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Duke Faculty Reexamine Their Roles as Scholars and Mentors in an Uncertain Time

Provost and faculty share insights on adjusting expectations, receiving support, connecting in new ways

From left: Sherilynn Black, Sally Kornbluth, Scott Huettel, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Nimmi Ramanujam
From left: Sherilynn Black, Sally Kornbluth, Scott Huettel, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Nimmi Ramanujam

“I've had so many people tell me over the last few weeks that they feel like they’re losing their identity,” said Sherilynn Black, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement. “The work that they do—their teaching, research, scholarship—is so much of what makes them who they are.”

Responding to the needs of faculty during the coronavirus pandemic, Black and her colleagues in Duke’s Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement are adjusting their programming with topics ranging from virtual student engagement and mentoring, to specific challenges for assistant professors, to an end-of-semester faculty event and summer faculty book club.

On April 15, Black hosted an online workshop, “Your Role as a Scholar and Mentor While Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis,” for more than 125 people. Panelists were Sally Kornbluth, Provost and Jo Rae Wright University Distinguished Professor; Scott Huettel, Chair and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience; Adriane Lentz-Smith, Associate Professor of History; and Nimmi Ramanujam, Robert W. Carr, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:


Faculty identity and roles

Sally Kornbluth, Provost and Jo Rae Wright University Distinguished Professor:

“I want to thank the faculty for their flexibility and adaptability in this crisis. The faculty have stepped up and done amazing things. We mounted more than 6,000 online courses [and] we have a very robust COVID-19-related research agenda going on. I think we’re calling on faculty to do a lot more things than we normally would.”


Nimmi Ramanujam, Robert W. Carr, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering:

“I went through the different stages of grief. In the beginning, I just didn’t admit that I’d have to have a new normal and a different pace. I feel uncomfortable because I’m so used to ‘go, go, go.’ The idea of actually pausing is incredibly hard, because that’s not the norm and so it takes an effort. There’s a tremendous amount of inertia to switch gears, because we’ve been doing something a certain way for a very long time. I guess I'm recognizing that it does take some time to get to this new place.”



Scott Huettel, Chair and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience:

“I think the biggest picture here is to recognize that you should be thinking very hard about what it means to be productive, and focus more on the intrinsic motivators to support your mental health and your own well-being. It doesn’t do anyone any good to burn themselves out over the next month, if that is going to have long-term disadvantages for productivity over the next few years. I’ve never heard from any administrator anything that prioritizes productivity over mental health and well-being. Put yourself first.”


Adriane Lentz-Smith: Associate Professor of History

“My entire family is in the house with me and there’s a chance an eight-year-old is going to come bursting through the door. I can’t write! In this immediate moment when everything is so higgledy-piggledy, I think pulling back, reading and settling into our thoughts have value. And I’ve had my students say the same thing to me: ‘Wow, we get much more out of this class when we actually have time to think about what you’ve assigned to us!’ For all of the talk of innovation and disruption and ‘new, new, new,’ actually taking time to read and write and think and be critically engaged with the world around you is still at the heart of what we do and how we thrive.”


Sally Kornbluth:

“I would urge you as faculty not to create unrealistic expectations about your research agenda. Try to think about how you can keep moving it along, but it's not realistic to think that you're going to spend eight hours a day working on your book.”


Nimmi Ramanujam:

“Maybe one way to continue to be productive is to be really introspective. This is probably the first time I have lots of time to think. [I’ve been] taking a step back and thinking about long-term goals as well as writing proposals that aren’t rushed. I’ve been engaging students in the process of writing proposals and thinking about how to craft something from concept to a document that has some substance to it.”


Personal wellness

Sally Kornbluth:

“Normally, we're all getting ready for a breather at this time of year. How do you think about a breather in the context of the pandemic? I don’t think that people can sustain the incredible levels of work and momentum that we've seen over the last weeks, which were under an emergency situation. I encourage faculty to think about this.”


Scott Huettel:

“It is okay to take a deep breath. If one of my faculty members came to me and said, ‘I can't do this service required for the next month because I have homeschooling on top of stress on top of eldercare,’ that’s normal. That’s actually expected right now. You have a life outside of Duke. Let that be visible to others. Don’t send signals that those things are secondary to productivity. Try to use this as a chance to humanize ourselves and be good role models for others in the community.”


Engaging and mentoring students and advisees

Nimmi Ramanujam:

“I had initiated these undergraduate dinners recently [before social distancing, in person]. I didn’t know if students would be interested to do this virtually [but I tried it]. It turned out that not only did the students that would normally show up come, but they had friends of friends of friends. They were asking questions that had nothing to do with their particular [academic] problems. They wanted to know what life is like from other perspectives, and so we ended up having a two-hour conversation. It seemed like very little effort, and it was therapeutic for me.”


Adriane Lentz-Smith:

“I’m opening my classes by saying, ‘How’s everybody doing? Who do you notice that’s not here, and does anybody know why?’ I end by saying, ‘I'm going to be around for five minutes after the lecture, so if you have something that you want to talk to me about, let me know.’ With graduate students, I said we should decide on a novel that we are all going to read and then convene at some point to talk about it—not a history monograph, and not to perform your intellect, but to just be like, ‘Hey, I read this thing and I have some thoughts or ideas about it.’


Looking ahead

Scott Huettel:

“Think of this next period as a time you get through. Stay as healthy and strong as possible. Draw insights from what you’re learning over the next few weeks. As we come out of the immediate problems, the world will stabilize somewhat and then we're going to have opportunities for longer term planning.”


Sally Kornbluth:

“I think we have to allow ourselves to think really broadly about what we want the university to be 10 years from now. What would that look like if we were not constrained by our current organizational structures, by our current practices, etc.? How do we think about how we distribute resources? How do we think about our students? What kind of advice are we going to give to students who are entering a very different world? I would say there are no sacred cows here. In other words, we have to think broadly about what our priorities are, what we want to preserve going into the future…things that may fundamentally alter the way we think about delivering our education and think about what really differentiates Duke.


Video footage and a transcript of this conversation will be posted on the website for the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement.