What Now? Network

What makes you happy? Why are you (or any of us) here? How do you know when you’ve found “your” people? These kinds of questions can be fun (hard-fun) to answer, but they’re more than that. They may help shape your time at Duke and whatever you do next.

Plenty of research has shown that students who can align their interests and abilities with something bigger than themselves are more likely to be happy, excellent in their work, comfortable with uncertainty, and resilient. Purpose-oriented students are, simply put, more likely to thrive in complex, challenging, and diverse environments—those like Duke. In the fall of 2018, the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Trinity College launched a new network of interrelated seminars designed to help incoming Duke students develop the tools and capacities to thrive, here and beyond.

The What Now network of first-year seminars creates a community organized around (really!) big questions and building the skills to not only begin to answer them but live better in the process. Through the network, you’ll take a seminar led by engaged faculty. You’ll also regularly connect with students and faculty in related courses. By taking one course, you’ll have access to a wider array of ideas and students than is usually possible in a single seminar.

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


Your peers register for other, related seminars that are part of the What Now network.

Each What Now seminar also has a time scheduled together. We’ll use these to mix up and also connect with faculty teaching in the opposite semester. This is a great opportunity to make friends who share your interests and also to connect with multiple faculty–all through enrolling in a course that fulfills an academic requirement for first-years.

The Classes

Seminars for the Fall


This class focuses on the challenges of creating a more just world through organizing, protest, and activism both in the US and worldwide.

Professor: Orin Starn

Orin Starn, Ph.D. (Stanford University), is Professor of Cultural Anthropology and History. He has wide-ranging interests including Latin America, Native North America, social movements and indigenous politics, sports and society, and the history of anthropology. His most recent book, “The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes” (W.W. Norton, 2019, with Miguel La Serna) tells the story of a brutal Peruvian guerrilla insurgency.


Understanding who we are now demands understanding where we came from; the study of the ancient mind is thus one of the most challenging and fascinating research activities regarding Homo sapiens and human society and requires a multidisciplinary approach. This is possible through dialogue between neurosciences and the humanities, particularly connecting the study of art and material culture with cultural models, cultural patterns and the evolution of the brain. The class aims to open new perspectives in the study of the past and in the intersection of the brain sciences, humanities, archaeology, anthropology, art, philosophy, aesthetics and visual studies.

Professor: Maurizio Forte

Maurizio Forte, Ph.D. (University of Rome), is William and Sue Gross Professor of Classical Studies. His expertise includes digital archaeology, classical archaeology and neuro-archaeology.

(ALP, SS, EI, W)

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.

Professors: Denise Comer and Christian Ferney

Denise Comer, Ph.D. (University of South Carolina), is Associate Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies. Her research and teaching interests include narrative medicine, new media, travel writing, writing pedagogy, and writing transfer.

Christian Ferney, Ph.D. (Duke University), is a program director at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. He oversees university-wide ethics initiatives, ethics curriculum development, and the KIE alumni network. His teaching and research interests include sociology, ethics, globalization, and nationalism.


55 years ago Zukerkandl and Pauling discovered that genes behave much like a ticking clock, with mutations marking the seconds as they pass. The longer it has been since a species is formed, the larger percent divergence is observed between the DNA in its genes and its closest relatives. The improvements at sequencing DNA starting in 1980 has allowed Scientists to discover the “family tree” of much of Life’s Diversity, coming close to achieving a “Holy Grail” for Evolutionary Biologists. In this seminar, we will begin by exploring the amazing story behind confirming the closest relatives to humans — a story which includes data falsification and the destruction of hopes and careers. We will have regular debates and use as our guide David Quammen’s new book “The Tangled Tree.”

Professor: Cliff Cunningham

Cliff Cunningham, Ph.D. (Yale University), is a Full Professor of Biology, one of the pioneers of using DNA to discover the “Family Tree” of animals. His interests include the “Trans-Arctic Invasion” of Pacific marine animals into the North Atlantic after the first opening of the Bering Strait. He likes to promote scientific synthesis and sing 70’s style folk music.


How do communities, schools, and neighborhoods organize for social change? How do individuals organize their own commitments and energies to change themselves and the world around them? This course examines education as a component of collective liberation in the contemporary United States through themes of ethics, community organizing, and educational equity. It will introduce central philosophical and practical approaches to political organizing, help students develop skills in understanding and critiquing school segregation and resegregation in the US, and enable students to locate their own commitments, callings, and aptitudes within a variety of liberative accounts of social change.

Professor: Adam Hollowell

Adam Hollowell, Ph.D. (University of Edinburgh) serves as Senior Research Associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and Faculty Director of the Benjamin N. Duke Memorial Scholarship Program. His teaching and research focus broadly on ethics, religion, race, and public policy.


How do people survive and thrive in challenging, high-risk environments? This seminar seeks answers to this question in the long cultural history of good advice from different societies, such as the Roman Empire, the Viking world, the Renaissance court, modern capitalist economies, and our competitive and uncertain society today. By reading handbooks in the demanding art of living from the Stoics to Silicon Valley, we will consider the shifting strategies used to avert danger, remain calm, overcome loss, and organize a successful, satisfying, and dignified life under difficult and volatile circumstances. What are the premises, aims, and arguments of books of advice for the anxious and the ambitious across periods and countries, from the Ancient world to the age of Amazon.com?

Professor: Jakob Norberg

Jakob Norberg, Ph.D. (Princeton University), is Associate Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature. His research explores conceptions of community in German and Scandinavian thought and literature.


An examination of three important concepts from moral and political philosophy and the relations between them: (1) the notion of a good life, (2) the notion of being autonomous or self-directing, and (3) the notion of personal freedom. Happiness is considered as one (but not the only) approach to a good life. We will also examine moral dilemmas that can arise when these values conflict. Readings will be both historical (Aristotle, Mill) and contemporary (Berlin, Frankfurt, Feinberg, Nussbaum, Nozick, Haidt) and may include some literary works as well.

Professor: Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer Hawkins, Ph.D. (Princeton University), is Associate Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and a core faculty member of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine. Her research interests in philosophy focus on well-being, happiness, theories of emotion, practical reason, and notions of self. Her interests in medical ethics are focused on disability, the care of patients with dementia, assessment of decision-making capacity, psychiatric illness, and the nature of suffering. In her spare time she reads amazing kids literature with her children.


This course will investigate Hip Hop’s ascension to the number one musical genre in America, the ensuing societal implications, and its origins in the Civil Rights Movement. Students will also analyze lesser known Civil Rights Movement history and historical figures. Lastly, students will use the medium of Hip Hop and Civil Rights to scrutinize, ascertain, and search for the purpose of life.

Professor: Martin Smith

Martin P. Smith, Ph.D. (The University of Texas at Austin), blazed his own path by first fusing his passion for education and sport at the University of California at Berkeley. He earned his bachelor’s (‘06) and master’s (‘07) degrees in education while playing basketball for the Golden Bears. At Berkeley, he won the 2006 Jake Gimbell Award which honors the student most committed to academic and athletic excellence. In pursuit of his passions, Dr. Smith has traveled extensively, directing basketball clinics in China, the Philippines, and Panama. Furthermore, he was the Lead Teacher’s Assistant at the University of Cape Town, South Africa facilitating a course examining the effects of apartheid and American segregation on contemporary Black, urban economic development. He then conducted post-doctoral research in Spanish at the Mesoamerica Center in Antigua, Guatemala, studying the amalgamation of race, culture, education, and athletics before joining the faculty at Duke University. His work has been published in The Journal of Urban Education and The Journal of Race, Gender and Class. Dr. Smith’s research interests include racial, academic, and athletic identity, and he is passionate about examining how identity contributes to and influences social change.


This course will examine recent discoveries in the scientific study of happiness, and place the idea of happiness within historical and cultural context. The course will integrate findings from sociology, psychology, economics, anthropology and the natural sciences (neuroscience, biology, behavioral genetics) to explore questions about happiness. We will discuss how happiness is defined and measured, and whether and why some individuals and cultures experience more happiness than others. Most importantly, we will try to translate this literature into an understanding that can help class members have more meaningful, happier lives.

Professor: Lynn Smith-Lovin

Lynn Smith-Lovin, Ph.D. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is the Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology. She studies emotion, identity, and action, and is interested in the question of how identities affect social interaction.

The core disciplines in universities have historically devoted themselves to the study of ‘serious’ things: the origins and nature of the physical universe, the structure of the human mind and the explanation of behavior, the history of civilizations and the foundations of law, the regulation of the economy, the question of the existence of deities, and myriad questions about, literally, life and death. Even when scholars enquired about leisure activities, they tended to focus on the serious ones: drama not humor, ballet not sports, classical music not folk or improvised music, harmony not rhythm, games for childhood development not for fun. In short, until very recently, serious enquiry has almost always looked down on anything involving play or playfulness. This course, in contrast, will be a serious enquiry into the nature and value of play, playfulness, games, sports, humor, magic, and the things that make popular culture pop. As a serious enquiry, the course will also serve as an introduction to philosophical analysis, logical argumentation, critical reasoning, and scientific method. Readings will range from the works of Greek and Chinese philosophers in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, to Netflix stand-up comedy specials, and the latest theories of neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and video-game designers.

Professor: Wayne Norman

Wayne Norman is the Mike and Ruth Mackowski Professor of Ethics in the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Department of Philosophy at Duke University. He specializes in business ethics and political philosophy: his work in business ethics includes critical evaluations of stakeholder theory, corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility, the so-called “triple bottom line”, and conflicts of interest; and his work in political philosophy includes nationalism, citizenship, constitutionalism, federalism, secession, and multiculturalism.


In this class, we will think critically about time in both our communal and personal lives. Looking at issues such as incarceration, religion, environmental policy, gender and racial inequalities, and public decision-making, as well as time-management, productivity, and work-life balance, we will consider different conceptions of time, what it is for, and how to use it well.

Professor: Mari Jørstad

Mari Joerstad is a research associate at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. A religious studies scholar by training, her research interests include ecological readings of the Bible, environmental justice, and land and migration.


Americans today live in a time of political polarization and cultural tribalism. Those with whom we have deep disagreements, assuming we interact with them at all, are often viewed as not just wrong but as irrational and immoral. Is this a good thing? What sort of habits of mind (e.g. intellectual humility and charity) and practices should we cultivate in response to this reality? In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton asked her supporters to keep an “open mind” with respect to the coming Trump presidency, but what exactly does that mean? What shouldn’t it mean? Using social and political science literature, this course will examine the current phenomenon of political “partyism” and cultural segregation in our society. Using moral philosophy, the class will address the question of the proper ethical response to deep political disagreements. Authors may include some of the following: Amy Chua, Cass Sunstein, Kathryn Schulz, Shanto Iyengar, John Stuart Mill, David Brooks, and Alan Jacobs.

Professor: John Schendel Rose

John Rose, Ph.D. (Princeton Seminary), is Associate Director of the Arete Initiative and Instructor at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. His research and teaching interests include the tradition of virtue ethics, particularly Aristotle, and Christian philosophy and theology, with an emphasis on Augustine and Aquinas.