Spring BreakThrough: Puppies, Thoreau, Hamilton and Learning Without Grades

During spring break this March, more than 100 undergraduates will get away from it all – no pressure, no grades, just learning for the sake of learning.

Spring Breakthrough is a pilot project offering first-year students and sophomores an opportunity to take a five-day crash course from 11 of Duke’s leading teachers. It’s an idea that has benefits for everyone involved.

For faculty, they get to teach a fun but intellectual subject of personal interest that doesn’t always fit into a regular curriculum course.

For example, Mohammad Noor has taught genetics and biology at Duke for more than a decade.  But in Spring Breakthrough, he’s taking that material and asking: Why does the Star Trek crew always find humanoids when they visit other planets?

Other faculty members are taking a small step out of their normal fields.  Noah Pickus, co-director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, has taught US history and culture; now he’s diving into the musical “Hamilton” to look at key historical questions and the interplay between music, culture and politics. 

Provost Sally Kornbluth initiated the pilot project and immediately found interest from both students and faculty.

“Pretty much every faculty member we asked said yes,” Kornbluth said. “People like to teach students ideas they can’t fit into normal coursework, and they like to teach students who are enthusiastic.  I think the students will find we’ve rolled out quite an all-star faculty team for this first year.”

Kornbluth and others have talked about the concept for several years. When she approached Duke Student Government last year about the plan, she found that a group of students were already working on a similar proposal.

“Duke students are inherently curious, but many of them are concerned about their future careers and they may not take a course if they fear that they’re going to do badly. To them, the notion of being able to explore something interesting without pressure is appealing.  They enjoy risk-free deep intellectual engagement.”

There’s another value: The courses are limited to first and second-year students, who haven’t yet selected majors. Kornbluth said the week can give students a chance to dive into a topic that they otherwise wouldn’t explore, and perhaps find a new and unexpected intellectual direction.

“The courses aren’t skill or competency based,” she said, “although the faculty will present them with a number of skills.  It’s meant to be intellectual enrichment that can open up new areas of interest for the students. That will be one measure of whether it’s a successful pilot.”

Around 120 students have registered to date. Nearly half of the courses are full, although there are still openings available for other courses. In their comments, registered students praised the purpose of the project.

“I want college to be an experience that inspires new interests,” said Brennan Neeley, who listed Kristine Stiles’ course on “Trauma in Art, Literature and Film.”  “Art is not a class I would ever take for credit here, nor is it a subject I have ever explored…. It offers me the chance to forget the worry of declaring a major and figuring out future plans--in other words, it gives me a chance to explore and embrace my inner scholar without any of the stressors that the normal semester holds.”

Marc Albertsen, a sophomore from France, said there is a special benefit for international students, who often can’t get home during the short break. “Participating in this program would be amazing because it would allow me to stay on campus while learning deeply about a particular subject that I find fascinating,” Albertsen said.

Kornbluth knows from experience how an unexpected learning experience can change a life. One of the inspirations for the program came from her own career path, which was changed when she took an ungraded winter study undergraduate course at Williams on neurological diseases.

The topic grabbed her, and the then-political science major found a new course of study.

“I loved it and became a biologist,” Kornbluth said. “The idea is to immerse a student in an individual topic for just a week. By doing something in a no-risk setting, you can find all sorts of new interests.”