Duke Divinity School has launched a new academic support program to help incoming students learn how to think and write theologically. The Refresher and Intensive for Scholarly Enrichment (RISE) program launched with a two-day pre-orientation workshop for new students this August.
According to Rev. Dr. Fatimah Salleh, assistant director of academic support, the program was conceived as a way to head off academic problems and further prepare incoming students for the academic rigor at Duke Divinity School.
Salleh, M.Div. ‘16, said that as someone who come into Duke Divinity School as a second-career student who already had a doctorate, she still encountered a steep learning curve in learning how to write theologically.
“I realized that just because I sat in the pews and had a strong belief in my call didn't mean I could write theologically,” she said. “So part of the idea for the program came in trying to meet the need of students by offering a sort of crash course into what it is to analyze, think, and write theologically here.”
Salleh, who worked closely with Judith Heyhoe, director of the Center for Theological Writing, and other staff on developing the program, said they initially hoped to enroll 25 students in the program and were surprised and encouraged to see 83 students registered.
RISE included lectures, panels, and workshops. Students received assigned reading in advance of their arrival, and throughout the program they worked on preparing, analyzing, and writing about the material. They also broke out into small group sessions with preceptors to discuss the process in depth. In addition, the program also discussed the difference between a student’s call to serve the church and the academic work necessary to succeed at seminary.
“One of the first things we did in the introduction was to say that they should not conflate academic struggle and academic success with their call,” Salleh said. “You could be divinely called and still struggle. So we wanted to have the students realize that the schoolwork and the academic rigor here was a skill set. And that skill set was achievable and learnable and that their call still existed.”
Said student Arlene Hudson, M.Div. ’20, “As someone returning back to school after 25 years, RISE was helpful in acclimating my mind and heart back into school. It gave you a good idea of what to expect in terms of course load and help organizing the course load. In addition, the writing sample was very helpful in giving me an idea of my strengths and weaknesses.”
Academic support for first-year students will continue throughout the year, with preceptors in each of the core first-year classes setting up sessions and workshops open to all students on how to approach material for their writing assignments. In addition, Salleh, Heyhoe, Divinity School professors, and the preceptors stay in contact throughout the year about students who seem to be struggling, and they work together to develop a plan to help them.
“My key goal is to say that if you’re admitted, you can do this, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure you finish,” Salleh said.