adventure really begins.”

This course is best suited for those who are interested in the intersection of media studies with critical analysis of race, gender, sexuality and identity. Do not be fooled by appearances: this course is not just watching Disney movies. You will be expected to critically engage with the texts, both visual and written. Prior knowledge of the Disney canon is not required, but is strongly encouraged.

Professor: Lisa Andres