In what type of course might a student, in their first semester of university, encounter the Declaration of Independence, Confucian classics, Angela Davis’ protest speech, Mark Twain’s travelogues, David Henry Huang’s play “Chinglish” and the Book of Genesis?
The Art of Interpretation I: Written Texts, a core course for Duke Kunshan’s humanities division, aims to help students identify different approaches of engaging with texts, evaluate how texts exert influence on and are influenced by political and social conditions, and understand the challenges of translation and interpretation across culture and language.
“While it may seem challenging to unify all of these readings, the students quickly learned how to draw connections between these texts in ways that bridged vastly different cultures, times, languages and histories,” said Selina Lai-Henderson, assistant professor of American literature and history at Duke Kunshan.
Lai-Henderson, a founding faculty member at the university, taught The Art of Interpretation I to students from Duke Kunshan’s inaugural freshman class in the fall semester. The course syllabus evokes a scholarly environment awaiting those who enroll: “Engagement with texts, whether public or private, literary or documentary, sacred or secular, ephemeral or lasting, extraordinary or mundane, is an essential feature of humanistic thought and discourse.”
The prerequisite? None, but “a love of reading would be an advantage,” reads the syllabus.
The depth and breadth of the first-year course dovetails with one of Duke Kunshan’s pedagogical cornerstones: the seven-week structure, which faculty members say enables students to make deeper connections than they might otherwise be able. Some faculty have said that for the first time in their teaching careers, they do not feel like their courses are competing for students’ attention.
Marcia France, dean of undergraduate studies at Duke Kunshan, said she feels that despite the major effort required to adjust to a new life, new culture and a brand new university, the undergraduate students are embracing these challenges.
“There is great energy on campus and the pace of the seven-week terms creates an atmosphere of intellectual intensity,” France said, also noting that the faculty are making the students work very hard.
Scott MacEachern, anthropology professor and division chair of social sciences, taught Foundational Questions in Social Science, another core course, to freshmen this semester. “The students are fantastic,” he said. “I would stack these students, Chinese and international, up against any group of students that I had at Bowdoin in 23 years of working there.”
MacEachern teaches the course along with assistant professors Lincoln Rathnam and Benjamin Schupmann, both political theorists. The goal of the course, MacEachern said, is to give the students a sense of the diversity of disciplines within the social sciences. Through engagement with foundational texts, the course seeks to examine how various disciplines approach fundamental questions including how society should be ordered, what it means to be human and what makes a moral life.
In addition to the wide-ranging perspectives offered by the course material, the students also contribute richness and breadth to the courses.
“The refreshing learning atmosphere is due largely to a truly culturally diverse student body; our class alone had students coming from different corners of the United States, Pakistan and China itself,” said Lai-Henderson. “They were able to bring in unique perspectives to class discussions, group work, essay writing, and presentations; and they often engaged in comparative analysis through exploring themes such as travels and translation, religion and authority, politics and protest.”
Lai-Henderson and MacEachern’s courses are just two of many interdisciplinary core courses offered in Duke Kunshan’s unique curriculum. If the success of these courses is any indication of what is to come, the students of Duke Kunshan’s first class are already well on their way to developing the tools needed to flourish in the university’s innovative learning environment.