Classroom Drop-ins Build Connections with Students, Tackle Challenging Topics

Friday, October 30, 2020

When Dean Valerie Ashby shows up as a guest in your class, sometimes she brings props.

Zooming in from her dining room table one morning this October, she hoisted a roll of Kevlar threads toward the camera, questioning whether students were familiar with the material used to create bullet-proof vests. A similarly-sized sample of Nomex came into view next, as she described its flame-retardant properties.

“It is the same chemical compound,” said the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences leader, who is a chemist by training. “(The difference) is just bond angles.”

The show-and-tell occurred as part of a basic lesson on polymers, which Ashby provided as a guest in historian Evan Hepler-Smith’s course on Drugs, Chemicals, and Health: Following Substances through Economies, Environments, and Bodies.

Ashby has been stopping in on various Trinity courses this fall, relishing the opportunity to interact with Duke students and show support for faculty. No questions are off limits, and those in the Zoom room receive her full and undivided attention.

“I live to teach and, in my present job, I don’t get to do this very much,” Ashby told the students in Hepler-Smith’s class. “But when I teach, I learn.”

She joined students that day in debating the ethics of creating materials that meet commercial demand but may also harm the environment. Later, she took questions about decolonizing Duke’s curriculum and how to move past tokenism in science.

“We can’t solve hard problems if everybody thinks the same way. I don’t get smarter or open up to new views by myself,” she remarked, reflecting on the benefits of diversity.

“But if you feel like a token,” she added, “hang in there.”

In a Writing 101 class later that month, taught by new lecturing fellow Sarah Parsons, students asked Ashby’s advice on how to be successful undergraduates and questioned how her career has changed over time. She also visited a FOCUS Program interdisciplinary discussion course to connect with international students who are learning remotely this semester.

“As a leader, now is a time for me to lean in,” Ashby said. “Students need us now more than ever. They need to see some people who don’t believe the world is over, who have lived a longer curve through history. People who have flexed the muscle of dealing with something truly difficult.”

She added that she hopes by sharing her experience and journey with students “some lightbulb might come on for them,” like it did for her with chemistry.

It was clear that the bulb – and a passion for teaching – still burns brightly in Ashby.